Political philosophy

2009 10 11
Can we Distinguish Insurance from Stereos?

In response to what he dubs “the stupidest argument against health reform”–namely the argument that universal health insurance requires people to pay for someone else’s health care–upyernoz writes:

“paying for someone else” is the whole concept behind insurance. the idea of insurance is that there are certain things (floods, catastrophic medical costs, car crashes) which can be so economically devastating that individuals would be ruined if they had to pay the entire thing out of their own pocket. insurance is a way of pooling risk, everyone pays in, only the unlucky ones draw out. but then everyone can feel more secure knowing they have insurance to fall back on if disaster hits.

in other words, all insurance involves you paying other people’s bills (or other people paying your bills). that’s what insurance is all about. you can call it “socialism” if you want, that’s not an argument, that’s just slapping a label on something. but if you happen to believe it’s evil to pay for other people, then cancel all your insurance policies.

While I’m certain ‘noz and I stand united on the moral imperative of health reform that gives all Americans access to high-quality affordable healthcare, I don’t think his account of the argument he targets is fair, and thus I don’t think he offers a very satisfying response to the person who endorses that argument. Here, as I understand it, is ‘noz’s line of argument:

1. Proponents of the Stupidest Argument Against Health Reform maintain that they should not be forced to pay for another’s medical care.

2. But proponents of the Stupidest Argument willingly buy various forms of insurance without complaining.

3. But buying insurance just is the paying for another’s medicare care.

4. So to be consistent, the proponents should either withdraw their objection to health care reform, or else “cancel all [their] insurance policies.”

I think we can see clearly where ‘noz’s line of argument fails by changing the story a bit:

1. Opponents of income maintenance policies maintain that they should not be forced to pay for another’s wages/income.

2. But opponents of income maintenance policies willingly buy stereos without complaining.

3. But buying stereos just is the paying for another’s wages (namely those who make stereos).

4. So to be consistent, the opponents should either withdraw their objection to income maintenance policies, or else stop buying stereos.

It seems clear that while purchasing a stereo does in fact pay another’s wages, it is false to say that paying another’s wages is the “whole concept” of purchasing a stereo. But then what distinguishes purchasing insurance from buying a stereo? Each seems to amount to the same thing: parting with a sum of money to procure a good or service which is available to one only because certain others are willing to help produce that good or provide that service only because they too get something out of the economic arrangement.

The fact seems to be that those who wish to buy stereos and those who wish to buy insurance may not really care about the economic arrangements and contracts that lie in the background of these purchases. They do not really care that buying a stereo and buying insurance involves paying an amount of money a portion of which ends up paying another’s bills. The one person wants a stereo, and parts with a certain amount of money to get it. The other wants protection from the economic risks associated with (the treatment of) ill health, and pays an insurance premium to get it. It just so happens that, in our world, the reason why these purchases are available to one at all is that other people, who play different roles in the relevant economic domain, also get something out of their involvement. So, again, what could make the purported difference between buying stereos and buying insurance?

If this analogy is as revealing as I think it is, it shows why the proponent of the Stupidest Argument may not be making the silly mistake that ‘noz ascribes to him. To extend the analogy: Assume a tax is levied on all stereo purchases in order fund income maintenance policies for the unemployed. And assume that a would-be stereo-purchaser objects to this. Then that objection cannot be met simply by pointing out that he didn’t have a problem paying another’s wage through his purchase before the tax was levied.

In the case of health insurance, what would be the analog to the stereo tax that the proponent of the Stupidest Argument objects to? Since insurance is typically paid for through premiums, the proponent will likely claim that he should not have to subsidize another’s premium. But this raises the question of whether the initial distribution of income is itself fair, as that is the distribution that determines who has what to put toward premiums. To the extent that it is unjust that some work long hours in dreary jobs for what is now a largely depreciated compensation package, that can provide a reason to ask those who are favored by the structure of the economy to give some back to subsidize the premiums of those who get the short end of the stick.

Another barrier to insurance access has to do with differentials in health status (of which “pre-existing conditions” are one kind). To use a stylized example, assume that you and I form a two-person health insurance market, and that I am fairly healthy and you have a disease that can be treated with only very expensive health interventions. In this situation, each of us is presented with the option to buy insurance. But which insurance we buy, if any, will be influenced by which insurance products are available. If the only insurance product is one that pays for the sort of interventions you need, that product will be very expensive. In that case, I may choose not to buy it, since I feel there are other things I’d rather spend that amount of money on. But that may leave you without the prospect of insurance, since the resulting premium for you will be the same price as the expensive medical care you were hoping to avoid having to pay for directly by purchasing insurance in the first place. You will face a similar problem if there are in fact several insurance products available, and if I choose one that is cheaper. For that one will be cheaper precisely because it doesn’t not cover the expensive treatment you need. So while you may be able to afford that cheaper product, it doesn’t do you much good.

