The Causes of Poverty (76): Farmer vs. Hunter Thinking

Tim Harford mentions an interesting study about the origins of different ideas about justice. Farmer cultures seem to stress desert, whereas hunter cultures believe that solidarity is the more important focus of justice. Hunters tend to share because their “incomes” are volatile: some days they catch too much, other days not enough. Luck also determines farmer incomes, but to a lesser extent. Bad weather means bad luck, but it’s also bad luck for neighboring farms. A sharing culture won’t solve that kind of bad luck in the same way as it will in the case of bad luck while hunting. Another reason why a sharing culture will be less important in farmer cultures is the fact that farm crops can be stored more easily than meat in primitive societies.

A farmer mentality will therefore stress self-sufficiency over sharing, and perhaps this will fuel desert-based theories of justice even centuries after farming or hunting has ceased to be an important social role. That may have an impact on the way a society deals with poverty. If you adopt a desert-based theory of justice then you’re normally less inclined to enact policies that reduce poverty since you believe that poverty is deserved. If people deserve their poverty then they can’t claim assistance, and if assistance were to be given anyway that would be an injustice to those whose stock of means is used as a source of assistance, because they too deserve what they have.

It’s tempting to use this farmer-hunter difference to describe the different approaches to poverty in Europe and the US. There’s more opposition to the welfare state in the US, and desert-based theories of justice are more popular there. Hard work and self-sufficiency are common topics of political talk in the US, whereas words such as solidarity and equality are more often used in Europe.

And of course the US was founded as an agrarian society (Thomas Jefferson for instance was a staunch agrarian), with the South of the country remaining agrarian deep into the 19th century.

However, careful with national stereotypes. It’s not as if the whole of the US is hardhearted. It’s a matter of degree.

Steven Pinker has come up with a similar story, although he contrasts farmer and herder cultures.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (76): Human Rights and Desert

James Nickel has written a highly interesting paper (draft) in which he attempts to broaden the moral base of human rights. As he points out, the notion of desert doesn’t figure prominently in discussions about human rights and he may be able to open a promising line of inquiry. However, at this point I remain unconvinced by his arguments. He briefly mentions two problems with his attempt, an ontological and a political one, but seems to give them less weight than I would. Both problems deserve more attention and may prove to be fatal to his approach.

Regarding the ontological problem, I think desert is similar to love: we’ll never know for sure if there is such a thing, both in the abstract and in particular human beings. And if we want to limit the rights of undeserving people, we’d better be as sure as possible that they are really undeserving. At one point, Nickel argues that negative deserts are the reason why we put criminals in prison and restrict their freedoms. Not so long ago, a majority believed that certain people deserved to be slaves. Why should our current beliefs about desert be necessarily a lot better than theirs? Prudence is required when judging people’s deserts, especially given the likelihood that future advances in genetics, psychology and sociology will show that what we now call bad behavior or lack of virtue is in fact caused by things outside an individual’s power.

The political problem is linked to the ontological one: given the difficulty of finding and judging desert and the importance of getting it more or less right we’ll need lifetime monitoring of individuals’ private lives, possibly even their thoughts and motivations if one day that will be possible. I don’t have to spell out the possible consequences for human rights.

Furthermore, we don’t really need desert. Limitations of the rights of prisoners for example don’t need to be based on desert; the fact that these limitations are necessary in order to protect the rights of others is a sufficient justification. Rights are constantly in conflict with each other and the normal way of dealing with this is to determine the lesser evil: limiting some rights of convicted criminals is acceptable if that is necessary to preserve important rights of potential victims. The same is true for privacy and speech, speech and physical security etc. If you insist on using desert as a justification for incarceration, you’ll also have to deal with the thorny problems of retribution and proportionality. And I think that’s a dead end. (See here and here for instance).

Similarly, using desert as a positive justification for human rights is not necessary, given the many types of justification that are available (see here). Not only is it unnecessary, it may also be dangerous given the risks I cited above. For example, the right of the innocent not to be punished can be based on the fact that they don’t deserve punishment (although, as I’ve argued, the fact-status of this claim may (turn out to) be dubious). But it can just as well be based on their other human rights. Taking the latter option allows us to avoid the ontological and political problems linked to desert.

In short, I have no visceral dislike of the attempt to use desert as a basis for human rights – the more justifications for rights the better. I see some problems, but I’m open to the possibility that I overstate them.

More posts in this series are here. This post is a rewrite of an email I sent to James some time ago, replying to his mail offering me a draft of his paper.

The Causes of Poverty (69): Self-Destructive Behavior

One important hallmark of right-wing thinking is the emphasis on the value of individual responsibility: people should take their lives into their own hands, try to be independent and self-sufficient and make it on their own. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I part ways with many on the right when they assume that the moral importance of responsibility and self-reliance implies that those who don’t make it on their own have somehow failed to be responsible.

Well, some of those probably have indeed failed to be responsible, but why would we think this is true in all or even most cases? Many people who really try hard to be responsible and to behave rationally still get their legs cut off from under them (there are many causes of poverty after all). Others are irresponsible and still make it (or get bailed out when things go wrong). The word “bank” comes to mind.

It’s not because responsibility is a generally important value and a “good thing” that a lack of it always leads to bad outcomes such as poverty (one bad outcome that does always follow from lack of responsibility is obviously irresponsibility, but that’s tautological).

However, let’s assume, arguendo, that many on the right are correct in their belief that bad things such as poverty are almost always the product of irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. The idea of desert is important here: if poverty is a form of self-destruction resulting from irresponsible actions, then poor people deserve their poverty and they should, somewhat confusingly, be called “the undeserving poor” (“deserving poor” would perhaps be a better name). The flip side is the idea that people with good lives have not failed to act responsibly. And because they have been responsible they deserve their wealth and wellbeing and should not be forced by way of taxation to help those who have not been responsible.

Some on the right do indeed believe that poor people should not be assisted, for 3 reasons: 

  • poverty is what they chose when they acted irresponsibly, and hence it is what they deserve
  • helping them would send the wrong signal and would undermine the value of individual responsibility
  • helping them would mean taking funds away from those who acted responsibly and who deserve the proceeds of their responsible actions.

Poor people should therefore try to make it back on their own. Assistance in the form of charity for example is allowed, of course, but it can’t be enforced without undermining responsibility, both among the beneficiaries of enforced assistance and among those who are forced to give (the latter may well conclude that self-reliance is futile if the proceeds are taxed away).

It’s true that this is not the standard right-wing view. Some conservatives or libertarians make room for enforced assistance, on the condition that this assistance promotes responsibility and that poor people genuinely try to be responsible while and after they are assisted. Assistance would then be withdrawn in case of continued irresponsibility, and also when it becomes clear that assistance produces dependence and a lack of self-reliance.

While I share the enthusiasm for values such as responsibility, desert, self-reliance, independence and conditional assistance, I also see some problems.

1.

Why would the arrow of causation only go from responsibility to success and from irresponsibility to failure? Might not the reverse also occur? I believe it’s at least possible that poverty and failure lead to irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and that a life of riches, especially during childhood, fosters responsibility and other virtues. For example, it has been shown that the stress of poverty in early life as well as later in life can lead to misjudgments and irrational behavior. In addition, a life of poverty can destroy people’s aspirations, which in turn may make them decide that they “don’t give a fuck”. From a distance, this may look like irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, but it can be explained as the consequence of poverty rather than the cause. Similarly, the bee sting theory of poverty argues that people in poverty just give up after a series of calamities or misfortunes.

2.

Some apparently self-destructive, irrational and poverty-inducing or poverty-perpetuating behavior may be a price that poor people are willing to pay for other goods. For example, the widespread use of Qat in countries such as Yemen causes all sorts of problems for productive and rational behavior. And yet, people who refuse to take it risk social ostracism. The need for social inclusion and acceptance then outweighs the material cost for many users. Something similar can be said of those poor people who spend a lot of money on celebrations and festivals while their calorie intake is below standard.

What looks like self-destruction may in fact be an elaborate and tragic strategy for social survival. Does this mean that people who are willing to pay the price of poverty should not be assisted, given that they are willing? No. They are only willing because the better alternative – both social inclusion and lack of poverty – is not available to them.

3.

Until now, I’ve granted the right wing starting point that many poor people act irresponsibly – strategically or not – and that their behavior causes their poverty. But what if all this is just a visual illusion? Is it not possible that the poor are just as responsible or irresponsible as the rich, but that they have a much smaller margin of error? Some forms of behavior that have little or no consequences for wealthy people, may lead to worse outcomes for poor people or for people on the edge of poverty. Poor people perhaps only look more irresponsible.

4.

That last point is important. The only way of detecting responsible or irresponsible behavior is to look at the consequences of it – we can’t detect people’s motivations. But this means that we can be wrong: consequences that look like they are the product of lack of responsibility may be something else. We see behavior that has self-destructive consequences for the actor, but we may be dealing with a person who is not really irresponsible but simply out of luck, mistaken or misguided, or someone with a small margin of error.

So our assessment of responsibility is necessarily an approximation which can sometimes be totally wrong. Any being wrong in our assessment whether or not to help people may have terrible consequences. Furthermore, this assessment is not only difficult and often mistaken; it’s also invasive. Ideally, in order to detect irresponsible poor people – and treat them like this – we would have to monitor their lifestyles and long term attitudes over long periods of time. Only then can we minimize the risk of error. But the result would be dictatorship. I’m sure right-wing thinkers don’t really want to go there. Hence, they should think twice before making desert and responsibility the cornerstone of their worldview.

Other posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (65): The Deserving Poor and the Spectacle of Libertarianism Eating Itself

It’s a common right-wing complaint, especially among right-libertarians, that the welfare state helps the poor whether or not they have only themselves to blame for their poverty. If there should be a duty to help the poor, it should be limited to the deserving poor (although some libertarians think that even this goes too far since it implies a form of slavery for those who have a duty to help). All the others should suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions – their teen pregnancy, their lack of effort at school, their alcohol problem etc.

One could reply that people’s bad decisions aren’t always their own decisions, in the sense that making good decisions is something you have to learn, and this learning may be difficult in an environment of poverty, especially during childhood. However, let’s bracket this objection, for the sake of argument, and assume that there are indeed some people who only have themselves to blame. They may not be as numerous as those on the right tend to believe, but even if there are only a few we should decide what to do with them – help them or not.

The criticism that our current systems of social security don’t differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor is sometimes illustrated with an analogy. If we assume that governments fund their welfare system through taxation, and that taxation is a kind of involuntary charity or enforced charity – the government steps in in order to take the money which we don’t give voluntarily to charity – then it’s only right that the government takes every effort to make sure that our money goes only to the deserving poor. If we voluntarily give money to charity, we also want to be sure that it goes to a good cause, and those collecting our money have a duty to spend it well and not waste in on people that aren’t going to use it constructively. Given the libertarian view that taxation is a form of stealing it’s all the more important that the tax money is spent well; you can perhaps argue in favor of stealing if the harm done by stealing is compensated by the greater good that is done with the stolen money, but you certainly can’t if there is no greater good and if the money goes to undeserving poor who are rewarded for their bad behavior.

Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support? (source)

Now, it’s here that the problem begins and that libertarians who follow this reasoning tend to undermine their own libertarianism. If you want to help only the deserving poor, and if you want to be very strict about helping only those people, then you’ll have to accept systematic and wide ranging intrusions into people’s privacy. How else would you be able to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving? You’ll need detailed biographies of all potential welfare or charity beneficiaries, records of their decisions and behavior, of their job applications, their diet, their sexual mores, etc.

