Thursday, December 18, 2008

Something for Egalitarians to Ponder (Part 2)

A few more thoughts on the post from yesterday.

The relation between empirical insights into human cognition and theories of distributive justice brings into sharper focus the concern about the methodology of normative theory. A sound theory of justice ought to invoke a diverse range of empirical and comparative insights, as well as conceptual tools. This idea that the theorist ought to develop a “diverse” skill-set is captured by Dunn’s account of political theory.

The workings of the human brain (which are plagued by cognitive biases and the other legacies of our evolutionary history) should thus make theorists hesitate to rely too heavily on abstraction and idealization when developing a theory of justice. And yet most egalitarian theories do precisely this. They invoke hypothetical scenarios (e.g. two person worlds, ship-wrecked survivors on a desert island, etc.) or idealized assumptions (e.g. everyone is healthy, everyone shares the same culture, etc.) that they believe will help bring precision to an underlying foundational principle- or what Cohen calls “fundamental principles of justice” (which only reflect justice itself, not facts).

But the notion that there exists a realm of “fact-free” principles is, I believe, an illusion. For our intuitions themselves have been shaped by our evolutionary history (which include many facts about the external world). And so appeals to these “fundamental principles” is really an appeal to the “sensibilities (and biases) that are the legacy of our Darwinian history”. And so one can construct different hypothetical scenarios that help ignite different aspects of the moral compass we have inherited.

Here is an example that might help "fire off" the response to gravitate towards “desert-based” principles of justice:

Imagine a two-person world consisting of Bob and Mary. There is only one plot of fertile land in this world. Bob is lazy. He sits back and lets Mary do all the work- tilling the soil, planting seeds, harvesting the vegetables, etc. At the end of the harvest season Bob says “OK, let’s split everything down the middle- half for me and half for you”. Mary laughs and says “Sorry buddy, there is no such thing as a free lunch!” And she takes all the proceeds of her labour.

When such a thought experiment is constructed it does not create a “fact-free” zone for the deliberation and comprehension of fundamental principles, rather it plays into our sensibilities as “wary cooperators”.

If we modify the example, so that Bob and Mary *equally contribute* labour, then one can spin the principle differently. When we feel Bob and Mary equally contribute, we feel they should equally share the benefits. This too is part of the sensibilities of wary co-operators.

Luck egalitarians maintain that: Inequalities in the advantages that people enjoy are just if they derive from the choices people have voluntarily made; however, inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people's circumstances are unjust.

This general statement of the principle probably does cohere (at some level) to the moral compass that evolved out of our early existence in hunter-gatherer societies. But it is not “fact-free”. Those people who do share the belief that chosen inequalities are not unjust don’t occupy some privileged position in the Platonic realm of Forms. Rather, their brain has been hardwired in a way that is sensitive to these concerns, and this is the result of a long process of species adaptation over millennia.

It’s also interesting to note, taking things in the other direction, that the reason many people don’t seem bothered much by the health inequalities between the young and aged is that these concerns do not easily fit the moral compass selected for by our evolutionary history. Indeed, I've also observed that some people seem to believe that the aged almost deserve death because their continued existence is harmful for the environment (I guess that’s some distorted expression of altruistic punishment—“do your part for reciprocity and die already!”). Indeed, ageism (along with other "isms") probably coheres with this inherited moral compass. Wary cooperators might be inclined to show less concern for those who they perceive to be failing (because of health concerns) to satisfy the reciprocity principle. And that might explain the dismissive attitudes many have to the aspiration to tackle aging.

Taking our evolved (and now outdated) moral compass, and trying to utilise it to navigate through the complex and enormous world we now inhabit is, in my opinion, a lost cause. So where do we go from here? I’m not sure. We need to refine that moral compass, and we can't do that by discarding the empirical. Realizing that is an important step. And so the search continues...


Update: This interesting paper addresses the evolution of egalitarian instincts and some of the concerns I address above.