These thought experiments seem to show that the proponent of the Stupidest Argument is also probably objecting to having to subsidize the insurance choices that the market makes expensive for others because they are either more risk averse than he his, or because they in fact require more expensive insurance than the proponent himself wishes to purchase with the funds he has chosen to dedicate to health risk reduction. This is in fact not an objection we should dismiss as stupid, as I think the two-person example shows.

I’m sure ‘noz and I agree that when the simple two-person example is replaced with the much more complex picture presented by the macro situation in the U.S. today–a situation in which income is not distributed fairly and where individuals’ health status is profoundly influenced by myriad social circumstances beyond their control–there is a solid argument in favor of providing all Americans with at least basic health care paid for by general, progressive taxation. But even if we are right, we cannot dismiss the objections of those who disagree with us simply by pointing out that all insurance involves using what was once one person’s money to pay for the health care of another.

The moral of the story is this: it is false to say that the “whole concept” of insurance as such is to pay for another’s care. Yes, it involves that, but the sense in which it does is just the sense in which buying stereos involves paying another’s wage. Not much of moral relevance follows. But, it is absolutely true that the whole concept of certain social insurance schemes is to spread risk and cross-subsidize care for appropriate moral reasons. But those reasons cannot themselves be teased out of the idea of insurance as such.

Howls of outrage (18)

2009 04 06
Of Rawls and Self-Improvement

In the growing-up department, I still have a long way to go. Many of my habits are bad bad bad, and I have myriad tendencies that I don’t endorse and that leave me feeling full of self-reproach if acted upon.

But I must say that I felt some sense of pride when I saw this and felt revulsion at the thought of reading it. (The fact that it exists at all, in published form, is more than a bit nauseating, as well.)

There is some hope for me after all, I guess.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 08 06
Do I Resemble Your Wife?

Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the title’s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didn’t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be “Somewhat,” in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.

Alright, I’ll admit it. It’ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that I’ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And that’s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.

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Howls of outrage (8)

2008 03 25
A Right to Health

In both political contexts as well as academic circles, it is more common to hear talk of a right to health care than it is to hear talk of a right to health. Perhaps, however, this shows that our parlance, and the moral framework that it sometimes reflects, has not caught up with the social scientific community. For recent research on what are called the “social determinants of health” has revealed that the health of a population is determined not just by the absolute wealth that the population enjoys, but also by the nature and extent of economic inequalities found in that society. “Middle income groups in a country with high income inequality typically do worse in terms of health than comparable or even poorer groups in a society with less income inequality.” So, if we are concerned with providing access to health care because we are concerned with citizens’ health, as is clearly the case, we may have to give up the notion that health care has anything special to contribute in this regard. This suggests that if we’re interested in deriving a right to health care from some more basic moral consideration, we may be driven toward accepting talk about a right to health.

On the other hand, there are a couple of reasons to question whether there is in fact a right to health. One such reason is that it is by and large impossible to deliver full health to those who don’t have it. We may simply not have the technology to do so. And when fulfilling a right to X would require doing Y, where Y is impossible, it seems correct to say that we were wrong to recognize a right to X in the first place.

But impossibility is not the only reason for thinking there is no right to health. Suppose that unless you receive a kidney transplant soon, you will die. And suppose that I am the only perfect match around, and that I could afford to give one up (in the sense that I will not die without it, and, let’s say, believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that I will suffer no kidney-related health problems in the future). Still, I think that we would not wish to say that in this situation you have a right to my kidney, even if giving it to you—or your taking it from me—would be quite feasible.

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2007 07 24
I write letters

Well, a letter. In response to this hatchet job (subscription required):

Dear Editor:

Let’s put to one side the question of whether philosopher John Rawls’s normative theory of justice is true or false. Even focusing on just the non-normative facts, David Lewis Schaefer’s portrait of Rawls’s work is flatly mistaken where it is not simply incoherent (“Justice and Inequality,” July 23, p.A 14). For example, in one breath Schaefer says that Rawls’s work “legitimize[s] the view that the absolute well-being of most Americans matters less than their relative position.” Yet in the next he says, correctly, that Rawls’s principles permit inequalities that raise citizens’ absolute standard of living. Schaefer next says that “Rawls did not ground his account of justice in an empirical examination of human nature,” but then goes on to mention Rawls’s discussion of “excusable envy”, which occurs within a dense, 150-page expanse of text wherein Rawls engages in an empirically-informed discussion of developmental psychology. Finally, Schaefer says that Rawls’s later writings were “increasingly deferential to the Marxist critique of liberalism,” while in fact Rawls has been widely criticized by those attracted to his earlier arguments for dulling their radical bite with his later work. Those interested in what Rawls actually thought will be well-advised to look beyond Schaefer’s new book.



