Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Moral Luck: Part III

In my previous post (see below) I suggested that most of us use two different sorts of moral systems. One–what Nozick refers to as "entitlement"–is an accounting system. I have injured you, so I owe you damages. I have agreed to give you something, so you are entitled to get it. The other is a measure of what people deserve, based on a judgement of the person. To take an example of Nozick's, if we wager a dollar on the flip of the coin and I win the bet, I am entitled to the dollar. But I don't deserve the dollar–because I didn't deserve to win the bet.

In this post I want to work through an apparent implication of the second approach. My starting point is one simple assumption: What you deserve can depend only on you. Two people may end up with different outcomes because of factors entirely out of their control, such as whether a coin flip came out heads or tails. But such factors cannot determine what each deserves.

One obvious conclusion, and one widely accepted, is that differences in wealth or income due to accidents of birth cannot be deserved. My being born to rich parents or you to poor ones was neither my doing nor yours, so cannot affect what each of us deserves. The argument applies to my genetic inheritance as well. That too was an accident so far as I was concerned, so could not affect what I deserve.

The same is true for other accidents of birth. I did not deserve to be born to loving parents who brought me up to be a generous, honest, productive individual, nor did you deserve to be born to the opposite sorts of parents who brought you up to be the opposite sort of person. The man who ended up a guard in a Nazi concentration camp did not deserve to be born in Germany in 1920, nor did I deserve not to be, so his guilt is in large part, perhaps entirely, undeserved.

The conclusion is radically egalitarian–more radically than most egalitarians would like, since it applies not only to the difference between rich people and poor people but to the difference between good people and bad people as well. Strip off everything external, everything a person is not himself responsible for--genes, wealth, upbringing, nature and nurture both--and it is hard to see what is left on which differences in desert could be based.

One possible response is that we all deserve the same outcome, but giving us what we deserve costs more than it is worth. In a society where outcomes do not depend on what you do, there is no incentive to be honest, productive, or helpful; the result is equal poverty and misery. This may well be true, but I do not think it gets us to where I, and I suspect many of my readers, want to end up. The implication of that argument is that we should have only as much inequality as is necessary for a productive society. Every difference in outcome, on that view, must justify itself as producing enough benefit in increased size of the pie to justify its cost in a less just division.

Another possibility is to reject the concept of desert in favor of entitlement–or at least to argue that entitlement ought to be given some moral weight. The heir does not deserve his inheritance, but it was given voluntarily by someone who legitimately earned it, so he is entitled to get it. While I have a good deal of sympathy with that position, I think it is more interesting to try to deal with the egalitarian conclusion of the argument from moral desert on its own terms.

What, if anything, is wrong with it?


Anonymous said...

The egalitarian view has to be too selective about what luck really counts as luck. Why treat e.g. the family you are born into as a matter of luck and disregard the luck involved in being born into a totally egalitarian society?

If the holdings of a person would be different in a less egalitarian arrangement than in a more egalitarian arrangement by some amount X, then that person gains or loses X just due to their luck in being born into a more egalitarian society.

Or try a thought experiment: Assume the totally egalitarian view is right and that it's actually being applied in some society. One member of that society has good genes, loving parents, etc. Another member has mediocre genes and disinterested parents, etc. Through some redistributive mechanisms of that society, both have the same level of wealth. The first member says to the second, "You have as much as I only because you were lucky enough to be born into this egalitarian society and I was unlucky enough to be born into the same society. You don't deserve all of what you have. I deserve some of it." Is he right?

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that even if you don't deserve your luck, someone else might deserve it, because a good thing that happens to you due to someone else's deliberate actions is often luck from your viewpoint but not from the actor's. And many, if not most, of our advantages in life are the result of an accumulation of good choices over several generations.

Take, for example, the proverbial rags-to-riches immigrant: born in benighted poverty, overcomes incredible odds to come to America, earns a fortune through hard and dirty work, scrimping, saving, etc, etc. All but the most radical egalitarians would agree that such people, though very rare, have existed, and that they deserve their success.

Now consider the child of such an immigrant. She, let us say, has grown up in a fine neighborhood and received an excellent education at expensive private schools, all of it paid for by the earnings of her hard-working and devoted father. She becomes a successful lawyer or corporate executive or whatever. Does she deserve her success?