You’ll have to accept these intrusions whether or not you believe that charity is the perfect and only solution. If you believe, correctly I think, that charity will never suffice, then you have all the more reason to be worried, since it’s the state who will have to monitor deservingness. Either scenario is anathema to libertarians.

The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor isn’t only difficult in practice. It’s also theoretically fraught with problems. For example, if you assume that you have a system to find out which poor person is an alcoholic and which one isn’t, then you still have to answer the question whether an alcoholic is an undeserving poor person or not. This answer depends on the causes of her alcoholism: maybe the cause is a series of misfortunes combined with a weak character, in which case her alcoholism is obviously not deserved. Perhaps she deserves blame for her weak character was, or perhaps not. One can easily make the case that a strong character and a good amount of effort and discipline depend on our upbringing and the social circumstances in which we are born. And no one deserve those circumstances.

And finally, even if we can identify the deserving both in theory and in practice, and even if we accept the anti-libertarian consequences of this work of identification, then we can still argue against the claim that we should not help the undeserving poor. Perhaps it’s a sign of decency and civilization that we help even the undeserving poor. Maybe the claims of the undeserving aren’t as strong as the claims of the deserving, and maybe we shouldn’t help them as much or as quickly as the deserving. But that doesn’t mean we should let them starve.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

Income Inequality (27): What’s Wrong With It? No Moral Justification

The standard “no problem” explanation of income inequality goes as follows: people have different incomes because they have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. Some earn more because they contribute more – to their employers but also to society. They simply deserve, in a moral sense of the word, their higher incomes because of the level and nature of their contributions. Increasing differences in income levels are then simply the reflection of an increasing gap in productivity and human capital between some groups in society.

However, there’s something wrong with this story: it hints at one important element but fails to draw the necessary conclusion from it. Some people contribute more in a quantitative sense of the word, in which case higher returns are probably morally justifiable. If you work more, few would begrudge you your higher income. However, that’s not the type of income inequality that is most common. Usually, people are believed to contribute more in a qualitative sense of the word and get paid more as a result (or vice versa, because they get paid more, they are assumed to have contributed more in a qualitative sense). No one claims that the salary of a CEO should be higher than that of a taxi driver doing two other jobs on the side because the former works more than the latter. He probably doesn’t. The justification people give for a higher salary for the CEO is almost always about quality. (See also here).

Now, how does a society decide which types of contributions are of a higher quality and are therefore more deserving of higher remuneration? In part, the “market” decides: skills and contributions that are highly valued by consumers will earn you a higher income. But biases, prejudices and market manipulation are also factors that determine which contributions are valued higher. For example, there’s a widespread bias in favor of people with a university degree even though their objective skills may not always be higher than those of less educated people; advertisement and popular culture instill the perception that beautiful people are more deserving; stars in sport and music are believed to deserve a very high income, higher than that of the “stars” in science for example. And then there’s the perfectly circular reasoning that some contributions are more deserving because they yield higher earnings.

Many of these social decisions about desert are arbitrary, biased, irrational and unjustifiable. And in no case is there an attempt to justify them on moral grounds. Hence, you cannot conclude that more productive contributions are a moral justification for higher income levels if you first fail to justify which types of productive contributions are morally superior and more deserving.

You could counter this by saying that all skills and contributions, no matter in what field, are in and of themselves sufficient to warrant higher pay. But then you admit that all skillful and productive people across different fields should earn similar incomes, and that is plainly not the case. 

So, even if income inequality could be justified on a moral basis – by first deciding in a rational and unbiased way which skills and contributions are morally superior and then paying more to those people who have been identified as having more of those skills and contributions – that is not how it’s done in practice. And I doubt that it can be done, because there will never be agreement on the choice of morally superior skills and contributions.

Of course, the absence and, presumably, impossibility of a desert based argument for income inequality doesn’t mean that there can’t be other, more successful justifications of income inequality. The most common one is based on incentives rather than desert. We want people to do good, worthwhile and valuable things, and generous rewards for the skillful and productive is one way of having these things. Again, there’s the problem of deciding in an unbiased and rational way which things are indeed valuable, but we may assume that the market offers a close approximation: what people want to buy and consume will often be valuable to them. Perhaps not always valuable in the sense of “valuable after rational reflection free of biases”, but that sense may be unrealistic anyway. So let’s accept – grudgingly in my case – that we don’t have to decide what exactly needs to be incentivized and what is worth incentivizing.

However, even if we assume that value and desert equal market success, there’s a problem with the incentive based argument for income inequality. It’s not right to force morality through the payment of incentives. Ideally there should be good will, and people have to do things of value for their own sake, not because they are incentivized to do it (as G.A. Cohen has argued numerous times).

The conclusion is that income inequality as it is now structured in all societies is not justified and probably not justifiable from a moral point of view. And that this is the only point of view from which it should and could be justified. Of course, the lack of a justification is only one thing that’s wrong with income inequality. More on what’s wrong with it is here, here, here and here.

Capital Punishment (44): The Retribution Argument Against Capital Punishment

Retribution is the last refuge of those seeking to justify capital punishment, given the failure of other arguments (deterrence, incapacitation etc.). Retribution is a punishment that fits the crime: the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Intuitively, therefore, retribution should justify capital punishment for murder. Only death is a punishment that is as severe as murder. The Latin origin of the word “retribution” indicates that something should be given back or returned: someone “gives” death and hence death should be returned.

However, in theory, retribution does not necessarily mean that the punishment has to be strictly equivalent to the harm caused by the crime: some claim that retribution simply means that we must punish severe crimes more harshly than less severe crimes. Yet we see in practice that capital punishment as punishment for murder is defended on retributivist grounds.

Retributivists, ancient and modern, have always been lured by one or another form of lex talionis. (source)

There’s often an element of desert introduced in retributivist arguments. A murderer should be put to death because this punishment fits the crime, and because this punishment fits the crime, the murderer deserves to die.

So, given this “natural” tendency of retributivists to favor capital punishment for murder, how can it be possible to construct an argument based on retribution against capital punishment, as the title of this post suggest? Thom Brooks has made a highly interesting attempt here. It’s based on a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff ( in US v Quinones):

What DNA testing has proved, beyond cavil, is the remarkable degree of fallibility in the basic fact-finding processes on which we rely in criminal cases. In each of the 12 cases of DNA-exoneration of death row inmates referenced in Quinones, the defendant had been guilty by a unanimous jury that concluded there was proof of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and in each of the 12 cases the conviction had been affirmed on appeal, and collateral challenges rejected, by numerous courts that had carefully scrutinized the evidence and manner of conviction. Yet, for all this alleged “due process”, the result in each and every one of these cases, was the conviction of an innocent person who, because of the death penalty, would shortly have been executed (-some came within days of being so-) were it not for the fortuitous development of a new scientific technique that happened to be applicable to their particular cases. (source)

This should even convince retributivists that capital punishment has to be rejected. Even if you adopt the moral rule that murderers deserve to die you, shouldn’t apply the death penalty in practice because you can’t be certain that a particular defendant is really guilty of the crime and hence deserves to die. And there’s no point arguing that the systematic use of DNA testing gives you this certainty: first, it’s not always possible to use DNA tests, because the crime has to be of such a type that DNA traces are potentially available, and even if they are potentially available they may not be actually available; and second, we don’t know if DNA testing is accurate enough and won’t be discredited in the future.

You could also argue that the same lack of certainty is the case for all types of crime, and that rejecting capital punishment because of a lack of certainty implies rejecting criminal punishment tout court. Not quite: all other types of punishment allow for the possibility to correct mistakes resulting from uncertainty. Capital punishment rules this out.

And there’s another kind of uncertainty that militates against capital punishment and that should convince retributivists to reject it. The desert of a criminal is usually based on more than mere physical evidence of his actions. Intent also plays a part. Take the case of someone who caused the death of someone else by his actions – and let’s assume that we are certain about this, e.g. we have DNA evidence and we know that no future scientific developments will cast doubt on this evidence – but did not intend to kill. Many would argue that he doesn’t deserve to die. However, intent is impossible to prove because it requires reading someone’s mind, and hence we can never be certain that someone intended to kill. A desert based argument for capital punishment is void if desert includes intent.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (32): The Just World Fallacy

Here’s another psychological bias that causes human rights violations to persist: the just world fallacy.

It seems that we want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. This strong desire causes us to rationalize injustices that we can’t otherwise explain: for example, we look for things that the victim might have done to deserve the injustice. The culture of poverty is a prime example, as is the “she asked for it” explanation of rape. This fallacy or bias is obviously detrimental to the struggle against human rights violations, since it obscures the real causes of those violations. The belief in a just world makes it difficult to make the world more just.

And even if its effect on human rights was neutral or positive, the fallacy would be detrimental in other ways: it doesn’t help our understanding of the world to deny that many of those who are lucky and who are treated justly haven’t done anything to deserve it, or that many of those who inflict injustices get away with it. The prevalence of the fallacy can be observed in popular culture, in which the villain always gets what he or she deserves; the implication is that those who “get” something, also deserve it.

Psychologists have come up with different possible explanations of the just world fallacy. It may be a way of protecting ourselves: if injustices are generally the responsibility of the victims themselves, then we may be safe as long as we avoid making the mistakes they made. The bias lessens our vulnerability, or better our feeling of vulnerability, and therefore makes us feel better. Another explanation focuses of the anxiety and alienation that comes with the realization that we live in a world rife with unexplained, unexplainable and unsolvable injustices. The fallacy is then akin to religious teachings about the afterlife, which are sometimes viewed as mechanisms for coping with the anxiety and alienation caused by mortality. Melvin Lerner explains the just world fallacy as a form of cognitive dissonance:

the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character. (source)

All this argues against making desert central to our theories of justice: if desert is difficult to determine because there are biases involved, then surely desert can’t be a good basis of a theory of justice.

An interesting aside: it seems that the opposite bias also exists. The so-called “mean world syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violent content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Indeed, perceptions of violence and criminality often do not correspond to real levels. People who consume a large amount of violent media or who often read the crime sections of sensationalist newspapers tend to overestimate the prevalence of violence and crime.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert

Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • First, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.

Crime and Human Rights (13): What’s the Use of Criminal Punishment?

Criminal punishment, even in our non-medieval and so-called Enlightened societies, is the deliberate, intentional and organized imposition of harm on those we believe to be guilty of a crime. That remains the case even if we assume that those who are punished are in general guilty and that all necessary preconditions for criminal punishment are present (for example, that people are punished only after a fair trial, conducted by those authorized to conduct it; or that only those people aware of the moral significance of their actions are punished).

Given this imposition of harm, it’s important to be able to justify our systems of criminal punishment. Usually, but not always, the justifications people offer invoke the need to protect the rights of victims – actual or potential – but it’s far from certain that any justification can withstand even superficial criticism. Let’s look at the different justifications in turn. I think we can distinguish at least 5 common types of justification:

  1. Internalization
  2. Deterrence
  3. Rehabilitation
  4. Incapacitation
  5. Retribution

I’ll first offer a more or less neutral description of these different justifications, before criticizing them.

Justifications of criminal punishment

1. Internalization

The system of criminal punishment is justified because it is an expressive affirmation of shared values within a community (in other words, it’s a form of signaling). This affirmation serves to internalize shared values. When the members of the community have successfully internalized the shared values of the community, it’s assumed that crime will occur less frequently.