UPDATE: My letter was not published (sub req). Three others were. The good news is that these letters offered some good criticism of the original article. For instance:

I was asked to write a paper on the lifeboat scenario — a thought experiment involving an overcrowded lifeboat entering a storm, where it is clear that not all will survive. A dedicated Rawlsian at the time, I decided to apply his theories to the assigned situation. But no matter how I construed them, his theories kept leading me to the conclusion that the only “fair” result was that everyone in the lifeboat had to die.


As Rawls’s dictums are alive and growing in the body politic, the instances of trashing our ideals are endless. They are eroding the very fount of our republic and have become a cancer on our civilization.


It is no accident that Rawls’s “general ideas” result in Marxist policies. Thirty-five years ago, Ayn Rand accurately predicted the logical political consequences of Rawls’s ideas.

So there really was no work left for my letter to do.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 02 02
More On Inequality (Domestic Edition)

The sensible worries about preserving equal political liberties and influence are why it has become fashionable for commentators on Rawls to point out that his relatively neglected (because many think it uncontroversial) first principle of justice–a principle guaranteeing equal civil and political liberties, as well as equal political influence–may require *more* equality than the more well known and more controversial “difference principle,” which permits economic inequalities so long as they serve (via incentive effects) to raise the absolute standing of the worst-off position.

And while we’re looking for aspects of one’s *relative* situation that may, as Tyler Cowen wants, affect one’s *absolute* position or level of well-being in a way that makes the inequality itself unjust, we should remember the recent discussions about how economic inequality *as such*–even after controlling for societal variations in median income–seems to be harmful to our physical health. These mechanisms are not yet well understood, certainly less well understood than the ones Plummer points to. But the correlations are compelling, and deserve mention in debates like this.

But setting aside these other potentially powerful arguments against inequality, there is a sensible, old-fashioned reason for being concerned with certain sorts of inequality itself. It is embodied in the following line of thought:

1. In a modern market economy people get ahead by working hard within various institutions that are coercively imposed by the state and which play a central role in assigning the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (See the great book by Dean Baker that Plummer cites for an account of some of these institutions and how they are severely biased in how they determine resulting economic shares.) It is in no one’s interests not to have such institutions, broadly construed. But they are coercively-imposed and life-shaping nonetheless, and these features matter greatly to the question of how any particular institutional arrangement can be justified.

2. In a market economy many of the benefits one gets or the burdens one’s forced to bear befall one through no fault or merit of one’s own: they are matters of supply and demand, both of which are densely social, that is, are determined by social factors one can’t possibly control or be responsible for. Yet these facts very often play a decisive role in determining one’s life prospects.

3. Although it is in no one’s interests to abandon a market economy for a non-market alternative, and although there are clearly certain salient respects in which one’s economic position can be influence by aspects for which one is responsible–hard work, say–the features pointed to in (1) and (2) above are important enough to lead us to question whether our *current* market arrangements do the best they can to recognize that our most fundamental civic relation is one of cooperation and compliance within the context of coercively imposed institutions, and that those institutions by their nature tend to distribute benefits and burdens in light of features that participants are not responsible for, and in light of features that some have purely because of the unchosen place they occupy within the coercively imposed institutional framework.

4. So if our fundamental relationship is one of cooperation, as it should be if we are seeking to control one another’s lives through dominant institutions; and if market institutions should do all they can to be responsive to what people have done to uphold these institutions and to contribute to their shared economic project through their compliance with its terms; and if market institutions make it harder for some than for others, through no fault of their own, to get ahead with the same talent and effort–since resources are typically needed to translate talent and effort into capitalist success–then we should be concerned to ensure, in the best way we can within a market system, that that citizens’ unchosen social position (i.e. the economic positions they are born into) do not lead to differential life prospects given equal talents and willingness to strive. When it does (and it in fact does), the problem with (some forms of) inequality is that it is unfair: although I contribute the same talented striving to our shared, cooperative economic project, I receive less social reward simply because you (say) were smart enough to choose the right parents, or because your parents were smart enough to support institutions that protect the already wealthy from bad market luck but which did not so protect my parents. (Again, See Baker’s book for more on this tactic.)

