Social Justice, Libertarianism

Don’t Dumb Down Justice to Accommodate Bad Motivations

Cohen says, and I agree, that whether something is desirable or better from a moral point of view has nothing to do with whether it’s feasible. It’s not possible for me to end child starvation around the world, but it’s desirable for me to do so. It’s not possible for me to cure cancer by snapping my fingers, but it’s desirable for me to do so. In the language of economics, we might say that there are things on our utility functions that we know we can’t obtain. That’s true of morality and of things outside morality. (I find it desirable to have the Force, even though the Force is not physically possible.) Nothing perplexing about that.

But when it comes to questions about what people ought to do, many seem to want to dumb down justice to accommodate what people are willing and not willing to do. Why?

One might say, “Ought implies can.” It doesn’t make sense to say you ought to do something you can’t do. You don’t have a duty to save a person if you can’t save her. You don’t have a duty to jump to the moon if you can’t do it. Etc. But, Cohen says, and I agree, this tells us little about justice. Cohen says that we should live like socialist campers. I say we should live like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse capitalists. Neither of us is asking people to do things they can’t do. At most, we’re just asking them to do things they aren’t willing to do:

…justice doesn’t ask more of people than they can do. Justice doesn’t require that people fly like Superman or use teleathy like Wonder Woman. Justice just requires that people do things that many real people are not willing to do, because they are too cruel, callous, or selfish. In that sense, a perfectly just world is easily attainable, even if utterly unrealistic. It simply requires each of us to choose to do what’s right.

Facts about what people can do are a constraint on theories of justice, but facts about what people are not willing to do are not. People could be good; they just choose not to be.

Peter Singer says similar things about our duties of charity. He thinks he has a simple argument that implies, on commonsense moral grounds, that we owe more charity to others than most of us give. Now, perhaps his argument is mistaken for some reason. But, Cohen and Singer and I would all agree, that fact that people don’t want to give more says nothing about whether they ought to give more.

Libertarians are often quick to attack Cohen and Singer here. But I think they do so at their own risk. After all, negative moral duties of the sort libertarians espouse are also highly demanding. Many people are not willing to do what conventional libertarians think morality requires. Quoting from Why Not Capitalism?:

For some reason, when discussing the limits of our duties of charity and beneficence, many people are inclined to disagree with Singer and Cohen about whether what we are willing to do constrains what we ought to do. In this context, many people think “don’t want to” implies, at some point, “don’t have to”. Yet many of these same people would deny this implication in in other contexts, when we are talking about our duties to avoid harming others.

So, for instance, suppose my moral theory implies that rape is wrong. Now suppose a man—call him Albert—says, “Oh, no, you don’t understand. I very much want to commit rape. I refuse not to rape women. I thus find your moral theory too demanding.” No one would think that this excuses Albert or permits him to rape. He finds the moral duty not to rape demanding not because it really does demand too much of him, but because he is a vile person. Now, psychologists and criminologists might determine that that it is unrealistic to expect a world free of rape. Perhaps there will always be people like Albert, who choose to rape. Still, that has no bearing on whether rape is permissible. Rape is wrong. In a just society, there are exactly zero rapes.

Similarly, suppose a political philosopher says, “Governments should follow the rules of just war theory, which forbids governments from initiating aggressive conflicts.” Now, pessimist that I am, I doubt there will come a time when all governments follow the rules of just war. If they did, after all, there would be no war at all. Still, that has little bearing on whether they should or should not follow the rules of just war. People in governments could easily act better, but they just don’t want to do so. The predominant reason that governments in the past have violated the standards of just war is that people—kings, presidents, generals, senators, soldiers on the ground, and, yes, democratic voters—have been callous, cruel, power-hungry, nationalistic, or culpably incompetent and misinformed.

C0hen thinks that the reason Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, etc., are so sanguine about markets is that they make unjustifiable concessions to the badness of human nature. In particular, he complains that Rawls’s theory of justice could justify inequality only by making illicit compromises with vile features of human nature. According to Cohen, Rawls’s theory of justice isn’t really a theory of justice at all, but at most a theory of the best “rules of regulation” to deal with unjust people.

