Wednesday, July 05, 2006


In two previous posts I briefly offered some reflections on the fact that we are temporal beings. In "Life Extension", for example, I pointed out that age influences our risk of developing disease. And I suggested that this might gives us reason to re-think the priority we ought to place on enhancing technologies.

And in "The Personal is Political" I noted that, as temporal and social beings we have limited time and resources and this complicates the story of finding the mean between partiality and prioritarianism. The obvious fact that humans are temporal beings is a great "non-ideal" consideration that ought play a much greater role in contemporary debates about distributive justice.

Consider, for example, the egalitarian challenge put forth by G.A. Cohen in his book If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? What answer can the affluent make in response to Cohen? In particular, what can the "middle class" (rather than millionaires and billionaires) say?

If a plausible defense can be made I believe it would have to be one which highlights the fact that we are temporal (as well as social) beings. Real human beings (even the middle class) do not go through their whole lives with the same level of socio-economic prospects. Our skill-set and income will typically vary over the course of our lives, as we go through childhood to adulthood and eventually retire.

Why does this kind of "real life" fact matter? It matters for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it means that the obligations justice imposes on us to help mitigate the disadvantage of others (be it poor compatriots or the poor in distant lands) will vary in our different life-stages. So there is a difference between someone who is just beginning their first job out of university at age 24 and has incurred a debt of thousands of dollars, and someone who has been in the skilled workforce for 20 years and has ample opportunity for career advancement and is mortgage free. And these two situations can be contrasted with someone who has recently retired and had their annual income significantly reduced (e.g. by 50%).

So even those who are reasonably well-off will face different challenges at different stages of their finite lives which will complicate the story of what constitutes a reasonable degree of self-regarding concern. This is not to suggest that these individuals have no obligation to help others. Rather, my point is that the stringency of the duty will vary as our life situation changes, and the form of contribution we make to help mitigate disadvantage may also change (e.g. volunteering time and/or money, etc.).

Once we also recognise that real people are also social beings the story gets yet even more complicated. For now new considerations arise as we try to steer a middle ground between partiality and prioritarianism. We must also factor in to the equation what constitutes a reasonable degree of partial affection towards the interests of our intimates. As social beings we typically have dependants whom we are solely or partially responsible for caring for. These might be our children or an aging parent. Such partiality is not simply ethically permissible, it is morally required.

Of course a great deal depends on the stringency of our partial inclinations. We should not adopt the narrow perspective that limits our affections to just our closest intimates. Yet the fact that we may have children or aging parents to care for will mean that the personal funds and/or free-time available for caring for others is strained. A just individual will seek to find a reasonable compromise between these competing demands. If a mother or father’s occupation is very time-consuming we should not expect these parents to spend their rare free-time volunteering rather than spending time with their children. In such a situation a monetary contribution may be more appropriate (e.g. financial donations to local and global charities). Conversely, if as a retired worker one has less money available but more free-time to invest in helping worthwhile causes, then volunteering might be a reasonable way of discharging one’s prioritarian obligations.

The fact that we are temporal beings has a number of important consequences for debates in ethics and political philosophy. So any plausible answer to Cohen's question needs to be attuned to these kinds of considerations (as well as our consumerist attitudes, as I pointed out earlier).

I was pleased to see the latest issue of the journal Science has a special section dedicated to the consequences time has for social scientists (and thus (indirectly) political philosophers!). Here are the abstracts of some of the articles readers might find of interest:

"Politics and the Life Cycle" by Donald R. Kinder
The study of politics and the life cycle began with a rather single-minded focus on childhood and the family—on the idea, as Tocqueville famously put it, that the entire person could be "seen in the cradle of the child." Politics does begin in childhood, and parents do influence their offspring, but change takes place over the entire span of life. I take up the early emergence of partisanship and essentialism, the formation of generations, politically consequential transitions in adulthood, and the rising of politics and its final decline.

"Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion" Daniel Kahneman et. al.
The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.

"Redistributing Work in Aging Europe" James W. Vaupel and Elke Loichinger
As Europe ages, the proportion of people who work will decline unless older individuals remain in the labor force. Such reform could be part of a more general redistribution of work. If a greater share of the population worked, then the average number of hours worked per week could be reduced. This could particularly help younger people and increase Europe's low birth rates. The challenges facing Germany, Europe's most populous country, are highlighted, but statistics are also given for five other European countries and, for comparison, the United States. Social science research is needed to provide policy-relevant knowledge about life-course options.