In which we continue to discuss morality

There are arguments along Rawlsian lines that a certain degree of inequality is justifiable, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition to such an extent that even the very poorest are made better off than they would be in a more equal situation. But these arguments only enter into consideration after we have established the idea that the first and fairest way of distributing humanity’s finite resources is equally. Equality of resources should be the baseline, and any deviation from that equality should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Not being all that up with Rawls or any other philosopher I would actually change the argument being put forward there. We do not reward those with greater gifts. Or perhaps I should say that we should not. The logic of a market system does not work that way. We do indeed reward those who have improved the collective human condition though. This difference is rooted in the same unfairness that is being complained about. To steal an argument from Chris Dillow, Rooney’s abilities at playing football would have made him £25 a week 50 years ago. And nothing at all 150 years ago. It is simply pure blind luck that his talents evinced themselves in a generation where people are willing to pay him so much. Exactly the same is true of a philosopher born now, or in hunter gatherer times, a whizzo apps programmer today or 20 or 200 years ago.

So, it’s definitely unfair that people have the talents that the particular technologies of the day enable them to excel. And we could indeed call that unfair: but we do it not to reward those with those talents. We do it to encourage the next group of people who might be able to improve the human condition. It’s a matter of incentives (recall, in economics the first thing is that incentives matter). Simon Cowell is not rewarded for the work that has been done by Simon Cowell. He is rewarded in order to encourage the next moron with a plan to entertain the proles with pap.

But that’s not going to change the real point here:

And this brings us back to charity. If you accept that chosen inequalities are morally objectionable, then any situation where one person has surplus wealth that they can choose to give to someone in need of that wealth, in turn becomes morally objectionable. Charity becomes an issue of private virtue and public vice. On an individual basis, charity is laudable, but when politicians start praising charity or calling for a ‘big society’, we should be more condemnatory. Politicians should be in the business of making a better society, not in perpetuating the inequalities of existing society. The better society is one with robust and non-voluntary social supports, not soup kitchens.

But what if private charity works better than the bumblings of the politicians? For example, the RNLI: does it work better or worse than the Coastguard? Hospices: why does the NHS leave to the private charitable sector this part of health care? Food banks: some to much of their food comes from the supermarkets themselves shifting on soon to be out of date stock. Have we seen politicians manage to achieve this as yet?

What if private charity is actually more efficient at alleviating human suffering?

At which point to trump Rawls I offer you Burke. It is the little platoons that make society work. The Boy Scouts is a better organisation that the Young Pioneers or the Hitler Jugend.


34 thoughts on “In which we continue to discuss morality”

  1. The argument is, ‘i want to tell people how to live, and i will think up any shite to justify it’.

    My counterargument is, fuck off.

    How does it follow that rewarding gifted people only becomes an argument after they have first stolen all my money? Once again fuck off.

    And who is going to ‘decide’ on a case by case basis? Take a guess! Fuck off once again.

  2. If you insist that all resources are allocated equally, you will have a lot fewer resources to allocate. This isn’t a problem – equal misery is preferable to unequal prosperity.

  3. “For example, the RNLI: does it work better or worse than the Coastguard?”

    I don’t think that’s the main question, although the answer is almost certainly better, rather that the RNLI is largely free of the sort of political pressures that make it vulnerable in times of economic downturn or changes in political fashion. This touches on a point MBE makes in a response to me in the thread below, a charity may not be able to meet a sudden increase in demand for its services but it will have a clarity of purpose and an incentive to maximize efficiency that the state lacks. Assuming, that is, that it’s a genuine rather than fake charity.

  4. A number of commentators have questioned the motives of the charitable.
    But surely the point of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the help gets done.
    Mrs Thatcher’s remark that he was rich enough to afford it, and arguments about universal provision are all very well but they are subsidiary debating points. To add another. Many in need are also very lonely. In such cases the warm hand of private charity (even if it comes attached to some whacko religion) is better than the cold hand of the state.

  5. Many of these equality arguments seem centred on How To Allocate The Stuff, rather than a production paradigm, so are quite useless from a practical perspective.

    Consumption (and savings) choices matter too. Start two people off from the same position and on the same salary, come back one year later, why would (or should) their situations be identical still? If one has savings and the other debts by the end of the year, whose “fault” is that and how is it meant to be rectified?

    I once compared financial notes with a friend who worked in tech and earned twice what I did. I had far more savings – in fact he’d only recently got out of debt. Was I richer than him? Possibly, by some measures. But I had far fewer flashy shiny things and a more modest (though as far as I could see, equally happy and comfortable) lifestyle. Which of us was meant to give cash to the other if the situation was to be “equalised”?