2. Deterrence

According to this second type of justification, criminal punishment is justified when it can be shown that the threat and practice of punishment is necessary for the prevention of future crimes, not through internalization of the norms expressed in punishment, but through fear of punishment. Punishment is supposed to reduce the prevalence of crime because it works as a threat. It’s assumed that most rational people who perceive this threat engage in risk analysis, weigh the possible costs and benefits of an intended crime, and conclude that the costs outweigh the benefits (the cost evaluation is a combination of likelihood of the threat – i.e. enforcement – plus severity of the threat). As a result, people reduce their willingness to carry out the crime.

3. Rehabilitation

Unlike internalization (1) and deterrence (2), this third type of justification does not aim at a general prevention or decrease in crime. Criminal punishment is justified because it prevents a particular criminal from engaging in future crimes. Prevention occurs because it’s believed to be possible to change the criminal’s propensity for crime through rehabilitative efforts within the penal system.

4. Incapacitation

This fourth type of justification also doesn’t aim at a general prevention or decrease of crime. Punishment is justified because it prevents a particular criminal from engaging in future crimes, not by way of rehabilitation but by way of incapacitation, which means either incarceration or execution.

5. Retribution

Criminal punishment is justified because criminals deserve to be punished in a certain way.

Consequentialism and deontology

Justifications 1 to 4 are consequentialist in nature: punishment is justified because of the good consequences that result from it, or because of the bad consequence that would result from our failure to punish. They all assume that punishment can prevent crime and hence protect victims – real or possible victims. Justification 5 is of a more deontological nature: punishment is a good in itself in the sense that it is required by justice irrespective of the likely consequences.

Contradictions between justifications

Notice how these different justifications may be incompatible.

Contradiction between (3) and (5)

Rehabilitation (3) means, by definition, flexible sentencing. Penal officials and judges need to have discretion, otherwise they can’t differentiate between successfully rehabilitated prisoners and others. Such discretion typically invokes anger among those who adopt a retributivist justification (5). Retributivism focuses on just desert in sentencing: a criminal should get the sentence he or she deserves, and usually this means a sentence that is in some way proportional to the gravity of the crime and to the harm done to the victim and to society. That is why retributivists demand uniformity in sentencing, and sometimes even mandatory sentencing. The discretion inherent in rehabilitation provokes feelings of unfairness among retributivists.

Contradiction between (4) and (5)

But also incapacitation (4) is often at odds with retributivism (5). For example, incapacitation in the form of incarceration may be less than what the criminal is supposed to deserve. Perhaps the criminal deserves to die according to the retributivist.

Contradiction between (2) and (5)

Retribution (5) can be incompatible with deterrence (2) because effective deterrence may require punishment that is more severe than the punishment that the criminal deserves. For example, there’s no reason why those who believe in deterrence should reject capital punishment for petty theft if it can be shown that such a punishment effectively deters this crime and that the benefits of deterrence outweigh the harm done by the execution. Something more is required to reject such a punishment, and that’s where retribution comes in. Retributivists would claim that petty thieves don’t deserve to die.

Contradiction between (3) and (4)

And a last example of a contradiction between different types of justification of criminal punishment: incapacitation (4) may make rehabilitation (3) more difficult. After all, it’s not obvious that prison is the best locus for rehabilitation. On the contrary, it’s often argued that prison is a school for criminals. Rehabilitation may then require a sentence such as a fine or GPS tracking.

A scale of decreasing ambition

We can view justifications 1 to 5 as being on a scale from most to least ambitious.

1. Internalization

Internalization (1) is obviously the most ambitious since it promises moral education of the citizenry and moral compliance with the law. The obvious problem here is that the desired outcome is highly uncertain, perhaps even utopian. It’s not sure that this uncertain objective justifies the very real harm imposed by criminal punishment.

2. Deterrence

Deterrence (2) is somewhat less ambitious since it discards the educational function of punishment as highly unlikely and aims instead at grudging compliance based on fear (as opposed to moral compliance based on conviction). Still, it’s relatively ambitious since it expects a society wide reduction in crime resulting from fear and rational risk analysis on the part of potential criminals. The data have shown that deterrence as well is overambitious.

3. Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation (3) in turn discards some of the unrealistic assumptions of deterrence (2), such as rationality on the part of future criminals and strict enforcement of the law, and tries to avoid some of the counterintuitive consequences of deterrence (2), such as the tendency to increase the severity of punishments resulting from the need to tip the scale in the risk analysis of criminals. It also tries to avoid the immoral instrumentalization inherent in deterrence. Moreover, it’s not clear that deterrence works, empirically.

Rehabilitation (3) is less ambitious than internalization or deterrence because it focuses on preventing only certain particular criminals from engaging in further crimes. There’s no society wide ambition anymore. However, the success of rehabilitative efforts during the past decades, as measured by reductions in recidivism, is mixed, to say the least. It’s correct to say that most criminologists have become somewhat disenchanted with rehabilitation. And there’s also some doubt about the morality of some rehabilitation techniques (especially those that have been lampooned in A Clockwork Orange). Which is why many have scaled back their ambitions even more and now focus on incapacitation (4).

4. Incapacitation

Let’s limit our discussion of incapacitation (4) to incarceration, since capital punishment is fraught with many other problems that have been widely discussed before on this blog. The problem with incapacitation is that it doesn’t have a clear boundary. Taken by itself, incapacitation theory could justify life imprisonment for petty crimes. In fact, the whole tough on crime philosophy can be seen as an exaggeration of incapacitation theory following the perceived failure of rehabilitation.

5. Retribution

This lack of a boundary in incapacitation theory (4) has led people to fall back on perhaps the oldest and least ambitious justification of criminal punishment, namely retribution (5). Retribution can be seen as a type of justification of criminal punishment that is entirely without ambition: punishment is inflicted for its own sake, not for the possible benefits it can produce. Criminals should be punished because it’s the right thing to do and because they deserve it, not because some aim or purpose can be served by it. This element of desert allows us to avoid both punishment that is viewed as being too severe – as in incapacitation (4) and deterrence (2) – and punishment that is viewed as being too lenient – as in rehabilitation (3).

Retributivism in fact abandons the pretense that punishment has a purpose, that it can achieve a desired objective and that no other, less severe means are available for this objective. However, retributivism isn’t a solid justification of criminal punishment either. It has proven to be impossible to know what exactly it is that the guilty deserve. Lex talionis is the easy answer, but it’s no longer a convincing one in modern societies. Proportionality is the difficult answer: severity in punishment should be proportional to the gravity of the offense. That’s the difficult answer because it leaves us with a system that is inherently imprecise and arbitrary. An infinite number of punishments are consistent with this justification. Hence it’s not really a justification at all.

No justification?

So, where does this leave us? It seems like criminal punishment is not justifiable. And indeed, there’s a long tradition in philosophy that views punishment as nothing more than rationalized anger, revenge and domination. Michel Foucault for example has analyzed criminal punishment as a cogwheel in the continuation of social power relations. The fact that there are so many African Americans in U.S. prisons and in execution statistics can be viewed as a symptom of continued racist domination. Nietzsche has described criminal punishment as being motivated solely by a deep natural desire to punish, subordinate and coerce. And indeed, if you want to punish someone for a crime, you first need to establish control over the would-be punishee. All systems of criminal punishment seems to be doomed to failure if there isn’t a prior system of control. This would indicate that there is already a prior system of control operating in society before criminal punishment takes effect, which in turn seems to indicate that systems of criminal punishment are merely the strong arm of deeper systems of control.

On the other hand, it seems difficult for anyone who’s serious about human rights to simply abandon criminal punishment. Without criminal punishment, we in fact expect victims of crime to either fend for themselves or undergo their suffering and rights violations. Neither outcome would be just.

The Fable of An Randy’s Libertism

Once upon a time, An Randy made her life. She wrote stories and became famous and wealthy. She attributed her success to her talent, effort and intelligence, and to the near total freedom she enjoyed in her beloved country of residence. Her freedom-loving philosophy permeates her writing, inspires her readers, and has become a social movement with a smallish yet enthusiastic following. Called “libertism”, the philosophy champions heroic individualism, productive and creative achievement, and near total liberty and self-centeredness as preconditions for this achievement. It requires a minimal government, minimal taxation, no redistribution and no welfare. Freedom from government is necessary for creative achievement, and redistribution implies theft of resources that are the product of solitary and well-deserved achievement.

Randy did not believe that her success or the success of similarly talented and disciplined creators is dependent on the receptiveness of an audience. The success of the talented depends merely on their talent, not on fashion, audience preferences, cooperation, marketing, being in the right place at the right time etc. Hence, because there’s no luck or cooperation involved in success, the fruits of this success are the product only of talent and effort. An individual therefore deserves his or her success, and should not be forced to share its fruits.

Libertism views success as an individual achievement rather than the product of a combination of individual achievement, talent, luck and social cooperation. In other words, there’s no real division of labor or joint production. The creators are Robinson Crusoes, producing everything by themselves. Libertism denounces the “socialist” vision in which everything is jointly created, in which every creator depends on a large web of support and in which no creator can do anything without a vast army of teachers, parents, food producers, road workers, bus drivers, doctors, police officers, book printers, librarians, internet providers, etc. Libertism believes the members of the creative class produce their work and achievements only by themselves and by their own efforts alone. Division of labor is necessary only for menial production.

The moral of An Randy’s story: were it not for the silly preferences of a part of the general audience, the feverish cooperation of a number of fanatic devotees and a suitable working environment, she would have had no success at all. Double irony: because she proved, unwittingly, that achievement is essentially a cooperative effort, she also showed that the fruits of achievement should be distributed across all participants; hence, that taxation, redistribution and reductions of income inequality are justified.

PS: no prizes for guessing whom this is really about…

What is Equality? (2): Or, Equality of What?

As I mentioned before, when people talk about equality they mean equality of something very specific. The problem is, they hardly ever agree on the specifics. So it’s not uncommon to see two people talking about equality and actually talking about something completely different. And even when they’re talking about the same specific type of equality, they often disagree about its importance, its definition and its (lack of) merits.

Here’s a list of some of the types of equality that are frequently discussed:

  1. equality of respect and/or dignity
  2. equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)
  3. equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life
  4. equality of capabilities
  5. equality of power (political and other power)
  6. equality of rights
  7. equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments.

I’ll skip the first one for now (I may come back to it in a later post) because it’s vague in its policy implications, and it’s those implications I want to focus on here. In fact, what do we want to do when we say that we want to promote one of the remaining 6 types of equality? And what are the likely problems we’ll face? Let’s go over them one by one.

2. Equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)

Few people actually want to strive towards complete equality of income, wealth or consumption, for several good reasons.

  • First, people have different consumption needs and hence different income or wealth requirements. And I’m talking about needs, not preferences. People who prefer expensive stuff will have a hard time justifying the inequality of income or wealth that they require to satisfy their tastes. On the other hand, a blind person will have no difficulties making the case for a higher income. Preferences may also be problematic when they aim too low rather than too high. People who are born into deprivation and only see deprivation around them may adjust their preferences and expectations so that they are satisfied with their lives. However, it would be wrong to follow their preferences rather than their real needs.
  • And secondly, equality of income or wealth creates an incentive problem. See here. If people are not rewarded for their efforts, they may decide that their efforts aren’t worth their while, and society as a whole may be worse off as a result.

