If desert works, then why?

I liked this summary of the debate on desert from Lindsay Beyerstein.

Wilkinson claims to have found a conflict between common sense morality and Rawlsian theory. If so, this undercuts Rawls' claim to have codified common sense justice. Wilkinson argues that instrumentalism doesn't really explain our intuition that a hard worker deserves her reward, though it may explain our intuition that it would be expeditious to give it to her.

The instrumentalist position needs to be supplemented with a non-metaphysical theory of desert. It turns out that a contractual/procedural theory of desert explains our intuitions just as well. We don't have to argue desert in terms of free will and moral responsibility. Sometimes promises beget desert. Our society wisely promises people that they will be rewarded if they work hard and contribute a lot. So, justice demands that we make good on that promise by rewarding the high achievers. Instrumentalism explains why it is a good idea to make that promise.

I think this is pretty good summary of my argument. And I'm glad to see DeLong copied it on his blog. (Thanks Lindsay!) However, I don't think our intuitions about desert are necessarily rooted in the social practice of promising, although people obviously do deserve things in virtue of promises and contracts. I think that I can deserve thanks from my friend in virtue of having done him a favor, or deserve love in virtue of the love I have given. Anyway, I've claimed that anti-Rawlsian intuitions about desert run deep part in our moral psychology. (I see that Lindsay is involved in experimental moral psychology, so maybe she can test this!) The argument that it's utility promoting, or instrumental to some other end, to treat people as if they actually deserve things raises the question of why this practice is utility promoting or instrumentally useful. My argument is that treating people as if they deserve things promotes utility because the practice aligns itself with their moral self-conception — their reflective judgment that they do deserve things. A practice or set of social principles that failed to respect this self-conception will be confronted with resistance and non-compliance, and will tend to be self-undermining. Now, the way I see it, if a practice based on people's moral self-conception turns out actually to make people better off on the whole, then that just shows that our moral self-conception in this regard is justified, and establishes the moral facts of the matter. If we think we deserve things, and our acting on that conviction tends to make us all better off, then we really do deserve things. That is, then desert claims have real normative teeth. If vulgar consequentialists, like DeLong, buys the pragmatic argument for respecting desert claims, then he shouldn't be skeptical about the existence or authority of desert.

Second Letter to a Young Objectivist: Human Sociality

Objectivism advertises itself as a “philosophy for living on earth.” Objectivism rejects the theory/practice dichotomy and holds that a true philosophy, that is, Objectivism, is a necessary instrument to a successful, happy life. The clear implication is that a consistent, integrated practitioner of Objectivism ought to be more successful and happy than people who do not espouse and practice Objectivism. However, one need only leave the house to see thousands of happy, well-adjusted people who know nothing of Objectivism, and one need only attend an Objectivist conference to observe a depressingly high ratio of the awkward, alienated and unhappy to the well-adjusted and happy. The fact that most successful, happy people are not Objectivists, and in fact espouse philosophical opinions opposed to Objectivism, ought to give Objectivists pause. But it doesn't. Why not?

monksmall.JPGBecause Objectivism rejects the theory/practice dichotomy, it makes a falsifiable empirical prediction. Depending on the correct interpretation of the Objectivist standard of value, Objectivism predicts that Objectivists should either live longer or have happier (more successfully flourishing) lives than non-Objectivists. But there is no reason that I know of to believe that Objectivists live longer than average well-educated, middle class and wealthy white people (Objectivists are almost all middle class and wealthy whites). And, based on my own experience, Objectivists are not happier or in better psychological health than other people. Indeed, none of the happiest, most flourishing people in my experience are Objectivists, and I've met a lot of Objectivists.

The Objectivist can respond to this in number of ways. Here are two. First, she can say that few self-professed Objectivists (or “students of Objectivism”) have properly integrated the philosophy. But if this is the case, one wonders why a philosophy that is so hard for actual people to successfully implement is especially good for “living on earth.” Second, the Objectivist can say that insofar as non-Objectivists are doing well in life, they must be acting, perhaps unwittingly, on premises that are consistent with Objectivism. This is arbitrary and ad hoc. There is a great deal of evidence that many successful, happy, long-lived people in fact act according to premises Objectivism rules false and therefore impractical. If your mystical, other-focused, self-sacrificing grandmother dies happy at 95 years old, what are we to think of Objectivism’s empirical conjecture?

group_hug2small.JPGThis brings me to my main thrust of today's letter. Objectivism has risibly inadequate picture of human nature. It is therefore unable to provide truly useful practical guidance for non-fictional human beings. Objectivism's most serious problem in this regard is in seriously addressing the essentially social nature of human beings and accounting for the values and virtues of human sociality. A good text in anthropology, social psychology, or evolutionary psychology can be read as an extended argument for the inadequacy of Objectivism as a practical philosophy for actual human beings.

