Monday, May 26, 2008

Risk and Virtue

I have posted a number of times before on the issue of risk and on the virtues of parenting. So today I offer some brief reflections on the intersection of these two themes.

Firstly, some general thoughts on risk. You can’t completely avoid risk of harm. Indeed, to live is to risk pain, suffering and death. But responsible moral agents (let’s call them *virtuous agents*) will adopt a reflective, critical attitude towards different kinds of risks.

Virtuous agents will pursue some risks, especially when the benefits far outweigh the potential losses. In many cases this is pretty obvious. By driving to work today I took the risk of getting in a car accident. But this is a risk worth taking for the payoff of having the life I would like to have the opportunity to live.

Of course my decision to drive to work, even though it has some risk of harm, could fall anywhere on the spectrum from remote to certainty depending on my driving behaviour and other factors (e.g. fitness of my vehicle, weather). It would be irresponsible to drive to work at hazardous speeds, ignoring traffic regulations, or driving with a flat tire or in a severe winter storm. So while I am willing to accept the risks that come with commuting to work each day, even that mundane risk is subjected to provisos and limits. And a virtuous agent will internalize these kinds of considerations for a variety of different activities and risks.

Another obvious example- living a physically active lifestyle. Many challenges face a virtuous agent as they attempt to find the mean between someone who endangers their own health by living an inactive lifestyle and someone who pursues their health in a non-virtuous fashion. The former is rather obvious, but how can one violate virtue in the latter extreme? There are many possible ways that an excessive fixation on one’s physical health could be taken to an extreme. Firstly, if one is over zealous in their exercise they might actually compromise the very thing one aspires to achieve- namely their health. For example, they might suffer a chronic injury due to overtraining. Or if one focuses exclusively on such a goal, to the detriment of other laudable goals (like their mental health, parental responsibilities, etc.) then the extreme of physical fitness can actually be a vice (though not the worst of possible vices).

OK, now a couple of thoughts on parental virtue. Recall this earlier post and paper. I believe parenting poses a number of complex and interesting challenges for the moral development of a parent. And how a parent responds to the potential risks their children will be exposed to is an enormous challenge for any parent, even (aspiring) virtuous parents.

There is an innate parental instinct to protect our children from risks of harm. This is a good thing that increases the likelihood that our children will make it to adulthood! And anyone who has had the joy of raising a child will know the endless possible mishaps a rambunctious child can get into. From wanting to stick everything they find in their mouth (ranging from coins, to dirt and, well, you name it, and a one year old will try to eat it!), to trying to crawl down a flight of stairs and touching hot ovens, a parent only really gets the opportunity to relax and turn off the “What is he/she into now!” button once the young child is finally asleep in bed.

As a child ages, and their own cognitive capacities develop, the parent’s burden of risk management evolves. I say “evolves”, rather than becomes easier because, while it is true that some risks of harm become less likely (like your child unwittingly wandering into a busy road), there are many new risks that come as your child takes on new responsibilities and matures. So there are dangers like drugs, crime, etc. And so a parent will have to learn how to manage these new challenges, drawing on the experiences they have learned from during the early years of caring for the child and their own personal experiences of dealing with such complex issues.

And so this finally brings me to the issue that motivated me to write this post—cultivating risk-taking in one’s children. In my own personal experience, this is perhaps one of the hardest challenges I have faced. We teach our children to obey the rules of the game, to look both ways before crossing, to wear their bike helmets, … but how do you teach them to take the risks that could enhance their lives in ways those who are risk adverse will never experience? Some of the most valuable things in life require risk-taking, like love and friendship. And so permitting your children to learn how to manage risk is an important life skill that a parent can either stifle or cultivate.

After dinner tonight I took my two oldest (though still young) sons out on their bikes, the first real bike ride of the year. In an attempt to help foster some of these traits I pointed out a dirt hill that I thought it might be interesting for them to ride down. At first they expressed some concern that it might not be safe to ride their bikes on this hill. I thought it might be fun, provided they were careful. Sensing that even “protective Daddy” thought it would be OK, they decided to give it a go. They loved it! And I just sat their watching the two of them driving down this hill, as their confidence grew and grew. They even suffered a few minor bumps and scraps, but nothing so grave as to deter them from doing it again and again. Allowing them to take even this small risk was a big step for me.

As I watched the two of them riding their bikes down this small dirt hill I realized how much (and fast!) they have grown. And how hard it has been for me to relax the parental impulse to protect them from all possible risks. But I now realize that doing so has its own risks. It risks them going through life always pursuing the save option- never risking love for fear of a broken heart, never risking friendship for fear it would not be reciprocated, never risking dissent for fear of social disapproval. I wouldn’t want my children to live in a world of people like that.