The shortsighted egalitarian, following your argument about luck, would say no: she had immense advantages that were none of her doing, but merely a result of her happy accident of birth. But just because those advantages are luck to her doesn't mean they fell as manna from heaven. She has them because of what her father did-- and her father deserved his success, and therefore deserved to be able to pass those advantages on to her.

Now the argument extends easily to a situation where someone's success happens because of some combination of the actions of their parents, grandparents, and so on back. But this arguably covers nearly everyone living in a modern, rich society! Our ancestors even five or six generations ago were almost all desperately poor and ignorant by our standards; and most were, again by our standards, very poorly brought up indeed.

We got to where we are because each generation of people built incrementally upon the resources afforded them by the previous generation. And they did their building in significant part so that they could pass the fruits of their labors on to their children and to others they cared about. For each one of us, what we see as the luck of our birth and upbringing is really the combined result of directed efforts of others on our behalf; and their combined desert vitiates the egalitarian conclusion about the legitimacy of taking away our success, even in the absence of Nozickian entitlement.

Anonymous said...


I like your argument about the immigrant. It's a good enough argument in its own right, but it also shows how selective the egalitarian view has to be about what counts as luck. The immigrant could only come to America because there was an America to come to, and because the immigrant was lucky enough to get a green card from the immigration authorities, etc. The success that the immigrant enjoyed in America was made possible in part by the fact that the U.S. doesn't practice absolute egalitarianism. The egalitarian has to say that the immigrant really only deserves a very small portion of the additional increment in wealth obtained as a result of coming to the U.S.

Jadagul said...

James, Mr. Weininger, it's even worse than that. Under the hyper-radical egalitarianism Professor Friedman is discussing, the immigrant also doesn't deserve to be the sort of person who works hard, saves, and has what it takes to overcome those incredible odds and become wealthy. It's not his fault that he was born that sort of person; it's just a result of his genetic makeup, over which he had no control. So he doesn't really deserve his wealth either; it's just a chance result of the genetic and nurtural lottery.

Now, I would claim that those things are constituent of self-ness, in some sense; thus talking about whether our immigrant friend deserves to be the sort of person he is is nonsensical, because if he weren't the sort of person he is, he wouldn't be he, and we'd be talking about whether some other person deserved to be that person. This sort of radical egalitarianism can only hold up under a dualist conception of selfhood, where the existence of the self is independent of any facts about the self. Professor Friedman's argument attempts to say that no self deserves any of the accidents that attach to it, up to and including, in essence, the body to which it is attached. If you think that the body is the self, this argument doesn't make much sense.

Sorry about the philosophese in there; I'm not sure how to argue about the nature of selfhood and stay in regular English, because English doesn't have a word for these concepts, because most of them have no connection to regular life.

Anonymous said...

This is just the determinism argument--if everything we do ultimately depends on the functioning of brains and bodies and genes based on physical laws, then how can anyone be responsible for anything? You wouldn't punish a broken clock for being broken, you wouldn't blame it, but you might discard it without any concern if it no longer met your needs.

But I think this misses the point of what a moral evaluation of a person is all about.

a. We're evaluating the clockwork at some point--we're evaluating whether this person as he is behaves in an acceptable way.

b. Because his clockwork is responsive to what we do, we're also offering it incentives to behave in an acceptable way.

Some people think another way out of this argument is to posit a soul that's outside the body, but I don't think that buys anything new. The soul itself must behave according to some laws. (In Christianity, think of original sin and the need for redemption from it by Christ.)

Anonymous said...

"What you deserve can depend only on you."

I think that focusing on what people "deserve" is a red herring. Why do we care about moral merit in the first place? I suggest it is because we use it to predict behavior, and adjust our own in response. I'll be a lot more relaxed in the presence of a person who I believe has a strong moral code against theft, dishonesty, and aggressive violence than I will be in the presence of a person I believe to be amoral.

From this standpoint, it doesn't matter whether a person's goodness or badness is due to some accident of genetics, parentage, or other circumstance. All I care about is whether your character is good or bad, not why.

(Possible exception: sometimes we have sympathy for someone who lacks morals we regard as important, if there are extenuating circumstances in their background. An explanation may be that in such cases we see the possibility of reform.)