Bryan Caplan  

Social Justice of the Gaps

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Consider the so-called "God of the gaps" argument:

1. There are many questions that science hasn't - and perhaps never will - answer.

2. Therefore, God exists.

You could call this this a straw man, and insist that no theist ever really made it.  But now consider the following parallel argument, which I call "Social justice of the gaps":

1. There are many questions where property rights aren't - and perhaps never will - be clear.

2. Therefore, it's OK to take stuff from the able rich without their consent and give it to the not-so-able not-so-rich.

Does any advocate of social justice actually say this?  Judge for yourself.  Here's Kevin Vallier reply to my Able Slave hypotheticals:
Bryan runs familiar hard libertarian counterexamples to BHL concerns about the least well-off largely by testing our claims about social justice against micro-level examples, such as an island with ten people, many of whom wish to redistribute the fruit of "Able Abel's" labor. Many replies suggest themselves, but let me offer one.

A conception of social justice helps to specify what counts as the fruits of one's labor in a massive system of social cooperation which depends on a vast range of conventional rules. That's why Bryan's testing social justice against micro examples is problematic, because it masks indeterminacy in macro-level social norms that we want a standard of social justice to evaluate. Consider the many "incidents" of property rights, such as whether homesteading land means that you own the air miles above your plot. In Bryan's case, disputes over the "height" of our property don't matter. But in our complex society, such disputes matter a lot because the efficiency of airline travel depends on how they are resolved. A conception of social justice can help us determinate what system of efficient property rights can be morally justified in this case of indeterminacy.

One small point: There's plenty of "indeterminacy" even on a desert island with ten people.  For starters: Able Abel, like all humans, breathes on others without their consent.  A stickler might accordingly charge him with battery or trespass.  Question: Is this indeterminacy a good argument for treating him like a slave?


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/6357
The author at The Ego Chronicles in a related article titled Able Abel and Post-Scarcity writes:
    Bryan Caplan has an extremely thought-provoking post over on his blog: Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the islan... [Tracked on May 5, 2012 2:00 AM]
COMMENTS (23 to date)
kebko writes:

You're missing a very important step 3:

3: Therefore, this character in this one particular book I have who claims to be God is God.

and, likewise:

3: Therefore, the institution which can take your stuff without your consent, and claims to do it for the non-able non-rich, does it for the non-able non-rich.

Vlad writes:

There are many indeterminacies in your thought experiment, some actually important. For example, what are their skills? The 9 cannot feed themselves beyond subsistence level, but perhaps they can do other stuff and trade with Able. Whether or not they could give anything in return to Able seems relevant for the moral intuition behind the thought experiment. If they could offer something in return, but nonetheless choose to tax him, they're just lazy and not particularly moral; if they have nothing to give in return (especially Harry), the intuition changes for many people. So, the though experiment wasn't actually properly specified - that's why it sounds so ambiguous.

Another indeterminacy is this: Do the 9 actually have the power to tax Able or to force him to do anything? After all, if Able is so much more able than them in regard to labor, why wouldn't he also be much more able in regard to fighting. A more realistic question seems to be not whether they "should" tax him or not, but how do they defend themselves from Able.

Kevin writes:

I think abstraction/macro-focus does all the heavy-lifting. The island example is a pretty straight-forward instance to ask/argue whether forced re-distribution is right or wrong on its face, without all the 'gaps', and Vallier's first response is to re-introduce the gaps. If there are good micro-level, non-abstract arguments for enslaving Abel, why didn't he lead with those?

Or maybe the whole strength of 'social justice' is that it operates in 'far mode', as Hanson might call it.

David N writes:

Maybe if we take the slavery and starvation out of it the moral issue becomes clearer?

Abel, Harry, and The Eight work at the widget plant for the same wage of $18/hr. Abel makes ten widgets per hour. Each of the Eight make one widget per hour. Harry is on indefinite paid disability leave.