Experiences like tonight make me appreciate just how incredible parenting is. It permits one to revisit their own youth (I was quite a risk taker myself when I was their age!) and engage in a unique and powerful process of self-discovery and growth. No doubt many more challenges lay ahead for us in the years to come, as we all continue to grow and learn from experience. But that is what living a human life is all about.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Being Inspired by Hobbes

This post is Part 3 in the series of posts (#1 here, #2 here) on "Taking People For What They *Really* Are".

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is without a doubt one of the most important thinkers in the history of political thought. And a political theorist looking to update (as indeed I am!) the social contract for the 21st century need look no further than Hobbes for inspiration on how to best approach such an enormous and laudable endeavour.

Hobbes should serve as an example for contemporary political theorists in a number of different ways.

Firstly, Hobbes was profoundly influenced by the science of his day. Science influenced Hobbes's writings, especially his greatest political treatise- Leviathan. Unfortunately, the specialization of academic disciplines has meant that in the 300+ years since the time Hobbes wrote Leviathan political philosophers have very little engagement with science. Consider, for example, the late twentieth century. What impact did advances in science have on the discipline of political philosophy? With the exception of concerns about nuclear proliferation, the connect between science and political philosophy is almost non- existent. And the sad thing is that the discipline could probably continue on its marry way for another 50 years ignoring science policy. But if we could be inspired by Hobbes then we would not let this happen. We need to narrow the gap between science and political philosophy. There are of course many factors that make this a formidable challenge. These range from respected venues for publishing one's work to job opportunities. The discipline needs more risk takers and imaginative thinkers that go can beyond the constraints that currently bind the discipline.

Secondly, Hobbes's political philosophy was informed by what he took to be the greatest threat to self-preservation- civil war. That is why he argues that it is rational for his contemporaries to accept rule by an absolute monarch.

I think it would be odd for the social contract of the 21st century to ignore the thing that would most likely kill most human beings alive today. Of course there are many possible things that could kill the world's 6.5 billion plus population. The earth could be hit by a meteor, or a nuclear war could break out. But the most likely cause of death for those currently alive will be senescence. And so one of the greatest challenges facing us this century will be to retard human aging, thus expanding the opportunities for healthy living.

Thirdly, Hobbes's social contract was informed by the history of human beings and our nature. Hobbes's most famous quote is that life in the state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short”.

Evolutionary biologists would agree with Hobbes about this. Indeed, this fact explains why we are susceptible to the diseases of aging. Most humans that walked the planet before us died of poverty, conflict, infection, infectious disease, etc. Very few died of age-related afflictions. And these external environmental hazards influenced and shaped our biology. We age the way we do (rather than the way rats, turtles, whales or dogs do) because of the threats we have faced as a species.

From an evolutionary perspective, it made little sense to develop protection against something that hardly posed a threat to humans (like senescence). Historically, most people would have died well before they reached an age where the diseases of aging (like cancer, heart disease, AD, etc.) would have been visited upon them.

The fact that the passage of time killed a very low percentage of human beings in the past does not mean this will necessarily be the case in the future. In fact we are entering a new era of human history. The vast majority of the people alive on our planet today will most likely suffer age-related morbidity and mortality (unless we find a way to redress this).

To conclude then, I think we should all be inspired by Hobbes's profound intellect. And his desire to merge science and politics is something that should inform the social contract for the 21st century.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Taking the Family Seriously

The family is an amazing, complex institution. And here I want to offer a few reflections on the immense challenges the family raises for theories of distributive justice.

So first a few thoughts about the kind of institution the family is. The family is a unique institution in many respects. It is an institution composed of *intimates*; for example, individuals who share blood connections (e.g. siblings, parent and child) or those who have been married and/or have chosen to live together. And so the family is a semi- or partially voluntary institution. That is, it is voluntary for those adults who have chosen to create a new family- like when my wife and I decided to get married and later to have children- but it is not voluntary for the new people who are brought into existence out of this union. So none of my children consented to being created, or having me as their father or their brothers as a sibling (and the same applies to me as a child and sibling).

Now it is very easy to idealize the family as an institution. Hegel’s account of the institutions of modern life does this for example. According to Hegel, the family is important for sentiment and affection. No doubt this is true. However, if one accepts the conservative conclusions of Hegel’s “Ethical Life” thesis (that norms consist in nothing other than the duties and virtues embedded in the central institutions of modern social life) then we would be oblivious to the historical injustices of the family as an institution. Namely, the rampant mistreatment and abuse of women and children.

So when I say we must “take the family seriously” I mean we, as normative theorists, must consider both the virtues and *vices* of the family seriously.

Feminist critics of liberalism have of course done this for a long time. And liberals should take these concerns seriously. Susan Okin, for example, does a great job of showing why we must take the family seriously in this book.

