Thursday, June 2, 2011

Inspiration from Maru

Need inspiration to finish your final?  Watch this video of Maru, my favorite internet cat!  See how Maru never gives up!  No matter how small the box, Maru will try to get inside!

Dessa on the Absurdity of Life

Here is a track from Dessa, a member of the Doomtree collective.  This song laments the absurdity of human existence.

Luck: Ancients vs Moderns, Day 2

Williams suggests that most ancient Greeks did not consider the question of whether slavery was just because they took it for granted that slavery was necessary for their way of life.  Aristotle made an even stronger claim, which is that slavery is just because some people are naturally born slaves.  Some people have a necessary identity as a slave.  Not only do modern thinkers reject the notion that people are born with necessary identities; we also reject the idea that considerations of justice cannot be replaced by luck, fortune or fate.  We cannot let luck settle questions of justice.  In modern society, we set up social institutions like homeless shelters, job training and health care; these institutions help us to mitigate the effects of bad luck.  The social or economic necessity that might make a person born poor remain poor, need not be coercive.  This means that no individual person's luck will be worse than others'.

Williams thinks that even though we attempt to control luck, we can never be completely successful.  Life is tragic and incomprehensible.  Ancient Greek poets were aware of this fact about human life.  Philosophers are guilty of trying to show that there is a rational order to the universe.  Williams thinks that the philosophers are wrong and the poets are right.  As evidence, it is a common occurrence in tropical places for people to be killed by falling coconuts.  This is a seemingly absurd event.  There is no rational explanation for such a death! We cannot make sense of it in terms of human purposes and human interests.  There is no predictable pattern or "style" to supernatural necessity.

Supernatural necessity can be contrasts with human necessity.  Human necessity is when one person forces another to do something, such as in the case of slavery.  Supernatural necessity is beyond or behind human necessity.  For example, a supernatural force may put a person in a situation to choose between two things that they care about.  For example, if a man stranded on a desert island found a rescue boat which can only hold one other person.  If this man has two children, he will have to choose one.  One interpretation of this situation is to say that such a person is forced to make a choice but that the choice is still his.  The man is not forced to choose a particular way.  Is accepting one's fate heroic or is it weak?

When a person in an ancient Greek tragedy accepts her fate, is this heroic or is it caving in to fate?  Is a person only accepting fate or collapsing in the face of fate?  It is true that luck may be against you, but you never know in what way exactly.  Once your fate has been determined, it is not only the case that things cannot be otherwise, but things will not be otherwise.  It may be unclear why this is the case.  We may not know how or why things must have been the way they are.  It's also not relevant because the gods are in control.  While human affairs might be explainable and understandable, this is not the case when the gods are in charge.  We cannot apply rational explanations to the actions of the gods.

Even if our lives are not controlled by capricious gods, Williams thinks that this does not yet mean that we are free.  The real obstacle to freedom is not a supernatural god.  The real obstacles to freedom are psychological, social and political causes.  For example, your parents or superiors at work can control you just as much as the gods could.  In another example, the influence of your family life and education can control you just as much as fate.  Even if our choices are not restricted, we can still be made unfree if we are persuaded by other people or forced to do things by other people.  In a more extreme case, people can be brainwashed and thus lose their freedom.  In many cases, not only are subjects of tyrannical governments made unfree; the tyrants themselves become controlled by their own brainwashing and rhetoric.

Kant and Plato object that people are free to determine themselves with reason when they are freed from outside influences.  Aristotle thought that although we are all embedded in a society, we can still shape and guide ourselves with rationality.  Hegel thought that our individual selves must be in harmony with social life.  But the poets suggest that these ideas about self-control are illusions.  The poets think that our lives are necessarily unharmonious.  They think that we cannot make perfect sense of the world with human reason.  The world is only partially intelligible.  

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Luck: Ancients vs Moderns

In the last week of class, we will be talking about the difference in attitudes about luck between ancient Greek culture and modern Western society.

Most ancient Greeks accepted that much of what happens to us in our lives is up to luck, fate or fortune.  Life is risky, unpredictable and full of luck.  Plato and Aristotle embraced, this view.  Both thought that virtue and happiness are subject to luck.  While they both thought that we can protect ourselves against luck, both acknowledge that we will never be completely free from the influences of luck.  Epictetus, however, thought that happiness and virtue are entirely our control.  Even if luck makes you poor, dirty and sick, you can still control your mental and emotional life; this is why Epictetus thought that luck plays no role in happiness and virtue.  Kant agrees with Epictetus that virtue is not subject to luck.  For him, being virtuous means having a good will.  Because we control our will, we are in control of our own virtue.  Kant thinks that happiness is subjective and so it may be vulnerable to luck.  

In the 17th century, advancements in mathematics and social sciences brought us modern understanding of probability and statistics.  This understanding increased the ability of groups of people to control their fates.  When you can have stable expectation about how the future will be, you can better plan.  For example, if you know that children whose parents smoke are more likely to develop asthma, we can collectively change our parenting methods in order to avoid asthma in future generations.  We cannot prevent accidents  from happening, but we can see causal patterns and attempt to avoid the causes of accidents.  We can now use social programs and institutions to regulate large-scale social outcomes.  This means that we have a wider view of what we are individually and collectively responsible.

Even now, people have very different ideas about luck.  Many people who identify as politically conservative (right-leaning) think that individuals can and should be held responsible whereas it is difficult to attribute responsibility to social groups.  Others who identify as politically liberal (left-leaning) are more likely to emphasize individual luck and social responsibility.  For example, imagine a bum on the street.  A bleeding-heart liberal may be more likely to point to social causes (poverty, lack of education) for this person's life in order to excuse the individual from some responsibility.  A cold-hearted conservative may say that the individual himself is solely responsible for being poor and on the streets.

Williams asks what differences between the ancient and modern world can explain why slavery was once accepted and how we think slavery is unjust.  He thinks that there are certain concepts are available to us now that the ancients did not have.  His paper considers whether this is the reason why ancients accepted slavery while we condemn slavery.

In ancient Greece, it was largely a matter of luck who ended up slaves.  All races of people could become slaves if their country was invaded.  This is contrasted with slavery in the American south, which was entirely determined by race.  In ancient Greece, every citizen knew that he or she could potentially become a slave if their country was invaded by another country.  It was widely accepted that a bout of bad luck could make a person a slave.  Also, a slave could be freed by lucky circumstances.  The ancient Greeks did not think of slavery as a matter of justice.  They thought it was just a matter of luck.

Greeks thought that slavery may have been unjust, but it was necessary for their way of life.  They saw no alternative.  Because the ancient Greeks thought that slaves were necessary, this prevented them from asking whether or not slavery was just.

Aristotle was an exception.  Not only did he think that slavery was necessary; he thought slavery was just.  Some people are born to be slaves.  It is in their nature to be slaves.  Because some people are born to be slaves, we owe it to ourselves and to those people to make sure that they are slaves.  Aristotle thought that just like our minds control our bodies, masters control slaves.  He acknowledged that there is a problem with this analogy because slaves themselves have their own souls, or minds.  By contrast, my arm does not have its own soul or mind.  Aristotle points out that the nature of a thing is revealed by its natural tendencies.  For example, most birds tend to fly and most fish tend to swim.  It is in a bird's nature to fly and in a fish's nature to swim.  Similarly, some people are naturally disposed to be subjugated and subordination.  People with submissive natures are naturally suited to be paired with people who have dominant natures.
Like slaves, women lack authority.  Unlike slaves, women have the ability to reason and make choices.

Aristotle thought that our natures are not only determined by factors such as gender.  He thought that everyone has a necessary identity.  Your necessary identity is just who you are essentially or necessarily.  For example, if something is a lion, it is necessarily a lion.  Or if something is a square, it is necessarily a quadrangle with all sides of the same length.  Aristotle thought that if you are male, you are by nature male.  If you are female, it is by nature.  If one is a slave, it is necessarily so.  Slavery is hence a social role that is a necessary part of who a person is.

Seneca was a philosopher in ancient Rome who also thought that slavery was just.  He thought that everyone is born free.  True freedom is mental freedom.  Because slavery only enslaves the body, the mind is left free.  Therefore, slavery does not conflict with freedom.  Slavery does not take anything away from slaves.  Hence slavery is justified.

