Smith quotes a recent blog post by Paul Krugman in which Krugman writes:
The point is that you don’t, in fact, have to be that radical once you drop the rigidity of the conservative position. If you admit that life is unfair, and that there’s only so much you can do about that at the starting line, then you can try to ameliorate the consequences of that unfairness [with governmental action].
Smith then adds:
Importantly this unfairness need not, and in general is not, man made. One of the problems I have with the approach taken by some on the left is the assumption that life is unfair because of racism, oppression, kleptocracy, etc. These things clearly exist but are not the primary source of unfairness. The primary source of unfairness is the fact that nature simply has no inherent justice. Contrary to common human intuition there is no cosmic balance or karma. Bad things happen to good people all the time and there is no point at which any natural force will rectify this.
While I’m sympathetic to Smith’s view that the world’s primary source of unfairness is the blatant unfairness of the cosmos, I also doubt he’ll find much disagreement on that issue among the Lefties he refers to. Obviously I don’t know who Smith has in mind, but it is worth asking why some people might choose to focus their opprobrium on such things as “racism, oppression, kleptocracy, etc.,” rather than on what all agree to be the overwhelming unkindness of the universe.
Here’s a thought-experiment. Imagine that in a moment of negligent inattention, you hit a child while driving your car. After rushing her to the hospital and having the medical staff examine her, a physician tells you that the child will die without an immediate transfusion of a significant amount of blood. Unfortunately, the child has a rare blood type and the hospital has no blood of this type on hand. However, you know that you are that type. When the physician learns this, he tells you that there are two other children at the hospital who also need life-saving transfusions of this type of blood. Each needs half of what the child you hit needs, and the child you hit needs as much as you can give without dying yourself. The doctor then gives you the choice: save the girl you hit, or save the two other children. What should you do? (Assume there are no legal consequences to your decision.)
There are some who would say you should always save the greater number. I will be writing a good deal about that ethical perspective in the future. But many, I assume, have the strong intuition that you should save the individual whose misfortune you negligently caused. Moreover, if we added the extra detail that you could save all three children with a blood donation that would, alas, leave you dead, most of us would say you don’t have to give up that much to produce more good in the world than would be produced if you saved your own life and donated only to the girl you hit.
Now, you might accept all this but wonder what it means for Smith’s view. After all, those of us who condemn racism are the least likely to engage in it. So how does the morality of the scene at the hospital connect up with the political issues Smith focuses on? The answer, it seems to me, is that they are connected because we also tend to think we have stronger reason to redress and eliminate the “racism, oppression, kleptocracy, etc.” that occurs in our society than we have to fight similar forces in other societies.
If there is some validity to these ideas, then Smith’s claim that “unfairness need not, and in general is not, man made” is a non sequitur. Many philosophers and ethicists endorse a distinction between what is unfortunate, or even unfair, and what is unjust. That is, they can agree that it is a tremendous misfortune to be born in a very poor society, and indeed that it is quite unfair that some individuals have genetic disorders that others do not. But the questions “What ought we to do? What do we owe each other?” cannot be answered using only judgments about misfortune or cosmic unfairness. The kind of judgments we need, the kind that help us discover genuinely stringent duties, are judgments about what kinds of misfortune and maltreatment it would be unjust to neglect. The thought experiments I’ve offered suggest (to me at least) that Smith is wrong to criticize “some on the left” for focusing on manmade social ills like racism and oppression. Those who focus on such ills need not claim that these are the primary sources of unfairness in the universe; they simply claim that they’re sources we have special–and especially strong–reasons to address.
Elsewhere in his post Smith argues that if one wishes to avoid a commitment to an austere “anarcho-capitalism,” then one must endorse public policy that seeks to influence “who ends up with what.” (Smith refers this last position as “consequentialist,” but it is not the position philosophy associates with that term.) According to Smith, the middle ground between these two positions “is not stable.” But if I am right, Smith already embraces another unstable position. For he seems to think that the primary job of a just government is to respond to the unfairness of the universe, but he also appears to believe a government ought primarily to be concerned with misfortune that arises within its own borders. Yet once we make cosmic unfairness the primary scourge to be addressed by a just government, there is no reason to restrict a given society’s scope of concern to the members of that society. If fighting cosmic unfairness is the primary rationale for taxing the most fortunate–as Smith claims–then we should expect Smith to support directing tax-financed aid wherever it will alleviate the most misfortune. But my guess is that Smith would not accept that conclusion. He therefore has further reason to accept a framework wherein demanding duties are associated with the idea of justice, and where justice has more to do with fixing defective social arrangements than with redressing the unfortunate outcomes of cosmic unfairness.