In the section entitled “Justice and the Idealized Family” Okin examines how a range of political theorists (from David Hume and Rousseau to Michael Sandel) have assumed the circumstances of family life are such that justice is not an appropriate standard to apply to them. And the assumption is that in a more or less ideal family situation, spontaneous affection and generosity will prevail. And thus justice is not seen as a primary virtue of the family.

But this view of the family is simply mistaken. It would be a big oversight for a social theorist not to realize and acknowledge that risk of harm is inherent in the family given the very nature of the institution that it is. The reason I say this risk is inherent is that, given the nature of the family, we could never completely eliminate the risk of harm. The family is a very private institution, with members living in very close proximity to each other (and hence vulnerable to abuse). The family, unlike legislatures or courts, is not the kind of institution that could be constantly or easily subjected to inspection and oversight. To try to do this would be to compromise the institution itself.

Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t impose constraints on the family, to try to reduce the risk of harm when it is reasonable to do so. Of course we should. We should try to find a reasonable balance between intruding on the family and protecting the legitimate interests of those who are made vulnerable by the family (e.g. young children).

So the reality of the family is that it is an institution that can foster affection and generosity, but it can also lead to patriarchy and abuse. How can we capitalize on the benefits and minimize the harms of the family? A theory of justice that takes the family seriously will seek tackle this complex question (rather than function with an idealized account of the family).

OK, the family not only plays an important role with respect to gender inequality, but also economic inequality. And I don’t think egalitarians have considered this fact seriously enough.

My main target here is Jerry Cohen’s critique of liberalism which focuses on inequality-generative incentives (here and here). To make a long story short- for Cohen, the key issue is the role economic incentives play in Rawls’s apparently egalitarian defence of inequality (what’s called the Pareto argument for inequality). Why would the talented members of an equal society need more goods in order to be more productive? Cohen argues that their attitudes violate an egalitarian ethos.

I believe Cohen grossly underestimates how the legitimate demands of personal life conflict with equality. By ignoring the realities of the family, Cohen’s focus on an egalitarian ethos threatens to contravene the personal element on justice. David Estlund made a similar critique of Cohen in this paper a while back. But let me expand a bit more on this to show how it unravels the egalitarian edge of Cohen’s public ethic.

In my mind, there is only one possible way in which Cohen’s egalitarian critique could even be considered as somewhat plausible: if his critique only applies to the most wealthy, talented, single people in society. Then, maybe, it would have some force. But that would be such a small portion of the population and I don’t think it would be very interesting.

However, if his call for an egalitarian ethos is to apply to people in what we can call the “middle-classes” (indeed, even to those in lowest social class), then serious problems will arise.

OK, so what’s my beef with Cohen? Firstly, it is worth noting that no person exists as a static, isolated individual. The income you make today is probably very different from what you made 20 years ago, and what you might make in 20 years time will be different from today. And the people who are economically dependent on you in the past, present and future will differ (as well as their level of dependency). The Family is not static, nor are an individual’s skill set or salary. And all this complicates things for Cohen.

Secondly, why focus on the role of incentives as a cause of inequality?

Yes, incentives play an important role in Rawls’s account of justice, but how much of a role do they actually play in widening the income gap of real capitalist societies that exist in an era of rapid globalization? I don’t think this question is ever seriously considered by Cohen. Primarily because his argument is constrained within a debate between himself and Rawlsians [where the assumption is that society is closed]. But there is good reason to believe it is a very small part of the story.

I am by no means an expert on the causes of income inequality, but let me address a few important things my research has uncovered. And the family plays an important role in the story of inequality. When we consider economic inequalities we must look at household incomes (not just individual incomes). And if we ask- Who are the most vulnerable in Canada? (that is, which groups persist to be among the lowest earners?)- we see five groups of people:

(1) lone parents
(2) single people aged 45-64
(3) recent immigrants (in the country for less than 10 years)
(4) persons with work-limiting disabilities
(5) off-reserve Aboriginal people

How do these complex factors fit into the story of luck egalitarianism? Is being single a choice (and thus those in (2) are unequal by choice)? What about the decision to be a single parent? Is being an immigrant a choice? Do Aboriginals who choose to live off reserves do so by choice? Abstract discussions of equality are severely limited and do not help us diagnosis the challenges facing real societies.

In the real big picture of things incentives play only a small role in the story of inequality. We must also consider marriage patterns, immigration, etc. Taking institutions seriously should help in rescuing equality from abstract idealization.

So the decision to have children in the first place, and how many, will impact inequality in our society. Rather than criticizing those at the top of the income scale- who allegedly demand incentives- why doesn’t Cohen criticize those at the bottom end who have children? I don’t think a luck egalitarian can really give us a good answer as to why they wouldn’t criticize such persons.

