Monday, August 16, 2004

Justice and Desert

There's an interesting exchange going on on Brad Delong's website. It's worth checking out. The thrust of it is an argument going on in the blogosphere about whether there intrinsic moral reasons to believe that people who make more money deserve it. The Rawlsian argument is that inequalities in reward are justifiable only insofar as they produce a greater social good for all (e.g., we pay doctors more because becoming a doctor is hard and we need them).

Apparently it was Matt Yglesias and Max Sawicky who started this. Matt writes:

Lately Max Sawicky and I have been disagreeing a lot, but we find common ground in the insight that equality of opportunity and the cult of the self-made man is an utter fraud both empirically and morally. Meritocracy is an appalling ideal. Being born with the inclination and ability to become financially successful is no more morally praiseworthy than being born with the inclination and ability to inherit a large fortune. It's chance all the way down either way. There are reasons to structure incentives so as to encourage a certain amount of hard work so as to increase overall prosperity, but this is a question of pragmatics not desert, and only worth doing if overall prosperity is being managed so as to cause widespread prosperity.
In other words, there is no intrinsic right to the fruit of our labor. We reward hard work because society tends to work better that way, not because there is a natural or god-given obligation to do so.

Matt notes the objection that:


Once you realize that the poor are on unequal footing not only because poor people tend to attent ill-funded schools but also because poverty per se is a cause of ill-health and has deleterious consequences on emotional and cognitive development then equality of opportunity becomes a reason to pursue a measure of equality of outcome. What measure? Well, it all just depends how equal you want the opportunities to be. True equality of opportunity will require true equality of outcome.
Yet he notes that "we could stand to go a good way further down the path than we've gone so far, so we may as well set our compasses to reach it for now." And he's got a good point. The logical conclusion of a completely consistent application of a theory need not lead us to conclude that we can't apply the theory in a relative sense in order to increase overall equality of opportunity, without necessarily falling into the trap of believing we need equality of outcome. Public life is a constant measuring of the relative more and less of the application of our ideas. The goal ought to be to strike that balance whereby we maximize the positive effect of our policies while minimizing the negative effects. This can be done without necessarily buying the the whole lot.

This can be seen, for example, in the arguments about minimum wages and living wages. A living wage is one that ought to allow a family to have their basic necessities covered plus a bit extra. Such a living wage need not be huge, and it need not be so big as to increase unemployment significantly. But it involves very careful policy analysis to min/max the result.

Back to the debate. Things then move on over to Tech Central Station where Will Wilkinson writes:

When you think about it, it would be pretty surprising if the link between effective effort and desert wasn't etched deeply into our moral psyche and reflected in our daily judgments and choices for precisely the pragmatic reasons Yglesias cites. The argument that people are motivated by the prospect of keeping what they have gained by hard work, and that even the worst off can do better in a society that allows relatively large degree of inequality, can be easily converted into a compelling story of the evolutionary origins of our judgments about fairness and desert. A population of proto-humans inclined to distribute the fruits of social cooperation according to the value of each proto-person's contribution to the joint enterprise, and to regard this as fair, would likely crowd out competing groups with more egalitarian intuitions about fair distribution. The argument that there is instrumental, pragmatic value in "structuring incentives" as if people deserve what they have worked to achieve is awkwardly close in form to the argument that a conception of desert and fairness linking work to reward is precisely the conception we would expect actual people to have -- the conception we would expect to see reflected in the judgments of moral common sense.

So, it turns out that our considered judgments about what it takes to deserve are rather contrary to Rawls' sense of the matter. And even if it is chance all the way down, this fact fails to provide any justifying foundation for coercive redistribution, for it also undermines any possibility of justifying the inequalities implicit in coercive political power.
Will then goes on to argue that it isn't chance all the way down, as Rawls suggests.

(Actually, Rawls doesn't suggest that. In A Theory of Justice is he trying to offer a hypothetical account of what we would consider to be a fair distribution of resources if it were chance all the way down. His argument is that if we would choose a particular state of affairs to maximize our self-interest and minimize our risk from a condition of ignorance, that gives us good guidance about what justice really looks like.).

