Monday, March 05, 2007

How Sufficient is Sufficiency?

Today was the last CSSJ reading group session this term. We read Paula Casal’s insightful article “Why Sufficiency is Not Enough” from the latest issue of Ethics. Casal distinguishes between a positive and negative thesis of the sufficiency position. The positive thesis stresses the importance of people living above a certain threshold. The negative thesis denies the relevance of certain additional distributive requirements. The article is very useful in bringing to the fore a number of nuanced distinctions one could make to the sufficiency position, as well as to egalitarianism and prioritarianism.

In the end Casal argues that principles of sufficiency can supplement, but not replace, principles of equality and priority. And thus the most tenable position is some version of a hybrid view. I agreed with a good deal of Casal’s arguments in that I think principles of sufficiency alone do not get us very far and that the negative thesis noted above is wrong.

My problem with the sufficiency view is not that it does not go far enough in terms of promoting equality. Rather the real problem is that it (potentially) promises too much (and thus does not offer enough in terms of what a defensible normative theory should offer).

Lets call those who align themselves with sufficiency, rather than equality or priority, as those who invoke what we can call a “big picture” sufficiency account of justice. Such an account maintains that justice requires that all pass a minimum threshold of “X”, where X is a multidimensional index covering not only the distribution of wealth and income, but also opportunities for education and health, and the protection of “negative rights” (e.g. security of the person, etc.), and perhaps other things as well.

So, according to this view, if we want to know how just society A is we need to ask if all pass the minimum threshold we have stipulated for X. The greater the percentage of the population falling under X the more unjust the distribution of that society is. I acknowledge this has some intuitive attraction but I do not think such an account of justice is of much use when we turn to the challenges real non-ideal societies face given the facts of scarcity and pervasive disadvantage (as well as uncertainty, indeterminacy, migration, globalisation, etc.).

So while I think it is interesting and worthwhile to assess how a theoretical framework fares in different hypothetical scenarios (in terms of how intuitive its conclusions are), the ultimate test, for me, is to ask how it fares in the real, non-ideal context. Does invoking the sufficiency theoretical framework (rather than another one that places greater emphasise on priority, for example) enhance our deliberations in useful and appealing ways. Does it bring to the fore (rather than ignore or bracket) the distinct tradeoffs we must make? Does it help us resolve these kinds of issues? Will it leads us to sage, balanced public policies?

This is where I think sufficiency is problematic, because (without invoking a number of provisos) it is a cost-blind distributive principle that is ill-equipped to address the issue of tradeoffs. The complex tradeoffs any society will have to make will not only involve balancing the interests of the advantaged against the disadvantaged, but also the disadvantaged against other disadvantaged persons. This arises, for example, in the case of healthcare provisions. And thus healthcare is perhaps the most compelling example to invoke to reveal the shortcomings of the sufficiency view. When pushed in these kinds of cases I think sufficiency, if it is to be defensible, will collapse into some version of prioritarianism.

This is not to say that the priority view does not itself face a whole host of difficulties. It does, but I think it will do a better job of revealing the diverse challenges we face than will a public ethic that invokes a sufficitarian principle. But it really depends on the context of the goods one is discussing.

I doubt that appealing to any one principle, or serially ordered ranking of principles (e.g. liberty, equality, utility, priority, sufficiency, etc.), will get us very far. I suppose this is why I have, in part, abandoned my search for a “first-order” social theory and am more content to advance the second-order theory of deliberative democracy. Recall my post on the rise of deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democracy is a normative theory that accords weight to both procedural and substantive principles. No doubt a principle of sufficiency could be part of this pluralistic public ethic. But when placed in the context of a second-order social theory one will be primarily concerned with asking how we can reasonably balance this principle with other important principles. And we will adopt a much more provisional stance to this balancing exercise than is typical of most first-order normative theories.

But in any event, I highly recommend Casal’s article. As she notes in the beginning of the piece, a lot of attention has been given to egalitarianism and prioritarianism. And she tries to redress this imbalance by offering a systematic clarification of the sufficiency position. So it is well worth reading and an important contribution to growing literature on these issues.