One could imagine a conservative invoking luck egalitarianism and writing a book entitled: If You're are an Egalitarian, How Come You Have Children Out of Wedlock?

Rather than pursing equality by leveling down (through taxing higher earners), why not try to level up by reducing the number of single parent households?

Now a more interesting factor I came across (which I posted about before) which I think poses an even more serious problem for Cohen is the major decline in intermarriage between those with university degrees and those with less education (fell by 38% since 1970s).

If we take Cohen’s egalitarian ethos seriously, then we can ask- are the educated violating equality when they marry other educational elites? Now one might argue that choice of partner is part of the “personal domain” and thus exempt from the difference principle’s reach. But given that Cohen makes it apply to occupational choice, it's hard to see why choice of partner is different. It’s certainly possible to find a soul mate among people with less formal education.

So not only does our attitudes about work impact inequality, so does choice of partner and how many children we have.

The existence of the family as an institution might mean egalitarians have to abandon a lot of their egalitarian convictions. Of course one might retort that it is the family that needs to be transformed. I would agree with that when the concern is the feminist one I raised above, but I don’t think it has any traction at all when the concern is economic inequality itself.

So to wrap this long post up... When we take the family seriously we realize that certain political ideals (like equality) are constrained by the very fact that we exist in families. To phrase this as a catchy slogan: "Families Upset Patterns!" And acknowledging this is an important service for it increases the likelihood that we will be able to better grasp what the demands of justice are, “many-things-considered”.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Main Menu (May 2008)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Centenarian Prevalence in Okinawa

Okinawa in Japan has among the world's highest reported prevalence of centenarians. And for scientists interested in human longevity this makes the population in Okinawa very interesting and important.

Yet verifying centenarian prevalence is of course difficult for a variety of reasons. But this article in the latest issue of The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences makes the case for validating the centenarian prevalence in Okinawa. Here is a sample from the study:

THE National Institute on Aging (NIA) Advisory Panel on Exceptional Longevity (APEL) (1) and the NIA strategic plan (2) have identified healthy aging as a research priority. However, few individuals survive to exceptional ages in robust health. Centenarians possess genetic and/or environmental attributes that allow them to survive to exceptional ages, and many appear to delay or avoid major age-related diseases and disability (3,4). Okinawa, the southwesternmost prefecture of Japan, is an isolated island population that possesses the longest life expectancy and the lowest risk for major age-related, chronic diseases in Japan, the world's longest-lived country (5–7). Geriatric studies of the older population also demonstrate that Okinawans appear to have high physical and cognitive function at older ages (3,8,9). Consistent with these studies, the Japanese government's Annual Centenarian Report ranks Okinawa as having the highest prevalence of centenarians of any prefecture within Japan (10). Therefore, the Okinawan population may be important for further study of genetic and/or environmental traits that lead to exceptional longevity, including longevity with good health. However, studies of exceptionally aged persons require precise definitions of phenotypes, the most important of which is accurate age for the study participant.

.... As the world's population ages, increased research emphasis has been placed on identification of populations with high prevalence of healthy, older individuals for the study of healthy aging and exceptional longevity (1,2). Precise phenotyping, particularly accurate age, is required. This is especially important for genetic studies of human longevity; therefore, age validation has become an important part of such research (7,15,16,23,33,34). Thus, the purported high prevalence of centenarians in Okinawa has been a subject of keen interest and some controversy.

.... We hypothesize that the Okinawa longevity phenomenon is due to a number of factors that have coalesced to decrease the risk for both age-associated disease and mortality among older people. For example, there appear to be important genetic aspects to Okinawan longevity (7,37,38) that merit further investigation. The traditional diet, low in calories but high in nutrition, may have also led to a population-wide caloric restriction phenomenon, among other dietary and lifestyle factors (8,39–41). A superior public health system and other social and psychological factors may have also contributed to this longevity phenomenon (32). These factors deserve further investigation. Discovering the basis for the longevity advantage in Okinawa may have important potential implications for human health.

.... Centenarians are a valuable resource for the study of factors associated with exceptional longevity and healthy aging (7). However, most centenarian studies take place in European or North American countries, and few studies include minorities. As an ethnically distinct, isolated population of Japan with a very high prevalence of centenarians, a long life expectancy, and a highly functional elderly population, the Okinawans are an important population for studies of the genetic and environmental correlates of exceptional longevity. Further study of this population is warranted.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Are You Guilty of Gerontologiphobia?

Ask yourself the following questions:

(a) Do you think it would be a good thing if fewer people died of cancer?

(b) Do you think it would be a good thing if fewer people died of heart disease?

(c) Do you think it would be a good thing if fewer people died of diabetes?

