Our Duty Is to Do No Harm

Steve Burton helpfully lays out his version of the exchange between Daniel Larison and me. Isolated posts tackling complex issues are sure to lack the context of a broader set of assumption laid out across many different posts, no one reads every blog post, and anyway many of my posts are dashed off, unclear, and confused, so Steve bears no blame for mischaracterizing my argument:

In other words, maximizing the minimum (i.e., making the least well-off better off) should be our overriding moral goal. So Americans should welcome unlimited immigration from Mexico, Zimbabwe, etc., even if it makes most Americans worse off, because it makes the immigrants from Mexico, Zimbabwe, etc., better off — and Mexicans, Zimbabweans, etc. are less well-off than Americans. So, from a Rawlsian (or Rawlsish) point of view, their interests count for more than ours do.

I think this actually misunderstands the point of the difference principle in Rawls — or at least the way I like to interpret him. It is in everyone's interest to live in a peaceful society of mutual advantage. A system of institutions requires that everyone living within it have reason to support it, and to comply with the terms of association it lays down, if it is to be well-ordered and stable. If the basic structure of institutions leaves some people much worse off than they could be under a feasible alternative, then they have no reason to accept its terms, or to comply with them. Now, I reject a strict maximin rule. I think it would be ridiculous to expect the wealthiest to make huge sacrifices to make the least well-off only marginally better off. The “strains of commitment” matter, and asking too much of the top can be as unjust and destabilizing as asking too much of the bottom. But, generally, asking if a system leave the least well-off better-off than the alternatives is simply a focused way of asking whether the system benefits everyone, and not only those with the most power to ensure that it benefits them.

In the post Steve references, I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that the basic structure of the global system of border enforcement and legal exclusion from labor market participation badly disadvantages millions and possibly billions. These people have no reason to accept or comply with the terms of the current dispensation, and in fact, many millions do not, crossing borders and working illegally. This non-compliance is a sign of the system's injustice. Many millions of people are harmed by the status quo, which is why those people, who weigh their interests as heavily as we weigh ours, revolt against it by sneaking across borders and taking jobs that are offered to them. If we reject Thrasymachus, and seek justice and not merely advantage, we will take the harm we cause into account when considering how our domestic policies contribute to the justice of the overall global scheme.

I think our duties of beneficence are quite weak, unlike the utilitarian. We do not have great positive duties to others simply in virtue of their existence. We come to have strong positive duties due to our agreements and our special relationships. I deny that shared citizenship is a special relationship that confers especially strong positive duties. But however strong our duties to compatriots may be, they do not outweigh our negative duty not to harm or to respect basic rights. I may give my children everything, and others' children nothing. But I may not kill anyone, no matter how much it helps my family. My argument is not so much that the policies of most wealthy countries represent a greedy parochialism, but that they actively harm and violate fundamental rights to physical movement and voluntary association. The essentially cooperative nature of justice is highlighted by the fact that we can ameliorate some of the harmful effects of the present system by implementing reforms policies that would make natives of rich countries better off on average. Though, of course, our strict duty not to actively harm others does not end when it begins to cut into our privilege.

There much more, naturally. For now, I hope that leaves things a little clearer.

  • From a philosophical/idealist perspective, “government” and “happiness” entering the same universe in any conversation is disheartening. Practically speaking, the powers that be (in the U.S. anyway) have made government such an intricate (and some would say invasive) part of our lives that we no longer can do without it/them. Perhaps any discussion of happiness or happiness research should revolve around removing government from the everyday lives of all citizens.