Exacting Fairness

I call my view liberal biorealism. So where’s the liberal part?

Let’s start with the key distinction between scientific or naturalistic fact on the one hand and moral value on the other. Truths of nature march entirely to their own drummer — if they can be said to march at all. Moral systems and systems of justice must find a way to map themselves onto or within those independent and indifferent natural truths.

If, then, nature takes one turn rather than another, quirks this way rather than that, it should not upset our moral universe — if that universe was in its basics well formulated from inception.

If we are liberals, we need to determine how our liberal values translate into principles and policies that apply to the world as science reveals it. Insofar as our values are grounded in features clearly basic to human nature, and not on our projections of properties derived only from ideological presuppositions, they should be robust against any discovery of scientific fact.

Now, clearly, there are many values we could easily identify that are so robust. One instance is the wrongness of inflicting pain on innocents gratuitously; another is the obligation to save a good person from death if doing so comes at little cost to oneself or anyone else. Science is scarcely going to uncover some fact that might cast doubt on such bedrock, indisputable values. As further example, liberals generally will endorse the view that we all are under some real obligation to help, in some way, those who are particularly unfortunate in our society. This too is independent of any scientific discovery.

But what I wish to focus on here are values that both clearly reflect a liberal point of view and also address the special issues raised by the evolution and diversity of the human species.

One such general principle (or perhaps set of principles) is what I call the Principle of Exacting Fairness. Alternatively, in other contexts, it might better be called the Principle of Exacting Justice, or of Exacting Rightness.

The principle I have in mind here is a generalization of an obligation nearly all of us acknowledge: that we must sometimes, in the service of fairness to an individual, choose to do or endorse things which may exact a painful outcome, or risk of such, on others.

Different people may be persuaded by different examples of this principle.

Due process and punishment present several such cases. Reasonable doubt, for example, essentially trades off the larger safety of society against the interests of the accused, exposing society to the risk of allowing a criminal to go free. Even when the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that the accused committed the crime, he will be acquitted and released if that evidence does not establish the case beyond reasonable doubt. Likewise, both the prohibition against double jeopardy, and the release of prisoners after the end of their term into society despite a known, and relatively very high, risk of recidivism, exemplify this principle. Moreover, in matters of non-criminal infractions in other settings, we are often inclined to grant an offender a second chance, in full awareness that a further transgression — and its negative consequences for others — is not unlikely.

A further currently prominent example is that of torture. Certainly for most liberals, the use of torture is virtually always regarded as immoral. Yet it is hard to argue that torture will, under no circumstances, “work”. One can easily enough imagine a “ticking bomb” scenario in which torture might in fact extract information from a terrorist that could prevent some planned act of murder or mayhem. Quite likely, in the fullness of human behavior and experience, such a circumstance, on some scale, has already taken place (though it is remarkable how rarely such an instance can be convincingly confirmed). Does this imply that we should accept torture into our repertoire of techniques for gathering law enforcement information? Indeed, what if torture is effective only in, say, 1% of cases? Given the possible stakes for public safety, why shouldn’t we nonetheless embrace it? Now the debate over torture is a complex one. At its core for its advocates, however, lies the premise that we should adopt virtually any practice which may promote public safety, regardless of their consequences in terms of fair and human treatment of an individual. I believe that most liberals simply reject this premise. In contrast, Conservatives (at least as found in today’s political milieu) seem heavily to favor such a view, albeit with some qualifications.

All of these examples exhibit a tradeoff between fairness (or justice or rightness or human treatment) for the individual and the safety (or comfort or positive payoff) of others. In the context of today’s politics, how one inclines to perform this tradeoff corresponds with impressive exactness to one’s political orientation. Liberals virtually always choose to trade away more of the positive payoff of larger society in favor of the rights or dignity of the individual than do conservatives. I think it pretty fair to characterize that difference in values as basic to — indeed constituitive of — being a liberal.

Racial profiling falls under the same overarching principle. Clearly, the statistics demonstrate that on many dimensions blacks commit crimes at a much higher rate than whites. In many situations, then, it makes perfect rational sense to believe that, other things being equal, and in the face of ignorance as to the real inclinations of a given individual, a black man will be distinctly more likely to present a danger than a white man. Thus, brute rational calculation would likely predict that, other things being equal, if one were to encounter a black man alone in an elevator, on an isolated street, or in a parking garage, he would be more likely to pose a risk of robbery or other harm to oneself than would a white man. Yet, though we can hardly deny the rationality of that conclusion, grounded as it is in known statistics, we ordinarily expect that, at least in some of these situations, we should nonetheless make an effort to behave as we would if the man were white. Of course, the actual circumstances will greatly affect when we so behave. If the elevator, street, or parking garage are in areas generally considered quite safe, we may feel a strong obligation to behave as we would if we were in the presence of a white man; if we know that we are in heavy crime area, we may very well abandon that attempt at fair treatment, judging that the additional statistical risk posed by a black man is too great to ignore.

