Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Schmidtz on Barry and Mapmaking

For today's Democracy reading group we read David Schmidtz's excellent review article "When Justice Matters" in the latest issue of Ethics. The paper is a review article of Brian Barry's Why Social Justice Matters, but it is much more than a review article. I want to draw attention to three specific things I really liked about this article:

(1) The suggestion that theory is like mapmaking

(2) The limits of Trolley examples (a favourite thought experiment among a certain type of philosopher)

(3) His critique of Barry

Let me just expand briefly on these three things.

First, the idea of theory as mapmaking. Schmidtz begins by stating that theories are not arguments, they are maps. They are serviceable representations. But they cannot be more than this. They are artifacts. And as such they have a purpose. The thrust of Schmidtz's insights here overlap to some degree with those I have expressed before, concerning what political theory is, and what justice requires "many-things-considered".

So if our theories are maps, then we (i.e. moral mapmakers) must have a particular skill-set if our artifact is to help us diagnosis the ills of society and lead us towards a more fair and just social arrangement. So I think Schmidtz's analogy between maps and theories is a useful one that addresses important methodological issues I have been thinking about of late.

(2) I also really enjoyed Schmidtz discussion of the Trolley example. He invokes the example to illustrate a point about how society ought to satisfy our needs. On p. 446 he considers the following two examples:

Trolley: A trolley is rolling down the track on its way to killing five people. Switching the trolley to another track on which there is only one person would save five and kill one.

Hospital: Five patients are dying from lack of suitable organ donors. A UPs delivery person walks into the hospital. She is a suitable donor for all five patients. Kidnapping her and harvesting her organs would save five and kill one.

Schmidtz notes that when he presents these examples to people most people say you ought to switch tracks and kill one to save five but you cannot kidnap and murder one to save five. Why not? Trolley, argues Schmidtz, "tells us that numbers sometimes matter. Hospital tells us that sometimes what matters is being able to trust others to respect us as separate persons". Unlike the contrived thought experiments philosophers often concoct, the real world does not stipulate that there is no other way. And when people object to Hospital their objection is often premised on the belief that there must be another way. And so when philosophers push these thought experiments these nuanced views about trust and justice are often bracketed or discarded.

(3) Schmidtz's critique of Barry.
I reviewed Barry's book myself (see here) and I have a lot of sympathy for what Schmditz says. In particular I think Barry is wrong to reject the idea that rights entail personal responsibilities and wrong to endorse the view that inequality is intrinsically unjust. Schmidtz pretty much gets it right when he suggests that Barry's view is committed to the following principle: "a case for radical change can be shown to flow from the premise that unequal holdings of wealth are simply unjust. Plus, not a great deal needs to be said in support of this claim, and anyone who says otherwise is indulging in obfuscation or lies". (438) Later Schmidtz goes on to emphasise that the liberal tradition of equal opportunity puts an emphasis on *improving opportunities*, not equalizing them. And Schmidtz's succinct way of putting this point pretty much expresses why I no longer consider myself an egalitarian.

I suppose the one place I disagreed with Schmidtz concerned his concluding remarks about Japanese Americans. Schmidtz notes that "Japanese Americans were able to find their way to a place of closure, and hopefully to a better life for their children and for their children's fellow citizens, even in a world whose history is everywhere unjust" (459). They could not have found this place, he continues, if they had been following a map that represents the terrain of Justice as necessarily a war between haves and have-nots. But if one generalizes this insight to all examples of oppression (e.g. gender inequality) I think we jeopardize what a theory of justice should do. I am not suggesting our theory should invoke a war between haves and have-nots. I think such a view is overly simplistic and unhelpful. But at the same time I think the injustices of the past and present should inform our deliberations concerning how we move forward. For me at least, any map worth defending will give due attention to these features of our societies.

Parts of this review article are taken from Schmidtz's latest book: Elements of Justice. And the reading group has agreed to read this in the New Year. So I look forward to hearing more about the details of some of the issues addressed in this Ethics article.