This objection goes very deep. But some of the problems are right there on the surface. If Objectivism is a practical philosophy for real Earthlings, then what is the Objectivist theory of the family? What is the Objectivist theory of the value of childrearing? This is no small lack for a purportedly practical philosophy. Almost every human being for the entirety of history has lived and raised children in extended family groups. As a good first approximation, that just is human life. And Objectivism has nothing to say about it.

hugsmall.JPGAt a deeper level, Rand's failure to understand and integrate the evidence of biology and anthropology into her picture of human nature leads to a distorted picture of our psychological constitution. Take family and children. Our very existence depends on built-in psychological dispositions to create and raise children. It's a bizarre over-intellectualized distortion of our nature to understand the human desire for sex and physical intimacy as reflecting personal philosophical premises. Furthermore, the evidence is that human beings are naturally coalitional (tribal, if you will), obsessed (like all primates) with status and dominance, and that huge portions of the mind are devoted to the problem of navigating the social world. Furthermore, we have deep needs for casual physical and emotional intimacy. We need to feel welcome and included in groups. We need to feel liked. Social disapproval makes us very sad and often angry.

But Objectivism has very little to say about these facets of our social nature, other than to provide over-intellectualized rationalist just-so stories about the implicitly philosophical dimensions of phenomena that are in fact largely non-cognitively emotional and biochemical. (The relation of trust and cooperation to oxytocin levels, for example, does not appear to be an especially intellectual or philosophical matter.) There is useful insight in the Objectivist critique of “second handers” and “social metaphysics,” but this insight is mostly useless absent a better understanding and accommodation of the natural human tendencies that lead so many of us to fall into these traps.

If there is one thing that made it so that I could no longer take Objectivism very seriously, it is the failure of Objectivism to come even close to doing justice to the social nature of human beings. For a philosophy devoted to reason, there is a marked tendency to simply dismiss empirical evidence about human nature that is inconsistent with Ayn Rand's idiosyncratic vision. Now, I think it's perfectly natural and predictable that coalition human beings will be subject to confirmation bias and will tend to discount argument and evidence that threatens their intellectual and emotional commitments. It's just what people do. But one can't help but enjoy the irony in the Objectivist's case.

Thankfully, there is in fact some slack between theory and practice. People can often get along fine with false beliefs (and can arguably get along better, depending on the belief.) And Objectivists, being humans, know more about living decent lives among other humans than Objectivism allows. So I don't worry too much about my Objectivist friends. That said, a philosophy for living on Earth really ought to be able to do a better job of helping us think about what we ought to do given what we really are.

[I'll have more to say about the Objectivist view of human nature on my next letter on the Objectivist ethics.]

Thirds for Desert

Chris Betram replied to my reply to his reply to my TCS piece (scroll down in comments). And I'd like to, well, reply. I'd also like to reply to Brad DeLong, who I don't think understands what he's talking about. Economists are usually like that — confused — when they dabble in moral philosophy, with the exception of Buchanan, Sen and a few others, like Tyler. For now, let me just quote from Chris:

One reason why I framed things in terms of the political turn was that Will has endorsed that part of Rawls’s work. So I think it worth repeating that to the extent to which conceptions of desert are the object of reasonable disagreement, they can’t be incorporated into public standards of justice. Will ought to agree with that.

I do endorse the idea of political liberalism. What I'm arguing is that the anti-desert party is violating the spirit of political liberalism. The content of our sense of justice, the content of the “reasonable moral psychology” of citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies, is that people deserve rewards roughly proportional to their input to mutually advantageous cooperation. This is, of course an empirical claim. But my argument is that Rawls is simply wrong about the content of our considered moral judgments on this score, and Rawlsians about desert are employing a tendentious metaethical argument contrary to the content of a reflective sense of justice.

More from Chris:

There’s also the “tracking” point, which he doesn’t address in his response. I asserted, following Hayek and Rawls, that the free market doesn’t do anything like reward people according to desert. Does Will disagree? If he does, it would be nice to hear an argument. If he doesn’t then it would seem that he is hoist with his own petard, since libertarian principles will also fail to frame a stable social order, and for the same reasons.

I think this is a complicated question. Now, I think Chris is quite wrong that the market “doesn't do anything to reward people according to desrt.” In fact, I think this is a rather absurd conclusion. The distributional changes that occur on the heels of voluntary market exchanges are more likely to track desert than any other mechanism I know of. The idea of desert based in mutually beneficial cooperation is, I think, the most neutral notion of desert available, and is reflected generally in our moral psychology.

The careful reader will have noticed that I didn't actually defend meritocracy in the TCS piece. I simply defended the possibility of desert, and, implicitly, the idea that meritocracy is not appalling as an ideal. I think there is a totally intractable epistemic problem in discovering who merits what and to what extent. And this is in addition to the problem of settling on a public standard for merit.