When it comes to the authorities, we impose much higher demands of fair treatment. We certainly don’t think it right that police officers might question a black man in an elevator, or an isolated street, or a parking garage, when they would not do so if they had encountered a white man. The police of course know as well as we do the increased likelihood, in many circumstances, that a black man, over a white man, will commit a crime, given the same set of known and incomplete facts about both. But in the conduct of their official duties we have a very high expectation that they will treat individuals of all races as equals, and act on knowledge of someone’s race only when it is a likely feature of a real or suspected perpetrator.

Again, how the line on racial profiling is drawn depends greatly on how liberal or conservative one is. Is it permissible for security at airports to scrutinize far more closely a young male Muslim than a white grandmother? Many conservatives would insist Yes; most liberals would argue for equivalent treatment, and demand that any differential action be based purely on other features.

This sort of consideration applies likewise to employment decisions. In certain cases, there may well be a good argument to be made purely on statistical grounds that, given exactly equivalent resumes, a black candidate for a job will, on average, underperform a white candidate for that job. A pertinent analogy would be with the well established fact that, given equivalent SAT scores, black students underperform in terms of college grades compared to white students (a phenomenon termed “overprediction”). These sort of unfortunate statistical tendencies could certainly have a variety of explanations, many of them purely cultural. But the question arises: should we discriminate against black candidates, taking this assumed statistical tendency into account? I think most of us, even most conservatives, recoil at that response to such information. Most of us think it quite unfair to individuals to utilize such presumed tendencies in such a decision, even if they have a rational basis. Liberals, as a matter of course, are far more emphatic on the point.

This brings us to the question of Affirmative Action (AA). I will try to address this very complex issue at a less inadequate length in a future post. For now, let it suffice to say that liberals can rightly regard AA as being justified in part as an extension of the same sense of fairness to individuals as in the case above, where we choose to overlook statistics based on race alone in order to bring about fairer treatment of an individual. Now a sort of paradox inheres in this choice in the use of AA: when we invoke it, we have in mind quite deliberately to take into account the race of individuals in certain minorities in order to bring about this larger fairness. One can give a good rationale for such an action, I believe, but it will have to await a more detailed account of AA. For now, I will say only that its justification would itself be rooted in biological facts about human nature (facts which conservatives who may otherwise embrace HBD seem never to acknowledge): that it’s very hard indeed for most people to give up their attachment to categorizing themselves and others on the basis of racial or ethnic groups, and something should be done affirmatively to rectify the injustices consequent to those identifications.

In short, AA may be regarded as a proper response to a profound and recurring question raised by human diversity: How might and should human nature deal with the facts of human nature?

I believe that this same concept can be extended to issues such as immigration and eugenics as well — dealing with both of which may demand that society allow itself to sustain certain negative consequences in service of a larger justice.

Let this highly schematic account stand for now as my introduction to the Principle of Exacting Fairness. I have no settled views on the philosophical status of the principle. It may be a basic moral principle; if so, it may be justified by intuition, evidence, or theory. It may on the other hand be merely a heuristic organizing a number of rather disparate cases whose individual justifications follow different lines. Nor does the Principle as I’ve depicted it really resolve many cases. Even the most liberal among us recognize that it has a breaking point, a limit past which we should not tradeoff, say, further public safety for fairness to the individual. I do not yet have a good sense as to how that limit might be ideally defined.

Yet I think the principle captures something basic to the precepts a new theory of justice must incorporate if that theory is to deal adequately with the facts of human evolution and consequent differences. For at the core of those considerations is always the dilemma posed when we acknowledge, rather than evade, likely truths about an individual grounded in his or her biology (or that of groups to which he or she belongs) while seeking to be fair and just to the person.


7 responses to “Exacting Fairness

  1. LiberalBiorealist,

    Will look forward to hearing you defense of AA. I thought that if anything it reinforces peoples stereotypes as any achievement is potentially tainted by the AA suspicion.