5. Therefore: when the fundamental relationship of citizenship is one of mutually respectful cooperation–as it again must be if that relationship permits my seeking to coerce you and determine your life-prospects through dominant social institutions–then the inequality of opportunity for success that is avoidably engendered by current economic arrangements is prime facie unfair. You get more through your talented and loyal striving than I get. And still Bruce Bartlett expects me actively to uphold these arrangements through my political loyalty, just because my income doesn’t fall? Typically I’m pissed at myself when my blogging gets in the way of my real work, when I throw up an eminently avoidable roadblock to the sort of success and progress that it is rational for me to want for myself. But apparently Bruce Bartlett and the “inequality doesn’t matter” crowd wants me to give my active and loyal support to arrangements that coercively impose roadblocks to my economic success, roadblocks that are jointly imposed by those to whom I must fundamentally stand as cooperator–not capitalist competitor–if those arrangements are to have any chance in hell of being morally justified. And it’s hard to see how I’m being treated with respect as an economic and political cooperator when the terms of “cooperation” lavish grossly more benefits on you than on me, despite our offering the same talented and loyal striving.

Howls of outrage (6)

2007 01 10
More than half?

From Economists View:

The Kindest Cut, by Steve Mirsky, Scientific American: … A mathematician, a political scientist and an economist recently wrote a paper … in which they point out that, under special circumstances, two people can split something up and both feel like they got more than half. … The paper, which appeared in the December issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society, is entitled “Better Ways to Cut a Cake.”

The report … deal[s] with … the theory and method behind slicing up an object to maximize the satisfaction of those parties, … who will then receive the slices. “We use cake as a metaphor for dividing a heterogeneous divisible good, an item that people may have different preferences for,” explains the mathematician, Michael Jones of Montclair State University…

Traditionally, if two people are splitting a cake, the method is simple …: one slices, the other chooses. The slicer therefore wants to make the division equal, knowing he’ll get stuck with the littler piece if he botches the job.

But this system can break down with certain cakes. “For example,” Jones says, “if a cake is half chocolate and half vanilla, and one person likes chocolate a lot and the other person is indifferent, then there’s a way to have both people, in their opinions, receive more than half the cake.”

[Y]ou can see, in the chocolate-vanilla two-person example, that the chocolate lover will feel more than half-satisfied if he gets, say, 80 percent of the chocolate half, despite it being only 40 percent of the entire cake. Meanwhile his flavor-impartial buddy will be more than half-satisfied by getting the remaining 60 percent of the entire cake. And the cake maker will have an economic motivation to complicate his cakes and hike his prices…

Hmm, I dunno (as Chris is prone to say in response to many of my posts). I see why the one who ends up with 60 percent of the cake feels like he got more than half (–y’know, because he did get more than half). But why does the one who ended up with 40 percent feel this way?

The only thing that can be meant is that he feels like he got more than he would have had with a certain half, viz. the half mostly made up of non-chocolate cake. But if we’re looking for the “kindest” cut, why isn’t the right division the one that gives the chocolate lover the chocolate half, and the “indifferent” the rest? After all, any greater “satisfaction” that the indifferent gets with the extra portion would have surely been matched by the satisfaction that the chocolate-lover would have had with some more chocolate. So it’s not clear that the author’s solution uniquely “maximizes the satisfaction of those parties.”

Now, I can see why it would be “rational” for each to make the 40/60 cut if put in the cutter position. Assume the chocolate lover is the cutter. Then he should cut a smaller-than-half but all-chocolate piece to induce the indifferent to choose the larger piece (which the chocolate lover doesn’t want anyway). Now assume that the indifferent is the cutter. Then he should cut a smaller-than-half but all-chocolate piece, knowing that the chocolate lover will take that piece, leaving the rest (which the indifferent, being indifferent, prefers simply because it’s bigger).

In order to show that the 40/60 cut is the kindest or the fairest possible cut, we should be able to tell a story where the dynamics of the cut are not solely based upon the power relations between the two parties. Since it is assumed that the parties know one another’s preferences, it is clear that the indifferent is in a special position to induce the chocolate-lover to take the smaller piece. For in the case in which the indifferent is the cutter, the chocolate-lover feels like he got “more than half” solely because the indifferent had the power to determine the makeup of the relevant halves. And in the case in which the chocolate-lover is the cutter, the only reason why he would not make a 50-50 cut is because the indifferent might choose the chocolate half. But why would the indifferent do this, if he is in fact indifferent to makeup of his piece, knows that the other loves chocolate, and wishes to contribute to the “kindest” or fairest procedure? He wouldn’t; and so it’s clear that neither kindness nor fairness is the sole motivator here, and that the chocolate-lover makes the 40/60 cut in order to give the indifferent a reason to avoid being a dick.