A modern liberal conception of social justice is that there is no such thing as necessary identity.  Who a person is is not determined by nature.  But this is not the main difference.  The main difference between modern societies and ancient Greece is that we now demand that neither individual luck nor social luck should take the place of considerations of justice.  Even if luck can make a person poor, dirty and sick, this does not address concerns about social justice.  Social justice requires that we control the impact of luck.  While ancient Greeks thought that it is ok if luck makes a  person a slave, we now think that luck cannot justify things like slavery.  We think that we can control our collective fates and so we cannot just let luck make a person a slave.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Luck in Tort Law Day 2: Waldron and Objections to Socialized Liability

Waldron thinks that because luck plays a role in accidents like automobile accidents, the costs of these accidents should not be the burden of the individuals involved.  Waldron thinks that insurance for accidents should be completely socialized.  This means that the government should pay for the costs of accidents.  In order to argue for socialized insurance, Waldron uses a thought experiment.

Imagine two drivers, Fortune and Fate.  Fortune and Fate are equally safe drivers who are going down the same road.  Both drivers are distracted by a sign that advertises a great shoe sale.  The only difference is that someone driving a motorcycle, Hurt, happens to dart in front of Fate.  Fate gets in an accident.  Fortune is lucky and does not get into an accident.  Both performed the same act of carelessness, but only one will have to pay for the damages of the accident.  Even though Fortune and Fate made the same mistake (being distracted by the shoe sale sign), only Fate has to suffer the burdens of the cost of the accident.  Waldron thinks it is unfair that Fate may go broke paying for the cost of the accident while Fortune bears no burden.  

In order to show why our current system is unfair, Waldron considers many possible ways to decide how the victims of accidents are compensated.

Pure individual liability is the system where people who cause accidents by being negligent or reckless pay for the cost of injury.  Whatever the cost, the person who causes the injury must fully compensate the injured party.  Pure individual liability is unfair because luck is the sole factor to determine who pays.  

Individual liability plus optional third-party insurance is the system where everyone is individually liable by they also have the option to purchase private insurance that will cover some of the costs of the accident.  The insurance company then pays on behalf of the person who caused the accident.  Someone might object to optional insurance systems because those who lack insurance will pay less for the accident than those who have insurance.  If only some people are insured, this means that the insurance companies and those who purchase insurance will end up bearing most of the burden of the costs of accidents.  

Individual liability with mandatory third-party insurance is the system we have now in the U.S. Every individual is liable for the cost of accidents but everyone also has insurance that can pay on their behalf.  Someone might object to this view because not everyone can pay for insurance, so it is unfair to require that everyone buys insurance.  This objection can be met if insurance is subsidized for low-income parties.  If insurance is affordable for everyone, then it is fair to require everyone to have insurance.  A further objection is to claim that because this view still puts the burden of the cost of paying for accidents on individuals, it is unfair.  Most people have a low limit to how much money they can get from insurance.  Many people who have insurance will still have to pay a lot of money "out of pocket" because the insurance they have is insufficient to cover the cost of an accident.  Even if insurance is mandatory, unlucky individuals who cause accidents still end up bearing most of the burden of paying for accidents.  It is unfair that luck plays such a large role in determining who pays for accidents.

Socialized liability or a "no fault" system (such as the system in New Zealand) is a system where accident victims are compensated by a public governmental insurance fund.  All drivers pay an equal amount into the public insurance fund.  Such a system is supposed to be fair because both Fortune and Fate (who are equally negligent) bear equal burdens to pay for the cost of accidents.  One variation would be to include fines for negligence so that people who are more reckless and more negligent have to bear more of the burden of paying for accidents.  On this variation, Fortune and Fate would both pay for the accident (through the public insurance system) and both would pay an additional fine for being negligent.

Now we consider how someone might argue against a system of socialized liability.  What kinds of moral considerations might be used to argue against socialized liablity?  

Desert.  Someone might consider whether the people who pay for accidents are the people who deserve to pay.  Waldron says that consideration of desert will not support an individual liability system.  Fate does not deserve to bear the cost of paying for the accident because his negligence was so minor.  We all take our eyes off the road for a moment or two.  Since Fate's mistake was so minor, he does not deserve to pay for the full cost of the accident.  Both Fate and Fortune are equally negligent.  According to desert, both Fortune and Fate should pay the same amount to cover the cost of the accident.  Someone might say that desert is not a relevant consideration because desert is concerned with punishment and corrective justice, not retributive justice and tort law.  

Distributional Fairness.  Assume that either Fate or Hurt should pay.  It's unfair to make Fate pay for reasons listed above.  But it's even more unfair to make Hurt pay, since Hurt is entirely innocent.  Waldron will note that neither should have to pay.  It's not fair for either to pay, so we should socialize liability entirely.

Causation.  Someone might object to socialized liability because then the peole who pay for the accident are not the people who caused the accident.  Drivers who never cause accidents will still end up paying for those accidents because they have to pay into the public insurance system.  Waldron will respond that there is nothing special about causation.  Consider a several car pile up accident.  In such a case, many drivers who cause damages are not personally responsible.  If you are in a multi-car crash, you may be the driver who causes damage to the driver in front of you, but you are not responsible, since it is not your fault that you were caught in the middle of the accident.  You may only cause damage because a different reckless driver ran into you.  It seems fair that everyone who was reckless should pay for such an accident.  Not only the cars who were physically in the accident, but also the drivers who created the unsafe environment should bear the cost of the accident.  In short, there is no direct link between causation and liability.   

Lottery to Determine Liability.  Someone might think that the random outcome of the accident is used as a basis for determining liability.  The risk involved with the original accident is the same risk of liability that a person in the accident has.  So both Fortune and Fate share an equal risk of liability for the cost of the accident.  As long as the risk of liability is the same as the risk of harm that Hurt was exposed to, this should be fair.  Waldron says that while this may be somewhat fair, it is unfair because Fate will have to pay more than Fortune.  They may share the same risk, but they do not share the burdens of paying for the accident.

Waldron closes with a Rawls-style argument.  Imagine that you do not know whether you will be the accidental cause of an accident or the unlucky victim.  Waldron thinks that when you do not know what role you play in the accident, it is rational to want a socialized liability system because you would want the worst possible position to be as good as possible.  If we follow the maximin rule for choosing how risky of a system we want, it is rational to want socialized liability.  

Congrats on Finishing Your Papers!

Since you have all finished your second papers, I offer this clip as a reward.  Beware: cuteness and hilarity abound in this short video.  Enoy the Polar Bear Baby Blue Hat Show.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Luck in Tort Law

So far we have talked about criminal law.  Criminal law covers cases where a crime has been committed in violation of the law.  Criminal law depends on guilty intent and breaches which make us liable to punishement.  Civil law, or torts, does not deal with crimes that are met with punishment.  Tort law has to do with accidents and cases of negligence where instead of punishment, the offender must repay the victim or restore the victim to a prior state.  For example, if there is a fender-bender, tort law deals with the issues of who is financially responsible to repair the damage.

The main question of tort law is who should pay for damages.  With regards to luck, the question is whether a person should have to pay for an unlucky accident.  A further question is how much he negligent driver should pay.  Waldron thinks that society should also be liable for damages.  In other words, when an unlucky accident happens, the government pays for damage.  Liability for risk is socialized.  Our current system is a modest form of socialized liability because we must pay for insurance, which in turn makes the insurance company liable to pay for the damages of an accident.  Waldron thinks that we need more than just insurance.  He thinks that we need a system that fully socializes the liability of risk.

Next week, we will explore Waldron's view in detail.

Luck in Punishment Day 2: Lewis

Lewis notes that in the current legal system, punishments are determined in part by luck.  Consider two people who intend to commit the same crime and perform the same action, such as firing a gun in order to kill someone. One person is successful and commits murder.  The other is unsuccessful due to a chance event, such as a sneeze or a bird flying in the path of the bullet.  The murderer will be punished more harshly even though the only difference in what the two people did was a matter of luck.  Lewis thinks that the current system of punishment can be justified.  First, he thinks that lotteries of punishment can be justified.  Second, he thinks that our current system is analagous to a penal lottery.  Since our system is just like a penal lottery and a penal lottery can be justified, then our current system is justified.

On Tuesday, we discussed the justification step of his argument.  Today we will talk about the analogy segment of the argument.