Many of the responses to Cohen won’t do:

Some defenders of markets respond, pace Cohen, that concerns about human motivation do constrain our principles of justice. So, for instance, philosopher David Schmidtz agrees with Cohen that “I won’t do X” doesn’t imply “I have no duty to do X.” However, Schmidtz says, while I can control my own actions, I cannot control what others do. I cannot simply count on them to live by high standards. Schmidtz says justice is about “coping with circumstances where ‘won’t do’ on the part of others entails a descriptive ‘can’t do’ on my part.” Cohen claims that justice is what we get when we don’t have to worry about whether people will comply with whatever purported principles of justice we advance. Schmidtz says that a lack of compliance is the very problem principles of justice are supposed to solve, not in the sense that principles of justice induce everyone to comply, but rather that principles of justice tell us how to live well together in a world where we cannot take it for granted that others to be as virtuous as Mickey Mouse.

Similarly, David Hume says that principles of justice apply only in a world where people are not fully altruistic, but also not so selfish as to be unmoved by moral demands. He calls justice a “cautious, guarded virtue.” Hume would deny that justice is realized on Cohen’s camping trip or in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village. Instead, he might say that these situations transcend the circumstances of justice.

…This debate seems to me largely terminological, about whether we want to reserve the word “justice” for utopia—where we can imagine human beings have whatever motivations they should have—or whether we want to use “justice” to refer to moral rules it seems reasonable to demand of one another that we live by in the real world—where we know most people will have imperfect motives. Hume, Schmidtz, and Rawls haven’t undermined Cohen’s assertion that the world Cohen envisions is better from a moral point of view. Rather, Hume, Schmidtz, and Rawls seem simply to disagree about whether we should call Cohen’s highly demanding socialist principles “principles of justice” or something else.

The problem with these responses, as well as responses from orthodox Rawlsians, is that they don’t refute Cohen’s central claim that if we were good, we’d be socialist. If you want to say that Cohen is talking about transcending justice rather than implementing it, fine. Cohen still wins. If we were good, we’d “transcend justice” and be socialist. You get to keep the word “justice,” but you lose the debate.

I won’t elaborate much more on this here (though I do more in the book) in part because it doesn’t matter. Most of Cohen’s relatively right-wing critics, from the Rawlsians to the classical liberals, have contested whether or not principles of justice are constrained by facts about human motivation. Cohen sees them as dumbing down justice to accommodate evil. He thinks the right test of a good society involves asking what institutions perfectly good people would live under. My response is to grant him his test  but then show him capitalism wins the test. (For what it’s worth, though, I do actually accept Cohen’s test.)

Utopia is a society in which people always do the right thing for the right reason. No real society is like that. So why bother theorize about utopia?

…At the very least, utopian political philosophy tells us something about the institutions we live under. It tells us where things stand, morally speaking. If you are at all reflective, you will wonder at times, just how bad is the world, compared to how things should be, and easily could be, if only we were willing to do what morality requires?

It’s unrealistic to expect we will ever live in a world where everyone is morally perfect. But we should not be complacent, and assume we cannot do much better than we do now. After all, 30,000 years ago, human beings lived in small, poor, diseased family clans that were in constant war with one another. In prehistoric times, the percentage of men dying in armed combat with men from other tribes might have been as high as 60%. Imagine trying to tell people back then that it would be far better to live as people do in modern-day Switzerland. You’d be dismissed as silly and utopian. But we know better now—we know that we can live much better now than we used to. Can we really conclude that we cannot learn to live even better than we do now?

We might be a century away or less from being able to genetically engineer people with flawless moral motivations. We might be able to genetically engineer ourselves into having Minnie Mouse’s Christ-like motives. Perhaps leftist utopia is just a test tube away. But, surprisingly, leftist utopia is voluntaryist bleeding heart libertarianism, not luck egalitarian socialism.


  • Michael Wiebe

    I’m surprised you didn’t whip out “schmustice”.

  • Jameson Graber

    “You get to keep the word “justice,” but you lose the debate.”

    Yeah, on the other hand, what good is it to win a debate no one cares about? If you can convince people that a certain debate is not worth having because it will yield no fruit, then you’ve won a different debate which, it seems to me, is more important.

