Friday, February 15, 2008

Recapping: Happiness and Distributive Justice

Chatting with Richard Chappell in the comments to the previous post, I stumbled upon the hackneyed expression "just the frosting on the cake." Hackneyed expressions often have a lot in them.

Consider three cupcakes representing people. (This is so silly. But it works.) The cake part is the fundamental happiness I've been talking about in these posts: health and liberty. The frosting represents supplementary happiness: education, career, raising kids, hobbies, travel, luxuries, etc. One cupcake, A, has no frosting. A isn't in abject poverty, but he is a member of our society who has enough to be happy. B has a medium-size layer of frosting, and C a thick layer of it. C lives in luxury and has various fulfilling activities open to him that A does not. B has some of these, but not others. They are all three happy, though B is happier than A and C happier still (assuming that B and C don't have psychological maladies preventing their enjoying their situations.) There is no imperative to transfer any frosting from C or B to A. If A lost a chunk of his cake through no fault of his own and was a decent and just person, then C and B might perhaps have a duty from distributive justice to help. (That's for the next post.) But there is no duty from distributive justice for the haves to give frosting to the have-nots. C and B can get together and decide to give frosting to A, and that might be reasonable and good. But there is no duty there. A has his health, so he has everything. What B and C have in addition is just the frosting on the cake. Justice doesn't enter in there, because justice is a very serious matter. We can't be serious about a duty to give A frosting, because we can't reasonably lament (Richard's term) that A lacks it. This is because A should not lament it himself.

Now, Richard comments, is surely desirable to bring about "a better society", as you put it. (Whether this is "owed as a matter of distributive justice", or a more broadly consequentialist imperative, does not seem to me an important difference.)

On the contrary, the difference is very important. I don't believe there is a consequentialist imperative, but I do agree that liberalism (leftism, what have you) is committed to there being one. The conservative view is that bringing about a better society (call this value U) is one among a set of values which we ought to promote (where "better" means "having more happiness spread amongst more people in it.") We ought to maintain distributive justice and procedural justice. We ought not to harm other societies for no good reason. There may be other values in the set, though at the moment, that seems exhaustive. U may be defeated (overridden, trumped) by any of these three other values in the set. In fact, the two justices are particularly tough cookies, and may be defeated by U only in extreme circumstances. For the conservative, these things must be kept clearly distinct so that deliberations about them can get them right. The liberal view Richard adheres to avowedly blurs the distinction. It may indeed increase happiness to take frosting from one who has a lot of it and give it to one who has only a little of it. But there is no overriding imperative to do so, and certainly not an imperative from distributive justice to do so.

That's a recap of the view. The reasons to accept it are in the previous two posts and the comments.