Market exchanges, because they are voluntary and presumably mutually advantageous, generally split to gains of cooperation according to mutually agreeable terms. Whether people get what they deserve according to whatever the correct standard is . . . who knows? But if someone believes that the terms of cooperation and exchange are unfair in the sense that they will not be getting what they deserve, they can refuse to cooperate, and people often do. So it is reasonable to believe that market exchanges at least roughly track desert.

Now, I agree that the overall pattern of distribution in a market order will not tightly track desert. There is an assymetry in the nature of entrepreneurship, for example. People who make entrepreneurial bets that pay off seem to us to deserve what they get because they were willing to bear the risk of the bet, and ended up providing something that has enhanced others' welfare on agreeable terms as evidenced by their revealed preferences in the market. People who make reasonable (not foolish or negligent) bets that don't payoff don't seem to deserve to be bankrupt. And the failure of their bet provides useful information to other entrerpeneurs, who in some sense don't deserve to have this information. So here's a case where the overall distribution of rewards tracks desert partially, but not very tightly.

Now, most people have some idea of the deserving and the underserving poor, of who does and doesn't merit our charity and assistance. Because the standards of desert here are unlikely to be shared publicly, unlike our conception of desert in mutually advantageous exchanges, the political libertarian argues that the mechanisms of redistribution ought to be largely private. Some people deserve what they receive on the market. It's not the job of the state to decide that they don't. And some people deserve our aid, and it's not the job of the state to decide that they do. So I think the tracking point is an argument in favor of political libertarianism, and an argument against infecting the general social principles of association with sketchy metaethical premises about determinism and desert.

Of course we might ask which of two social orders, a Rawlsian one or a free-market one, would diverge most flagrantly from the desert criterion that Will endorses. Note that under both systems the hard-working talented will, as a matter of fact, often earn more than those of an average talent and an average disposition to work, just so long as their talents are actually valued by others at or around the time they’re deploying them. This despite the fact that neither system contains an intention to reward such deployment for desert-based reasons and that the “fit” will be extraordinarily loose. But which of the two “maps” better? My money would be on a Rawlsian “well-ordered society”.

My argument is precisely that a Rawlsian well-ordered society just is a political libertarian order, once one eliminates the elements of Rawls's theory, such as his metaphysical musings about desert, that are flatly inconsistent with his own methodology. I want to see the argument that Rawls is entitled to use his thoughts about desert in devising a distinctively political set of principles based in a reflective sense of justice.

Now, I've noticed that no one has disputed my argument that if the luck argument negates the moral right to unequal material holdings, then it also negates the moral right to unequal political power. That was my main argument, and I guess it stands. So even if Rawls is right about desert, which he is not, then we get a kind of political nihilism in which nothing much — the right to rule, the obligation to obey, etc. — is justifiable. Should I take it that this much is simply granted by the critics of my piece? If so, I'm pretty happy.

About DeLong, well, I need to go just now. Let me just say that I think I know exactly what Yglesias thinks about this issue. Matt's a friend, a neighbor, and we've argued about it face to face.

[Note: Removed the little story about MY, which took place under conditions not particularly conducive to philosophical rigor, and should be off the record. Anyway, I thought it was funny.]

Seconds of Desert

Wednesday's TCS piece on the desert seems to be getting around and eliciting some useful discussion. Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Betram takes me to task for (1) writing for TCS and (2) misrepresenting Rawls. There's good debate in the comments.

Let me say that I'm very flattered that Chris thinks I am a mind of sufficient quality to lend what he takes to be undeserved intellectual legitimacy to TCS's enterprise.

This very fact [that WW has a column up at TCS] is regrettable, since Wilkinson is smarter, saner, and more interesting that the average TCS columnist and hence will serve to cover-up — somewhat — the nakedness of this astroturf operation.

And then again:

One of the functions of columns at TechCentralStation is to pander to the psychological needs of a certain stratum of society — gas-guzzling SUV? No need to feel guilty, global warming is a myth ! — but such pandering would be rather unseemly coming from a political philosopher of Wilkinson’s ability, and I’m sure it wasn’t what he intended.

I'm touched (not joking) by Chris's charitable estimation of my abilities, but, of course, I'm not thrilled to be pegged as a dupe and a shill. And, as they say, “some of my best friends” write for TCS. Anyway, I'll leave aside the charge that I'm playing a (unwitting?!) part in reinforcing the false ideological consciousness of the ruling class, and just thank Chris for making me feel as though my productions matter more than I could realistically hope.