In order to argue that our current legal system is analagous to a penal lottery, Lewis runs through a number of thought experiments.  Imagine a case like the one above. In case #1, the risk of penalty for the crime is proportionate to the level of risk that the criminal inflicted upon the victim.  For example, if the criminal exposed a victim to a 95% chance of death, the criminal then faces a 95% chance of punishment. Case #2 is the same as #1 except a person is chosen to determine the punishment by chance before the trial and then this person (the public drawer) keeps the result a secret.  The only difference is when the punishment is decided.  Case #3 is just like Case #2 except the punishment is announced before the trial. Lewis thinks that although we know the outcome before the trial, the trial is still important in order for us to establish the criminal's guilt and also to express the wrongness of the crime.  Lewis thinks that #1, #2 and #3 are all equally just.  Case #4  is just like #3, except the winner gets a short prison sentence instead of going free.  This is an impure lottery because the criminal is punished either way.  The criminal has no chance to "win" by being set free. This is supposed to help motivate reasons for the trial itself.  Case #5 is just like #4, except instead of subjecting the criminal to a lottery with 95% chance of punishment, we reenact the original crime with the same probability of harm.  Whether the reenactment is successful determines whether the criminal will be punished.  This reenactment, because it creates the same chances of punishment as a lottery, is as just as a penal lottery.  Case #6 is just like #5 except instead of reenacting the crime, we just rely on the information we have about the original crime.

Case #6, where we replace a reenactment of the crime with the actual crime itself,  will have great practical advantage over an actual reenactment of the crime. Moreover, this way of deciding punishment is the same as our current practices.  In current legal system, we use evidence about the original crime and whether that crime was successful as a way to determine if punishment is deserved.  The risk of punishment is proportional to the original risk that the criminal exposed the victim to.  Because it was a matter of luck whether the original crime was successful, it is also then a matter of luck whether the original crime is punished and how harshly the criminal is punished.

Lewis thinks the main problem with our current system is that it is confusing because winners and losers in the penal lotter are equally guilty.  In an actual penal lottery, both criminals are subject to the same chance of punishment.  In our system, which Lewis thinks is a "covert" penal lottery, it is not clear that equally guilty parties are subject to the same risk of punishment.  Lewis thinks that in our current system, it is still up to luck whether a person is punished.  Luck does not come in at the level of an actual lottery but luck does come into effect during the actual crime itself.

Someone might think that a penal lottery is unable to express ideas about the wrongness of a crime or upholding the rights of the victim.  Expressing disapproval and condemnation of crimes requires not just subjecting a criminal to the risk of punishment.  Expression requires that the punishment is actually enacted.  Someone else might think that anger is not appeased when punishments are actually enacted; this is the view that propitiation is not satisfied by a penal lottery.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Tale of Luck, Moral Responsibility and Justice

Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog is a web series that revolves around issues of justice, moral responsibility and luck.  It takes about 45 minutes to watch the whole thing; each act takes about 15 minutes.  If you like supervillains, musicals or Neal Patrick Harris, I highly recommend this brilliant show from the equally brilliant Joss Whedon.  It also features The Guild's Felicia Day.  It's funny, entertaining and surprisingly deep:

Act I, Part 1
Act I, Part 2

Act II, Part 1
Act II, Part 3

Act III, Part 1
Act III, Part 2


Luck in Punishment: Lewis

When it comes to justice and punishment, the basic question is why we are justified in punishing people?  Under what circumstances is punishment just?  

There are many standard rationales for punishment.   Some think that punishment is justified based on retribution.  Retribution is the idea that people who break the law deserve to be punished.  How much a person deserves to be punished depends on how guilty they are.  Not only is punishment appropriate in itself, but it also makes the world a better place when people who do bad things are punished.  Some think that punishment is justified by deterrence.  Deterrence is the idea that punishment should be used to prevent future crimes from being committed.  If lawbreakers are punished, others may be less likely to break the law because they will want to avoid punishment.  Another rationale for punishment is expression.  Expression is the idea that we must punish people in order to express our disgust and hatred for the crime committed or to affirm the existence of the victim's rights.  Others think that propitation is a justification for punishment.  Propitation is the notion that we should punish people in order to satisfy the anger and wrath of God, gods, the public or the victim's friends and families.  

Current legal practice embraces luck.  We punish people more severely when they are successful at their crimes.  Even when it is a matter of pure luck that a person is successful at murder, for example, we still punish the lucky successful murderer more than we punish the "unlucky" unsuccessful murderer.  Even when there is no difference in effort, intent or dangerousness of crime, we still punish people who are lucky and successful with their crime much more than we punish people who are unlucky and unsuccessful.  

Imagine Yi and Eric.  Both Yi and Eric aim a loaded gun at an innocent victim and fire their weapons.  Eric hits his target while Yi has the bad luck of having a sneeze right when he pulled the trigger.  Only Eric is successful at murdering his target.  Although both had the same effort and intent to commit the same dangerous crime, Eric will have a less sever punishment merely because of luck.  The difference in punishment does not have to do with things that Eric and Yi could control.  Although Yi may serve a life sentence and Eric may be out of prison in ten years, the only difference in their crimes is luck.  In essence, luck determines the severity if punishment.

Lewis thinks that according to standard rationales, the role of luck in punishment cannot be justified.  He says that retribution cannot justify the role of luck in punishment.  If punishment is only appropriate because the criminal is guilty, then both Eric and Yi are equally guilty.  Since Eric and Yi are equally guilty, they should be punished equally.  According to retribution, the influence of luck on punishment cannot be justified.  What about deterrence?  If we know that we will be punished more severely if we are successful with our crimes, it is unclear whether the role of luck can be justified.  If we know that attempted crimes are punished less severely, we may be more likely to try again.  Others may be uninfluenced by the role of luck.  At best, it is unclear that deterrence can support the role of luck in punishment.  It is also unclear that expression can justify the role of luck in punishment.  If we punish people less severely when their crimes are  unsuccessful, it seems that this will express the idea that we find successful crimes morally worse than unsuccessful crimes.  In order to express the idea that attempted crimes are equally as bad, we would have to punish murder and attempted murder the same.  Expression cannot support the role of luck in punishment.  Then Lewis considers propitation.  He says that only propitatation can clearly support the role of luck in punishment.  This is because we are only angry when the crimes are actually successful.  We are angry when people die but not when they live.  So if a person dies because a criminal is lucky, it makes sense that we are more angry at the successful murderer than at the unsuccessful murderer. Only propitation clearly supports the role of luck in punishment.  

But just because propitation can support the role of luck in punishment, this does not yet give us a flat-out justification for the role of luck in punishment.

Lewis tries to give a better way to justify the role of luck in punishment in the current legal system: a penal lottery.  In other words, Lewis thinks the status quo is justifiable.  Lewis has us imagine a lottery of punishment.  On the one hand, whether a person is convicted of a crime is based on what crime a person attempted to commit.  In other words, a person is convicted because of their motives and efforts to commit a crime.  Punishment, on the other hand, is determined by chance, as if by lottery.  A pure version of a punishment lottery would be that if you win, you go free and if you lose, you get a full punishment.  Our system is more like an impure version of a punishment lottery, which means that if you win, you get a short prison sentence and if you lose, you get the full punishment.

Penal lotteries already exist.  For example, imagine that a regiment of soldiers commit mutiny.  To punish the regiment, one out of the ten soldiers of punished by death.  The person to die is chosen by random chance.  A more contemporary version of a penal lottery can be seen in the current prison system.  While in prison, a person has the risk of being beaten, raped and assaulted.  A person may die while in prison or may catch a lethal sexually transmitted STD.  Although two people may be sentenced to 10 years in prison, one person may be punished more severely if he or she is beaten daily while in jail or if he or she catches AIDS.  Every person who goes to prison is subject to a penal lottery.

Lewis's main argument has to stages.  The first stage is a justification of a penal lottery.  The second stage is to show that our current legal practice is analagous to a penal lottery.