So equality of income is in fact shorthand for reduced income inequality. As we don’t want this type of equality to collapse into the next one (see number 3 below), let’s assume that we’re not talking about a society in which income inequality means that the people at the wrong side of the inequality are poor – poor in the sense that they lack the basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life. So, instead picture a society in which all prosper but some prosper a lot more than others.

Is that kind of inequality a problem? Many say it isn’t. Why should a university professor care about how much a business tycoon earns? However, income inequality in this sense can be problematic. It can, for instance, shock people’s notions of fairness and justice. If the professor successfully teaches her students about morality, and the business tycoon earns his wealth by polluting the earth, it may seem unjust that the professor should be rewarded less. Merit and desert are powerful ideals, and a society that systematically violates these ideals through its system of rewards may not be the ideal place to live.

Even if the tycoon earns his wealth by way of morally sound activities, there can be a problem of justice: perhaps he started life in an advantaged position compared to the professor, and therefore doesn’t (entirely) earn his rewards. Maybe the professor also wanted to become a tycoon, but her blindness forced her into a different career. (See point 7 below). And even if the starting positions are equal, the result of the tycoon’s wealth may be that he, compared to the professor, has a larger influence on democratic politics. (See point 5 below). This may destroy democracy, or at least result in a highly fragmented and therefore also unstable society.

So we have some good reasons to do something about this type of inequality. However, when we try to reduce – not eliminate – income inequality, we’ll probably reach a point at which redistribution starts to discourage people from being productive (the incentive problem mentioned above). Or not. Perhaps the loss of income they suffer because of redistribution makes them want to be more productive. Higher productivity can be the means to compensate for the loss of income. It’s not clear how strong these two possible effects are.

In any case, many of the problems caused by income inequality don’t need to be solved by way of reductions in income inequality. Unequal political influence generated by unequal wealth can be solved by limiting the influence of wealth on politics, rather than by limiting wealth.

More on income inequality here.

3. Equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life

Let’s now drop the assumption that we’re talking about a society in which all prosper, albeit unequally. That’s unrealistic anyway. Even in the richest countries on earth, there are many people who are unable to secure the bundle of basic resources necessary for a decent human life. There’s a theory called sufficientarianism that wants to focus, not on income inequality or relative poverty, but on absolute destitution. It claims, correctly I think, that all have a right to an equal bundle of basic resources and that this is what equality means.

The easiest way to make sure that people possess these basic resources is to give them enough money to buy them. For example, there’s a political movement advocating a guaranteed basic income (an income people receive whether they work or not; Philippe van Parijs is a notable supporter of this policy). But also employment benefits, healthcare benefits etc. aim to provide people with access to the basic resources necessary for a decent life.

The advantage of giving people money is of course that money is fungible: people can use it the way they want. That means it takes into account the fact that different people need different and different amounts of basic goods (take again the case of a blind person). If you give people basic goods directly, rather than the money necessary to buy them, then it becomes difficult to tailor the given goods to the specific and variable needs of individuals. An all-purpose means such as money is clearly better.

However, you’ll still have the problem that some people may need more money than others because they have basic needs that are more expensive, again not because of differences in taste or preferences, but because of different abilities. A blind person does not only need different resources but also more resources in order to lead a minimally decent human life. So we’ll have to factor in capabilities (see point 4 below). Hence, equality of basic resources, outside of the capabilities approach, isn’t enough. If that’s your goal, you won’t do justice to everyone.

An additional difficulty is that the composition of the bundles has to be different from one country to another, and not just from one individual to another. A minimally decent life in one society is more costly than in another one. In a highly industrialized and technological society, it’s more expensive to earn a living than in a society where, in a manner of speaking, you can just pick the fruit from the threes. If you add up all these differences in the content and quantity of the bundles you risk ending up with something very arbitrary. The whole concept of a basic bundle may lose its meaning.

Even if we assume that this type of equality does retain some meaning as a separate type of equality, we’re faced with the same incentive problem as in income equality, depending on how costly the bundle of resources is and how heavily we have to tax to produce it.

A final problem with this type of equality is one of fairness. The guaranteed basic income approach, as well as all other forms of unconditional provision of basic resources, seems to reward the lazy and punish the hard working. It’s reasonable to provide basic resources to people who are poor because of bad luck, lack of talents, bad health etc., but not to those who voluntarily choose not to be productive.

4. Equality of capabilities

So let’s turn to this next type of equality, which can be seen as a fine-tuning of the previous type. Why do we say that people need a bundle of basic goods for a minimally decent life? Because a minimally decent life means something. It means having the capabilities to engage in certain functionings that are part of a minimally decent life. These functionings include “beings and doings” (in the words of Amartya Sen), such as being nourished and in good health, taking part in community life, culture and thinking etc. People’s capabilities to achieve these functionings should be equalized. That doesn’t necessarily require a fixed and equal basic income. On the contrary, because a fixed basic income does not take into account the different levels of incapability across individuals. Some people need no help whatsoever. Others may need a lot. The blind person mentioned a few times already may need more than the average poor person, but perhaps less than a particular person who’s very deep in poverty.

The problem with this type of equality is the precise determination of the list of functionings and capabilities that really matter and that should be equalized. There’s a risk of paternalism, a lack of neutrality and a sectarian bias. Maybe a democratic approach to this determination can solve that problem. And that’s the link to the next type of equality.

5. Equality of power (political and other power).

In a democracy, people have – formally at least – equal political freedom. They all have the right to vote, to voice criticism or support, to campaign and demonstrate, to assemble and associate, and to stand for office. However, a lack in some of the other types of equality mentioned above may reduce the fair value and effectiveness of this democratic equality for a certain number of citizens, e.g. the poor, the blind, etc. As already argued, even prosperous citizens can have unequal power in a society with large income discrepancies (remember the professor and the tycoon).

So, if we want to promote this kind of equality of power, we first need to promote other types of equality. People may need access to basic resources in order to have the time and energy to devote to politics. And some of these resources are directly necessary for political participation (people have to drive to the polling station, read the newspapers etc.). However, equality of power can also be promoted without first promoting other types of equality. We can regulate campaign financing and access to the media and thereby limit the influence of wealth on politics. We don’t necessarily need to reduce wealth inequality to do that (although there may be other reasons to limit wealth inequality, see above). Equality of power, therefore, doesn’t necessarily collapse into other types of equality. It’s a concept that merits a separate existence.

Equality of power isn’t just equality of political power. Slaveholders have power over their slaves, husbands may have (had) power over their wives etc. Again, equality of power in these contexts can be promoted by first promoting other types of equality. If slaves and women are given basic resources then we reduce the cost of exiting the oppressive relationship as well as the power of the counter-party to keep them in that relationship. We may also want to given them equal rights.

However, I see that this post is dragging along and is now way past the saturation level, I guess. So I’ll stop here and just link to some previous posts dealing with the two remaining types of equality:

6. Equality of rights: here
7. Equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments: here

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (19): Talent, Effort or Luck?

Talented people usually earn more, especially when their talents are “marketable”, highly valuable and in demand among large groups of consumers or users. Hence, it’s tempting to conclude that income inequality is the natural and necessary result of the given inequality in the distribution of marketable talents. However, that conclusion only holds up when you turn things around: rather than talented people earning more, it has to be true that people who earn more generally have more and better talents, talents moreover which are in demand. I don’t know of any study confirming this claim, but my anecdotal observations in the matter tell me that the claim isn’t true: many rich people don’t have special talents, and many talented people aren’t rich at all.

But then why are some people rich? Perhaps they have some other native endowments, such as a strong will, discipline and a natural willingness to make an effort. Or perhaps they have successfully acquired these characteristics during the course of their upbringing and education. Income inequality is then the product of the natural and/or acquired inequality of effort. But, again, it’s easy to find wealthy people who are neither talented nor strong willed, and many poor people work very hard. As someone has said: hard work is much more common than success.

Maybe luck plays a large part in the creation of wealth: some people have the good fortune of acquiring – perhaps through inheritance – certain means of production. Others are born in a place and family that provides good education, numerous wealth creating opportunities, encouragement etc. Still others find themselves in an economy where demand for their particular contributions is high, or where these contributions are highly valued. Or maybe they find themselves in a political system where discrimination and certain government policies give them an advantage.

Your personal thoughts on the relative importance of talent, effort or luck will determine what you think should be done about income inequality. Those who believe effort is the main cause tend to assume nothing should be done. If wealth distribution is the sole result of differences in effort, then redistribution is not only unfair to those who invest more effort, but also has perverse consequences: it will destroy all future wealth and therefore make all future redistribution impossible, because punishing people for their efforts means taking away their incentives to invest effort.

If you think talent or a native endowment of discipline is the main cause of wealth inequality, then you will probably be more sympathetic to redistribution. Since no one deserves his or her talents or other native endowments, no one deserves the unequal rewards that come with unequal endowments. However, since people still need to use and develop their endowments, you’re likely to reserve at least a small role for effort. Hence, you’re not likely to be a strict egalitarian. Still, you will favor education as a means to foster some people’s lingering talents and underdeveloped sense of discipline, and perhaps you’ll also favor a more equal distribution of the attention society gives to different talents.

If you think income inequality is mainly caused by luck or the lack of it, you will be a strong egalitarian. You view talent and effort, as well as the ability and willingness to use and develop talents and to invest effort, as the products of good fortune: you’re lucky to have the right genes, parents and teachers who encourage you etc. And you also view other types of good fortune as causes of wealth: being in the right place at the right time, inheriting means of production, meeting the right business partners etc. Luck is undeserved, and so are its products. Hence redistribution is morally required.

What is Equality? (1): Some Dimensions and Distinctions

If you want to explain the nature of equality the best thing to do is to distinguish between different types of equality. In fact, we’ll need a whole set of different distinctions, so that’s what I’ll try to do below. You can probably already guess the conclusion: equality is always and necessarily complex equality (in the words of Michael Walzer). I suppose that’s also why this post is so long. I apologize.

What equality isn’t

But before we distinguish types of equality, let’s clearly distinguish equality from some other concepts: equality ≠ identity (or sameness) ≠ uniformity ≠ similarity.

When people speak about “equality” in moral and political philosophy, they never mean “identity” (perhaps they do in mathematics, but we don’t care about that). Claims that people aren’t treated equally or suffer from some form of unjust inequality are not claims that people should always and in every respect be equal or treated equally. Complete or absolute equality would be the same as identity, but that’s not what is at stake in moral or political discourse. To my knowledge, people never claim that all people should always be treated identically in every respect. The claim is that people should be treated equally, or “the same”, in some very specific ways or some very specific fields of life: people should have the same access to education, for example. The anti-egalitarian claim that those of us who care about equality will push society to a dystopian future of uniformity is therefore misguided. Egalitarianism demands certain forms of equality, but beyond that it’s very happy to accept inequality.

The egalitarian goal isn’t even “approximate correspondence” or high levels of similarity between people. Very dissimilar people can have a justified claim to equal treatment in certain respects, and when they achieve this equal treatment they don’t become “similar” to each other in any ontological sense. They remain very different people, except that in some very specific sense and very specific part of their lives they are being treated the same. For example, a poor African American has the same right to a fair trial as a wealthy WASP, but that, together with all their other claims to equality, doesn’t make them similar people.

