Unfortunate, Unfair, Unjust

I am looking forward to an exciting year at Inequalities, and if Ben’s and Brendan’s 2011 posts are any indication (and surely they are!), you should be too.

I have been busy prepping for the Spring semester, but I wanted to comment on an interesting post by blogger and UNC Chapel-Hill economics professor Karl Smith.

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.

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12 Responses to Unfortunate, Unfair, Unjust

  1. Happy New Year, Paul! Two comments on your very thought-provoking post.

    First, I’m not sure that the distinction between “man-made” and “cosmic” is all that tenable in many cases we are interested in. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, are not man-made, but the fact that poor people often live in areas with bad soil or flimsy housing reflects many man-made realities. There are many every-day tragedies, such as a car breaking down, causing you to miss work that are also bad luck from the universe, but the effect that these tragedies have on people in different social classes reflects countless man-made realities (education, skills, etc.).

    Second, you argue “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.” This doesn’t obviously follow. Say that we all agreed in society to insure one another against misfortunes caused by bad brute luck (cases of stealing and oppression would have to be dealt with by some other principle of redress), then only those who in fact were part of the insurance scheme would be entitled to compensation when things go cosmically wrong. But many people (especially contractualists) think that this is how society (sometimes implicitly) works. The welfare state represents a shared commitment to shielding people from various misfortunes and inequalities that arise in the course of our shared economic, civic, and political interaction. You see where I’m going with this…

  2. Paul Kelleher says:

    Hey Brendan, thanks for the comments. On your first point, the distinction between cosmic and manmade disadvantages–and the thought experiments used to highlight it–helps us understand how to think about what we owe one another. There needn’t be much cosmic misfortune in the actual world for the distinction to be useful in this way. (Perhaps you and I disagree about just how much cosmic misfortune there is, but we’d have to talk more about it). If the assignment of quite stringent duties requires a causal story about how one or one’s society is materially implicated in creating the relevant disadvantage, our next step is to investigate how certain types of involvement, and certain types of disadvantage, conspire to yield differentially demanding duties. Here’s an analogy: even if we agree that you must be more responsive to the needs of your child than to those of a stranger’s child, this does not yet say anything about how responsive you must be to either, or still yet how responsive you must be to, say, your niece’s needs. Nevertheless, if it is true that you do more wrong in neglecting your own child’s welfare, that is an important finding. I’m suggesting that things are similar in the case of duties of justice, and that this should lead us to ask questions we would not ask if cosmic misfortune were at the center of our thinking instead.

    On your second point you are, unintentionally I’m sure, pulling something of a fast one. Here we are considering the scenario in which “cosmic unfairness is the primary scourge to be addressed by a just government.” I say that if this premise is granted, then “there is no reason to restrict a given society’s scope of concern to the members of that society.” You then say that this does not follow, because we might embrace a form of contractarianism on which our duties are to those with whom we’ve contracted in some way and not to anyone else. But this move amounts to denying the premise you have to grant in order to quibble with my view about what follows from it. In other words, if we are contractarians (that is, if we owe special concern “only those who in fact were part of the [contract]”), then we are *denying* that “cosmic unfairness is the primary scourge to be addressed by a just government.” But the point of mine you’re addressing is a point about what *would* follow if cosmic unfairness is the primary scourge to be addressed by a just government. Claims about what would follow if contractarianism were instead true are not relevant to the point I was making.

    What say you?

  3. Hi Paul. Very interesting stuff. I must confess that your first response baffles me a bit. I read you as saying something like this: even if it’s difficult to partition the causal contribution of the man made from the cosmic, we still may have good theoretical reasons for wanting to know how to do so, and once we have drawn some separation (however imperfect) we then need to know how much weight to place on one rather than the other.

    But to know whether it’s a good idea to go down through this line-drawing exercise in the first place, we should be confident that there is really a meaningful distinction that can be drawn. It is that point that I am skeptical of (and why there’s no analogy between “your child” and “my child” in many cases we are concerned about). Basically what I’m saying is that I’m doubtful in the earthquake example that we could ever plausibly say that the effect of the earthquake, and the misfortune caused by it, was x% manmade, and 1-x% cosmic. It just seems like that there is a hopeless intermixing of the two quantities. Does that make sense?

    Okay, I see your point about pulling a fast one. So we can preserve the coherence of the position by adding a proviso like “cosmic unfairness (that afflicts contracting members of the society) is the primary scourge to be addressed by a just government.” This seems like a plausible proviso to add, makes Smith’s argument plausible, and also restricts the scope of our concern to our society (or at least limits duties to others outside of our society).