Stage 1: Justification.  Why is a penal lottery justifiable?  A penal lottery is better than a penal system that punishes successful and unsuccessful criminals equally.   First, there are practical advantages to having a penal system that is sensitive to luck.  For example, it speeds up the system.  Once we know a crime has been committed, it's much easier to punish people if we don't try to account for and compensate for luck. Also, it's cheaper to allow a lottery to decide punishments than to just put all the people who attempt crimes in jail.  Second, there is expressive value to a penal lottery.  If a criminal took a risk when committing a crime, then it is poetic justice that the criminal is subject to risk and chance when their punishment is determined. Whatever risk of harm a criminal subjected her victim to, that criminal deserves the same risk of harm.  Third, deterrence may or may not justify a penal lottery.  Some people may be less likely to commit crimes if they know that the punishment is decided by a lottery.  Others may be more likely to commit crimes if they know that luck will determine their punishment.  Fourth, dessert can justify a penal lottery.  The idea of dessert is that a person deserves punishment based on how guilty they are.  Imagine Eric and Yi again.  Both are equally guilty because both have equal effort and intent to commit a crime.  A penal lottery will treat them equally because both Eric and Yi will face equal chances of being punished in the penal lottery.  Someone might object by saying that they both deserve to suffer equally, but Lewis says that it is not up to us to decide how much a person does suffer.  It is up to luck and fortune to determine how much a criminal suffers.  Also, some people will suffer more just because they have a melancholy personality.  We can only make sure that there is an equal chance of punishment.  Based on these four reasons, Lewis thinks he can justify a penal lottery.  He notes that even if this justification is not sufficient, he does not see anything wrong with a lottery of punishment.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Respect the 'Eater

Since there is no class today and you are all anxiously awaiting your grades, I post this video as a bit of fun and enjoyment to help you through the day.  Here is video of an adorable anteater learning to walk.  Anteaters are related to bears but they will not mess you up or steal your picnic baskets like bears will.  Behold the gentle anteater:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Luck and Social Justice: Dworkin

Dworkin's view on luck and justice is what can be called "luck-egalitarianism".  Like Nagel, Dworkin thinks that justice requires society to compensate for only certain kinds of luck.  Dworkin thinks that all members of a society should receive equal concern for their lives.  Because we must avoid tyranny, we must have equal concern for all members of a society.  Dworkin says that equal concern for all members means that everyone has  the same amount of resources (money, talents, skills, goods, property, etc.).  If there is inequality of resources, society unjustly discriminates between individuals.  The basic distribution of resources must be equal.

While justice requires equality of resources, it does not require equality of welfare.  Whether a person is happy or whether a person has their personal tastes satisfied is irrelevant to justice.  What determines if a person has enough resources is how much other people value that person's resources.  Imagine two people: Bill and Ted.  Bill and Ted have the same amount of resources.  Bill is very happy about his resources.  Ted is a melancholy kind of dude and he complains all the time that he does not have enough resources.  Even though Bill is better off in terms of happiness and general welfare, this inequality is not unjust.  Because Bill and Ted have equal resources, their situation is just.

So long as people start off with equal resources, inequalities are just insofar as the inequalities reflect choices made.  For example, Betty and Veronica start out with the same resources.  Betty goes to college, buys a home and has a happy life.  Veronica chose to spend all her money on blow and hookers and is now broke and a bum.  Because the inequality between Betty and Veronica is the result of choices made, it is just.  If the inequality were the result of  natural talent or endowment or being born rich, then the inequality would be unjust.  In order to be just, inequalities must reflect choices.

Contrast this with Nozick's libertarianism.  Nozick's view is sensitive to both luck and choice.  It is sensitive to choice because the outcomes of voluntary transactions are legitimate.  Some outcomes reflect choices.  Hie view is also sensitive to luck (natural endowments) because a person who is born rich or smart or beautiful can justly be better off in society.   Some outcomes reflect luck.  Nagel agrees with Nozick that natural talents and skills are just reasons for inequalities.  Nagel disagrees with Nozick about social endowments, however.  Nagel thinks that social endowments like class are not just reasons for inequalities.

So like Nagel, Dworkin thinks that only certain kinds of luck are relevant to social justice.  First there is option luck, which is just luck about the consequences of a chosen risk or deliberate gamble.  For example, if you choose to buy a lottery ticket, it is a matter of option luck if you win or lose.  Option luck is irrelevant to justice.  Brute luck is luck about consequences when there is not a chosen risk or gamble.  For example, it is a matter of brute luck if you are born with a rare disease or if you are born rich or poor.  Brute luck is relevant to justice.

In some cases, option luck and brute luck are connected by insurance.  For example, it is a matter of brute luck whether you get severely ill.  But if you could have bought insurance earlier and did not, then it is a matter of option luck that you cannot afford your medical bills.  Insurance converts a situation from being merely a matter of brute luck to being a situation of option luck.

Justice requires the elimination of brute bad luck on the relative distribution of resources.  

Does Dworkin's view require socialism?   Must the government control the distribution of goods?  Dworkin says no.  He thinks that markets do not need to be controlled by the government.  Dworkin says that justice is achieved in a market economy.  Dworkin thinks that an economic market (a hypothetical auction) helps us to formulate the ideal of equality of resources.  Economic markets help to create goods.  To clarify this, Dworkin has us imagine a thought experiment.

Imagine that there has been a shipwreck.  Survivors have made it to land.  The question is how the survivors should justly distribute the resources.    Dworkin thinks that a just distribution needs to pass an "envy test". Dworkin says that in order to avoid envy, everyone should prefer their own bundle of resources to the resources of others.  A single person could not decide this because some people might end up with a bunch of resources that they hate.  The solution is an auction.  Everyone has the same amount of clamshells to use as currency.   Bundles of resources are sold to the highest bidder, just like at an auction.  This is continued until all of the "lots" or bundles of resources are sold.  The auction continues until everyone is satisfied.  Dworkin thinks that this method will help to reduce envy, since everyone had an opportunity to buy the same bundles of resources.  This auction is an example of a market economy that is very compatible with equality of resources.

Dworkin thinks that the above thought experiment should be used as a standard that to judge actual economic markets.  Actual markets should approximate the results of this hypothetical auction.

Somone might object to Dworkin by pointing out that luck still determines success.  If a person takes a big risk on choosing resources and then succeeds, why is the resulting inequality fair?  Dworkin would say that people who avoid risks gain something else instead: a life with enhanced security.  Also, it is fair when someone takes a gamble and loses because that person still has the opportunity to gain more resources.  The risk-taker may lack resources but he or she does have a life or risk-taking that allows them the possibility of future good luck. Because it is a matter of option luck (and not a matter of brute luck) that a person has failed, the unlucky consequences are just.  Scanlon will respond by noting that individual responsibility does not preclude social responsibility.  Just because a person chose to take a gamble does not mean that society therefore lacks all responsibility to take care of that person.

Dworkin thinks that people who have brute bad lack should be compensated.  Specifically, we must compensate people born with handicaps, for example, as much as they would receive if a person with a normal chance of success would have insured themselves against that handicap.  For example, if a person with average resources would insure himself against being blind for $1 million, then the blind woman should be compensated $1 million.

Objection on the grounds that the distinction between brute and option luck is indeterminate.  Someone might object to Dworkin because it is too hard to tell the difference between option luck and brute luck.  For example, imagine a farmer who chooses to plant a certain crop based on the weather.  Imagine that the weather is different than expected and so the farmer has much less success than if the farmer had chosen a different crop.  Is it just if this farmer starves?  Is it fair that this person "chose his fate"?  Someone might think that it is too hard to tell whether this is brute luck or option luck.

Another might object by asking when brute luck can be transformed into option luck by insurance.  Under what circumstances must a person be expected to buy insurance?  Must a person insure against freak accidents like being hit by a meteorite?  What about insurance against a lifetime of medical illness?

Someone can also object on the grounds that some bad luck is neutral from the point of view of social justice.  Ala Nagel, someone might say that there are limits to social control.  For example, if a person has a radically shortened lifespan, society might not have an obligation to provide them with additional resources?  Or perhaps the social costs of compensating someone will be too high.  For example, it may cost a lot of money to prevent a genetic disease that shortens lifespans. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Social Justice Day 3: Nagel

Nagel is responding to other views on social justice.  To better understand his project, let's first give a summary of social justice so far.

The problem of social justice arises from the conditions of modern society.  Because we participate in mutual cooperation with others, goods arise.  For example, workers in a factory make a certain product which earns money.  Students and faculty in a university work together to further knowledge.  A just society is a society that shares the goods fairly.  Not only do the benefits of cooperation need to be distributed fairly; we also have to distribute burdens fairly.  The problem of social justice is to ask what arrangement in society would be just?

Nozick's view, which Rawls calls Natural Liberty, is the view that justice requires first and foremost individual rights.  Everyone should have equal rights and jobs should be earned based on talents.  The goal is to have an efficient free market.  The consequences of luck, such as where you are born or how beautiful you are born, are not obstacles to justice.  If you are born poor, dumb, dirty and ugly, it's not unjust.  