The special feature of the old-school procedure is that it is suited to deliver perfect procedural justice, that is, it is a case in which there is both an independently establishable fair outcome, and a procedure that is sure to deliver that outcome. Economists love the fact that, in this case, the procedure makes use of parties’ narrowly rational desires formed in light of all risks and potential rewards. But this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the independently right outcome is not determined by thinking about the issue in a narrowly economic way. Rather, the propriety of the procedure is wholly determined by the antecedent considerations of fairness. If those considerations change from situation from situation, so too should the procedure that’s designed to express them.

In contrast, the special feature of the new situation is that the independently fair outcome (i.e. 50/50 with a fully chocolate half going to the chocolate-lover) cannot be reliably reached through any procedure that seeks to harness the narrowly self-interested motivations of the parties. The authors’ mistake is to transfer the fairness of the rationale behind the old-fashion procedure to that sort of procedure itself. In the old-fashioned case, there were no differential power relations that could taint the fairness of the outcome (we assume the cutter won’t turn the knife on the chooser), and this is why the procedure that exploited self-interested motivations was recommended by the independent rationale. The new case differs from the old one in just this respect, and this is why the same procedure won’t deliver an outcome untainted by unfairness (or unkindness).

Now I shall await Chris’s own “Hmmm, I dunno”…

Howls of outrage (5)

2006 11 27
Nobel Silliness

In early October, Edmund S. Phelps was awarded the Nobel prize for economics. The next day he published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on capitalism’s dynamism and justness. In the article, Phelps says that he

broadly subscribe[s] to the conception of economic justice in the work by John Rawls…An organization that leaves the bottom score lower than it would be under another feasible organization is unjust.”

Here Phelps is invoking Rawls’s so-called “difference principle,” which permits economic inequalities generated by society’s major institutions only if those inequalities serve to raise the life prospects of the least-advantaged higher than any other feasible alternative arrangement. So far, so good. But then Phelps ends the article with this:

Suppose the wage of the lowest- paid workers was foreseen to be reduced over the entire future by innovations conceived by entrepreneurs. Are those whose dream is to find personal development through a career as an entrepreneur not to be permitted to pursue their dream? To respond, we have to go outside Rawls’s classical model, in which work is all about money. In an economy in which entrepreneurs are forbidden to pursue their self-realization, they have the bottom scores in self-realization–no matter if they take paying jobs instead–and that counts whether or not they were born the “least advantaged.” So even if their activities did come at the expense of the lowest-paid workers, Rawlsian justice in this extended sense requires that entrepreneurs be accorded enough opportunity to raise their self-realization score up to the level of the lowest-paid workers–and higher, of course, if workers are not damaged by support for entrepreneurship. In this case, too, then, the introduction of entrepreneurial dynamism serves to raise Rawls’s bottom scores.

Where to begin? For one thing, Phelps misunderstands “Rawls’s classical” model in two key respects. First, the difference principle is not the sole principle of distributive justice. Rather, it’s one of three, and is the last in line in priority. Rawls’s Basic Liberties Principle and Fair Equality of Opportunity are given absolute priority over the difference principle by Rawls. So if maximizing the prospects of the least-advantaged is inconsistent with the protection of any of the basic liberties or a policy ensuring that equally talented and motivated persons have equal life-prospects, the difference principle gives way.

Second, it is false that in Rawls’s theory, “work is all about money” and has nothing to do with what Phelps calls “self-realization”. In fact, one of Rawls’s arguments in favor of Fair Equality of Opportunity is that its absence would legitimately lead those who do not have a fair chance to secure the most desirable jobs to feel unjustly treated, and this is precisely because they are “debarred from experiencing the realization of self which comes from a skillful and devoted exercise of social duties. They would be deprived of one of the main forms of human good” (A Theory of Justice (rev. ed., 1999), p. 73).

Of course, these exegetical points do not touch the substance of Phelps’s argument; it might be that, after the Liberty Principle and Equal Opportunity principle are satisfied, the difference principle requires increasing entrepreneurs’ prospects for self-realization at the expense of greater wages for workers. So let’s press on.

Phelps’s argument relies upon an unstated premise, something like “If it’s what I really really want, then it alone will contribute to my self-realization, and is therefore elevated to a legitimate interest within a Rawlsian theory of justice.”