In an effort to increase productivity, Management proposes changes and puts them to the shop floor for a vote:

a) Keep the status quo.
b) Pay workers by the piece at $10/widget and drop the disability benefit. A 44% cut for Harry and The Eight.
c) Pay workers $9.47/widget with a disability benefit at $9.47/hr. A 53% cut for all but Abel.

1. Who but Abel would vote for b) or c)?
2. Does a 9-1 majority for a) make it a more just outcome?

Somebody points out that if Abel quits, labor costs spike from $10/widget to $20.25 and the plant closes. Harry and The Eight realize that b) or c) is the only way to secure their jobs. The option of chaining Abel to his lathe is rejected by most.

Abel chooses c) because he realizes that he could find himself in Harry's position someday and likes the insurance. Some of The Eight dissent and begin to loathe both Abel and Harry, but c) carries the vote.

Soon after the vote, someone gripes that although Abel pays ten times as much as any other worker into the benefits program, he should pay even more because he has the highest compensation. Someone else suggests he pay for the whole program since he "can afford it." Abel says he will quit if this comes to pass.

3. Is Abel paying his fair share or does he lack a "bleeding heart?"
4. Why would anyone not vote to soak Abel?

And finally,

5. The first vote treated everyone equally but hurt the majority. The second vote would benefit the majority but does not treat Abel equally. Which is more just?

rpl writes:

Bryan,

You were on the right track when you wrote this:


For starters: Able Abel, like all humans, breathes on others without their consent. A stickler might accordingly charge him with battery or trespass.

You should follow that line of thinking a little further and scrap all these questions about "theft" and "slavery" and ask the meta-question that underlies them all. Namely, is it right for a civilization to adopt, through some sort of bargaining process, a set of rules and to expect its members to either live by them or leave (knowing full well that in many cases "leaving" means death)?

If your answer to that question is no, then what is the basis for proscribing "theft" and "slavery" in the first place? The typical libertarian response to that question is to appeal to natural law, but that is begging the question. What is "natural law"? It's just the set of societal rules that the libertarian approves of, only we're going to call them "natural" so that we can pretend they're not societally constructed and that they're therefore privileged over the rules that someone else might come up with.

Once you've established that some form of rule-making is acceptable, or even necessary, actually deciding on what rules to make is hard, which is why we've been struggling with it for thousands of years. All of that suggests that it's very unlikely that we can solve the problem with a set of principles that can be written in just a few sentences. Life, it turns out, is messy.

Tony N writes:

rpl,

Exactly.

RPLong writes:

Bryan, I think you're underestimating the polylogistic component of the arguments of those who disagree with you. For them, there are always different groups of people who face different realities. Abel is different because he is advantaged. The others are disadvantaged with respect to Abel. It's not slavery if it's part of the social contract, etc etc etc.

What I mean is, you make a great point to those who already agree with you. Those who disagree must first be convinced that either polylogism is false or that a disadvantage isn't really a disadvantage.

To that, I submit that the law of comparative advantage obliterates both the polylogism argument and the notion of "disadvantage."

@rpl,

First of all, nice initials. ;)

Second of all, Bryan's point is that perhaps compelling another person to support 90% of the population is a problematic rule. That's not begging the question at all, it's an appeal to common sense.

Rochelle writes:

I don't know if this point has been made yet, but the only thing libertarianism says is that the other people on the island cannot force Able Abel to work for them. There's nothing stopping Able Abel from donating his excess labor to charity and helping Hapless Harry out--voluntarily. Indeed, in society today we see that those who are extremely productive donate to charities to help out those less fortunate and this is in the society we live in today, not in a libertarian wonderland.
If he didn't want to, that's his choice. But I think in the long run he would find it more in his self interest to do so as the other people in the island might not like him very much after a while.