Rawls' view is Democratic Equality, which requires that equality is the main requirement for justice.  Basic personal liberties are to be maximized.  Also, there should be fair equality of opportunities.  Everyone who has the talent, intelligence and skill should be able to have the same opportunities, such as going to college, getting work training or having enough food to eat.  In addition, any inequalities of power of goods should be such that they benefit the worst off in a society.  The results of luck in matters of social class, race, ethnicity, culture, race, beauty, brains, etc., are regulated by society.  

Nagel says that both of the above views have a problem of scope.  In other words, the views get something wrong about what kinds of interactions and practices fall under the category of things that can rightly be called "just".  Nagel thinks that the natural liberty view defines the scope of justice too narrowly.  Nagel says that socio-economic status is a clear result of existing social systems and hierarchies.  Because socio-economic status is caused by social institutions and practices, it falls within the scope of justice.  Justice applies to social institutions and practices and the results of those institutions and practices.  Nagel thinks that the view of democratic equality defines the scope of justice too broadly.  He thinks Rawls' view does not allow room to consider competing social values or social costs.  According to this view, all causes of social inequality that are not caused by an individual are arbitrary.  Because the causes of social inequality are abitrary, it is up to a society to fix these inequalities.  But Nagel thinks that some inequalities are more unfair than others.  Society need not fix all inequalities; it must only fix the most unfair inequalities.  

Nagel's proposal for social justice is the following:  Because socio-economic inequality is socially created,  it falls under the scope of social justice.  But some natural differences are not socially created, so it is not clear that they fall under the scope of social justice.  Only the things that truly result from social cooperation should call under the heading of social justice.

For example, pretend that 10% of a population has a gene that causes them to die at a young age.  There are ways to test for this gene at birth.  Certainly it is a great disadvantage to die at a young age.  A shortened lifespan is an obstacle to certain kinds of success.  Nagel says that justice does not require that society helps these people.  There may be a huge social cost or economic cost to the society to help these people.  This cost may outweigh the benefits of trying to help these people.  Because nature (and not society) is the cause of this inequality, justice does not require that we fix this inequality.  

Another example that Nagel considers is natural talents and education.  Some valuable pursuits are naturally associated with inequality, such as education, excellence in art, research and exploration.  Opportunities to have advanced education or to perform advanced research are not equally afforded to all.  Differences in natural talents and prior education determine future opportunities for such things.  The question is whether society needs to provide more than simply substantive fair equality of opportunity.  Must society make sure that such inequalities are good for the worst off in society?  Nagel thinks not.  Nagel thinks that these pursuits are valuable whether or not they benefit the people who are lowest and worst off in a society.  
The unequal benefits of education are up to nature, not society.  

The last example is about sex and life prospects.  Sex, or gender, is unlike intelligence or wealth because it is not as if there is a broad spectrum of sex.  There are two sexes (male and female) and everyone is either one or the other.  This natural division of reproductive labor has far-reaching consequences.  Women are subject to inequalities that are not just the result of their ability to reproduce but also result from social systems.  For example, women may have less opportunity for power in politics, employment or economic independence.  The question is whether justice requires that we eliminate social inequalities that arise out of sex differences.  For example, if women make less money at the same jobs as men, does justice require that women are compensated equally?  Even if there are social costs to fixing such inequalities, must we fix these inequalities?  Nagel thinks that in a modern society, inequalities that result from gender are not a matter of mere luck or nature.  All women born into our society are affected by the social structures that disadvantage women regardless of whether women actually are mothers.  Because the social inequalities based on gender are socially created, justice requires that we try to compensate for these inequalities.  Nagel thinks that women who do not have children should have the same opportunities as men.  But women who do have children should not be worse off than men.  

More Hip Hop on Society

"Little Kids" is a POS song that tells the narrative of three different lives. POS is a Minneapolis rapper from the Doomtree collective.  When listening to this song, consider what role luck plays in how these different lives turn out.  How much do families and social groups influence the outcomes for these people's lives?

"Room with a View" is another Brother Ali track that describes the social scene that Brother Ali can literally see out his window.  What factors do luck play in the scene that Brother Ali paints?  Does justice require that we compensate the members of this socio-economic group for their unlucky origins?

"Market Made Murder" is a song by SIMS, another M.C. with Doomtree.  He describes in this song how he sees modern economy.  Ask whether his description is accurate.  Also ask what role luck plays in the society that he describes.  Does justice require that we regulate such unlucky circumstances?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Social Justice Day 2: Objections to Rawls

Objection #1. Although Rawls meant to provide his theory of justice as an alternative to utilitarianism, we can construct a utilitarian theory of justice by changing Rawls' views slightly.  Harsyani thinks that we should "go behind a veil of ignorance" and that once we are, we would agree to a principle of utility: maximizing pleasures and minimizing pains over the whole group.  Harsyani says that this is like a gamble, where we can end up being anyone in society.  Because we want to maximize net pleasures and because we could end up being anyone, Harsyani thinks that we would choose utilitarian principles.

Reply. While this slight change to Rawls' view is a version of utilitarianism, Rawls thinks that the argument is inadequate. First, Harsyani is wrong to describe this as a gamble.  When you gamble, there are specific probabilities at work.  But this is not like society.  Although I know the exact odds of getting four of a kind in poker, there is no way to know the odds that I will end up broke-ass poor from a future financial crisis.  It is inaccurate to consider this as a gamble.  Second, when the stakes are so high, the rational thing will not be to make a gamble or to maximize pleasures.  The rational thing to do will be to avoid uncertainty.  Rawls thinks that this is why we will prefer his own theory of justice over a utilitarian position.

Objection #2.  Nozick puts forward a theory called Libertarianism (not the same kind of libertarianism on the debate on moral responsibility).  This it the view that a just society means a minimal government that respects "natural rights".  What rights do we have outside of a society?  Nozick thinks that first and foremost, we own ourselvses.  Because we own ourselves, we have rights to acquire property by "mixing our labor" with resources.  For example, if I go out berry picking and harvest a bunch of berries, I own those berries because I worked to get those berries.  Natural property rights forbid social regulation and distribution of goods.  We also have a right to buy or sell or trade goods voluntarily.  Only voluntary transfers are allowed.  Taxation is a theft because it is not a voluntary transfer of our goods.  We also have a right to be compensated for violations of our rights to acquire and transfer goods.  There are no other rights.

Reply.  Libertarianism allows for injustice in a number of areas.  First, exploitation is totally legit as long as we are exploited voluntarily.  For example, people really need to heat their homes in Minnesota in the winter.  If power companies wanted to, they could overcharge for electricity that we use to heat our homes.  Natural gas companies can also exploit cold citizens of Minnesota as well.  As long as the transfers are voluntary, they are allowed by a libertarian system.  Second, there can be people in absolute poverty who we owe nothing to.  There is no duty to by charitable to people in need.  It would be totally OK in Nozick's system if large groups of people lived in the streets.  Third, there can be large relative inequalities.  Fourth, there can be environmental degradation.  It is not an issue of social justice for Nozick if the environment is ruined so long as everyone has property rights and rights to voluntary transfers of goods.  Another reply is to say that according to Nozick's argument, even a very small government cannot be justified.  Any government requires money to go to public services.  Because any government needs public money, there will be involuntary transfer of money from individuals to the government.

Brother Ali on U.S. Society

Here is another take on U.S. society from a MN act.  Brother Ali is a rapper from Minneapolis.  Here is his song "Uncle Sam Goddamn".  Consider whether he accurately describes society and whether the society he describes is just.

Put on Your Heiruspecs and Look at Society

Here is a song called "Positions of Strength" from a Saint Paul hip hop group, Heiruspecs.  This song describes certain structures of power and hierarchies in our society.  I offer this media as a connection to other material.  If you listen to the song, you can ask whether this is a good description of society.  Is the society described just, according to Rawls or according to Nozick?

Social Justice Day 2: Rawls Revisited

Today we continue on with the topic of social justice.  Specifically, we continue talking about Rawls.  He has some basic principle of justice. First, basic liberties are to be as broad as possible, consistent with equal liberty for all.  Second, offices and positions in society that have unequal reward are supposed to be formally available for all of similar talent, ability and motivation.  Third, any differences in social or economic goods are supposed to benefit the least advantaged person in society. The first principle is called the Principle of Equal Liberty and the second and third principles make up what is called the Difference Principle.  The difference principle, which Rawls also calls "democratic equality" ensures that benefits and rewards will not be distributed based on luck.  Luck cannot determine benefits and rewards because luck is morally arbitrary.  Rawls thinks that we should not distribute wealth, goods and power according to standards that are morally arbitarary.