Equality needs at least one other word: equality is always equality of something very specific. Equality without any qualifier would indeed be very close to identity or uniformity. People should be equal in important and specific respects only. They shouldn’t in general be the same, nor should they even be treated in generally the same way. The goal is to realize certain specific types of equality among human beings, not to move steadily towards ever greater “correspondence”, similarity or even identity and uniformity. This very specific nature of equality is a natural limit on its scope, something which should appease critics of equality. People shouldn’t be treated equally or uniformly in all respects, only in those respects for which people have a justified claim to be treated equally or uniformly.

The question then is, of course, what are those justified claims and which claims are not justified? What are the specific cases in which people deserve to be treated equally? We are talking about equality of what exactly? Which are those “specific field of life” where equality is required? That’s an ongoing and probably never-ending public discussion. A typical strategy in dealing with such questions is to take a step back as it were. Make things a bit more abstract. As a result, the most common qualifier or “second word” is dignity or respect, which in turn is believed to justify other, more specific qualifiers. For example, the equal dignity of all human beings, if that’s a claim that can be justified, is supposed to invalidate gender discrimination.

Descriptive or prescriptive equality

Justifying equality is a prescriptive task. You want to come up with reasons why a certain form of equality is morally necessary. You’re not interested in descriptive equality, i.e. the measurement of levels of (in)equality, of their causes and effects, of the interaction between different types of (in)equality etc. You will be interested, but only after the prescriptive work is done and after you’ve decided which types of equality are morally important. Prescriptive equality is the claim that people ought to be equal in some respects. Because equality is necessarily a social concept – i.e. you need at least two people before you can speak about equality – the prescription here is comparative: people ought to be equal in some respects to other people, mostly to all other people, but not necessarily. Perhaps people should be treated in an equal way by other people in certain circumstances (e.g. the ballot); or perhaps their opportunities should be equal to those of other people; or perhaps their basic resources should be equal to those of other people etc. (More below).

So prescriptive equality has two different aspects: people should be equal

  • in certain respects (equality of what: treatment, resources; opportunities etc.), and
  • to certain other people (equality of whom: we’ll see below that in some cases all people should be equal but in other cases only some people or people belonging to a certain group).

Prescriptive equality will also answer the question: why should people be equal in certain respects and to certain/all other people? Why is this equality important and why is its absence a problem? The remainder of this post will focus on prescriptive equality.

Universal or specific equality

Prescriptive equality can be either universal or specific. Since equality is a moral concept, we see in most cases that the equality claimed by people is a universal one: people want to be equal in some respect to all other people. The claims by victims of racism, discrimination, oppression etc. fall under this heading. However, equality can also be more specific: people may want to be treated equally compared to certain other people, and therefore, logically, unequally compared to the rest of humanity. An example of that is Aristotle’s claim that we should treat “like cases as like”. Cases that are unlike each other should sometimes be treated unlike each other. The classic example is that of students: we usually sense that there is something wrong when a teacher systematically gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. Equal treatment in such cases should be limited to similar people, in this example people with similar merit.

Other examples of a non-universal notion of equality:

  • A sick person has other needs than a healthy person. Treating them equally doesn’t sound right. However, giving help to one sick person and not to another also doesn’t sound right. Equality here means equal treatment of all sick persons.
  • People who are themselves responsible for their unequal position because of their own free decisions – for example the so-called undeserving poor – will have more difficulties making the claim that society should restore their equal position – in this example, deliver some basic goods.

Instrumental and non-instrumental equality

The previous distinction leads to another one: suppose that you value equality not for its own sake but as a means for another goal, say solidarity. A more equal society is then supposed to be one in which people care more about each other, which in turn can be a means for yet a more profound goal, for example stability. In that case, it won’t make a lot of sense to adopt a universal type of equality (see above). You’ll focus instead on the equality between members of a specific community. If, on the other hand, you value equality for its own sake, then there’s no reason to limit the egalitarian concerns to a given community. However, an instrumental type of equality is not necessarily specific. It can be universal if the goal that is served by equality is a universal goal. An example of such a goal could be dignity.

Absolute or limited equality

If equality is a value in itself and not the means for achieving other values, and if it is, at the same time, a value that takes priority over all other values and that cannot be limited by other values, then we have a problem. Because in that case,

there is something good, from the standpoint of egalitarian values, in bringing about equality or a clear move in the direction of equality by making better off persons worse off without bringing about any offsetting gain at all to worse off persons. Suppose there are rich peasants and poor peasants and there is nothing we can do to improve the lives of the poor peasants. We could, however, burn the grain storehouses of the rich peasants, rendering them worse off but still no worse off than the poor peasants. … If equality were to be deemed a value that takes priority over all others, a trumping value, then we would be committed to asserting that the state of affairs after levelling down is all things considered morally better than the status quo ante. (source)

And that’s highly counterintuitive. This doesn’t mean that equality shouldn’t be a non-instrumental value; only that it shouldn’t be both a non-instrumental and an absolute value at the same time.

Formal or substantial equality

Equality can be either formal or substantial equality. An example of formal equality is legal equality: all people have the same legal rights – e.g. equal human rights – and all people are equal before the law. Marx has famously ridiculed this formal equality, saying that it has no meaning for the poor, and can even serve to oppress the poor (it’s therefore a negative instrumental equality). A rich and a poor person both have the same legal rights, but the rich person can use these rights more and better than the poor person, sometimes even against the interests of that poor person. Hence, formal equality leads to substantial inequality. However, I’ve argued elsewhere that formal equality isn’t as useless as that. It may be useful but it’s not sufficient, and more substantive notions of equality, such as equality of opportunity, of basic resources etc. are important as well. People shouldn’t only have an equal legal right to something, but also an equal right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of that right. Those means can be food, education, opportunities etc. Let’s have a closer look at some of those more substantial types of equality.

Political, legal, economic or social equality

So universal equality isn’t only legal equality but also political, economic or social equality. Political equality means that all the citizens of a country should have the same political power. That usually translates into equal voting rights in a democracy – which are legal rights – combined with some more substantial equality like equal education, education being a prerequisite for adequate political participation (so the equal right to education is a “right to access the means necessary for the enjoyment of another right”, in this case political rights).

However, the universality of political equality is often somewhat limited, in a couple of ways:

  • people living elsewhere obviously have no need for political power in our country
  • it’s also limited to full citizens, controversially
  • and it’s – even more controversially – limited to adult people who are not in prison.

Economic equality is usually understood as the equal distribution – or redistribution – of some basic goods such as food, shelter, health, education etc. (It’s rarely seen as absolute equality of all goods).

Social equality is often a mix of the three previous ones: racial discrimination for example is a violation of the demands of social equality (equality between different social groups), but it often manifests itself unequal voting rights, unequal legal rights (e.g. segregation or Jim Crow) or unequal prosperity between racial groups.

Equal opportunity or equal outcomes

Equal outcomes can be, for example, equal resources: people should have the same basic resources (e.g. a guaranteed basic income). Equal opportunity means that people have the same options in life and the same prospects for preference fulfillment as all other people. The actual outcomes, what ultimately happens to them – whether their lives are equal or not, whether they’re rich or poor – is less important because, given equal starting opportunities, those outcomes are their own responsibility. However, most people would agree that outright misery, even if it’s someone’s own fault and not the result of back luck, discrimination or unequal starting opportunities, should be a legitimate issue of egalitarian concern.

Equality of opportunity then may not be enough but it certainly is important. No one deserves the circumstances, family, class, country etc. into which she is born. She doesn’t even deserve her talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort. Bad luck in the natural lottery (talents) or the lottery of birth (circumstances and places of birth) can lead to vastly unequal opportunities. We can’t equalize talents or luck, but we can mitigate the inequalities they create. For example, we can offer some insurance against misfortune, or education as a means to develop abilities.

Quantitative or qualitative equality

And finally, equality can be viewed as a quantitative or qualitative notion. Two people can be equal when they have the same amount of something – e.g. income – or when they have the same characteristics or qualities – e.g. equal rights. Quantitative types of equality are economic equality, political equality in some sense and equality of certain opportunities. Qualitative equality is for example legal equality and social equality.

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (42): What’s the Best Approach to Distributive Justice?

What is distributive justice?

Distributive justice is a set of normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity. These benefits and burdens can be material goods and services, income, welfare or something else. Whatever they are, a theory of distributive justice will claim that they should be distributed or allocated to people according to some morally justified and morally just set of rules.

The assumption is that all government activity in some way affects the distribution of those benefits and burdens, whatever we do or believe, and that it’s important to guarantee that this distribution is done in a just way. So a theory of justice will propose rules for taking some benefits and burdens from people and giving them to others in a way that corresponds to ideals of justice.

Different types of distributive justice

Unfortunately, there isn’t one commonly accepted theory of justice. Different people have proposed different theories that describe different ideal methods of distributing different types of benefits and burdens. Some theories propose a more or less equal distribution of income; other theories focus on a more general understanding of benefits and talk about “welfare”. And some theories do not accept equal distributions and focus on desert. Etc. There are even some schools of thought that deny the justice of any sort of redistribution and argue that justice is about respecting property rights (libertarianism for instance). However, I’ll focus in this post on those who think that some kind of distributive justice is an important concern (which doesn’t imply that I believe that libertarianism is completely wrong about everything).

Let’s look at some of the more common theories and try to assess – superficially, I admit – what their respective merits are.

Strict egalitarianism

This theory of justice claims that all people should have the same level of material goods.

  • Advantages. This does seem to correspond to the basic moral rule that all people are owed equal respect.
  • Disadvantages. Different people have different needs, and so they need different and different amounts of goods. There’s also the problem of economic efficiency: strict equality removes incentives for economic productivity. Hence, it may result in overall wellbeing at a rather low level, making things worse for everyone. Conversely, everyone, even the worst off, can be made better off if goods/income/whatever are not distributed equally.

The Difference Principle

That last point was probably the origin of the so-called Difference Principle. This principle is part of John Rawls’ theory of justice. It does not demand strict equality as long as unequal distributions make the least advantaged in society better off than they would have been under strict equality. More precisely formulated: inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This principle is also called the maximin rule: an unequal distribution can be just when it maximizes the benefit to those who have the most minuscule allocation.

The justification of this principle is that higher incomes for more productive members of society provide those people with an incentive to be productive. And if they are productive, they produce more wealth, which can be used to benefit the least advantaged.

(Similar ideas can be found in sufficientarianism and prioritarianism).

  • Advantages. Contrary to egalitarianism, the focus is on the absolute wellbeing of the least advantaged, rather than their relative wellbeing, i.e. their (un)equal position. Hence, we avoid the egalitarian destruction of incentives and the resulting risk of leveling down.
  • Disadvantages. People’s relative positions are to some extent morally important. See this older post for a list of reasons why this is the case. Rawls does have a partial response to that concern because he argues that the inequalities permitted by the difference principle should be consistent with another rule of justice, namely the equality of rights and liberties. For example, high income inequality may make it impossible for people at the wrong end of this inequality to participate in democracy, to have their views represented and to get elected. Hence, Rawls argues for some corrections of inequality when inequality of resources negatively affects equal liberty. However, other disadvantages of inequality receive less attention. Another disadvantage of the Difference Principle is that it ignores desert.