(d) Do you think it would be a good thing if fewer people died of infection?

(e) Do you think it would be a good thing if fewer people died of bone fracture?

Now ask yourself this:

(f) Do you think it would be a good thing if all of the above (a-e) could be accomplished?

I suspect most people would say “yes!”; that it would be wonderful to accomplish such laudable goals.

What if I told you that we could possibly achieve these goals but it would take some public funding, some time and some potential risks?

Assuming the money, time and risks were not too substantial, you probably would say “Let’s go for it!”

But what if I said this could possibly be accomplished by manipulating human longevity? ………..errrhhh… I hear the brakes screeching!

This last step will no doubt result in my losing many people who were, up till that stage of things, on board with the aspirations I was outlining.

So let’s see why people are likely to protest achieving these goals by manipulating longevity.

Is it the costs? Well, aging research is actually grossly under funded. As Jay Olshansky et. al. point out in this excellent paper, in 2006 the NIH was funded at $28 billion and yet less than 0.1% of that funding was spent on understanding the biology of aging and how it predisposes us to a vast array of costly diseases and disorders expressed at later ages. So we are spending billions pursuing each of (a) through (e) and yet very little on something that might accomplish all of these things at once (f). That doesn’t make sense does it?

Is it the time scale? Maybe people think retarding aging is something that would only happen, if ever, in the very distant future. "We shouldn’t waste our time pursuing interventions that will likely benefit people in 500 years when there are so many problems to deal with now" one might argue. Again, this response is not persuasive given that (1) aging research (despite being poorly funded) is rapidly progressing and the time scale for real tangible benefits- especially if we invested sufficient funds- is much smaller than most people would expect. Recall this post, the first anti-aging molecule is going to be tested in humans this year! So the science is much further along than most people realize.

And (2) given the magnitude of the benefits at stake in (f), our attitude towards the time scale issue needs to be consistent. Few people are willing to abandon cancer research or research into heart disease just because it might take some time to make serious headway on these diseases. Given that retarding aging could accomplish much more than eliminating any one disease could accomplish, it doesn’t make sense to single out the science of longevity for disparagement.

Is it the risk? Perhaps some believe that you could never safely apply an anti-aging intervention. Of course one must bear in mind that nothing in life is “risk free”. All the things in (a) – (e) have risks for us (indeed they kill millions every year). Would it be better to remain in the biological “status quo” of being intrinsically vulnerable to the diseases of aging versus pursuing an intervention that could reduce these risks (even if such an intervention had some risk of harm itself)? The devil is really in the details. I agree that how we could sensibly manage the risks in such a case is a challenging issue (especially if the intervention is to be pursued early in life), but it is not unprecedented. Vaccines, for example, have some risks associated with them yet their benefits far outweigh those risks. And the same applies for almost every medical intervention. So it is not rational to pick out the modulation of the aging process for special attention in this regard. [for more on my thoughts on this topic, see this article]

I recently read this excellent article by Richard Miller. He posits nine reasons for the current neglect of aging research. These range from scientific obstacles- like the time it takes to complete aging experiments in mammals- to political obstacles like the scarcity of lobbyists for basic aging research (compared to the lobbies for specific diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s). One major obstacle that Miller specifically draws attention to as an impediment to manipulating longevity is what he calls “gerontologiphobia”. He describes this as follows:

There is an irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvelous but to regard research on aging, and thus all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with nonproductive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens consuming more resources than they produce. No one who speaks in public about longevity research goes very far before encountering the widespread belief that research on extending the life span is unethical, because it will create a world with too many old people and not enough room for young folks.

Are you guilty of gerontologiphobia? This is a serious question we must all consider. For our attitudes towards aging and the science of longevity could stifle one of the most significant medical breakthroughs we could make this century. Retarding aging would significantly improve the health prospects of all persons who are susceptible to aging.


Friday, May 09, 2008

EMBO Reports Article on Aging

My article "A Tale of Two Strategies: The Moral Imperative to Tackle Ageing" has been accepted for publication in Nature's EMBO Reports. This paper should be published in the next few months. Here is a brief sample:

Research into ageing is a fascinating field of scientific study, not least because it addresses a topic that, sooner or later, affects everyone. At the same time, the science itself is rapidly progressing with a constant flow of publications that help to elucidate the numerous causes of ageing, such as DNA damage, the shortening of telomeres, oxidation processes in the cell, and so on. Based on this wealth of information, scientists have begun to explore interventions that could modify the biological processes that lead to ageing, thus creating opportunities for people to live longer and healthier lives. However, the biology of ageing is very complex and involves many molecular and physiological processes that, though they eventually lead to ageing, still have important functional roles. It is therefore not surprising that, while scientists basically agree that ageing itself is not immutable, they continue to disagree significantly as to what might constitute the most promising strategy for retarding human ageing. Such scientific disagreement is, of course, neither novel nor specific to ageing-related research—it rightly permeates all branches of scientific inquiry.