    I worked part-time for a while. I accepted halving my income was a fair price to pay for the personal advantages it gave me at the time. Homo economicus maximises utility, not income, after all. The parallel me who didn’t ask for a reduction in hours, ended up with more money, a nicer house, and a newer car. Should I tax some of his money off him to compensate myself? Do I have to donate him some of my happiness and the free time I had for personal projects, so he too does not suffer from this unbearable inequality?

  6. And to trump Burke, I will offer, I dunno, some individualist I can’t think of right now. David Hume, maybe. It’s not “platoons” of any kind that make society work, it’s individuals, and we really need to break out of this institutional view of society (another Victorian legacy, the age of institutionalisation, damn them all to hell).

    What’s the difference between Botswana and Zimbabwe? It’s not institutions. It’s the people. It’s the fact that Botswanans don’t want to hack each other to death by machete, they aren’t fighting tribal wars (also, little “platoons”, tribes), that they respect each others’ property. The result is that Botswana is a peaceful country where the mayor of Gabarone is very upset because of the litter problem and attracting inward investment, while Zimbabwe is a shithole. Once your people are decent and respectful of another, whatever “platoons” form will be decent ones.

    And this comes back to the other charity thread. Libertarians fall into this institutional trap of when people say, “what instead of the government?” we start trying to think up other institutional systems to do what the State currently does- charidees, churches, whatever. When the correct response is, “nothing instead”. The path towards liberty is the path of atomisation; it is the path of dismantling the structures and putting nothing in their place. As I said in that thread, freedom is literal independence; it is not needing welfare from anyone. And I don’t think any of the “platoons” are going to get us there, because every organisation has a self interest in its own survival and enlargement. The worst thing that can happen to a charity involved in Africa, for instance, is a Botswana. It’s the Zimbabwes that give them a raison d’etre. People starving and hacking each other to death and not producing anything. People quietly going about their business producing stuff and trading it and saying “hello neighbour” is a disaster for Oxfam or Save The Children. What would they want with a world in which there are no Children to be Saved? Why do you think the “little platoons” with their big smokefree corporate headquarters hate libertarians more than anyone else? We’re the death of their industry, that’s why.

    If a libertarian (or classical liberal or capitalist or free market or whatever) society cannot produce a world in which hardly anybody needs a handout, it probably is of questionable merit. Liberty isn’t about some other form of hegemony handing out bags of rice. It’s about nobody handing out bags of rice.

  7. IanB

    When we have arrived at this libertarian utopia will there be no need for people to come together to provide some service that individuals aren’t well placed to provide, lifeboats for instance ?

  8. Ian B – whether it’s their own fault or not, there are people out there who can’t support themselves whatever the mode of government or economics. Libertarianism would be less threatening if its proponents could explain just how such folk would be empowered to lead meaningful lives. Those libertarians who propose a role for church or charity in lieu of state are trying to take that scary edge away. If you don’t even want that then what do you propose instead? It seems to me that a pretty large level of dependency is inevitable in a society with a half-decent life expectancy and in which the disabled aren’t left, Spartan style, exposed on the hills.

  9. MBE-

    My answer is that a society with our level of productivity shouldn’t experience unmanagable levels of dependency, so the fact that it does is proof that we’re doing something terribly wrong. Libertarianism has a lot of very good arguments for what that thing, or those things rather, is. Are. Whatever.

    If I’m wrong, and comparable levels of economic dislocation to our current ones are going to be the outcome of a libertarian society, then there isn’t much of an argument for libertarianism and we’d probably be better off with Guardian style socialism, from at least a utilitarian and moral perspective. Very few will realistically tolerate a society in which people starve in the streets. Either liberty will free people from desperate conditions, or it’s not worth it.

  10. Ian B

    Maybe you are right about a libertarian society not experiencing high levels of dependency, I’d certainly hope so although for me that’s not the main attraction, I think liberty is an essential thing in itself quite apart from any practical advantages.

    However a lack of high levels of dependency isn’t the same as an absence of needs. I have a personal reason for being concerned about the answer to MBE’s question, in that I have a chronic medical condition that needs treatment that I would have found very difficult to afford, visions of the libertarian good society are of no help to people like me in the here and now. The NHS has been just about adequate for my needs but not for many others and it will likely get worse, could some form of charitable or other profit free voluntarist structure, if not replace it entirely, at least complement it ? There is a very good medical research charity in the field which I support and which receives no state funding, is that a bad thing, does it aid the Anglo -progressivist philanthropic tyranny that you spend so much time attacking ? I don’t believe so and really you haven’t answered MBE’s questions, just told us that all will be well in the best of all possible worlds.

