Friday, September 28, 2007

I Want You To Want Some Other Things Too

On Wednesday I wrote about "distributive justice," describing my confusion over the fact that when we come to figure out the fair way to satisfy preferences, we have to count only the preferences people have for things and for themselves (personal preferences) not the preferences they have regarding the preferences of other people (external preferences).

When I said I was confused, I meant it seriously, not as, you know, a polite way of saying an indignant WTF?

What puzzled me was the fact that in an unequal society, it seemed my preferences for, say, the very poor, to have their preferences satisfied ought to somehow count for something.

In the comments, Daniel asked me a good two-part question, and I thought it was worth writing a follow-up to try to answer it.

First, Daniel wanted to know, can't I help satisfy the preferences of these people whose preferences I care about myself? I can just give away my own money, stuff, etc. And second, aren't external preferences being taken into account in distributive justice in, e. g. welfare?

With respect to the second, it's true that many forms of distributive justice involve moving goods from one set of people to another. But usually this redistribution is not justified by an appeal to external preferences, raising the question, what does justify it?

This takes me back to the first question. Imagine instead of two cake-loving people, there's three of us, there's some bags of corn, and winter is coming. A perfectly implausible, doomsday-scenario philosophy example, but whatever.

Imagine A has lots of corn. B has just enough. C has almost none. Suppose 10 bags become available.

Imagine B has a lot of external preferences -- B is just a naturally empathetic person. Imagine A is not -- A doesn't care much about others at all.

Sure, we could count only external preferences. Everyone wants as much corn as possible. Suppose (for the moment) that everyone gets some of the new corn, but that it's not really enough for C to live get by comfortably.

Then B could share his share of the corn with C. Or B can suffer watching C struggle to get by. A will be happy. Asking B to share his own, and asking him to suffer, both seem somehow less-than-fully fair. B seems to be made worse off by the fact that he has this external preference at all. Which is funny, 'cause like I said, we tend to think caring about others is admirable, or good, or something.

If you think about a world of highly empathetic people and a world of not-very-empathetic people, it seems that if there's no place for external preferences in preference-satisfaction schemes, the empathetic people will generally be worse off for their external preferences: either they have to share more of their own goods than the non-empathetic people, or they have to suffer from having their external preferences unsatisfied.

If that's right, it seems raising your kids to be non-empathetic would be the thing to do. But that seems crazy.

Maybe we'd want to say that the various redistributing schemes would take care of this problem -- that this is why we have, e. g. welfare. Maybe we'd want to say that in most real-life distribution schemes, A does get less of the 10 new bags; C does get most of them. A is usually even forced to give some corn to C.

Maybe. But given that there is such a wide range of beliefs and attitudes about how much A must be shortcut here, or whether he must give some corn to C and how much, you start to wonder, what justifies distribution schemes involving forced sharing? And how much sharing is required?

I'm not sure. And I'm puzzled by the fact that the external preferences of empathetic people aren't part of this story. Because it seems that under any system except under the most extreme egalitarianism, those with empathetic external preferences will be worse off in the ways I've described. And I'm not an extreme egalitarian. So I'm in a quandary.

For some reason, whenever I think about empathetic people, I am always reminded of the great 18th-century philosopher David Hume. Hume thought people were naturally quite empathetic. In his sunnily optimistic way, Hume just assumed everyone had lots of external preferences for the good of every one else. "Would any man, who is walking along," he asked, "tread as willingly on another's gouty toes, whom he has no quarrel with, as on the hard flint and pavement?" (from his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals). No one, he thought, could be so callous, so self-absorbed, so cruel.

The sunnily optimistic, always delightful, David Hume.

Well. Indeed, if everyone has equal external preferences for the good of others -- if everyone wants the good of everyone else (as Hume suggested) -- then my puzzles go away. I would love for this to be true, but I believe that it is not.


Captain Colossal said...

They're having Ayn Rand week or month or whatever at my local library, with lectures on capitalism and so forth. I think Ayn Rand was less than crazy about altruism, etc. But I never finished The Fountainhead, so I can't say for sure.

Daniel said...

I understand your puzzlement better, NM. Although I think (and you certainly don't need to respond more - I freely admit that I may not be quick enough to grasp the nuances) that I am missing something, because it seems sort of easy peasy for me to see how one person's external preferences may clearly be contrary to another's (my hypothetical desire for babies to have breast rather than bottled milk, for example). I'm thinking that the nuance that I'm not fully grasping is encapsulated in your phrase "ought to somehow count for something." I guess it's hard for me to imagine this counting for something in a way other than a law, or some other sort of mandatory adherence to a preference that everyone may not (or probably won't) share. Perhaps you're thinking of the external preferences "counting" in a different way, which escapes me. I sure like that David Hume sunshine you wrote about, too, yet even if everyone wants the good of everyone else, what is to be done about the differences that would surely be present in those ideas of "good"? How to count them?

Noko Marie said...

I liked The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, too, as I recall. I was a teenager and I don't think I grasped the politics of it at all -- I was a distinctly non-political young person.

Daniel, I'm thinking here from within the framework of distributive justice... as in, you have some stuff that has to be distributed, what's a "fair" way to do it. All the accounts of fairness "count" personal preferences; none count external preferences -- it's that kind of counting I meant.

But probably I've shot my theoretical wad on this for now.