Desert-based principles

It’s plausible to claim that a just distribution of goods should give people what they deserve, at least partially. We intuitively believe that at least some of the inequalities in life are deserved. People who work hard or contribute a lot to society deserve a higher level of wealth/income/welfare etc., even if such inequalities do not improve the position of the least advantaged. The hard working should not be forced to subsidize the lazy. They don’t deserve to be forced in this way, and the lazy don’t deserve to benefit in this way. (Many desert-based theories of justice are based on Locke’s theory of property).

Desert-based theories of justice claim that distributive systems are just insofar as they distribute benefits and burdens according to desert, at least partially. (This goes back to Aristotle).

  • Advantages. Desert is a strong moral intuition and it is therefore important to incorporate it in a theory of distributive justice. Theories that fail to do so will always seem unjust.
  • Disadvantages. We can make mistakes when deciding that some or other activity is deserving or meritorious. Distributions based on such mistakes will only be just by chance. But even when we don’t make these mistakes, it’s hard to measure and compare desert (is art more meritorious than science?). In addition, we can fail to identify real desert. Apparent desert may in fact be based on undeserved endowments. And that’s where luck egalitarianism comes in. (More problems with desert are described here).

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism can be viewed as a desert-based type of justice. It proposes to redistribute the benefits and burdens that people don’t deserve and that result from bad luck, for example the bad luck of being born poor, in a poor country, without talents etc. Bad luck in the initial distribution of natural or social endowments should not affect one’s life prospects or distributions of income/wealth/etc. People don’t deserve those endowments and hence don’t deserve the distributions that result from it. These distributions therefore need to be corrected and equalized. After having equalized people’s starting positions in life, we have to let people free to decide what to do with their lives. Those decisions are their responsibility and hence they deserve the outcomes of their decisions. After corrections for endowments, people who work deserve the benefits of their work, and people who are lazy or careless deserve the results of their laziness or carelessness.

  • Advantages. Luck egalitarianism avoids the pitfalls of both crude desert-based justice and strict egalitarianism.
  • Disadvantages. There may be cases in which people who bring bad luck or suffering on themselves still have a claim to assistance. Also, luck egalitarianism produces some bad incentives and can be seen as demeaning (go here for more detail).

International distributive justice, or cosmopolitan justice

A small detail in the theory of luck egalitarianism has far-reaching consequences. Among other things, people don’t deserve the places in which they are born. And yet, those places can determine whether you are rich or poor, free or persecuted etc. To some extent, poverty and persecution are just bad luck, the bad luck of being born in the wrong country. Residency and citizenship are as morally arbitrary as race, gender, natural endowments etc. No theory of justice that takes the equality of human beings serious can ignore the unequal distributions caused by the place of birth, and has to correct these distributions. Arbitrary facts about places of birth, border, residency or citizenship – just like genetic defects, race, gender etc. – cannot be allowed to determine people’s lives. Limiting the principles of justice to citizens or residents is unacceptable.

That means that redistribution should be international and not just between citizens of a particular country. Of course, it’s plausible that people have more responsibilities to those closer to them: parents have more responsibilities towards their children than towards the rest of humanity; friends should help each other etc. Closeness is morally relevant because it means more power: the closer you are to someone, the easier it is to help. But equal dignity and equal respect for all human beings is also morally relevant, and closeness therefore doesn’t mean that people who are far away and who are unknown to you and unrelated to you can’t legitimately demand assistance.

Preference to people close to you – and those people can perhaps include fellow nationals rather than just family and friends – shouldn’t be the only or overriding concern. We want to avoid chauvinism, parochialism and egoism. The metaphor of the family can turn nationalism into something very nasty. And anyway, the salience of closeness has been substantially reduced by technology: nowadays, it’s easy to send money abroad for example.

Still, in some plausible conception of international justice there can be room for some form of differentiation of duties towards fellow citizens and foreigners. International or cosmopolitan justice is therefore possibly coherent with the Difference Principle: international inequalities are acceptable if they improve the position of those who are globally worst off (although Rawls himself did not believe this because he correctly pointed to the absence of global institutions, and institutions are crucial to his theory).

  • Advantages. International (or cosmopolitan) justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities and people burdened with bad luck should be treated equally, why not foreigners? Borders are indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as gender, race or talent and they can’t, therefore, determine distributions. International justice assumes all the consequences of the theory of human equality and makes the theory of justice more coherent compared to theories that focus on domestic distribution only.
  • Disadvantages. International justice can burden the citizens of wealthy countries with extreme and unbearable responsibilities. After all, we want a coherent system of justice that treats people equally regardless of their place of birth. So it’s not just that rich countries have to prevent starvation and genocide abroad. That seems to be difficult enough already, but international justice makes things even more difficult because it gives people abroad the same benefits and burdens as citizens. That can imply, for example, completely open borders or far-reaching redistribution leading to substantially reduced welfare levels in rich countries. Another problem is more practical: it’s not clear how international redistribution should take place. In the case of national distribution there is a state taking care of it. Not so on the global level.

Distributive justice across generations

The same reasons that argue against the moral salience of closeness in space argue against the moral salience of closeness in time. The fact that some people will be born after our death isn’t a good reason to impose burdens on them. Hence, our distributive principles should take into account the interests of future generations. It wouldn’t be just to design a system of distributive justice that takes care of the least advantaged among us, that removes the influence of bad luck suffered by the living, that preserves a place for desert, that is insensitive to borders, and that at the same harms the interests of future generations (for example because it fails to provide a good system for the management of natural resources). More here on transgenerational justice.

  • Advantages. Like international justice, transgenerational justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities, people burdened with bad luck and foreigners should be treated equally, why not future generations? Time is indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as borders, gender, race or talent and can’t, therefore, determine distributions.
  • Disadvantages. Again, like in the case of international justice, we run the risk of imposing enormous burdens on the present generations. Moreover, there’s the so-called repugnant conclusion: if we multiply the number of future people – which is potentially a very large number of people – then we run the risk of drowning the interests of present generations. A small benefit for a very large number of future people will then justify a very heavy burden on the limited number of people currently alive. However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the interests of future people.

Welfare-based principles

Theories of justice can also focus on welfare. According to welfare-based theories of distributive justice, the only value of goods, resources, desert-claims, equal freedom and even equality is their positive effect on welfare. Distributive principles should then be designed so that they enhance welfare. Welfare maximization is the only criterion to decide distributive rules.

Utilitarianism is the main welfare-based theory of justice. “Utility” can be understood as more or less identical to “welfare”. It can be defined as pleasure, preference satisfaction, happiness etc. According to utilitarianism, distributing benefits and burdens means distributing them in such a way that we maximize overall utility (i.e. overall preference satisfaction, happiness etc.). We have to choose the pattern of distribution that maximizes the sum of all satisfied preferences, of all instances of happiness etc. (unsatisfied preferences or unhappiness count as negatives, and some “higher” or more intense preferences may be weighted higher, depending on the type of utilitarianism we are talking about).

  • Advantages. Utilitarianism’s main advantage is its compatibility with freedom: it doesn’t prefer particular types of preferences, pleasure, happiness etc., and it therefore allows people to realize their own visions of the good life.
  • Disadvantages. What about evil preferences, such as hate and racism? If those kinds of preferences are widespread and the individual targets of those preferences are a minority, then the latter will suffer because overall wellbeing will be increased by allowing the realization of evil preferences. Also, it’s not because it’s rational for an individual to sacrifice some present preferences for a larger future gain, that it’s moral for a society to sacrifice individuals for the gain of the whole, as utilitarianism often requires. That is why some utilitarians have added rights or rules to their equations: preferences can only be satisfied when they don’t violate the rights of others.

Feminist approaches

Feminism has convincingly argued that the traditional theories of justice described above tend to ignore how distributive principles affect the fate of women, especially given the fact that women still have primary responsibility for child-rearing. Distributions within the family are usually not discussed in theories of justice. Therefore, these theories can be criticized as paternalistic or at least unwittingly supportive of paternalism. Many theories of justice include specific rules about the protection of the private sphere as an area that is off-limits for the government and hence for distributive efforts. So theories of justice have made themselves powerless to address gender inequality.

Conclusion: What’s the best approach to distributive justice?

So, after all this and if you’re still with me, what do we take away? Strict equality and simple utilitarianism seem the least appealing. And any coherent approach has to include rules that apply both nationally and globally, has to be gender sensitive and has to reserve some attention to desert. Intergenerational concerns are also hard to avoid if we want to maintain coherence, although perhaps we could limit the impact of the demands of future generations by claiming that actual suffering is more urgent than possible suffering.

This brings back the concern of the burden justice imposes on people. If we want to take the best of all the previously described approaches to distributive justice, we necessarily end up with a “thick” conception of justice, imposing a heavy burden. We have to take into account all people currently living, not just our fellow citizens, as well as people not yet born. And we have to give special attention to gender. But at the same time we don’t want to have a theory of justice that’s so burdensome that people will say: thank you but no thanks. It’s fine to have a coherent theory of justice but if this coherence leads to impossible demands on people or demands they are not (yet) willing to accept, then the practical use of that theory is nil.

One possible reaction to this concern about the burden of justice is the adoption of a prioritarian approach, and more specifically a global gender sensitive prioritarianism with a time preference: the worst off should get the most attention. For example, poor women currently living in a patriarchal society should be the first beneficiaries of redistribution. The disadvantage of this is that it will force us to abandon, temporarily, a lot of people we don’t want to abandon, for example welfare beneficiaries in rich countries. Or we could bite the bullet and say with Peter Singer that the burden is what it is and we should carry it. Morality may be more demanding than we had initially thought. Rather than adapting morality in order to diminish its burden, we just accept the burden.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (9): Merit

In my ongoing exploration of the possible causes of high income inequality in rich countries, I stumbled across this politically incorrect quote:

A reason for the “wealth or income gap”: Smart people keep on doing things that are smart and make them money while stupid people keep on doing things that are stupid and keep them from achieving.

People who get an education, stay off of drugs, apply themselves, and save and wisely invest their earnings do a lot better than people who drop out of school, become substance abusers, and buy fancy cars and houses that they can’t afford, only to lose them.

We don’t have an income gap. We have a stupid gap. (source)

It’s not only politically incorrect, it’s just plainly no-qualifier-needed incorrect. Of course, people’s efforts and wise decisions do make a difference. As well as their different talents (or lack thereof). So there will always be inequality. But society rewards certain talents more than others – or, if you object to the description of society as a moral agent, “we all” reward the talents of our fellow humans differently. And we often do so in a morally arbitrary way: we reward some talents more whereas other talents would perhaps, from a moral point of view, deserve higher rewards. The same is true for efforts: we reward some types of efforts more than others, and this isn’t always just.

So some people, because of their talents and efforts, create better outcomes for themselves, reap more lucrative rewards, and thereby create an income gap. However, this fact doesn’t necessarily imply that the resulting gap is morally right: society – all of us – may have been morally mistaken about the kinds of talents and efforts that we reward. Hence the gap can be immoral. Even if income inequality could be explained entirely by differences in effort and talent – which is implied in the quote but which I think isn’t true – that would not necessarily have any moral significance. Income inequality could still be wrong.

And we could still go one step further: even if income inequality could be explained entirely by morally significant differences in effort and talent – in other words, even if only morally worthy efforts and talents were rewarded by society – that would not necessarily exhaust all moral considerations. The moral judgments regarding efforts and talents could be offset by superior moral considerations about inequality.