  11. MBE
    Parable of the talents? Guy wasn’t happy with the burier, rather more indulgent of the bloke who’d pissed it up the wall. Christ is a wiser economist than we give him credit for, maybe.

    A merry Christmas to you all, a nice blog TimW, where the comments are actually more interesting than the post. (OK, I’m pulling your leg.)

    And a merry Christmas to Arnauld too, I have missed you these last few weeks and hope you’re doing OK.

  12. Thornavis-

    The argument is that (if libertarian theory is correct- this is the implicit assumption and caveat) then the transition to it would reduce excess dependency and needs (e.g. 2.5 million unemployed, millions more on top up benefits, this is absurd) thus making genuine needs much more tractable. The point I’m trying to get across is that the question “should charity or the State do this?” is a false dichotomy, the better option is to reduce the problem so nobody needs to do it.

    If, hypothetically, there are only 200,000 unemployed rather than 2.5 million, and long term unemployment is rare, and if everyone who works can afford the basics of life without any benefits, you’ve freed up a lot of resources for dealing with chronic illness, disability, end life care, etc. And many of those resources will be in the pockets of individuals with which they can enable their own provision. It’s not utopia I’m promoting here, just “considerably better”.

  13. Ian B

    OK thanks for that and I can see the logic of the argument, in fact it’s pretty much the one I’ve used myself when discussing libertarianism with those who aren’t familiar with it. However I still think there’s a problem, as I suggested previously there will very likely always be a need for some form of extra individualist provision for certain needs, what about the mentally incapable for instance ? In the meantime also we have the question of how to deal with the large number of people who need more help than they can provide for themselves. The state is failing at this and history suggests that charity isn’t enough, a combination of the two in some form with a gradual lessening of the state role seems to be a sensible way to go, provided it isn’t captured by the usual suspects.

    There’s a philosophical aspect to this too, as Tim has alluded to in the reference to morality in the heading. We are social creatures and it seems to me that individualism isn’t enough, we need to come together to do things and this brings emotional gains, charitable institutions, in their best form are a noble aspect of this and shouldn’t be condemned for whatever political reason. I’d hope that a libertarian society, should such a thing ever come about, would have a lot of these institutions, not everything should be the preserve of individual action or market transactions, even if these could cover all needs and wants, which I doubt.

  14. Hooray for crime – the great redistributer of everything.
    During WW2 the black market gave to at least some what was otherwise totally unavailable.
    Crime takes or makes and gives to the people what they want -legal or otherwise. Approved or not.
    Only a six gun is the real equaliser.
    And when , oh when , will doors be made to be opened easily by left handers. How unequal is that.

  15. First of all, can I, on this night as I prepare to celebrate God made Man, raise an objection to left-wing relativists, who would otherwise deny the existence of my God and deny any absolute morality, daring to opine on their concept of absolute fairness.

    Right, WE don’t reward the talented for the greater good they bring to society etc. And for that matter I don’t accept that WE reward to encourage future bringers of good or indeed of poppy pap. In this sense I don’t accept that there is a WE at all. As MBE so beautifully reminded us, Homo Economicus maximises utility by exchanging reources. He gives his assets of value to whomever offers the exchange that maximises that utility. There is no fair or unfair in it and no ‘allocation’ as such. So Wayne’s reward is so much higher now than 100 years ago; pure luck and bully for him. There is no ‘fair’ in luck. There is no fair or unfair in inequality per se. To see the world in this purely material way is simply to have lost touch with yourself. Oh, and it just so happens that these unequal outcomes do indeed make us richer. Goody!

    ‘Fair’ enters the equation when there is hunger, cold, want. So that you understand me, ‘want’ here means the want of Hope. The hope that comes to every child from having a decent education and safe childhood, hope that we all can have from knowing our most serious and chronic illnesses will be treated even though the cost is undoubtedly beyond an individual’s means. And all societies will need to consider how and where they are failing to ensure this. Because in every society there are people who don’t have these things, mostly simply through bad luck. And no, libertarians will never find their utopia where this doesn’t happen.

    The basic citizen’s charter would be a good thing but it cannot cover everything people need and can justifiably ask for from the goverment. After that, charities’ decisions are as moral, immoral or indeed random as government’s. So why on earth would charity be regarded as an unacceptable alternative to government?

