Do Obligations of Egalitarian Justice Only Arise Between and Solely in Virtue of Individuals Sharing a Common Institution?
John Rawls famously claims that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions.” On one of its readings, this remark seems to suggest that social institutions are essential for obligations of justice to arise. The spirit of this interpretation has recently sparked a new debate about the grounds of justice. What are the conditions that generate principles of distributive justice? I am interested in a specific version of this question. What conditions give rise to egalitarian principles of distributive justice? The present paper focuses on relationalist answers to this question. Advocates of relationalism assume “that principles of distributive justice have a relational basis”, in the sense that “practice mediated relations in which individuals stand condition the content, scope and justification of those principles.” To say that principles of justice are “based” on and “conditioned” by practice mediated relations is ambiguous. I will here be concerned with strong relationalist positions, that is positions, which assume that “practice mediated relations” constitute a necessary existence condition for principles of egalitarian distributive justice. Relationalists endorsing this view come in different varieties. My focus is on relationalists that view social and political institutions as the relevant “practice mediated relation”. But even relationalists of this institutionalist cast, call them strong institutionalists, differ in important respects. They argue about what set of institutions is foundationally significant, and they disagree on why only that institutional relation gives rise to obligations of egalitarian justice. My paper engages two specific versions of the strong institutionalist view; one inspired by A.J. Julius, the other by Andrea Sangiovanni. More ambitiously, I offer considerations in favour of a position that strong institutionalists deny. The issue at stake are the grounds of egalitarian justice: Do principles of egalitarian distributive justice arise only between and solely in virtue of individuals sharing a common institution?