Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Complex Challenges of Mitigating Disadvantage

Two of my main research projects address the general issue of the moral duty to prevent/mitigate disadvantage. My recently published book Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement defends a virtue-oriented account of justice in non-ideal theory. And my ongoing research on genetic justice addresses some of the ethical, social and legal implications of the genetic revolution.

Any fair and humane society will aspire to prevent and mitigate disadvantage/suffering/etc. But many things complicate the story of how we move from this general moral aspiration to comprehensive practical strategies for improving people's life prospects.

Consider for a moment just the complexities of addressing domestic justice within an affluent liberal democratic country like Canada. Many might feel inclined to say that this is an easy case; that the real important and challenging issues are ones that raise global concerns (e.g. global poverty, climate change). That may be true, but I think reflecting on what justice requires in the case of domestic justice is still an important and insightful exercise in its own right. For it can help us realize (1) how intrinsically vulnerable human beings are to different kinds of disadvantage, and (2) how diverse, flexible and yet also limited the instruments of government can be in promoting the life prospects of a population. So please permit me to expand a little on the case of domestic justice.

Suppose we know that something bad will happen to some of our compatriots and that we might prevent this from happening by pursuing a particular course of action (Action X). Should we pursue Action X? From the very vague and general information I provide here it is hard to know whether it would be wise and just to pursue Action X. So what kind of information would help us in this context? Well, firstly it would be useful to know the severity and magnitude of the harm in question (e.g. death, disease, unemployment, etc.). It would also be useful to know what the likelihood of success would be for intervening (e.g. is Action X 99% effective in preventing this harm or only effective 50% of the time? etc.). And finally, we might also want to know what the cost of pursuing Action X is. Not only in financial terms, but also in terms of other important values we might care about. Perhaps Action X limits the liberty of others, or it would divert scarce public funding from another laudable social policy.

Bringing these empirical considerations to the fore makes us appreciate how difficult it is to implement and discharge responsible risk-management policies at the level of just domestic justice. It is often the case that we do not have all of the pertinent information at hand (indeed such info may not even exist) regarding the likelihood of success, costs, etc. When is it fair and responsible to act in the absence of such information? And how do we determine how we should prioritize among the almost infinite list of things we could try to protect ourselves against?

Suppose, for example, that the probability and cost of success for a range of interventions are roughly comparable. But the harms they could prevent or mitigate are very different. So Action A would reduce the number of innocent persons wrongly incarnated for criminal offenses by n, Action B would lower the number of traffic fatalities by n. And Action C would reduce by n the number of people who die from a particular disease.

All three of these outcomes would be important outcomes to achieve. But what if we cannot afford to pursue them all? How do we go about prioritizing them? And even more challenging, how do we prioritize them when we have imperfect and incomplete information concerning the cost-effective measures available to actually mitigate the disadvantages in question?

I think these are very pressing questions that should play a much more prominent role in the deliberations of political theorists who aspire to give us a “big picture perspective” of the moral and political landscape. There is a danger with generating a priority list from a purely conceptual analysis of political values (e.g. liberty trumps equality, etc.). I think it is also a mistake to endorse something stronger than a provisional attitude about these issues. The more we learn about the things that influence our wellbeing- including the impact of our individual actions and the apparatus of government- our priorities and the prescriptions of government will no doubt change and alter. And how one conveys all of these things in a coherent, defensible public ethic is, I believe, an interesting and important project. And that is why I hope the tide is turning away from ideal theory towards a vision of political theory/philosophy that integrates normative theory with a richer appreciation and understanding of the importance of the empirical. Sensible deliberations about the kind of society we want must be informed by an appreciation of how we got to where we are and the challenges we face in moving from the "here and now" to a better society.