    What say you?

  4. Paul Kelleher says:

    Brendan, thanks for pressing. Some thoughts.

    Taking your last point first: yes, we could add that proviso. But doing so has to be well-motivated. You seek to revive the contractarian line by highlighting its “coherence.” But I never impugned its coherence. I just said it wasn’t motivated by anything Smith said. Indeed, just the opposite is suggested by Smith’s remarks.

    I don’t see the motivation for it in anything Smith suggests about the moral basis for taxation. His line is that the world is unfair, and taxation can help redress some of that unfairness. Well, as many cosmopolitan philosophers point out, we did nothing to deserve to be born in a rich country, so one of the forms of unfairness that we advantaged folk should be willing to redress (if we take Smith’s line) is being born in a country much worse off than the U.S.

    I also don’t think the contractarian line is well-motivated by anything you’ve said so far. This is not your fault, since you introduced it by quite openly asking us to assume its truth: “Say that we all agreed in society to insure one another against misfortunes caused by bad brute luck…” But if that’s what needs to be the case for it to be true, then contractarianism is in trouble, since it’s hard to make the case that any of us–let alone “we all”–agreed to that. Most of us are just born where we are and realize that we must follow certain rules if we are to make a life without too much stress and disruption. If we need political counterparts to the hallmarks of legal contracts to justify social insurance policies, we’re in trouble. After all, “If you don’t like it, then emigrate!” is not too far from “Your wallet or your life!”

    Now to your first comment. Because I cannot possibly eradicate all evil in the world, I need a way to determine how to ration my limited time, energy, and resources. This is a task for which I need to draw on some kind of moral theory. It seems reasonable to think that the relative urgency of various moral demands is determined by certain morally-relevant factors. Which factors? Well, I do think that causal complicity is one. This is suggested by the thought experiment in my post, as well as other thought experiments, such as: If tomorrow we discovered a society of humans on mars who are very badly off, we would not be wrong to divert the lion’s share of our humanitarian aid to Iraq and Haiti and not Mars. This is not *only* because Iraq and Haiti are closer to us than Mars is. After all, if Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had as large a role in making the Martians bad off as they had in making Iraqis and Haitians bad off, then our duties to them would be different. Causal complicity seems relevant.

    So even if there is no such thing as pure cosmic unfairness (something I don’t concede), we would *still* need to be able to identify discrete reasons for intervention and aid, and this may require precisely the sort of accounting you say is impossible. To be sure, we would not be looking primarily for the % cosmic vs. the % manmade. Rather, we’d now be looking for the % manmade that stems from such egregious sources that it demands redress and the % manmade that doesn’t. Since your objection seems primarily about the difficulty of carving the world up into percentages, and not primarily about dividing disadvantage into cosmic and manmade, I do think we need to do what you say may be impossible. Then again, we can only do what we can do, which means that we’ll be looking more for rough-and-ready distinctions, as opposed to exact percentages.

    Nothing in what I’ve said *solves* anything. But it does point to difficulties in both Smith’s and your recommendations for moving forward in this area.

  5. Very, very interesting. Since I’m not sure this thread interests anyone either than you and me at this point (presuming that you are still interested!), I won’t offer a reply here. I realize now I should have fleshed out the kind of contractarian view I find compelling first, and then shown how I think Smith’s view (if I understand it) could be modified under such a view in order to preserve the distinction between insiders and outsiders without drawing a sharp line between cosmic and manmade misfortune. I also made the mistake of suggesting that such a line could never in principle be drawn: I agree with you that it can, but I find it to be a problematic basis for justifying different types of policies for many practical and conceptual reasons. So this is not a reply, just a promise to think more carefully about this and provide something more positive and expository in the future. -B

  6. Paul Kelleher says:

    B, This *has* been tremendously useful to me, so fear not about that. I agree that the distinction between cosmic and manmade may not be pragmatically useful, but I do think it’s dialectically useful. It forces us to decide which factors we should treat as morally salient, and why. And its starkness–and the starkness of Mars-type examples–enables us to get a discussion going without too much philosophical background, which is something I like about it.

    I for one am glad that you are attracted to some form of contractarianism. I’m sure I am too, but I’m not at all sure how it should go. We’ll puzzle this one out together, slowly but surely.

  7. Apologies for lurking, but in reference to Brendan’s comment, there is at least one other in this thread.

    I’ve read and reread the exchange on several occasions, and I’m not sure I understand exactly what the discussion re causality and health is intended to address.