And anyway, how does the guy from the quote above explain the fact that different countries have different levels of income inequality? Do we really believe that the American population has a higher standard deviation around average intelligence, talent and effort? In other words, does the U.S. have more smart and more stupid people than Sweden? Are the bell curves for intelligence, talent and effort flatter in the U.S.? I don’t think so. And if I’m right, then you need other and more sophisticated answers to the question why inequality is relatively high in the U.S.

The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that focuses on the injustice of bad luck, and one type of bad luck in particular: it wants to eliminate as far as possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own. One type of luck that we don’t bring on ourselves is the luck – or lack of it – associated with the circumstances into which we are born. We don’t deserve the circumstances, family, class or country of our birth. We don’t even deserve our talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort.

There’s a natural lottery (the lottery that decides which talents and other biological potentials or inabilities we are born with) and a social lottery – as Rawls called it – (the lottery that decides which political, social and economic circumstances we are born into, including our family and country of birth). Bad luck in either of these lotteries can lead to vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes, none of which we deserve.

Luck egalitarianism states that only those inequalities that are wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make, and not to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities, are morally acceptable. The focus on responsible choices means that, once you’re an adult and capable of responsible choices, luck egalitarianism considers that its work is done. Its focus is on birth and early life, because that’s when misfortune of circumstances and nature take effect, and that’s when their unequal consequences have to be corrected. Opportunities have to be equalized. What people do in adult life with their equalized opportunities is their responsibility and of no concern to society or justice.

There are two moral intuitions at play here:

  • It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
  • It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.

In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.

In the ideal luck egalitarian society, there are no inequalities in people’s life prospects except those that arise through processes of voluntary choice or faulty conduct, for which the agents involved can reasonably be held responsible. Richard Arneson (source)

That means, positively stated, that disadvantages for which a person is not responsible and which result merely from bad luck, establish a claim to correction or, if correction is impossible (e.g. blindness), compensation (e.g. provision of guide dogs).

[I]t is the responsibility of society – all of us regarded collectively – to alter the distribution of goods and evils that arises from the jumble of lotteries that constitutes human life as we know it … Distributive justice stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky. Richard Arneson (source)

Some such disadvantages are physical disabilities, lack of talent, inadequate parents, being born in a poor African country etc. All other disadvantages, inequalities or differences are the outcome of choice and are therefore the individual’s responsibility. She should bear the costs of her own choices and can’t demand compensation. And when compensation is required, it should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.

If we manage to redress or compensate inequalities resulting from luck, the luck egalitarianism perspective can accept all remaining inequalities, because those remaining are deemed to be the result of people’s own choices and relative merit. Only equality of opportunity counts. Once people are adults, and all opportunities have been equalized, no further intervention is needed.

Some problems

Luck egalitarianism is appealing because of its focus on undeserved misfortune. We are appalled by people suffering from circumstances or endowments which they don’t deserve because they didn’t choose them and were simply born with them. It’s also appealing because, contrary to many other egalitarian theories, it provides room for merit, personal responsibility and choice.

However, luck egalitarianism is also problematic. First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them. Not always of course, because we don’t want to give people incentives to act irresponsibly (moral hazard etc.), but sometimes. So luck egalitarianism seems incomplete, to say the least, because it offers no aid to those it labels as irresponsible, whatever misery they happen to find themselves in.

Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.

And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. People who, after prudent assessment of risk, engaged in an activity but suffered a bad outcome notwithstanding an initial positive assessment of risk, can demand compensation of their bad luck, like people having the misfortune of being born blind or in a poor family or without talent. None of them deserve their bad luck or are responsible for it. The imprudent, however, still deserve what they get. They can’t be said to have bad luck since they engaged in an activity knowing full well the risks. But how can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical. And how is this extended version of luck egalitarianism different from normal egalitarianism? It seems to encompass almost as much equality.

Luck egalitarianism is not only unnecessarily cruel in some cases – unnecessarily because we often can do something to help the undeserving sufferers – but also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? – her misery was perhaps not (entirely) her own responsibility. For example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.

Because of the very common difficulty to separate responsible actions from irresponsible ones, luck egalitarianism provides an incentive to deny responsibility and to hide it. If you can convince people that you weren’t responsible, then you can claim compensation. This incentive in turn provides an incentive to the state – which is supposedly the agent who should correct for bad luck – to snoop and invade people’s privacy (even their genes) in order to separate the really responsible from the merely apparently responsible, or the prudent from the imprudent.

And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.

Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. The natural inequality in the distribution of luck overshadows the artificial inequalities resulting from social interaction. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.

This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.

So we need more than equality of opportunity at the start of life; equality also means focusing on institutional arrangements that protect, widen and equalize people’s choices over the entire course of their lives (with the exception of those people who voluntarily, through their own choices or excessive risk taking, have reduced their choices; the exception to this exception being people who landed themselves in a situation in which “diminished choices” equals utter suffering, see above).

Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?

The Ethics of Human Rights (33): Different Types of Justice and the Link to Equality

What I want to do here is list some of the types of justice that are commonly identified, and see how they are connected to the concept of equality in order to find out if the traditional link between justice and equality holds up to scrutiny. So let’s first have a look at some possible meanings of the word “justice”.

1. Distributive justice

Distributive justice (often called social justice) is about the allocation of resources and burdens. Justice may require that this allocation is done in accordance with certain rights (e.g. an equal right to a basic standard of living), merit or other criteria. This type of justice is about the fairness of what people get (e.g. basic goods, recognition, rewards etc.).

2. Contributive justice

Contributive justice is the opposite: it’s about what people are expected or able, not to get, but to contribute to society. It’s mainly about work: should people be required to be productive members of society, and if they are, should they have a right to organize their contribution in a fair and just way (for example, is it fair or just that some people are bound to menial tasks while others have much more interesting work?).

3. Criminal justice

Criminal justice is about rectification of interpersonal harm, about the restoration (when possible) of an initial position disturbed by harmful behavior, about retribution and punishment, and about restitutions or reparations of previous harm. Criminal justice is therefore often called corrective justice, rectificatory justice or punitive justice. And sometimes these words are supposed to refer to entirely different (sub)types of justice because there can indeed be substantial differences: criminal punishment may be intended to correct or rectify a wrong (e.g. theft), but it can also be used as plain retribution or even vengeance when the wrong is such that it can’t be corrected (e.g. murder).

Some argue that criminal justice is a type of distributive justice. One interpretation of distributive justice sees it as the distribution or allocation of rewards and punishments according to merit or desert. Punishment for a crime is then distributive justice. But that seems to be stretching the meaning of the word “distribution”. A judge in some case does not distribute anything from the offender to the victim and the victim recovers nothing (e.g. in the case of murder). Those are precisely the cases in which criminal justice is not corrective. I think it’s preferable to keep these concepts separated.

Criminal justice includes the work of the Courts, but also less formal corrective or reparative models, such as truth commissions, apologies etc. Transitional justice, some forms of transgenerational justice, mob justice or vigilante justice also fall under this header.

4. Procedural justice

Procedural justice, unlike the previous types, isn’t about certain just or fair outcomes (just distributions, contributions or punishments), but about fair procedures. The focus is on the processes of arriving at a certain decision (judicial, political etc.). The rules governing the fairness of trials are an example of procedural justice, as are the rules governing legislation in a democracy. People will differ over the fairness or correctness of the legal or political decisions, but they can agree on the fairness of the process. In many cases, defendants in criminal trials or losers in democratic elections may be disappointed in the outcomes but accept them nonetheless because they see that there was fairness in the process; for example, they were allowed to make their case in public with equal resources, there was an impartial judge who weighed the different arguments and so on.

5. Other types

Other types of justice include divine justice (usually a mix of distributive justice for the poor and criminal justice for the sinful), poetic justice (the fateful infliction of harm upon the harm-doer), instrumental justice (doing justice in order to achieve something else, e.g. deterrence) etc.

The link to equality

How are these different types of justice linked to equality?

Distributive justice is often seen as the most egalitarian type of justice, because most interpretations of distributive justice see it as a kind of equalizer of basic goods. Everyone needs a fair share of basic goods, and that means an equal share. Poverty reduction is typically seen as an exercise in distributive justice. However, distributive justice doesn’t need to be egalitarian. Aristotle for example claimed that justice wasn’t merely equality for the equal but also inequality for the unequal: we usually sense that there is an injustice when a teacher gives the same grades to everyone, the meritorious as well as the lazy. However, you could say that even this merit-based type of distributive justice implies equality, namely equality between reward and merit.

Contributive justice as well focuses on an equal contribution in life’s pleasant and unpleasant tasks. Regarding criminal justice the picture is more blurred. Originally, criminal justice focused heavily on equality. The biblical lex talionis – an eye for an eye – was an explicitly – and horrendously – egalitarian form of punishment. The wrongdoer should suffer the same injury as his victim. That’s not fashionable anymore, but still we see that criminal justice strives towards some degree of equality or at least proportionality or correlation between the type of harm inflicted and the nature or weight of the punishment. It’s unfair to impose a life sentence for the crime of not paying your debts, or a fine for murder. Strict equality is, of course, often impossible: you can’t execute Hitler 6 million times. But sometimes it’s possible – i.e. in the case of theft or property damages – and we can demand full correction or rectification from the criminal. Most of the time, some kind of proportionality is more appropriate, not only because we want to avoid cruel punishments but also because we don’t have any other choice.

Procedural justice as well relies heavily on equality: an equal right to call witnesses, equal weight given to testimony, equal duration of arguments, equal access to courts and media etc. Even poetic justice is a form of equality because the wrongdoer suffers the same harm as he inflicted on or intended for someone else. In the story of Esther, for example, Haman is executed on the gallows he prepared for someone else. Something similar can be seen in all examples of poetic justice.

So, whereas justice is not the same as equality, the links between these two concepts are quite strong.

The Ethics of Human Rights (31): Reparations for Violations of the Human Rights of Past Generations

How should we deal with the violations of the human rights of past generations? This question is similar to one I already discussed here, namely the rights of future generations. The difference, however, is that our current actions can influence the well-being of future generations, but cannot mean anything for past generations since the people in questions are already dead. However, many people favor reparations for past rights violations that benefit the descendants of the deceased victims of those rights violations. It can be argued that these descendants still suffer the consequences of the violations inflicted on their deceased relatives.

Such reparations – also called restitutions – can take different forms:

  • restoration of lands owned by previous generations but expropriated
  • financial compensation for goods that cannot be restored (such as desecrated burial grounds)
  • financial compensation for financial loss (theft)
  • merely symbolic restoration (public apologies or amendments to textbooks etc.)
  • etc.

This kind of intergenerational justice is – just like but even more so than the forward looking kind – fraught with difficulties. I’ll describe some of those problems below, but if you want a more systematic treatment there are two good papers by Tyler Cowen here and here.

Since we have to deal, necessarily, with the descendants of the victims rather than the victims themselves, we have to take into account the time element. The claim that the descendants should be compensated somehow, at least in the case of gross violations with lasting effects such as slavery, quickly faces the difficult question of “how much?”. How much did the descendants exactly lose as a result of the ancient theft, and how much should be given back? That’s extremely difficult to determine. First you have to calculate the initial loss for the original victims. In the case of slavery for example, how much did slavery represent in financial terms: how much value did slaves produce for instance. That’s already very difficult.