    But your last few paragraphs are thought-provoking. You make it tough to dismiss utopia.

  • Sean II

    “But when it comes to questions about what people ought to do, many seem to want to dumb down justice to accommodate what people are willing and not willing to do. Why?”

    Possibly because if you don’t it leads one to madness, or irrelevance, or both.

    Good example: it is probably just that married people should stop buying or reserving options in the sexual marketplace (i.e. stop flirting).

    I can’t think of a good argument against that, except it’s impossible and the mere acting of wishing for such a world makes real life worse.

    Nor indeed would I want to genetically engineer a Stepford wife capable of following that rule, because given the complexity of human traits, I know it would mean the loss of many good things in the bargain.

  • TracyW

    It strikes me that there is a big difference between refraining to do something you very much want to, in the interests of justice, and doing something you very much don’t want to in the interests of justice.
    Refraining from doing something requires some willpower, but you can generally then go away and do something you want to do instead. (leaving aside situations where one must tolerate suffering while suppressing one’s urge to hurt the people causing the suffering, eg while undergoing painful medical treatment).

    But forcing yourself to do well something you really don’t want to do is very tough. And the longer you do that, the tougher it gets. People often leave high-paying jobs because they didn’t enjoy them, and who can blame them?

    It is one thing for Albert to refrain from raping, and to put his efforts into something he does enjoy doing that is not harmful. It’s another to adopt Peter Singer’s viewpoint and give up on everything you want to do with your own money beyond survival for all of your life.

  • Craig J. Bolton

    All of this is very nice, but it doesn’t seem to get at the core of the “hard” libertarian critique of social justice. The critique is based on the fact that the details of social justice are impossible to embed in a good will or a general rule. “Be nice to people” not only doesn’t tell you anything in terms of how you should act, but it may result in very preverse actions (e.g., the traditional argument of what a Nazi would do if he found that his family was “really Jewish.”) . OTOH, “don’t steal” is much easier to understand and implement. There are still problems, of course, in determining who owns what in particular circumstances, but those problems are subject to adjudication.

    IOW, there is not only something more than a “good will”, but a good will is largely useless in a mass society of mutually anonymous individuals.

  • Guy

    Accommodating the nature of human beings is still a far stretch from “accommodating evil” such as the rape example. There are reasonable demands and unreasonable demands we should make as theorists. Such are the Ralwsian “burdains of judgement”, the notion the us humans will always differ on our perceptions on the good life, etc.
    After all, this is why liberty is important in the first place. Liberty is important because people disagree about things. One must take disagreement into account when talking about political philosophy, and doing so does not “accommodate evil”. There are still plenty of ways to deal with it (Estlund, Raz, Rawls, Nagel, all have their accounts, without allowing rape, by the way).
    Sure, there is ideal and non-ideal theory. But then there’s utopian theory.

  • “Now, psychologists and criminologists might determine that that it is unrealistic to expect a world free of rape. Perhaps there will always be people like Albert, who choose to rape. Still, that has no bearing on whether rape is permissible. Rape is wrong. In a just society, there are exactly zero rapes.”

    It seems to me that there may be two errors there. First, there seems to be a scope fallacy. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ means that something like this is true:

    if justice demands that people do A, then for every person it is normally possible that he does A.

    But it does not follow from that that the following is true:

    if justice demands that people do A, then it is normally possible that every person does A.

    Justice demands that we not rape. It follows that for each one of us, even your Albert, it is normally possible for us not to rape. But it does not follow from that that it is normally possible that no one rapes. So the conjunction of

    (1) it is unrealistic (which, incidentally is not the same as impossible, but let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is the same) that there are no rapes, and

    (2) ‘ought’ implies ‘can’

    does not entail that justice cannot demand of every person that he does not rape.

    Second, the fact that justice demands of each person that he does not rape does not imply that in a just society, there are exactly zero rapes. In a just society there may be rapes; but if they occur, the perpetrators are brought to justice and the victims are recompensed.

    Note that I say nothing of motivations, which I think are not that relevant here. I talk of what it is possible for people to do, by which I mean what they can do with their given capacities. I guess you see motivations as determining what people do, which would make motivations relevant, though only at the cost of making all talk of justice and ‘ought’ irrelevant.