This leads to absurd implications. For I could demand that justice cater to my desire to live a in society without entrepreneurs, just as I desire to live in a society without thieves. Or, if you think preferences about others’ preferences are a suspect form of double-counting, then we can tweak my desire: I really really want to receive a wage for playing basketball in my backyard all day, since that is what determines self-realization for me. The absurdity of both these suggestions shows that in order to be a legitimate concern of justice, the claim to self-realization has to pass certain moral tests. We cannot just assume that strong desires determine justice-relevant claims about what individuals need in order to be able to seek self-realization.

Rather, a sound theory must respect both interpersonal objectivity and suitable generality: if they are to be of practical use at all, principles of justice cannot be determined by personal whims or idiosyncratic wishes.

So now, instead of assuming that those wannabe entrepreneurs who are forced to live under a regime that curbs their entrepreneurial prospects are the “worst-off” since they do not have adequate opportunities for self-realization, that must be argued for. And the argument must explain why the entrepreneur’s complaints are legitimate but the complaint of the person who insists on a society that lets him play basketball all day are not. That is a hard argument to make. It would seem that the same strong response is available in both cases: “The fact that you want to play basketball all day is irrelevant to your standing from the point of view of justice. You have plenty of worthwhile opportunities, and it is wrong for you to demand that society makes a life of basketball (entrepreneurship) available to you, especially in light of what that would mean for and require of others. Given the opportunities available to you, given that your basic liberties are not infringed [which I am here assuming–Paul], and given that this arrangement maximizes the justice-relevant prospects of the justice-relevant least advantaged, you cannot complain that you have been treated unjustly.”

Of course, permitting entrepreneurial activities and advantages may well be required by the Basic Liberties principle and/or by the difference principle, even when illegitimate interests or claims about self-realization are ruled out. And this is indeed an argument that Phelps makes. But the supplementary argument about self-realization and the wannabe entrepreneur doesn’t fly.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 06 15

O! If only I weren’t spending all my time disagreeing with Matt Yglesias on this in my dissertation, I could spend time disagreeing with it here. So sad. I guess I’ll just have to insist that Rawls’s position is much more attractive than Matt paints it in his three sentence discussion.

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2005 09 21
Is the holocaust unique?

I’ve wondered for years about the question of whether the holocaust was unique. The best attempt I’ve seen to answer this question is contained in a paper by Norm Geras, which he was kind enough to share with me a while ago. This recent post on his website is based on that paper. It’s well worth a read.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 06 23
There’s a debate…

…abrewing about utilitarianism as a moral theory in general, and in particular Bentham’s version of it. In order to keep making daily headway on my dissertation, I must resort to constrainted comment.

As for the historical point about what Bentham thought, see Brian Weatherson’s reply to Brad DeLong’s characterization. Brian’s response is right on the mark, and usefully points out that Bentham believed that the supreme moral principle directs moral agents to maximize instances of a certain sort of experience, namely pleasure (and the absence of pain). Brian hits the nail on the head: for Bentham �advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness� amount to the same thing.

Brad, however, attempts to defend Bentham with the following:

Happiness–utility–plays a very special role in Bentham’s philosophy. It is defined to be that which is maximized by the choices of a rational and reasonable person with enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation.

A good society is one in which as much of what people would choose for themselves–with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties–is attained, taking care that when there is a tradeoff between one person’s preferences and another’s, each one counts equally.

Those seem to be obvious and unexceptionable foundations for morality.

As Brian points out, the difficulty is to render more determinate what would “maximized by the choices of a rational and reasonable person with enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation.” Bentham believed that would be pleasure and the absence of pain. But many of us do not live our lives according to those ideals only. For while we do act in ways responsive to our prospects for pleasure and pain, we also act (e.g.) so as to respect others’ autonomy, or so as to do that which is challenging and hard and not necessarily pleasant. These are ways of acting that seem eminently rational and reasonable, and which are often the content of informed preferences, but which do not seem easily accounted for by Bentham’s specific version of utilitarianism. Indeed, it is not clear that rational behavior would seek the maximization of anything in particular, let alone the maximization of a contentless mental state like pleasure.