    My thoughts, FWIW:

    Of course luck matters in terms of health sufficiency and equity. This is why luck takes on a normative dimension, and has significant ethical implications along both directions of the causal chain, IMO. But the point, and I wonder if this is what Brendan is getting at, is that to a very large extent even the potential exposures to good fortune are strongly mediated by and distributed according to a number of social, economic, and political factors. The evidence I am aware of suggests that these factors collectively form some of the largest causal contributions to patterns of disease and inequities. And, pace Paul Farmer, Amartya Sen, Pogge, etc., the structures through which luck is inevitavbly channeled and man-made. They are entirely creatures of our own devise, and the Marxist critique is both that they are unethical and that they are common, even predicted in many cases.

    Thus, if we are looking out to parcel out causal contribution — something I try in some submitted work on genetic vs. social causes of disease — between “manmade” vs. “cosmic” my reading of the social epidemiologic evidence base is precisely that it supports allocating the lion’s share of the causal responsibility to manmade structural factors rather than so-called natural inequalities.

    If this is so, and while we don’t want to move straight from descriptive premises to normative conclusions, the descriptive premises here ground a series of inferences, employing a number of moral frameworks that I think might be tied up with health equity and social justice (capabilities, Powers & Faden’s health sufficiency), to conceptualize policy based on the rough causal assessment sketched above.

    (I have much more to say about some of the technical problem with this attempt to slice up concurrent causation of complex health systems in the aforementioned submitted paper).

    Anyway . . . very interesting!

  8. Paul Kelleher says:

    Hi Daniel, thanks for your comment and for joining the discussion.

    Regarding your question about the point of brining up the cosmic vs. manmade distinction: the point is to demonstrate, using some simple thought experiments, that the brute fact of bad cosmic luck cannot be the sole, or even the most important fact that grounds duties to respond to others’ health needs. Causal complicity matters as well, and often matters much more than the extent of brute bad luck or the extent of good we could do in rectifying it. The transfusion and Mars examples were intended to help make this point.

    Moreover, beyond causal complicity, the nature of one’s relationship to other persons often plays a large role in just allocating of duties to redress disadvantages, including disadvantages that may qualify as cosmic disadvantages. The compelling idea that we have a stronger obligation to fight racism at home than we do elsewhere is intended to touch on this poing.

    My hypothesis–which I never came right out and stated–is that where we have demanding duties to redress disadvantage, the main reasons for this will be either causal complicity or a special relationship (or a combination of the two). If this is right, then it is wrong to say that the primary source of injustice (which is what I take Smith to be addressing) “is the fact that nature simply has no inherent justice.” It is also wrong to criticize those “on the left” who associate injustice primarily with “racism, oppression, kleptocracy, etc.”

    Does this help clarify my intentions? As I said in the original post, my goal was to show that “the questions ‘What ought we to do? What do we owe each other?’ cannot be answered using only judgments about [cosmic] misfortune or cosmic unfairness…” From what I can tell, you and Brendan agree with me on that.

    As for your positive suggestions, I hope you’ll feel comfortable expounding a bit more on them (perhaps over email, if not here?). For example, I’m not sure what is meant by: “Of course luck matters in terms of health sufficiency and equity. This is why luck takes on a normative dimension, and has significant ethical implications along both directions of the causal chain.” I’m intrigued to hear more.

    I also find it curious that you say Farmer, Sen, and Pogge don’t agree that “the structures through which luck is inevitavbly channeled and man-made.” It seems to me that each of these thinkers concedes just that. Based on some of his writings, it could be argued that Pogge denies it, but even he writes:

    “Resourcists [like Pogge] can make three responses to this worry. First, they can point out that special needs and disabilities in which social causes play no role at all are rare. Most special needs and disabilities are due to a confluence of diverse causes, social ones included. Social rules generating excessive poverty may, by forcing many people to live in flimsy huts or at exposed locations, magnify the harm done by a natural disaster.” (Same passage is in Pogge, “Can the capability approach be justified?”, and “A Critique of the Capability Approach”)

    Thanks again for chiming in!

  9. Paul Kelleher says:

    (Apologies for all the typos in that last comment. I particularly like “poing”!)

  10. Paul Kelleher says:

    This is a great example that, I think, makes all our points: (1) distinguishing between cosmic and manmade disadvantages is sometimes impossible, and sometimes morally misguided; but (2) the strength of our duties to prevent to redress disadvantage has much to do with how we are connected to that disadvantage and to the individuals who suffer it.


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