But then you have to calculate the loss over generations: imagine the counterfactual that slaves could have kept the proceeds of their work, weren’t deprived of education opportunities etc., then how much would their capital have grown over time, given investments, savings etc., and how much would they have profited from their education had they received it? It’s clear that the descendants of the original victims have lost more than the initial sum of the theft that was caused by slavery. They have forgone investment opportunities, educational opportunities that can also be translated in loss of income, etc. But how much? If you take all the lost opportunities – investments, education and many others – into account, and if you deal with an original crime that is relatively far in the past, you can arrive at huge sums, perhaps even sums that are larger than the current wealth of a society.

Likewise, the descendants of the thieves – the slave owners in this case – have gained more than the amount of the initial theft, since this theft has allowed them to invest, and their better education has allowed them to compete inequitably with the descendants of the slaves. And so on. But how can you possible calculate all this? Also, how can you ever know what the descendants of the slaves would have done with the capital – financial and human – if it hadn’t been stolen from their forefathers? Can you just assume that they would have done the same thing as anyone else and use market interest rates? No, I don’t think you can. There is an infinite number of possible counterfactuals.

And that’s just one problem. You also have to make some dubious assumptions. First, you have to assume that you can unequivocally identify the original victims and their descendants, and the original perpetrators and their descendants. How else can you redistribute? If you just assume that all whites in the U.S. are to blame for slavery and all blacks are to benefit from reparations for slavery, you’ll be punishing and rewarding people who don’t deserve it. Some whites fought against slavery and some blacks collaborated. The descendants of those whites don’t deserve to pay restitutions. Also, you have to assume that there hasn’t been any genetic exchange between the victims and the thieves, and that’s demonstrably wrong. How will you treat the descendants of a child born from a slave and her owner? As a victim or a perpetrator, or both? That doesn’t make any sense.

There’s also the point, made by Derek Parfit, that the exact individuals who comprise the descendant generations would not have been born had the initial violation not occurred. A state of slavery for instance has enormous consequences for marriage, intercourse etc. In other words, since the descendants would not have been born without the initial violation, in a sense they can be said to have benefited from the violation. They now exist, where otherwise they wouldn’t have existed. To exist is obviously better than not to exist (at least in most cases, or I’m completely wrong about humanity). In another counterfactual you can claim that the descendants of slaves for instance don’t actually benefit from slavery, but that the negative consequences they suffer from the slavery of their forefathers don’t grow worse over time (see above) but tend to fade away. Their current predicament is caused by more recent events rather than old history.

And there are numerous other problems (for example, if you go back sufficiently far in time, all of us have ancestors who were oppressed; should we all receive restitutions?). So, given all this, does justice require some form of reparation for the most serious and widespread human rights violations of the past? We may not know exactly how much we have to pay or what exactly we should do to right the wrong. We also don’t know exactly who should benefit or pay. And maybe there are conflicting movements: for some reasons, the injury grows over time, but perhaps for other reasons it diminishes (genetic exchange, diminishing rates of return on capital etc.). Nevertheless, it may be good public policy to admit the mistakes of the past and also to put your money where your mouth is, especially when it’s obvious that current generations continue to suffer to some extent (as is the case for African-Americans for instance).

However, personally I feel that the focus should be, not on restitutions for violations of the past but on protection for violations of the present. If African-Americans in the U.S. are currently in a disadvantaged position (which is often the case), then their current rights are violated and we should do something about that, whatever the causes of those violations. These causes are in part the violations of the rights of their ancestors, which still have an effect today and produce violations of the rights of descendants. If these descendants suffer from poverty and poor education, it can be helpful to know the causes, even if some of these are far back in time, but ultimately these causes don’t change the nature of the current violations, or the nature of current obligations. These people have a right to assistance and education, just as much, not more or less, as other people who suffer the same violations but who are not descendants of people who suffered centuries ago. So in a sense we don’t need restitutions to do something. Current rights violations are sufficient reasons to act.

The Causes of Poverty (34): Desert

Those who agree that the government should help the poor usually don’t make qualitative distinctions between different kinds of poor people. They only separate the mildly poor from the horribly poor and modify the assistance policies accordingly.

My personal views are similar to these, albeit that I want to promote private charity before and above government assistance. The recent debates about healthcare reform in the U.S. were in essence about one type of assistance to the “poor”, namely those not poor enough to be eligible to existing government programs yet not wealthy enough to be able to buy adequate private insurance. During these debates, Bryan Caplan – a libertarian – proposed to make a distinction between deserving poor and non-deserving poor:

All [the government] needs to do is provide a means-tested subsidy to make private health insurance more affordable for those who need it most. The subsidy should be based on income, wealth, chronic health status … on past and current behavior. People who engage in voluntary risky behaviors – smoking, drinking, over-eating, mountain-climbing, violence, etc. – should receive a smaller subsidy, or no subsidy at all. The same goes for people who failed to buy long-term insurance when they were healthy and employed, then ran into health or financial troubles. (source)

We can broaden this to poverty assistance generally. And we can also expand the argument to a moral one rather than one that is simply about the need, appropriateness or scope of government intervention in poverty reduction, since I believe government intervention in poverty reduction is simply a fallback option in the case of deficient private charity (see here for my argument). The government should step in when individuals and groups fail to honor their private duties towards fellow human beings. The proper question is then: do we, as individuals, have a moral duty to help the poor, directly and through the taxes we pay to the government? I think that’s the case, and if I’m right we should ask if this duty is limited to the deserving poor. In other words, can we ignore the predicament of those who are themselves the cause of this predicament through overly risky behavior, self-destructive behavior, or stupid and irrational behavior?

The affirmative answer to that question has some intuitive appeal. And it’s also coherent with a long tradition in moral philosophy that argues against paternalism as an attitude that protects people against their freedom to damn themselves. However, things aren’t quite as intuitive as this. A duty to assist only the deserving poor requires a clear and unambiguous distinction between desert and lack of desert. I don’t think it’s really possible to decide in all cases, or even most cases, that someone has or hasn’t been deserving. Take the case of a person engaging in systematic over-eating and thereby destroying his or her health and ending up in poverty. At first sight, that person deserves poverty. People are agents with a free will and have a choice to engage in self-destructive behavior. However, we know that education and culture influence eating habits, so the causes of this person’s poverty are far more diverse than simply his or her lifestyle decisions. Even if there is an element of voluntariness in this person’s decisions, at what level of voluntariness do we put the threshold and say that this person does indeed deserve his or her predicament, notwithstanding the effect of outside causes?

There is also a problem of information deficit. People can act in a bona fide way, believing that they don’t act in a self-destructive way, based on the information that they have gathered using the skills that they have been taught. How on earth can you go and judge whether people were sufficiently bona fide? You’d need the KGB to do that, and still…

In addition, there may be a chain of desert: if, through some miracle of understanding and close monitoring, you can determine that a person isn’t to blame for his or her own predicament, maybe you can decide to assist that person but reclaim the money from his or her parents because those parents were undeserving while educating the person. In that case, the least of your problems would be an infinite regress.

Also, given the fact that poverty reduction, because of the regular failure of private charity, isn’t simply an interpersonal matter and that therefore the government will have to step in at some point, do we really want the government to start separating the deserving from the undeserving? Look at the answer of another libertarian, Tyler Cowen:

First, I am worried about a governmental process which first judges the “deservingness” of each poor person before setting the proper subsidy. Do they videotape your life as you go along, or do they convene a Job-like trial when you submit receipts for reimbursement? (source)

So we have a fundamental tension between on the one hand the value of individual responsibility and the need to have people make their own choices and suffer the consequences (if no one has to suffer the consequences of choices it’s hard to call them real choices), and, on the other hand, the need to help the wretched of the earth, even those who may be (partly) responsible for their own wretchedness (I say “may be” because I don’t believe there’s a way to know, not even with a KGB).

The useful thing about this dilemma is that it makes clear that people are indeed in some cases the cause of their own poverty, at least in part. It’s very important to determine the real causes of poverty if you want to do something about it. Helping poor people after they have become poor is just part of the solution. It’s better to prevent poverty altogether, and this dilemma helps doing that because it forces people to see that behavior is a cause. Hence they should be able to adapt their behavior.

The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)

Income Inequality (18): No Such Thing – Good Thing – Necessary Evil – Gone Thing?

Attitudes towards income inequality in the U.S. differ widely.

  • There are those who deny that there is any, or better that there is enough to be worried about (see here for an example, or here).
  • Others say that it’s a good thing, and that there should be more of it. People are very different in their talents and work ethic, and rewarding the highly productive and creative ones for their efforts – which is only “fair” – automatically results in income inequality, because the unproductive and uncreative will not be rewarded, or less generously.
  • And then there are those who believe income inequality is a necessary evil. They don’t particularly like huge differences in rewards for activities which are, after all, often hardly comparable in any quantitive sense (is it so much more worthwhile to invest your efforts and creativity in the development of the iPhone than in the education of your children?). But they do believe that financial rewards stimulate productivity, and that higher rewards stimulate more. And increased productivity ultimately benefits us all, even those who are worse off and on the wrong side of the income inequality. (This is a version of “trickle down” economics).
  • Still others think that income inequality isn’t a problem any longer, given the effect of the recession on high earners.

Note: these 4 views aren’t necessarily incompatible. One and the same person can, as I see it, hold at least 3 of them at the same time. (E.g. you can believe that there isn’t much inequality, that what is left will soon be gone, and that you hope it will be back one day).

I think only the third view has some relation to the truth. Regarding the first view:

The basic conclusion of this data, that the nation [the U.S.] suffers from extreme and growing income inequality, is essentially irrefutable. Bruce Judson (source)

Regarding the second view: I object to it not because I don’t want to reward people or because I think justice has nothing to do with merit. On the contrary. I object to it because it assumes that different people and different activities can be placed on a single scale of merit and reward. It’s impossible to compare activities and say that one deserves a $10.000 per year reward (i.e. income) and another activity, compared to this first, is 10 times more deserving and hence deserves a $100.000 per year reward. Merit isn’t just a financial or quantitative thing, and hence it cannot – at least not exclusively – justify income inequality. Moreover, the income inequality that we see in the real world has little or nothing to do with merit. Most people aren’t paid according to any definition of merit. In the best case, they are paid because of their talents, which isn’t anything anyone deserves. In all other cases – and in the large majority of cases – people’s pay or income is determined by factors such as luck, family, networks, playing on the stock exchange etc., and none of these things are even marginally related to merit. In a society that rewards people for their creativity and productivity, you expect to see high levels of social mobility, and that’s precisely what you don’t see in the U.S.

Regarding the third view, I do believe that it is essentially correct, but it obfuscates many of the problems caused by income inequality. Hence, even if economic efficiency doesn’t justify efforts to limit income inequality, other things do.

The fourth view would seem to make sense intuitively. A lot of the income of the very wealthy comes from the stock markets, and the recession has pushed these markets down.

Professor Saez concludes that “the most likely outcome is that income concentration will fall in 2008 and 2009.” But, he follows this conclusion by stating that in the absence of significant policy actions such declines will be temporary: “Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to recessions are temporary unless drastic policy changes, such as financial regulation or significantly more progressive taxation, are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration till the 1970s. In contrast, recent downturns, such as the 2001 recession, lead to only very temporary drops in income concentration.” Bruce Judson (source)

Moreover, the poor are also suffering as a result of the recession, not in the same absolute measures as the rich, but that is because they have less to lose in the first place. However, what they do lose as a result of the recession is for them relatively more important.

Recent data show that income inequality hasn’t actually decreased in 2008. Maybe in 2009… The recession only got started late in 2008.