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April 03, 2008


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Interesting question. I don't think there is any general way of answering it, because so many philosophers who write on these topics use these terms differently. One way to understand these ideas that makes some sense to me is based on Rawls' idea of the basic structure of society as being constituted by institutions. Many argue that, for instance, institutions such as 'the family' or 'the corporation' systematically favor men's needs over women's (to take a standard feminist example). 'Systematic' there functions as a modifier, which means roughly 'non-randomly', or 'not by accident by design' perhaps. 'Structure' is defined as a collection or set of (perhaps interlocking) institutions. So a structure would be oppressive, say, by having maybe a preponderance of oppressive institutions. An institution would be oppressive, in turn, by systematically (non-accidentally, by design) favoring the needs of some over others without a moral or political justification.
A further thought: Sometimes people talk of 'systemic' injustices. That, I take it, is different from a 'system' being unjust. It might be that a system is not itself unjust: say, imagine it's a color or gender blind system. But, because of social conditions (e.g., resulting from inequalities tied to gender and race), it results in injustices that can rightly be called 'systemic'.

Thanks, Robert, that's really helpful. One way of using system-talk that departs from the no-accident understanding, and that maybe dovetails with the usage you discuss in your second paragraph, is one that contrasts systemic oppression with individual oppression. (I'm thinking here, for example, of Blum's paper, "Systemic and Individual Racism...") So it sounds like "systematic oppression" might generally be reserved for indicating the non-accidental nature of oppression, while "systemic" tends to be used for oppressive systems. I'm actually inclined to think that systems themselves can be oppressive or unjust, depending on the context. So the (say) colorblind system you mention might be unjust if it perpetuates an independently existing unjust racial inequality (so that it is unjust in something like the way you characterize oppressive institutions).

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