Friday, March 31, 2006

Equality and Responsibility

Rochenko writes here about responsibility in the context of what in the trade gets called intergenerational justice, something I've written about before. What's interesting about it, understandably, is the issues it raises for establishing a criterion for responsibility and hence political obligation, particularly in terms of, to use another piece of perhaps deliberately obscurantist jargon, cosmopolitan justice. If, as I think most people do, you accept that people living now have obligations of some sort to future generations, as Rochenko suggests, you're probably going to have justify that on some kind of effects-based criterion. Because we do things now - where, of course, abstention from action can count as an act - which we are well aware will have effects in the future - make decisions about the use of various finite natural resources, the pursuit of various infrastructure projects, and so on - we have an obligation to take into consideration those effects. That's not to say that those effects necessarily ought to determine our decisions: there may be other considerations, equally or even more compelling. Still, they ought to be taken into account.

Once that criterion is admitted in the context of intergenerational justice though, it's hard to see why it shouldn't also be admitted in the context of cosmopolitan justice as well. Cosmopolitans, in this context, are those who think that our obligations of justice extend beyond our borders, that, for example, aid to the developing world is a moral obligation. Since our actions, again, including the act of doing something else, effect those outside our national borders, we have an obligation to take into consideration those effects. It also suggests something else about the nature of obligation though, that it is bounded by some kind of effects criterion. Whilst it is easy to see why Sub-Saharan Africans who suffer as a result of First World farm supports might have a just complaint against those farm supports, it is much harder, for example, to see why any putative intelligent lifeforms in serious distress on Mars might have a complaint against our failure to assist them, precisely because we cannot: we do not have any effect on the Martians.

Subscribing to the view that we do not have an obligation to assist such Martians, however, undermines a fairly common understanding of justice, that justice is a matter of equality, in some form or other. The Martians are, ex hypothesi, worse off, let us assume through no fault of their own - apart from anything else, they didn't choose to be born on Mars - so if we thought justice was a matter of equality, we would seem to have a justice-based obligation to make attempts to equalise our situation and that of the Martians. The effects-based criterion, whilst not excluding the possibility that justice is a matter of equality as well as of effect since it does not deny that we have an obligation to the Martians, by seeming to account for normal cases of justice - both inside and outside modern nation states - casts doubt on whether we need to take on the extra claim that justice is intimately involved in achieving equality, of whatever sort.

Of course, equality may remain a perfectly respectable political goal for instrumental reasons. Equal effects should, presumably, mandate equal consideration, for example, and so equal political rights, and freedom before the law and from material wants, goals which have been justified under a banner of equality, would mostly be untroubled. Giving up on equality as an intrinsic value, a thing which can somehow be embedded in states of affairs, however, would I think be to the advantage of the left. Most obviously, it would eliminate the levelling-down objection, that an egalitarian must prefer, in some respect at least, a situation where all have less to one with inequalities, a position which can lead, for example, to the endorsement, in some limited sense, of programmes of blinding so as to remove the unequal distribution of sight. Adopting the effects criterion would also make explicit the link between the programme of the left and freedom, by cashing out intervention in terms of mielorating the effects of actions of others over which we would otherwise have no control.


Poll said...

Hello !!

Nice to meet you.

Ben said...

I heard two interesting ideas at this weekend's conference:

1) Why assume the focus of justice must be the individual, not household? If this is how we understand it, then we can see people's concerns for their children as not like a concern for others, but more like the concern for future selves. (Parfit on identity/survival may be quite relevant here)

2) One way of understanding Miller, etc, is to focus not just on the recipient-side of justice, but what we're willing to give - and it is quite plausible that people are more willing to give to fellow-nationals.

As for Martians, well, equality has to have some boundary. I don't see why Martians are any more problematic than earthworms. Presumably you're implicitly invoking some impartial boundary-setting criterion such as rationality or sentience, but it's the setting the boundary that's so problematic/controversial.

Rob Jubb said...

On 1), I think there's something in this actually. Resistance to inheritance tax, for example, seems to stem - in part - from the idea that parent's property is not actually theirs, but the family as a whole's. On the other hand, people are moral agents, and families or households are not, most obviously because they can be broken down into their constituent moral agents. Also, an attempt to shift the focus of justice from individuals to households is going to come up against the obvious problem of what exactly constitutes a household. Finally, I think it's reasonable to suspect that household is a placeholder for male head of the household here - that the idea is to remove certain individuals from the scope of justice - which would be deeply reactionary.

On 2), yeah, and? That's just a particularly unconvincing form of special pleading. Sadists aren't willing to stop inflicting pain on other people, but that doesn't stop us from thinking it's wrong. Miller needs another argument, that what people are willing to do, as opposed to what it is reasonable to demand of them, has some bearing on justice.

On the Martians, we need some argument why we don't care about earthworms. I'm assuming it'd make reference to lack of the preconditions of moral agency. Martians, if as specified, intelligent, presumably wouldn't lack the preconditions of moral agency. Think of them as identical to humans in every respect. Then, assuming equality counts across all humans, it ought to count across the Martians too.

Ben said...

Aren't Rawlsian contractors heads of households? I don't see why they need represent individuals-over-whole-lives and not households. After all the individual-over-whole-life can be broken down into individual-at-time-t1, -t2, etc.

We could think of each of those timeslices as a different person, but being better off at t2 is supposed to compensate for being worse off at time t1. Why not think of one's children as essentially the same as you at t3? Some people would be willing to suffer hardships now for their children to be better off.

And if I was in an OP, I think I'd consider not just what I might receive but what I might have to give - e.g. the burdens of commitment on the rich/talented too. (Not that I'd go as far as, say, Gauthier or Nozick)

Rob Jubb said...

On the households thing, after various feminists pointed out that having heads of households as the parties in the OP would tend to exclude the family from the scope of justice, Rawls said he didn't intend that, indicating that he thought there could be (social) injustices within the family, meaning that the family can't, on a Rawlsian view, be the ultimate subject of justice. Further, moving the subject of justice from the individual to some other collective entity would Rawls' insistence on the separability of persons in his argument against utilitarianism odd. Finally, I think it may be worth noting that, as I remember it from being an undergraduate, the currently popular position in personal identity is that numerically and morally significant identity come apart, so whether or not numerically people subdivide into time-slices (Lewis' view, I think) does not necessarily have any significance for morally significant identity. In particular, in distinguishing between one's children and one's self, whilst we shouldn't always perhaps take the contingencies of expression this seriously, the simple fact that we refer to children as children and future selves as selves would seem to be fairly important. Less facetiously, being a continuing loci of experience would seem to be the decisive factor: there is no past self of the child which was once some past self of me, whereas there are past selves of me which were once even more past selves of me.