But there is another disagreement that currently embroils researchers studying ageing, which is a debate about how they ought to frame the moral imperative to retard human ageing. Is ageing actually a disease? If so, should we invest more public money to find a cure for it, or are the medical interventions that could retard ageing best classified as ‘enhancements’ rather than therapies? Does this really matter and, in any case, do the answers to these questions have an impact on the prioritization of research into human ageing?


Monday, May 05, 2008

Precision vs Proportionality: The Future Direction of Political Philosophy

*Originally posted Jan. 2008*

I believe that contemporary political philosophy is at an important crossroads, and this makes it a very interesting and exciting time to be working in the field. In this post I will elaborate a bit on why I believe this to be the case.

In many respects this post brings together some disparate thoughts I have posted before. It is really Part 2 to my earlier entry “What Justice Requires “Many-Things-Considered”". And this post was also partly motivated by the interesting exchange that took place over at Crooked Timber a while back. Here I offer some more specific thoughts on the methodological issues that arise when we aspire to develop, and assess, theories of distributive justice.

What does justice demand of us, as both individuals and societies? One could attempt to answer this question by developing normative analyses at varying levels of abstraction, with varying degrees of precision and detail. I’ll return to this issue shortly, but first there are some preliminaries that need to be addressed.

When contemporary philosophers approach the issue of distributive justice they begin from *somewhere* (no one’s ideas exist in a vacuum), whether it be a particular liberal, egalitarian, communitarian, feminist or multicultural framework. One begins with certain theoretical commitments- like equality, freedom, inclusion, etc.- and perhaps an alliance to a particular philosophical theory (e.g. consequentialism, Rawlsian liberalism, equality of welfare, etc.)

With so many interesting and varied theories of justice on offer, who wants to spend their career trying to re-invent the wheel by developing a new theory or approach?! (note: of course the greatest scholars of the past 3 or 4 decades are, at least in my opinion, the ones who tried to do precisely this!) It's so much easier to simply begin with one of the theories already out there (whichever one takes your fancy) and then build on it, refining the theory in new and interesting ways. This is, I believe, what has mostly occurred over the past few decades in debates in political philosophy.

But suppose for a moment that we did not have the barrage of theories on offer that we actually do have. Suppose we really were starting from scratch. I know this might be a bit hard to envision but lets just see where this goes. Sometimes it is helpful to try to get some distance from the projects that preoccupy most of our thoughts and energies.

So, now that we have wiped the slate clean, suppose someone comes along and says they have what they consider to be a pretty good theory of justice. And they think that, once you hear the details of their theory, you too will be convinced that it is a good theory.

Now if we stop things there, before you hear any of the details of the potential theory on offer, lets consider first the initial expectations you have concerning what a theory is suppose to deliver. What do we want from a theory of justice?
Philosophers will have different answers to this question. And I believe the expectations we have are deeply influenced by what we think of our actual societies (e.g. their virtues and vices) and the kind of “ideal” society that we could achieve. So liberals will want a theory of justice that takes liberty seriously. Egalitarians want a theory that takes equality seriously. Feminists want a theory that takes gender seriously... You get the picture.

Now some of these convictions will reflect ideological differences. But they also reflect different perceptions of the empirical realities facing one’s society. For example, that more could be done to reduce economic inequality and improve the life prospects of the poor. Or that the government could do more to ensure that the family is not an institution that entrenches patriarchy (and that it could do this without being oppressive). Thus our expectations concerning what we want from a theory of justice will be deeply influenced by a mixture of normative and empirical considerations.

Enormous assumptions are frequently made concerning what the state can and cannot successfully do. But these empirical assumptions are seldom made explicit. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems with the state of contemporary political philosophy. We have yet to take seriously what Adrian Vermeule calls “the institutional turn”. I’ll link this point to the general question raised earlier towards the end of this post.

But lets return now to my general methodological question: what do we want from a theory of justice? How would we know if the theory someone is offering us is real gold or just fool’s gold? Two of the richest and most influential (and I think probably among the greatest works in political philosophy in the 20th Century) theories of justice shed light on these methodological issues- Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) and Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement (1986).

For Rawls, the main criterion for success is reflective equilibrium. And for Gauthier, the criterion is that a theory must be premised on rational self-interest.

So the Rawlsian believes you have a good account of justice when it coheres with your considered judgments and the Hobbesian contractarian believes you have a good account of morality/justice when you can convince the moral skeptic that they too should be just.