Chris Bertram picks it up there:



There are no doubt one or two sentences in A Theory of Justice that encourage
such an interpretation. But, as Wilkinson surely knows, the argument in which
Rawls asserts that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society”
(which Wilkinson cites, selectively, from the first edition of ToJ) concerns the
choice of a co-operative scheme for a whole society.1 In the passage in question Rawls is not addressing the question of whether those who are better-endowed with natural assets or who have “superior character” ought to get more within a co-operative scheme, he’s writing about whether their better endowment ought to be reflected in the choice of scheme under which they co-operate with others.2 And his answer is, that no, the more talented have no special right to have their interests given greater weight than those others.


There are two basic Rawlsian objections to the idea that distribution should reflect moral desert or deservingness. First, that it seems impossible to establish a workable public standard of deservingness because of the fact of reasonable pluralism; second, that even if we could establish such a standard, it would be impossible to contrive an economic system to track it.3 (One might expect, given Wilkinson’s endorsement elsewhere of “political” libertarianism, that he would be at one with Rawls on this.) Given these objections, Rawls sets aside reward according to desert and proceeds to consider other options.Rawls’s preferred option, democratic equality and the difference principle, doesn’t endorse or track any particular standard of desert or merit. But the point here is that neither does the economic system Wilkinson himself appears to favour: there’s no good reason to believe that a system of free-market and private property is anything close to a merit-based system. Some people work hard on worthy projects for their whole lives or take exceptional risks on society’s behalf and nevertheless remain comparatively poor; others, through being lucky or rich, get to be as rich as Croesus. Is Warren Buffet more morally deserving than the firefighters on 9/11? Of course not. He doesn’t think so, they don’t think so, we don’t think so, and Will Wilkinson doesn’t think
so.4

Brad DeLong comes in at this point:


What Yglesias is asking is a different question. Given that we have powerful instrumental reasons to favor a society in which ability, industriousness, discipline, and effort are rewarded--because such incentives are powerful instruments for making a greater society--is there anything more?Is there any extra reason, over and above the instrumental benefits in making a greater society, for those who chose the right parents (for their genes) and chose the right circumstances (for their environment) and wound up talented and industrious to have an even greater proportion of the pie than incentives' usefulness as instruments would suggest?
Matthew Yglesias says, "No." The reasons for rewarding talent, skill, industry, discipline, and effort are instrumental ones. In his view, we say that it is useful for these incentives to provide them with such rewards--we don't say that they deserve these rewards (or if we say they do deserve them, we aren't thinking clearly).
Next into the fray comes Majikthise:


The instrumentalist position needs to be supplemented with a non-metaphysical theory of desert. It turns out that a contractual/procedural theory of desert explains our intuitions just as well. We don't have to argue desert in terms of free will and moral responsibility. Sometimes promises beget desert. Our society wisely promises people that they will be rewarded if they work hard and contribute a lot. So, justice demands that we make good on that promise by rewarding the high achievers. Instrumentalism explains why it is a good idea to make that promise.
"Promises beget desert" is a good phrase and offers good food for thought. Being an Analytic philosopher, it's understandable why she would not be willing to dive into metaphysical theories of free will, but I think that even for those of us who aren't rooted in the analytic philosophical tradition, there is a great deal that can be made of this. Indeed, it can be expanded beyond its original Rawlsian basis and made the ground for a philosophical justification of a strong social support system.

Certainly the fact that society has, since the 1930s, made representations that the government can and should -- to a degree -- protect people from the vagaries of chance and misfortune, and that taxes are leveed in order to support social programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Head Start (all of which serve the end of equality of opportunity in society), can provide a basis for saying that government now has an obligation to provide those services, or at least the functional equivalent of those services. It may not be obligated to offer Head Start or School Lunch programs in the same way they were offered when my brothers were in Head Start and we all got reduced lunches at school, but it is obligated to offer some such services.

When it comes to public education, the implications come screaming into relief. For over a century in this country we have made universal public education a central social promise. Therefore, every child in the United States now deserves a good, well-funded, competent public education. Not every child needs to take advantage of it (that's what private schools are for), but every child is entitled to it. What's more, the obligation implied by this point further means that society doesn't have an obligation to subsidize private education. A good public education system is what every child is promised, and thus what every child deserves.

More to come.

UPDATE: Majikthise has sent me another post that she's written on the subject.