Tuesday, February 04, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#4)
The book, Against Liberalism (Post D). Previous post here.

[This is a series of posts on the contemporary philosopher John Kekes. I will very concisely present the ideas in five of his books: Against Liberalism, A Case for Conservatism, Facing Evil, The Art of Life, and Moral Wisdom and Good Lives. I hope you will read them. They are quite readable.]

In one chapter of the book, Kekes presents some problems for the liberal scheme of wealth redistribution. He has developed the criticisms even more thoroughly in a book, The Illusions of Egalitarianism, which will be published later this year. In Against Liberalism, the problems number four.

First, redistribution schemes misunderstand the problem of poverty. They are couched in the egalitarian tenet that gaps in wealth are bad. As I’ve argued before (and Kekes attributes the argument to Harry Frankfurt), a gap in wealth is not essentially unjust, as can be seen in the fact that there is no injustice in the gaps in wealth between certain well-to-do people. The problem is the undeserved misery of poverty, and not any gap. Moreover, liberals don’t understand that it isn’t the case that the riches are simply spread around unevenly in a way that can be remedied, as jelly spread poorly on a slice of bread. For there isn’t enough wealth to close the gap without depleting the wealth required for production of more wealth. Concentrations of wealth keep us all afloat.

Second, absurd consequences follow from liberal egalitarianism. For example, if egalitarianism were true, men ought to receive compensation for the fact that their life expectancy is markedly shorter than women’s. Benefiting the worst off does not serve justice. Only benefiting victims of injustice does (including sufferers of undeserved harm). And some in the liberal’s target group - the poor, minorities and women - are not victims of injustice. If all poor people deserve aid, whether or not they are responsible for their poverty, and all minorities and women deserve aid, whether or not they are well-to-do, then men deserve aid for their shorter life expectancy, whether or not they are responsible for its shortness or well-to-do. The basic premise of egalitarianism, that inequality is unjust, is inconsistent with the fact that some inequality, such as some cases of short life expectancy, is a matter of simple misfortune. There has as yet been no sufficient argument that all inequality due to misfortune ought to be eradicated by taking property from the well-to-do (more on this in the next post).

Third, there is no basis to exclude from equality people of other states and count only our state’s citizens. To reserve equality for Americans is to put it on a basis - a cultural one perhaps - other than the mere fact that everyone has a capacity for autonomy (on which term, see previous posts). This would be to take a first step from liberalism to conservatism. To bite the bullet and demand equality for all human beings would require (a.) advocating a one-world government to enforce equality against the reasonable preferences of many, who won’t yield without a fight, and (b) expecting this government to be wealthy enough to supply enough resources for all to achieve and maintain autonomy (i.e., comfortable shelter, good food and medical care, education, security, etc.). This is a utopian fantasy (in other words, a dystopia).

Fourth, egalitarians say that all people matter equally. But surely the wicked matter less and ought to be treated worse than the good. Liberals will reply that what they mean is that we ought to assume that a person is not wicked and treat him equally to the way in which we treat the best of people, until evidence is found that he is in fact wicked. But this reply is as implausible as saying that we should assume that for any given star, we should assume that it is nearby and plan a mission to it until it has been shown that it is not nearby. One’s worthiness of good treatment depends upon one’s moral merit, and not merely on one’s personhood, or capacity for autonomy.