Rawls’s approach captures both motivational and guiding requirements. His contractarian account of justice (like the original position) is premised upon moral sentiments he believes no reasonable person could reject (e.g. impartiality, the equality of all persons). And he also believes that the conclusions yielded by his theory are a good guide for liberal democracies (or at least they are a better guide than its main rival utilitarianism).

Although Gauthier presents his approach as primarily being concerned with providing a rational foundation for morality, he also brings in moral premises that make his conclusions more palatable (e.g. the Lockean proviso), thus permitting him to offer some guiding prescriptions.

What would the ideal Rawlsian and Gauthierian society look like? Well, for Rawls it is a society that satisfies his three serially ordered principles of justice. See my post “Are You a Fully Fledged Rawlsian?” to see if you agree with Rawls’s basic prescriptions. With respect to Gauthier’s theory, well, that’s even harder to determine. While his principle of minimax relative concession might make some sense in two-person examples, how one goes about applying it to the real world has always puzzled me. And other parts of Gauthier’s theory, like his commitment to the rough equality clause, leads his theory to some very counterintuitive results (e.g. what Allen Buchanan calls the “reciprocity thesis”).

OK, so let’s return to the motivation and guiding requirements. These two requirements remind us of what a theory of justice is primarily for: it’s for us! I don’t mean just you and me. I mean for us as a society. Those of us living in the “here and now”- in the societies we find ourselves, with the pressing moral and practical dilemmas that face us. It is a theory for the biological, temporal, social beings we are. We don’t want a theory of justice for people who might live on Mars in 10 000 years. Or a theory for beings that have a very different biology than ours (e.g. beings that do not need to eat to be nourished, that are not susceptible to disease and disability). We are not interested in what a theory might look like for beings that did not progress through the different life cycles that real, temporal, finite beings progress through. (For an account of what we do want, rather than what we don’t want, see “Taking People For What They Really Are”)

As the example of Rawls and Gauthier illustrate, the motivation/guiding requirements of justice could be (and have been) spun in a number of different ways. Keeping things a level of generality then, we can ask: how adequate are these criteria for a philosophical account of justice? Of course much depends on what one takes the *philosophical* part to mean. It can be cut two different ways, depending on what one takes “philosophy” to mean.

The first way is to view the philosopher as what I will call a “conceptual surgeon”. This means the philosopher is someone who views concepts (like equality) as something they need to dissect, analyze, then refine and polish before churning out a pristine and comprehensive account of what justice requires.

The second way is to view the political philosopher as someone who longs for *wisdom* (see this post) concerning how we ought to live collectively. Can the conceptual surgeon help impart wisdom? To some degree I think the answer is “yes”. Take Isaiah Berlin’s masterful “Two Concepts of Liberty”. If one wants to create a free polity then it is imperative that one gets clear on what freedom actually means. Pursuing negative or positive freedom will take one in different directions. And so achieving some conceptual clarity will help one on their journey towards creating a free society.

But while it is important to recognize that some conceptual clarify is necessary and useful, it is also important to realize that conceptual surgery has its limits. If we invest most of our intellectual energies into conceptual surgery then we risk missing the boat.

To push the surgeon analogy further- while some minor conceptual surgery can be therapeutic, if one goes too far they run the risk of doing more harm than good. Like a skilled surgeon, the political philosopher should not subject her patient to unnecessary surgery. I believe that a good deal of what currently passes for political philosophy is in fact unnecessary surgery; procedures that will not increase the health prospects of the patient. In fact, such conceptual surgery can actually be harmful to the patient as we end up spending all our time and energies on the intricacies of our conceptual surgery and thus miss other obvious things that could be beneficial to the patient (like sterilizing our utensils, checking the patient’s blood pressure, etc.). OK, I don’t want to take the medical analogy too far. But hopefully you get my point!

So if conceptual surgery is part, but *only* part, of what is involved in being a good political philosopher, what else do we need if we hope to create and impart wisdom? (at least the kind of wisdom that a political philosopher could hope to achieve and impart). This takes me to the second theme in my title: proportionality. What the philosopher should really strive for, if they hope to convey some wisdom, is a sense of what the “big picture” perspective of the moral and political landscape looks like. And to do this we must take seriously the issue of proportions. And this is something that conceptual surgery cannot provide. Let me give you two examples, from different ends of the political spectrum, concerning how conceptual rigor can stifle proportionality (and thus wisdom).

My two examples come from two of the most influential philosophers from the past 30 years- Robert Nozick and G.A. Cohen. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice contains three principles- the principle of transfer, the principle of just initial acquisition and the principle of rectification. The bulk of Anarchy, State and Utopia concerns the first two principles. So Nozick introduces examples like the “eye lottery” and his famous Wilt Chamberlain example to illustrate his point that “taxation is on a moral par with forced labour”. But once one gets to the principle of rectification, and one reflects on how wealth and income have, over human history, been acquired and transferred, one realizes that they must qualify Nozick’s motto so that it reads “taxation is on a moral par with forced labour…if and only if no considerations of injustice could apply to justify such taxation”.