As to the substantive objection to my piece, Chris writes:

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

First, I want to make clear that I did not intend to write a piece of Rawls exegesis. Whether or not Chris is right in his interpretation of the import of Rawls's argument about desert in ToJ, it cannot be denied that many people have read Rawls as making a philosophical argument intented to undermine claims of desert generally, have been influenced by this argument, and have made it part of their dialectical arsenal. I was specifically addressing Yglesias's thoughts on the matter, which I took to be representative of a certain class of philosophically sophisticated welfare liberals. Matt indicates in the comments of Chris's post that he takes my reading of Rawls to be the “natural” one. So at this level Chris's claim that I've misinterpreted Rawls is irrelevant. If he's right, then I'm not attacking Rawls, per se, but rather attacking an argument that many people who have misinterpreted Rawls have deployed to undermine claims of desert and to justify redistribution. I do admit, however, that I should have been clearer that my way of reading Rawls in the column is disputed.

I understand and agree with Chris's claim that Rawls's argument comes in the context of the choice of the overall principles of association. But I don't understand Chris's appeal to Rawls's “political” turn. First, Rawl's understands his own argument in ToJ to be rooted on a partially comprehensive theory, which is why he later rejected the argument. It is not unreasonable as a matter to interpret Rawls's argument about desert as a piece of comprehensive philosophizing on par with his comprehesive-ish claims later in ToJ about the nature of autonomy and personhood. And as Jacob Levy points out in the comments, ToJ is an extremely influential book, which has been far more widely read than the rest of Rawls's works. It's not unreasonable to criticize it in isolation from Rawls's mature view, given that so many people have been influenced by it in isolation from Rawls's mature view.

OK, I want to draw attention to the fact that Rawls is making a claim about our considered judgments. Now, it's hard to keep the cast of characters in Rawls straight: the theorist and the rest of us real people, the model conception of the person (the citizen of the well-ordered society), the parties to the original position. The claim about our considered judgments is an emprical claim about us. (Tryst doesn't have a copy of ToJ, so I have to wing some of this. I'm sitting next to the bookshelf, and do see a copy of the New Testament, but I doubt it's going to help my case.) The character of the model conceptions, such as the original position, must justified by the method of reflective equilibrium (RE). Once we've our CMJs (considered moral judgments) more or less into RE with our model conceptions, we run the thought experiment of choice in the original position (OP). If it turns out the OP delivers principles out of RE with our CMJs, then we just go back and amend some aspect of the model conceptions until we get prinicples out of the OP that is in RE with our CMJs. My point is that given this procedure, it seems to me that Rawls's argument has a great deal to do with how things work out within the basic structure. It says that principles for distributing cooperative surpluses need not take into account our sense that some people deserve more of the surplus in virtue of contributing more to the creation of the surplus.

I don't dispute that we don't deserve our natural endowments or the social position we find ourselves in. Who would, indeed. I dispute what seems to be Rawls's next step: that we thus don't deserve our character (some of us do, we worked at it, and some of us don't). And I vigorously dispute the next step, whether or not Rawls takes it, that we thus aren't responsible for and don't deserve what we have worked to achieve. If he does take it, and it seems to me, and many others that he does, then he's just wrong. If he's not just wrong, then he has at least (in the argument on desert) abandoned his usual method of working from within our moral conceptions rather than dabbling in metaphysics-tinged metaethics.

My claim in the TCS column is that our CMJ that people ought to be rewarded roughly in proportion to the value of their contribution to cooperative endeavors, and have moral title to such rewards, runs extremely deep. The implication is that principles of justice that fail to respect title to these deserved rewards — that expropriates and redistributes goods acquired according to this kind of principle of desert — will fail to be in RE with our CMJ, and thus are fail as acceptable principles of justice.

Exactly why principles that fail the test of RE fail is another question. I don't think the method of RE offers a theory of the epistemic justification of moral beliefs. RE has to do with human sense of justice in a way that is more practical than epistemic. The sense of justice is both the source our considered moral judgments and the source of our motivation to act according to fair terms of social cooperation. I think the function of RE is to tie together the cognitive and motivational dimensions of the human sense of justice to create a social structure that we both recognize and affirm as moral, and which we are disposed to sustain through our willing compliance to the principles of justice. The point of RE is to deliver principles of justice that are sufficiently aligned with the sense of justice to produce motivationally effective individual reasons for action that will tend to scale up to macro-level stability.

That said, a principles of justice that run roughshod over our deep-seated intuitions of desert will therefore fail to gain our affirmation and compliance, and will thus fail to frame a stable social order. That's why a principle of justice out of RE with our CMJs fails.

The Company of Strangers

This looks like an interesting book. It's hard to get the right balance between maximization and reciprocity to enable broad, complex social cooperation. I think that if more people had a better grasp of the huge benefits of effective social coordination, together with the delicate balance of cognitive and emotive capacities needed to sustain it, then there would be much much less mystification about morality.