  16. FWIW I think Rawls name is being taken somewhat in vain by your original. I’ve read some of him – not too much, he is rather turgid and far less readable than Hobbes – and the “Digression” in the original is not, I think, terribly accurate.

    Also FWIW, I think Rawls’ logic is broken, but I know people salivate over him.

  17. “…because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition…”

    In a word, No.

    What is necessary is to NOT STEAL the rewards those individuals have earned for themselves thus removing any incentive to improve the human condition.

  18. William C – think you have a good point actually.

    From what I recall from my Philosophy of Law classes, the key analytical machinery that Rawls invented was the Veil of Ignorance. This was an ingenious idea, hence the salivation, but not everyone buys into it. (I don’t, partly because the thought experiment seems flawed – a truly “ignorant me” isn’t really “me” at all, so how can I ascribe opinions about fairness to him?)

    The blog seems to sum up Rawlsian thinking as “presume equality, then justify any deviation from equality” which runs into all kinds of problems about what equality means and what deviations from equality count as “fair”. What Rawls actually did was cleverer than that, whether you buy into his Big Idea or not, because it gets around those problems. “Presume ignorance, then if you didn’t know who you were going to be in this society, would you like to live there?” That actually *gives* a metric of fairness, without first getting bogged down in “what yardstick of equality”, and therein lies the genius.

    A society in which part-time work is available is more unequal in the sense that people can choose to earn less than full-time wages (it may also reduce inequality if it encourages more women and disabled people into the labour force, but I’ll ignore that for now). As I said before, there were spells in my life when I asked to reduce my hours because I had other priorities for my time than making money. I’d clearly prefer to live in a society where this were possible – even if I didn’t know, in the Rawlsian sense, if I’d actually want to take advantage of it – than a society with only full-time jobs. (If anyone thinks this is a barmy comparison, go read up on the fascinating history of part-time work in the USSR.) So a Rawlsian analysis can deem a more unequal society “fairer”.

  19. To be fair, Rawls reached the conclusion you’d want a pretty equal society, and that you could justify deviations from equality if they actually helped the worst-off in society. (Anyone remember Thatcher’s final PMQs and her swan-song ding-dong with Simon Hughes? Maggie clearly had an inner Rawlsian. )

    But it was the innovative machinery that got him there that won him academic stardom, not the rather dull conclusion itself. Moreover one shouldn’t just nab an agreeable conclusion without taking the machinery too. No good saying “Rawls tells us to start with equality and see if the deviation from it is fair, and in my/our/society’s opinion the deviation is unfair”. If you want to claim unfairness in the Rawlsian sense, then do a Rawlsian analysis. Otherwise just leave him out of it and say “in my/our/society’s opinion, British inequality levels are unfair” which seemed to be the main point.

  20. > Rawls reached the conclusion you’d want a pretty equal society

    Yes: that’s the bit that I think is broken. Sadly (and somewhat ridiculously) I’ve never heard anyone else pointing out the obvious error. This means that either I’m poorly read (which in this area is true) and/or the critics of Rawls aren’t thinking.

    Anyway, the point roughly paraphrased is that Rawls concludes that we’d all (from behind the veil of ignorance) prefer a society in which the worst off are as well off as possible, even if the best off are thereby less well off. But he goes waaay too far down that route, and concludes that even a society in which the *average* person is 10x better off would be less preferred if only a very few are worse off. Rawls takes that as read, and yet that conclusion isn’t at all obvious; indeed, I’d say it is false. He appears to be very risk-averse. Which a man in his position might well be.

  21. @Thornavis,

    I guess this is why some of us still refer to ourselves as Classical Liberals, and can’t quite bring ourselves to root for outright minarchist libertarianism.

    Everyone will draw the line they would accept between the state doing things inefficiently and not doing them at all, in a slightly different place. Having no state because the state is by definition inefficient, or only state because anything else is unfair, are both extremist ideological positions, so best not to go there.

  22. @Ironman, it’s “we” because as you well know, to leftits (spelling error I can’t be bothered to change) “all your money are belong to us”. If you use some of the money the state doesn’t graciously tax off you to reward someone for doing something for you, that is still only by the grace of the state. Thus “we”.

    I’m glad there are those who don’t want to see this world in purely material terms. All the more for the rest of us!

    Merry Christmas, one and all!

  23. As a university man, Rawls will have taken most of his economic reward as doing work he found fascinating, in circumstances he found agreeable. How exactly does one impose an equality of such non-financial rewards in a way that is “fair”? How could different people agree on what is “fair”? In fact, after we’ve left the playground and donned long trousers, shouldn’t we abjure use of “fair”, as inviting muddle.