Given the actual history of the world it is puzzling why Nozick did not spend the bulk of his book on rectification, and then just have a small chapter entitled “Why Libertarianism is Required After You Rectify All Past Injustice”. So Nozick’s account of justice gets the proportions wrong. The principles of transfer and just initial acquisition are not vital components of a theory of justice for the world as it actually is. And once he gets the proportions wrong, Nozick is unable to generate any sage prescriptions concerning what constitutes a just government.

The “big picture” story of justice is, according to Nozickians, “get your hands off my income!”. It is not “Hey, let’s rectify past injustices!”. Clarifying what the requirements of self-ownership are in the ideal scenario did not help right libertarians figure out what justice required in the real world. Thus Nozick’s theory was wisdom-impairing rather than wisdom-enhancing.

OK, now an example from the other end of the spectrum- G.A. Cohen’s egalitarianism. I’ve posted my objections to luck egalitarianism before, so I’ll keep this brief. My discontents with luck egalitarianism were reaffirmed after hearing Cohen’s recent interview here. At one stage in the interview the discussion focuses on the central insight of luck egalitarianism- that inequalities we are not responsible for should be mitigated, but those we are responsible for should be tolerated. When the presenter asks Cohen to elaborate on the latter, Cohen says “nothing is ever merely the result human responsible action”. This empirical fact is, in my view, more than a sufficient reason to reject luck egalitarianism. For it shows that the theory has nothing interesting to say about the real world. Given that no inequalities satisfy the Cohenian account of “chosen inequalities”, then one does not need to be a luck egalitarian.

Now of course one might say that there could be a counterfactual society where such inequalities could arise. And thus it is imperative that we clarify precisely what we mean by “egalitarian”. But why should we want to do that? The fervor that many egalitarians get themselves worked up into in this respect reminds me of the medieval theological disputes concerning how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. I can’t see what the point of resolving such a dispute is, especially considering that Cohen himself admits that the second component of luck egalitarianism does not apply in the real world. So I think this is another example of how conceptual surgery can distort proportions and thus impair wisdom. In the “big picture” of things, justice does not require us to ensure we do not compensate chosen inequalities as such inequalities cannot be said to exist in the first place! The real action to be had is not on the site of precision, it is on the site proportions. And luck egalitarianism is of no real help on that front.

What does all this tell us? Lets return now to my initial question: What does justice demand of us, as both individuals and societies? The conceptual surgeons would have us believe that we could capture the requirements of justice in a nifty slogan like “Liberty upsets Patterns!”. But such mottos do not convey wisdom. If forced to come up with a slogan I suppose mine would be “Justice is about proportionality”. This is not a novel suggestion, as it goes all the way back to insights made by Aristotle. And I guess I long for a return to seeing philosophy as an activity primarily concerned with phronesis. Of course I believe precision does have a role to play here. For there is lots of work to be done in terms of clarifying what the stakes are that are in need of balancing. And so I would like to see the conceptual surgeons investing more of their time tackling the notion of proportionality. Doing this will shift us away from trying to win a “first best conceptualism” debate and propel us towards seriously engaging with the empirical and the “institutional turn”.

So the title of this post- “Precision Vs Proportionality”-is, at the end of the day, a false dichotomy. We need both. But given how much time political philosophers have spent on precision, it is not surprising that we have messed up on the proportions!


Friday, May 02, 2008

PLOS Biology Article on Sleep

In a few previous posts I have linked to studies on sleep, like this one, this and this.

The latest issue of PLOS Biology has this article entitled "Why We Sleep: The Temporal Organization of Recovery" by Emmanuel Mignot. Here is a sample:

If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made,” Allan Rechtschaffen said. Studies of sleep and sleep deprivation suggest that the functions of sleep include recovery at the cellular, network, and endocrine system levels, energy conservation and ecological adaptations, and a role in learning and synaptic plasticity.

....Sleep is as necessary as water and food, yet it is unclear why it is required and maintained by evolution. Recent work suggests multiple roles, a correlation with synaptic plasticity changes in the brain, and widespread changes in gene expression, not unlike what has been recently discovered in circadian biology. Functional data are however still largely lacking, and studies such as functional genomic screens in model organisms, comparative sleep neuroanatomy through phylogeny, and the study of molecular changes within specific wake, REM sleep, and NREM sleep regulatory systems are needed. The resilience of behavioral sleep in evolution and after experimental manipulations may be secondary to the fact that it is grounded at the molecular, cellular, and network levels.