Tony N writes:

RPLong,

Unless I’m misunderstanding the comment, rpl asserted that it is the appeal to natural law that begs the question, not the notion that compelling someone to support 90% of the population is problematic. It seems that these are two different points that aren’t at odds with each other.

Greg G writes:

Well done rpl.

Both right and left realize that humans cannot live together successfully without some rules being in place.

But they both persist in believing that every rational person should agree to one particular set of fundamental rules.

As evidence that will never happen I submit.... all of human history.

Different people have different values. Therefore the METHOD used to settle those disputes matters more than the particular solution.

That is why democracy, for all its' many faults, is more fundamental to solving this problem than any particular economic arrangement.

Andrew writes:

Did anyone figure out what social justice means yet?

Randy writes:

@Kebko,

Exactly. There is a huge difference between what the political class claims to be doing and what it actually does.

Greg G writes:

Andrew, people who like the use of the the term "social justice" feel they know what it means and that they have explained themselves.

People who object to the use of the term fall into two camps. Some feel they understand exactly what it is meant by it here and that it is being used to promote something pernicious and "evil."

Others claim to be genuinely baffled by the use of the term.

As someone without a dog in this fight I have to say I can't see why it is any more or less problematic to define than such other hotly disputed and crucial words as "liberty," "aggression" or "self-defense."

It seems, at this point, like saying you don't know what it means just means you don't have anything to add to all that.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

Tell us, to understand this particular social order should we not determine what, wthin that order, are the commonly understood, recognized and accepted obligations of the members to one another and to the group?

Or, are you pointing out that the way to "understand" that circumstance as defining the nature of order, we have to observe these other transactions?

Tony N writes:

Greg G,

Fair point. Alhough I’m not sure that the consensus of the first camp is that social justice is being used to promote something "pernicious" and "evil." The objections to social justice seem to stem from the notion that it isn’t the unequivocal moral necessity that its champions typically claim it is; that it has its problems, philosophically. In my experience, the handwringing comes from the promoters of social justice, who commonly hold that its validity is self-evident, and that to eschew it as a basic tenet of social ethics is morally perverse.

Collin writes:

I guessing most people original emotional response to your story goes a long way in explaining why Mitt Romney is not polling at 70% for the Presidential election.

Julien Couvreur writes:

I think Vallier's appeal to a macro perspective falls short. You could take the Able example and scale it up by 10.000x and the same question would remain.
The relevant dimension is not micro versus macro, but clarity versus confusion.
Your example calls for clarity (Able pays and loses freedom). Vallier and other BHLs would rather we disconnect from our moral intuition in such clear situation by confusing the situation, and making the Able group less identifiable.

Sure, there is complexity, but that does not mean morality reverses itself at a certain macro scale.

Vallier brings an interesting argument about morality and norms. He suggests that people's view of property rights does weaken when scale is introduced, and such norms are the foundation of what is considered moral.
This raises the question of how objective or strong is the case for property rights, and how absolute are those rights. Or are rights just as subjective as preferences?

Evan writes:
One small point: There's plenty of "indeterminacy" even on a desert island with ten people. For starters: Able Abel, like all humans, breathes on others without their consent. A stickler might accordingly charge him with battery or trespass. Question: Is this indeterminacy a good argument for treating him like a slave?
Of course not. Those sorts of arguments are weasely attempts to pretend there is never a conflict between social justice and freedom.

The proper response is to admit that sometimes those two values conflict. Fortunately, since we live in an incremental world rather than a categorical one, there is no need to consistently chose one over the other. You can simply support moderate amount of both.

@David N

Maybe if we take the slavery and starvation out of it the moral issue becomes clearer?
Quite the opposite. Starvation and slavery are essential to the thought experiment because they represent some of the worst possible consequences of choosing social justice over liberty or vice versa. Because Bryan's scenario has such low ambiguity and high stakes it is easier to isolate one's intuitions about these issues than it would be with your more complex and low-stakes scenario.