In order to further his views on "democratic equality", Rawls first considers two alternative views and shows how these alternative views are inadequate because they allow benefits to be distributed based on things that are arbitrary from a moral point of view.

The first alternative is called The System of Natural Liberty.  This is the view that supports Rawls' first principle.  Namely, personal liberty should be expanded as far as possible so far as the liberty of others' is not limited.  The just society is one that has equal liberty for all and an efficient free market economy where jobs are open to everyone who has talents.  But this system allows that success can be determined by lucky circumstances.  Because equality is not actively pursued, initial distribution of goods and power will be based on lucky facts about where you are born into a society.  Once the initial distribution sets up this unequal distribution, future distributions will be further based on this inequality.  Perhaps luck will shape our lives.  But the system of natural liberty does not do any work to regulate the consequences of luck.

The second alternative is called Liberal Equality, which takes the above view and adds the first part of the difference principle to it.  The view is that we just need equality of liberty and equality of opportunities.  But Rawls thinks that this view also allows that lucky factors play too large a role in distribution of goods and power.  This view will work imperfectly because people are in families.  We cannot decide where the benefits go based on talents and motivation alone because even our talents and our motivation are often the result of our family upbringings.  Even if families did not shape talents and motivations, liberal equality still allows for distribution of goods based on a "natural lottery".  Wealth, power and talents are distributed naturally at birth. Because lucky factors such as being born smart or being born pretty are arbitrary from a moral point of view, they are not a good basis for distribution of these goods.

Rawls thinks that this shows that democratic equality (the second element of the difference principle) is necessary.  Only democratic equality will prevent distribution of benefits based on luck.

Caucus Q's Answered: 12 PM Section

1. According to Strawson, are we morally responsible for the pre-determined circumstances that we are born into?  Should we assume responsibility for what we cannot control?
Note that Strawson is working with a very strong kind of moral responsibility such that heaven or hell can be justified.  Strawson thinks that we lack such moral responsibility exactly because we cannot cause ourselves enough.  We are not the cause of the circumstances that we are born into, for example.  Because we cannot cause ourselves in important ways, we lack moral responsibility for these things.  In short, no, we are not responsible for the circumstances that we are born into.

2. Can you explain incompatibalism and determinism?  I am unsure about incompatibalism and compatibalism.

This question was addressed in #6 from last week's questions.  I have added some detail to my answer from last week!

3. What is the difference between the formal and informal argument for the different principle?
Rawls gives two arguments for the Difference Principle.  First is his formal argument.  This is the argument that when we are in the original position, it is only a matter of rational choice that we will choose the difference principle.  According to the maximin rule, which says that we should make the worst position in society as good as possible, it is only rational to choose the difference principle.  Because we could end up in the worst position, it is only rational to want any differences in power to benefit that worst position in society.  Second is is informal argument.  Because where in society we are born is arbitrary from a moral point of view, we should not give our rewards and benefits based on lucky facts about when and where we are born.  Extra power and wealthy should thus not be distributed based on lucky factors.  Benefits should be distributed in ways that benefit everyone, not just lucky people.

4. What is a utilitarian definition of well-being?
The classic forms of utilitarianism focus on happiness as well-being.  A simple version is that our pleasures outweigh our pains.  We want to maximize net pleasure and minimize net pains.  On a historical note,   John Stuart Mill thought that there were two ways to decide what the best kinds of happiness were.  First, the best pleasures are those that are associated with the mind.  For example, it is better to have pleasure while playing sudoku than to have pleasure while eating ice cream.  Second, we can determine which pleasures are best by performing a democratic poll.  The pleasures that the most people like are the best pleasures.  Of course, these two methods may end up with conflicting details.  

5. Would a Kantian theory of a good will be an adequate rebuttal to Scanlon's view that having reasons for your actions makes you morally responsible?
It seems to me that these views are actually very similar.  They identify moral responsibility as having a certain kind of mental state.  For Kant, you must have a good will and act in ways that follow universalizable laws.  You are morally responsible because of a certain mental state you have.  Similarly, Scanlon says that if you have reasons for your actions, you can be held morally responsible.  If you have reasons to do a good thing, you are morally good.  If you have reasons to do a bad thing, you are morally bad.  

But we can imagine an instance where someone has both a good will and they perform a bad action.  For example, if you honestly tell a Nazi officer that you are hiding Jews in your attic.  You both have (a) a good will and (b) reasons to do a bad thing.  According to Kant, you are morally good because you had a good will.   According to Scanlon, you are morally bad because you have reasons to perform a bad action.  The two certainly disagree.  Whether this is an adequate rebuttal depends on whether you can accept that we can be morally good even when we perform actions that have terrible consequences.  

6. Do we give credit to people who do good?  We focus so much on the negative.  Also, do we consider a person's successes or also on the opportunities given to them?
Well, we often focus on negative cases because they are often very clear.  Perhaps we can try to work with some positive examples.  It seems that we would consider not only success but whether that success came as a result of ample opportunities or whether it came in spite of very little opportunity to succeed.

Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM Section

1. Why should someone place blame on others when she herself has at some time been "blameworthy"?  What gives a person the right to judge and ultimately blame others?
I take this question to be directed toward Scanlon.  He would say that we have the "right" to judge and blame others because they are obligated to us by virtue of the relationships that we share with others.  Being in a relationship (friendship, mentor, waitress, fellow human being) entails certain expectations.  Because we enter into relationships, we make ourselves obligated to meet those expectations.  When those expectations are violated, then the person has harmed the relationship.  On the basis of harm to the relationship, we have a right to blame.  It is not because we are morally superior that we can blame others.  It is because we have entered into relationships with others that we can expect certain behaviors from them.  When those expectations are violated, we have the right to alter our relationship with another person, which is just what blame is.  Blame is to recognize a harm to a relationship and then alter the relationship accordingly.

2. What is the definition of "justice"?  If two ideologies have different definitions of justice, how can we compare them?  
"Justice" has meant a lot of things to a lot of people.  Thrasymachus thought that  'might makes right' explains justice best.  Rawls thinks that justice is fairness.  We will see still more conceptions of justice in this section of the course.  When different ideologies lead to conflicting definitions of justice, the philosopher's task is to ask which definition captures what justice really is.  There are many relevant questions: What are the practical consequences of this definition?  What foundational principles support this view?  Is the view logically consistent?  What other kinds of justification are present or lacking?

Ultimately, people may have different definitions of justice because they do not share basic values or they may prioritize values differently.  For example, someone may value personal liberty more than fairness and equality.  When this is the case, the best we can do is to identify the underlying reasons why we disagree and then talk about those differences, as well.

3. What would Rawls say about changing the "rules" of the game (life) during the game?  Sometimes while behind the veil of ignorance, even if people decide on rules with the best intentions, the game may not be balanced?
First, it is right that in general, Rawls would think that it is unfair to decide on rules during the play of a game.  This is because you already know what position you are in the game.  As a result, you will be inclined to choose rules that are biased and in your favor.  But yes, we can imagine that we are already playing a game the rules of which we must assess although we are already playing; this is exactly the situation we are in when it comes to the rules of society.  We are already "playing".  We are all already in society.  So we must pretend as if we are not playing and try to set aside our personal interests and knowledge of where we stand in the game.  We must put ourselves back behind the veil of ignorance and choose new, better rules.

4. In Rawl' "Veil if Ignorance" model of choosing just rules, what comes of the people who naturally take greater risks?  A "natural gambler" might make decisions that could be self-serving even if the odds are against them.
You point out an important methodological point.  Philosophy, political theory, economics and game theory all create models of human behavior based on the standard of a rational, self-serving individual.  It does seem to be a problem that many humans neither rational nor self-serving.  But remember that Rawls is not providing a description of how a society actually is modeled.  He is telling us what how he thinks a society should be modeled.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Luck and Social Justice: Rawls' Principles of Justice

Rawls thinks he is able to prove that procedural justice requires that we cannot choose utilitarian principles of justice.  When we consider what rules are just for society without considering how we could personally benefit from those rules, what rules would we pick?