So while DeLong may well be pointing to “obvious and unexceptionable foundations for morality” by invoking what fully rational and informed agents would choose, it takes substantive moral argument to fill in the gap between that particular characterization of morality’s foundations, on the one hand, and Bentham’s utilitarianism on the other. This is precisely the sort of substantive argument that Rawls attempted to give in A Theory of Justice [1], which Brad has elsewhere described as an “absurd [attempt] to try to base all political obligation on one’s being a supposed party to a contract that one never even made.” To be sure, it is not easy to see exactly how Rawls hopes to move from the nature of rational choice to the nature of morality. (See here some discussion.) But for a guy who defends Bentham’s view of moral theory as part of theory of rational choice, Brad appears ill-situated to criticize Rawls for pursing virtually the same argumentative avenue. Perhaps this little debate about Bentham will spur Brad to recant his claim that all Rawls’s arguments had going for them was merely that they were “less sloppy, more careful, and informed by a much less niggardly will than those of Robert “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” Nozick.” If he doesn’t, I pledge charitably to assume that he, unlike his idealized utilitarian agents, is not possessed of “enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation.”

[1] I of course don’t mean that Rawls wanted to end up at Benthamite principles. They simply both wanted to use the theory of rational choice to derive ultimate principles of (political) morality.

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2005 04 14
Communitarian Democrats

There has been a hubbub in the left-blogosphere of late about the Democrats and whether they should become more “communitarian”. You can find link roundups here and here. I don’t have time to comment on all moves by all players, or even to give my considered view of the issue. But I did want to make a couple of points.

The first is to stress the need for more clarity in the content of the communitarian recommendation. As far as I can tell, there are two main possible proposals: (1) Democrats should support public policy that conduces toward a social world more in line with certain liberal “moral values.” Such policies might range from requiring V-chips in televisions to banning altogether certain references from television shows during certain (or all) hours of the day. (2) Democrats should not support more or different public policy proposals than they already typically do, but they should get out their bull-horns more often. That is, they should denounce publicly certain forces that contribute to the moral worsening of our society, but they should be steadfast in their opposition to the employment of the coercive aparatus of the state to further these moral ends.

The importance of distinguishing the two should be obvious, though I find that the “communitarians” are reluctant to come right out and say which they mean.
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A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 04 11
Liberal Rights, Liberal Virtues

Last week Chris had a great post whose thesis was this:

A lot of political discourse seems to work this way. Facts that are uncontroversial, or ought to be uncontroversial, become politicized. When that happens we (often reasonably) end up paying as much attention to the role that citing them plays in our political discourse as to their truth.

Chris’s point is not that we start with a stock of truths and then try, in political discourse and debate, to determine their particular relevance for political purposes. That would be a healthy, constructive dialogue that should be welcomed by all parties. Rather, the point is that the truths that one side thinks are true and relevant are taken to be shibboleths by those who either reject the truth or (more likely) reject the views those truths are used to support. Chris notes a few examples, and you should go reread the post for those and his full discussion. But we’ve all encountered this, whether in the benign, professorial nod one can elicit when a “But what about…” is met with the other’s assessment that you haven’t yet thought the whole thing through yet, or when in the heat of debate the adducing of a commonly accepted empirical claim sparks a “NOT THAT OLD SAW!” response.

Along similar sociological lines, I want to discuss a phenomenon that can be observed when the ideas of political rights and political virtues are in play. This feature of political discourse can perhaps best be illustrated with an example. Consider Ralph Nader. While I am by and large sympathetic to Nader’s political outlook (his defense of Terri Schiavo’s parents notwithstanding), I was also sympathetic (at the start of the campaign season) to the view that he should not have run. Nader of course got quite a bit of media attention at the time–not, of course, for his rather reasonable positions on topics from economic justice to Israel, but for his recalcitrance in the face of pleas by many of his most staunch supporters to forego a candidacy. When confronted by journalists for his response to the requests, Nader expressed indignation at the thought that anyone would ask such a thing:

“It’s a marvelous demonstration by liberals, if you will, of censorship. Now mind you, running for political office is every American’s right. Running for political office means free speech exercise, it means exercising the right of petition, the right of assembly. And so when they say ‘Do not run,’ they’re not just challenging and rebutting; they’re crossing that line into censorship, which is completely unacceptable.”

Why was this response appropriate? As far as I can recall, no person, Democrat or Green or whatever, claimed that Nader did not have a right to run for president. He’s older than the requisite age, and he was born in America, and he has not been convicted of treason, and so forth. My guess is that Nader understood that the strict meaning of the sentences he was using did not jibe with the specific claim his detractors were making, but that he also appreciated that rights-talk weighs with people in sometimes knee-jerk ways. “This is America! I have rights!” Perhaps he thought the accusation that people were attempting to infringe upon his rights would distract listeners just long enough for his positive insights to take hold in their minds. And perhaps he was right. The important point was that one of our more intellectually sophisticated politicos was confusing (intentionally or otherwise) claims about rights and virtues.