  24. Following on from William, I think there are two basic problems with Rawls’s Veil Of Ignorance. Stripped down, it’s basically a cake cutting exercise; you have to cut a cake into portions A and B. You do not know which portion you will receive (this is the “veil of ignorance”). Rawls therefore concludes that you must cut the cake equally.

    But this isn’t really a foregone conclusion. You might be a gambling type who’d prefer to take a 50/50 risk on getting more cake, and if you get a smaller portion would just shrug and accept that you lost the gamble, for instance.

    The bigger problem though is the assumption that the awarding of cake slices is random; and the problem here is that many people e.g. meritocrats believe it is not; they think that people get more or less cake based on their abilities. So while the VoI does tend to encourage you to want some form of fair society in the sense of awarding cake slices on a meritous principle (rather than e.g. by inherited privilege), a meritocrat would want an unequal society even if they get less cake when the veil is lifted, on the basis that that is what, from a moral position, they believe they would deserve. “If it turns out when the veil is lifted that I’m a useless twunt, having less than others have would be the proper thing”.

    In general, it’s really one of many attempts to get around Hume’s Is/Ought problem. And the problem is, Is and Ought is like the laws of thermodynamics- if you think you’ve beaten it, you’ve gone wrong somewhere. Invariably, “solutions” to it slyly plug in a moral assumption at the start of the argument, and thus prove nothing; as in this case, Rawls ends up “proving” that equality is superior by starting with that assumption already plugged in.

  25. Or, if I knew I’d get the same slice of cake for zero effort as for maximum possible effort, how much effort do you reckon I’d make.

    But that’s economics, incentives, and as all good socialists know, economics is wrong.

  26. “, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition..”
    How about rewarding people who work for their living in preference to those of equal ability who choose to sit around drinking and playing cards?
    *That* is justice. It is also the only justification for working for a living (except for those with vocations or for those lucky enough to find work enjoyable).
    Self-important little people whose object is to reduce thought (“Still reducing thoughtful operations”) and believe that everyone should work hard without any material reward deserve ridicule.

  27. Simple Bastards Wanking Hard

    There’s a growing belief, even amongst the stupid bastards that can’t get a decent erection without snorting Worstallian-Everyman, that some pest control needs some serious paragraphs of nonsense, in a general sense, but targeted at lefty-women first. Ever since the middle ages, women, specifically womenny women, have really got on my tits. After that, but i haven’t written a book about it yet, but women AND SOME MEN, get on all reality’s piss-taking normalisation’s nationality. Especially Orthodox Brown-Faced Puritans.

    All of our culture is based on Women With PMT, who refused me sex.

  28. @ Thornavis
    “We are social creatures and it seems to me that individualism isn’t enough, we need to come together to do things and this brings emotional gains, charitable institutions, in their best form are a noble aspect of this and shouldn’t be condemned for whatever political reason.”

    Yes, and if we are more free to apply our resources to our own ends this will include much more charitable action.

  29. re Rawls and the Veil Of Ignorance:

    The VoI is a useful thought experiment, but Rawls’s inferences are fallacious. If one of the options behind the VoI was “whatever you obtain without force or fraud you can keep or use as you wish” would no-one choose that ?

  30. The Veil of Ignorance assumes there’s something, an essential self, that isn’t made up of any of our specific talents and tendencies. It assumes we won’t know what human capital we’ll be born with, as well as social capital.

    What is that essence? It’s really a religious idea, a soul. It doesn’t exist.

  31. “Food banks: some to much of their food comes from the supermarkets themselves shifting on soon to be out of date stock. Have we seen politicians manage to achieve this as yet?”

    No actually. I work in a foodbank and they don’t want soon to be out of date stock. They want stock with good life expectancies. In fact, anything even remotely out of date gets thrown away by the food bank, same as by the supermarkets, so them passing on stuff about to go out of date would not help the food bank.

  32. ndsnfj

    “In fact, anything even remotely out of date gets thrown away by the food bank, same as by the supermarkets”

    Are you being serious..!?

    Given the slack in “out of date” when it comes to supermarkets, throwing perfectly good food away rather than giving it to hungry people is just utter madness.

    And supermarkets generally don’t throw it away if they can help it. They often try and discount it, close to or on the final date specified.

  33. Reading it again.

    “Soon” to be out of date, as you and Tim specified. Why would that not be useful to a food bank when there are people who can take immediate advantage of that?

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