Rawls does think we will accept the following principles of justice: a Principle of Equal Liberty, a Principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle.  The principle of equal liberty says that basic liberties are to be as expansive as possible so long as it does not interfere with others' liberty.  The principle of fair equality of opportunity says that positions high up in society (president, rock stars, etc) must be available to all groups (gender, race, age) and that everyone who has similar talent, ability and ambition has the same opportunity for success regardless of what class they are born into.  The difference principle says that the distribution of wealth and goods should be equal unless the inequal distribution benefits the people who are worst off in the society.  For example, we may give the president more power or more wealth, but this is only because this position is necessary to keep society going, so it benefits the people who are worse off.  Another example is that we give police officers more power but this is because we expect that because they have power, they can protect the weakest members of society. 

Rawls gives two arguments for the Difference Principle.  First is his formal argument.  This is the argument that when we are in the original position, it is only a matter of rational choice that we will choose the difference principle.  According to the maximin rule, which says that we should make the worst position in society as good as possible, it is only rational to choose the difference principle.  Second is is informal argument.  Because where in society we are born is arbitrary from a moral point of view, we should not give our rewards and benefits based on lucky facts about when and where we are born.  

Luck and Social Justice: Scanlon and Rawls

Last week and this Tuesday, we talked all about moral responsibility.  Today we shift directions to talk about social justice issues.  Social justice is a branch of theory that asks, "What makes a society good or just?"

Smart gives an example of a rich man who looks down on a poor person because he thinks, "We both had the same opportunities to be wealthy, but you chose to be poor".  This rich man thinks that it is just that some people are poor and have terrible lives because such people are responsible for their terrible conditions.  The basic idea is that people have freedom of will and adequate opportunities to succeed.  When we choose freely, we have no right to complain about the consequences because free choice legitimates outcomes.  Because society provided the poor man opportunities to succeed and the poor man chose instead to be poor, his poverty is deserved.  Along the same lines, someone might think that in a free market, everyone has an equal chance to succeed; this means that your actual condition (rich or poor) is deserved.  The freedom and opportunities available to everyone make the current socio-economic situation just.

Scanlon notes that there are flaws with the above argument. First, people often lack an opportunity to avoid their chosen condition.  People who are born into low-income families or neighborhoods have limited choices and opportunities, for example.  Someone who has to drop out of school at the age of 16 to work and help support his or her family certainly has less opportunity to attend college, for example.  Second, even when people do have opportunities to avoid poverty, free choices do not always necessarily make the outcomes legitimate.  It may be the case that individuals or societies still owe someone assistance.  For example, a person can freely choose to invest in the stock market and can be very careful but still lose all money because of an unlucky investment or a financial crisis.  This person may still be owed social support such as food stamps, health insurance or social security pension.

But let's get back to the basic questions of social justice.  Essential questions include, "When is a society just?"; "How much does a just society shape people's circumstances or hold people responsible for their choices?";  and (back to the main course topic) "To what extent does a just society reflect luck?"

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice was an influential book on the topic of social justice.  Rawls thought that social justice happens when we try to compensate for the lucky or unlucky circumstances that we are born into.  We can create principles of justice only when we set aside social and economic circumstances that "seem arbitrary from a moral point of view" (15).  Rawls notes that there are strong hierarchies that systematically shape our socio-economic status.  Where we are born into the hierarchy is a matter of luck.  A theory of justice should negate the unlucky circumstances that people are born into.

According to Rawls, justice is a kind of fairness.  Fairness is here means the same kind of fairness as we have when we play games.  For example, when you play pictionary with a group of friends, it will not be fair to put all of the good artists on one team.  Outcomes of social practices are fair if and only if we agree to the rules before we know whether the rules will benefit us more than they benefit others.  A social practice is just an activity that people perform together as a group for mutual benefit.  For example, if we play poker with a wild card, we will not choose the wild card based on what cards someones has in his or her hand.  We choose the wild card before the cards have been dealt.  In other words, we have to choose the terms of society in ignorance of our position of relative advantage (85).  Choosing the terms of a social practice without knowledge of how we benefit from those terms is a matter of pure procedural justice.

Fairness in the "basic structure" of society involves two things.  First, we must imagine that we are ignorant of our social position, class, gender or race.  This is what Rawls calls a "veil of ignorance".  Second, we then ask what rules or terms of society we would want (assuming that we don't know where in a social hierarchy we fall).  Because we don't know where we fall in the society, we will want to minimize risks about the rules of our society.  Rawls thinks we would want to follow the maximin rule, which means that we try to maximize the minimal position.  The thought is that you want to provide the best possible worst position.  Because it is possible that you will end up in the worst position, you will want that worst position to be as good as possible.  Such a society is a fair because the way of choosing rules and terms of society was fair.  Each person is represented as "free and equal" because principles of justice were chosen with everyone's interests being treated equally.  When we consider the interests of everyone equally from behind this veil of ignorance, this is what Rawls calls the "original position".

Now that we know how we can choose principles for a just society, we have to consider what principles we actually would choose when behind a veil of ignorance.

Rawls thinks that we would not accept utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is the view that we should maximize collective welfare.  In other words, utilitarians   Rawls thinks that utilitarianism will be rejected because it allows individuals to be sacrificed for the benefit of the majority.  For example, some people might lose freedom and liberty by being enslaved by other members of the society.  So long as slavery creates maximum pleasures for the most people, it can be justified by a utilitarian principle.  Another problem is that there is no limit to inequality in a society.  As long as the majority of people are happy and doing well, it will not matter if a few people are stuck with extreme poverty.  As long as the overall welfare is improved, a few individuals can be destitute or enslaved.  Because utilitarianism allows for the sacrifice of individuals for the benefit of the majority, Rawls does not think that we will accept utilitarian principles when behind a veil of ignorance.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scanlon on the Ethics of Blame

When someone is blameworthy, to what extent can be blame them?  How much blame is justified?  Well, we can always choose to forgive someone.  First, it can be easy to forgive someone if we acknowledge the role that luck played in his or her actions.   Even if a friend hurts our feelings, we can forgive them, which is not to undermine the judgment that something wrong was done.  Forgiveness assumes that someone has acted wrongly.  Second, we can take on a sympathetic perspective.  We can try to imagine that we were in the other person's position.  "That could have been me" is a way that we can take on the other person's perspective as our own, which can also motivate forgiveness.  One question is whether we have to be sympathetic with someone in order to forgive someone.  Certainly there are limits to this kind of sympathizing.  It is hard to sympathize with strangers or with people that we dislike.

Scanlon puts the problem into the following form: can we be blamed for the way we blame someone?  Perhaps sometimes we blame too quickly or we blame someone unfairly.  Perhaps blaming itself is morally blameworthy, since it requires a judgmental attitude of superiority. But Scanlon does not think that blame is like grading someone or rating someone's character.  Blame as a revision of a relationship does not require an attitude of superiority  Perhaps we can also be morally criticized if we never blame.  If we unconditionally forgive people who do not acknowledge that they have acted wrongly or made amends, this means that either we (a) deny that a wrong was done, (b) deny that the person was responsible for the wrong action or (c) deny that you are justified to complain, which is a failure of self-respect.    Indeed, it could harm your relationship if you fail to blame a person who wrongs you.  To not blame someone is to tacitly accept a kind of abuse.

Scanlon also thinks that sometimes we should be morally critisized if we blame someone while we have no standing to blame.  For example, if we steal and lie yet we blame another person for those same wrongs, this is a case where the blame is not warranted.  Likewise, if you make someone do something wrong or you help them to perform a wrong action, you should not blame them.  If you help someone to murder puppies, you should not then turn around and blame that person for killing puppies.

Moral Responsibility Revisited: Scanlon

Last week we dealt with skepticism about moral responsibility.  One kind of skeptical argument was an argument from incompatibalism.  Because determinism is true and is also incompatible with moral responsibility, there is no moral responsibility.  The other argument was a causal argument.  Basically, you only have moral responsibility if you have chosen all of your choices and you are the cause of your ability to choose.  But humans are not the causes of themselves.  Scanlon claims that there is moral responsibility.  He explains moral responsibility in terms of blame.  We are responsible when we harm and change the relationships we have with others.  Because relationships entail certain expectations, when those expectations are violated, someone is blameworthy.  Blame is sensitive to personal fault and circumstances beyond our control.  Hence Scanlon can explain the role of luck in morailty; it matters.  Scanlon's theory is also consistent with determinism.