The distinction between rights and virtues is familiar from daily life. We all believe that persons have some rights to perform actions that ought not be performed. This goes for political rights as well as moral rights. I have a political right to vote for racist candidates, but I ought not vote for him. And–to use an example from Philosopher Joseph Raz’s The Morality of Freedom–I may have a moral right to refuse my neighbor access to my telephone when he has locked himself out of his house, but surely a full appreciation of moral virtue, if not decency, would lead me to welcome him into my home (assuming, of course, that I know the guy’s not a threat to me).

I believe that a lot of this is pretty evident and not controversial. We all believe that there are political rights and political virtues counseling against certain invocations of those rights in action. It is perhaps just as evident that it can be a difficult task to determine which rights exist, and which virtues we ought to heed when contemplating action in accordance with those rights. It is interesting just how much political disagreement can be accurately described using these two concepts. Consider: pace many Republicans who love to invoke the US Constitution as an argument against liberalism, the US is a liberal constitutional democracy. There is a reason that Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom and F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom refused to cede the term “liberalism” to those who espouse left-liberalism instead of some libertarian version. The US constitution enshrines certain liberal rights guaranteed citizens because of their status as free and equal moral persons. Rights of free speech, expression, association, assembly, the vote, contract, etc. are all liberal rights because they give each citizen a sphere of liberty that cannot be infringed upon because more “good” could be done if some individuals’ rights were not as secure as others’. But given that reasonable people can disagree about not only the existence of certain rights, but also about the right way to adjudicate between them when they conflict, political disagreement about rights is inevitable.

Just as inevitable is the failure by some to maintain the important distinction between rights and virtues. Because of the soundness of the distinction, it should be a default position of citizens of a liberal democracy to wonder seriously whether their policy preferences constitute an objectionable predilection to forge virtuous citizens through the use of the coercive apparatus of the state. I think it is a part of most reasonable moral positions that true virtue cannot be engendered using the carrot-and-stick method. To use a phrase of Rawls’s, that would not be virtue for the right reasons.

But even that seemingly good reason may not be a good liberal reason so to refrain. For such a view would still have to be motivated by the endorsement by the government that it is the job of governments to make virtuous citizens. That indeed was Aristotle’s view, but it seems not to comport with the modern left- and right-liberal view that while government needs to rely upon some idea of what is good for citizens, it should not legislate on the basis of some view of the best-life-for-humans that hopes to answer most moral questions. The liberal view seems to be that those questions ought to be left up to citizens not just in the sense that governments might stymie their goals if they try to legislate virtue by force, but in the sense that those are not the right goals for governments. I shall write more on this idea later.

If anything along these lines is correct, one might reasonably wonder whether this story leaves any room to embrace left-liberalism. Isn’t insisting that corporations pay a living wage an objectionable legislating of virtue akin to forcing citizens to give to charities or donate to soup kitchens? That is, which rights can this view of liberalism vindicate, and which (if any) traditional social-democratic policies can it judge permissible for public policy? These are tough questions, and I understand that many politically active persons might refuse to stop to answer them. But I believe a full appreciation of the truth of liberalism must await their answer. Only then will we understand which bare-bones scheme of rights is consistent with the abstract idea of liberalism that most Americans–Republican and Democrat alike–endorse, and which robust left-liberal policies are at home in a liberalism that shies away, on principle, from the legislation of virtue.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 02 03
Rawls and the Difference Principle (Revisited)

My first posts here Explananda dealt with John Rawls’s view of desert and distributive justice. Lately, there has been a buzz in the blogosphere about these topics, in large part due to Elizabeth Anderson’s recent post about Hayek and market-generated desert. I largely agree with the point Anderson attributes to Hayek, and I think Rawls did too.

But despite my best efforts in those posts to explain Rawls on desert and distributive justice, it is clear that many still misread him. So, below the fold, I try to say a bit more about his position on desert and how it fits into his view of economic justice. It’s not the last word I’ll have, but I do hope our google power will draw some attention to it in the future.
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2005 01 26
Moral Philosophy

I’ve tried to do a little moral philosophy in the comments section of this post at Bill Gardner’s Maternal and Child Health blog. Bill is very interested in (among other things) constructing an account of child well-being that could be used to evaluate public policy and guide medical care. My comments try to address a fundamental point about how such a view might get off the ground.

Chris, I tried to write a bit about the moral value of pleasure, invoking Aristotle and Green. If you have time, head over there and set me straight.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)