@rpl

Namely, is it right for a civilization to adopt, through some sort of bargaining process, a set of rules and to expect its members to either live by them or leave (knowing full well that in many cases "leaving" means death)?
I would think it would depend entirely on whether or not they are good rules. You seem to be assuming that moral rules consists of arbitrary rules self-interested individuals made up because some rules were better than none.

There may be some truth to the theory, but it ignores the fact that most morality is based on our others-interest rather than our self-interest. Most complex moral codes are at least in part systematized ways of executing our others-interested desires more effectively.

If your answer to that question is no, then what is the basis for proscribing "theft" and "slavery" in the first place?
They're bad. They hurt people, and humans don't like seeing other humans hurt, even if it benefits them. You don't need some overarching concept of "right," (whether it comes from natural or contractual rights, it doesn't matter) to hate theft and slavery. You just need "good" and "bad." Morality is about reducing the bad and increasing the good.

@Greg G

Both right and left realize that humans cannot live together successfully without some rules being in place.

But they both persist in believing that every rational person should agree to one particular set of fundamental rules.

As evidence that will never happen I submit.... all of human history.

Different people have different values. Therefore the METHOD used to settle those disputes matters more than the particular solution.People have different tastes. But when it comes to caring about the wellbeing of others, that's fairly objective. Another person's wellbeing is outside of your brain and therefore not subject to the influence of your arbitrary tastes. Most moral disagreements come from people making fundamental mistakes about how to improve the wellbeing of others.

Really, the only aspect of morality that might be subjective is which aspects of wellbeing deserve the most focus. But even people who disagreed about that still agree about broader issues.

J.D. writes:

The whole structure of the argument is argumentum ad ignorantiam, which is, I guess, a specific form of non sequitur.

Not knowing or having uncertainty doesn't prove or justify anything, one way or the other.

Tony N writes:

Evan,

Nicely done, but I take issue with the premise that morality is objective, as well as your suggestion that subjective morality is arbitrary morality.

The first point is most important to me, but there is no use in descending into the clichéd “is-ought” discussion, since I assume you are familiar with the relevant arguments.

But I will say that it seems as though you’re conflating the objectivity of what well- being is vs. the objectivity of whether the well-being of others ought to be the cornerstone of a society’s moral code. The former is arguably objective in most cases, but the latter is nevertheless a value statement. We might even agree that well-being ought to be granted primacy, but our agreement does not make it objective.

David N writes:

@Evan,

Starvation and slavery are essential to the thought experiment because they represent some of the worst possible consequences of choosing social justice over liberty or vice versa.

I don't agree. It's easy to contrive a life-and-death situation that challenges one's principles. That's not a fair test. I think my example shows that people won't stick to their principles even when the stakes are lower.

Let's say Abel is a decent guy. He volunteers to work 1/5 of a day to feed himself and Harry, and feels good about it. The life-and-death situation is gone. But Abel has more leisure or more wealth than the others and the moral issue remains.

TomO writes:

why not have the 8 + Harry claim property rights to the whole island and tell Able to either chip in his extra food or shove off.
or if there are no property rights why not have the eight take (steal implies property so not there) the extra food and split it amongst themselves + Harry.
Property implies society. Society implies obligations. Obligations do not equal slavery.

Joe writes:

I don't think Vallier's argument was an appeal to indeterminacy in that way.

Let's add some facts to the initial hypo to demonstrate:

There are badgers on the island. They move very fast and quickly consume most of the food the residents are able to produce. While being a terrible farmer, Harry Hapless is a quite capable badger hunter, while none of the other nine are able to catch a single badger.

Harry spends most of his time catching badgers, but they're poisonous and inedible. Several of the residents, but not Abel, chip in, recognizing the valuable service Harry serves in protecting their food supplies and personal safety. Without him, they might starve, or might be eaten by badgers.

Do Harry and his supporters have the right to force everyone to chip in to support Harry?

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