How is determinism consistent with moral responsibility?  Scanlon notes that freedom and control are necessary to moral responsibility.  There are two senses of freedom and control.  The first is psychological accuracy, which just means that when you blame someone, you are blaming a particular person.  We want to make sure that we are holding the right person responsible.  We blame a reckless driver because he or she has a bad habit or a bad tendency to drive recklessly.  It matters that a person is really guilty of the bad intentions or lack of care that we blame them for.  Indeed, sometimes we might find out that a person did not mean to perform the bad action that we blame them for.

Sometimes we lack freedom such that we cannot be blamed, such as when we act out of ignorance or we are forced to perform an action.  Such a notion of freedom and control is still compatible with determinism.  Just because we act according to causal laws does not mean that we act unwillingly.  The control and freedom that is important to psychological accuracy does not require deep control or total freedom.  Rather, a person just needs to have an appropriate psychological state such that they are blameworthy.  For example, if a person thinks that tying kittens to rockets is a fun, cool thing to do, then we can blame them, even if he or she was causally determined to actually perform that action.  Likewise, if a person has lots of reasons why they should kill the president, then we can blame them for that action, even if that person was causally determined to perform that action.  Psychological accuracy requires only that a person has a mental state that is blameworthy.  It does not require that a person causes his or her own actions.

The other important sense of freedom and control that matters for moral responsibility is adequate opportunity to avoid, which means that a person's control and freedom matters insofar as he or she has an adequate opportunity to avoid performing the actions that they did perform.  For example, if a person decides to climb a very tall rock without any safety gear and then falls and is hurt, we tend to hold that person responsible for his or her own injuries, since the person had an opportunity to avoid climbing the rock without safety gear.  Scanlon thinks that this is the kind of freedom and control that matters for Strawson's idea of responsibility that justifies either heaven or hell.  If people are going to be suffering hell, they must have an opportunity to avoid going to hell.  Scanlon does not think that this is an issue of whether a person deserves heaven or hell; this is not an issue of desert.  Rather, what matters is that you have adequate opportunity to avoid a harm.  If you have an opportunity to avoid a harm, then you are not justified to complain about the consequences.

Having an adequate opportunity to avoid an action does not apply to ordinary blame.  We can and should revise a relationship independently of whether a person could have avoided acting a certain way.  If a friend murders your puppy, it does not matter if that friend could have avoided doing that.  Ultimately, the harm to the friendship is done either way.  This second kind of freedom and control is not necessary for ordinary blame.

Scanlon thinks that this kind of freedom and control are compatible with determinism, but someone might object.  Someone might say that "I could not have done otherwise.  I was determined to act this way.  You can't hold me responsible!"  Scanlon will respond by saying that the issue is not whether you were the cause of your own actions but the issue is what we owe to each other.  It does not matter if you were causally determined, as long as your actions mean that you owe me something in return or your actions harm our relationship.  The real issues are (1) were there adequate opportunities to avoid the action, which is a matter of circumstances (not choice)  and (2) even if circumstances were adequate so that someone could have avoided an action, is there anything that we can reasonably be expected to do for someone.  For example, even if someone is poor and we can blame them for being poor, we may have other reasons to provide them with social support (keep the streets clean, maybe support children of this person.

Scanlon's "stronger view" is that choice can make the consequences of our actions morally relevant, but only if  our choices are not caused by factors beyond our control.

Caucus Q's Answered: 12 PM Section

1. If Scanlon's theory says that we are blameworthy then our relationships are changed, then aren't individual humans responsible for judging morality?  Aren't human beings too subjective to have this authority?

Well, for those who want an objective human-independent source of morality, perhaps Scanlon's view is not satisfactory.  But is it not that case that we do judge each other's morality?  When a friend violates your relationship, isn't it you that blames the friend?  I agree that humans may be too subjective to have such authority, but it seems that we do have this authority.  Also, we can guard against subjective biases by (1) thinking philosophically about morality and (2) discussing morality with lots of other people, to make sure that we are not being biased.  Also, Scanlon grounds moral responsibility not just in individuals but in the social practices made up of different kinds of relationships.  Individuals may create these relationships, but ultimately, friendship and families are social practices that go beyond individual human beings.

2. So if nobody can cause themselves, does that mean that we are not morally responsible for anything as long as you never learned from your parents?  

This is exactly what is at issue in Strawson's paper.  Strawson thinks that because we cannot cause ourselves, we are not morally responsible.  A compatabilist like Scanlon will say that we do have some ability to shape ourselves, so we are morally responsible.  Personally, I say that Strawson's argument does not show that we lack moral responsibility because even if there is one point where we did not cause our capacity for choice, it is sufficient to have every subsequent choice in order to ground moral responsibility.

3. Are "happiness" and "the good life" synonymous?

For Aristotle, yes.  For other authors, no.  Epictetus thinks that happiness is necessary for the good life, but he does not think that the two are the same thing.  For Kant, we can live well by being moral and we need not be happy in order to live a good life.

4. How is having a character flaw related to blame?  If an action is done by someone because it is a part of their character, are they not to blame?

This is another question that depends on the issue of whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility.  If determinism is true and if determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility, then a person is not to blame for his or her character flaws.  But if determinism is false or if determinism is compatible with moral responsibility, then a person can be blamed for character flaws.

5. How much do external circumstances matter for moral luck?

According to Williams, it seems that moral luck depends entirely on external factors.  But for Nagel, who thinks that moral luck requires that a person must already be negligent or intending to do some bad action.  For Nagel, external circumstances are necessary for moral luck but they are not sufficient.  Someone also must be negligent or careless, for example.

6. What is considered incompatibalism and compatibalism?

Well, early in the quarter we talked about compatibalism and incompatibalism about luck and determinism.  Determinism is the view that all events are directly caused by prior physical events.  Compatibalists think that luck is compatible with determinism.  Incompatibalists think that luck is incompatible with determinism.  Now we are talking about compatibalism and incompatibalism about luck and moral responsibility or about determinism and moral responsibility.  Compatibalists think that moral responsibility is compatible with luck and/or determinism.  Incompatibalists think that determinism is not compatible with luck and/or determinism.  Incompatibalists think that determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility because in order to have moral responsibility, we must have the chance to have acted other than we acted.  If determinism is true, then there is no possible way that we can act other than we do act.  Compatibalists think that we can be morally responsible in spite of determinism because of either (1) the reasons that we have for acting or (2) because we harm our relationships when we act.

Caucus Q's Answered: 11 AM

1. What are the implications for moral luck of Scanlon's relationship-based theory of blame?  Is Scanlon's view consistent with moral luck?

Moral luck is just luck that makes you morally better or worse.  According to Scanlon's theory, we are to blame when we harm and change the relationships that we have with other people.  Since unlucky consequences can harm and change our relationships, Scanlon's view can explain moral luck.

2. How can we avoid academic dishonesty when many of the paper prompts are addressed on the blog?  

Cite your sources!  Also, whenever possible, use your own words to explain ideas and arguments.  If you do use someone else's words or ideas, cite them.  Try to cite as far back as possible (citing the original texts will be better than citing my blog in many cases).  You can use many resources: this blog, Dr. James' lecture notes, lecture itself and the texts we read.  Be sure that you cite the sources you use.

3. What is Strawson's POV on moral responsibility?  What is his definition of moral responsibility?

Strawson is working with a notion of moral responsibility that could justify the ultimate punishment or the ultimate reward: heaven or hell.  Strawson thinks that we cannot have this level of moral responsibility because we can not be the ultimate causes of ourselves.  Even every choice we make requires that we have the capacity to make that choice.  At some point, we had to have a capacity for choice that we were not responsible for, since we cannot be the cause of an infinite chain of choices and the ability to choose that preceded those choices.

4. If a person is born with a bad characteristic, are they more or less blameworthy than a person who developed that same characteristic?

This would depend on whether the person who later acquires the bad characteristic is responsible for this development.  According to the control principle, we would only blame a person if he or she were in control of developing bad characteristics.  According to moral luck, we hold anyone born with bad characteristics responsible for that constitutive luck.  Compatibalists might say that as long as someone shapes themselves, they are responsible for his or her personality.  So either person can be held equally responsible for those bad traits if they have shaped those traits.

5. If we are not responsible for our nature but we are responsible for our actions, can we blame our actions on our nature?  Is there a direct correlation between our nature and our actions?

This is the exact question of whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility.  Determinists think that nature is ultimately responsible.  Libertarians deny that determinism is true and say that we are responsible for everything.  Compatibalists say that determinism is true but that we still have responsibility.  I will say one more thing.  We are not concerned with mere correlation or association between nature and our actions.  The real question is whether nature causes our actions.