    I’d be interested in your thought on Dr Ian Jobling’s piece on Rawl’s ‘Citizen Competence and Conditional Rights’. The website is unfortunately titled which I imagine would frighten people off, but it’s an interesting discussion of Rawls’ arguments & the assumptions that underpin modern liberalism.

    “Having reviewed the merits of liberalism in my first two articles on political philosophy, we have now pinpointed its key weakness: the unproven assumptions that a capacity for citizen competence is universal and that the prevalence of injustice is merely due to unjust social conditions. If these assumptions hold good, then liberalism would seem to be beyond reasonable criticism, and we would be compelled to accept it. After all, if the moral personality will flourish in a society that treats its entire citizenry with respect and nurturance, then we would not only be obligated to respect people’s rights, but also to favor the least advantaged through public assistance and affirmative action…”


  2. Dear liberal biorealist,

    By testing your theories against relatively small problems such as racial profiling and “affirmative action,” you do little justice to the immense intellectual task facing you. This is unfortunate, because your philosophical chops appear to be up to climbing much larger rocks.

    Here are three much more difficult problems that I wish you’d take a crack at.

    One: revisit the Carlyle-Mill debate. As a biorealist, you believe that Carlyle is right and Mill is wrong – on the facts of the matter. But as regards political implications, you’d rather go with Mill. (In fact, you are considerably to the left of Mill.) Since Mill’s answer is not available, how would you answer Carlyle? Discuss.

    Two: consider the impact of biorealism on the history of decolonialization, in particular, Africa. In retrospect, enlightened by biorealism, what would you do differently? How does your solution differ from that advanced by (a) liberals, and (b) colonialists? How, for instance, would you have addressed the Rhodesia problem? Discuss.

    Three: should the US maintain open borders with Iceland? What about Nigeria? Discuss. Do you believe the proposition that “no person is illegal?” If you accept Rawlsian ethics, how do you justify discrimination on the basis of national origin – specifically, geographic point of birth, a criterion much more arbitrary than race? Discuss.

  3. I like the idea of your blog, but I think you are still not “biorealistic” enough. Differences in intelligence between the races are a minor part of the problem. Contemplate, like Michael Levin, that valuing “Kantianism” was not selected for as strongly in blacks as in whites. What if differences in “values” were also under evolution’s control?

  4. While I have high hopes for you I cannot help but be largely disappointed by this assertion:

    “Liberals virtually always choose to trade away more of the positive payoff of larger society in favor of the rights or dignity of the individual than do conservatives.”

    Assuming you are using these terms in their modern political definitions, this is just flat out wrong, even given the minimal qualification of “virtually always.” What liberals and conservatives disagree upon is not the relative worth of individuals versus the whole, but *which individuals are to be most subject to the needs of the whole as controls upon their rights and dignity.*

    Probably the easiest and most consistent way to illustrate the general trend is to compare accused criminals and actual criminals, and the relative level of respect due their rights and dignity as assessed by liberals and conservatives, versus those who are incapable of economically supporting themselves to a fixed level of consumption and those who are capable of producing vastly more wealth than they require to reach that fixed level of consumption, and the relative level of respect due *their* rights and dignities as assessed by liberals and conservatives. Any honest consideration of the question leads at once to acknowledgment that your quoted assertion is misleading at best and extremely dishonest at worst.


  5. Statsquatch says,
    “I like the idea of your blog, but I think you are still not “biorealistic” enough. Differences in intelligence between the races are a minor part of the problem. Contemplate, like Michael Levin, that valuing “Kantianism” was not selected for as strongly in blacks as in whites. What if differences in “values” were also under evolution’s control?”

    I’ve often thought the same thing—which
    summons the fact that it’s often very hard to distinguish cultural theories and modest of thought from ‘g’ or intelligence in its quotient form; indeed, this disconnect often leads one to believe that one simply begets the other. And the example you cite re. ‘kantianism’ is one that I, too, have come up with in positing anecdotal differences noted between blacks and whites…..Along these lines, I once came across in some kind of book dealing with racial analysis, this particular casually rendered quote: “the white man dreams and thinks in logic and deduction; the black man thinks in hieroglyphs.” (note: the author was in no way trying to seriously definitive or conclusive, but she did point to a fundamental difference in mode of deliberation that often informs each race.)

  6. “Liberals virtually always choose to trade away more of the positive payoff of larger society in favor of the rights or dignity of the individual than do conservatives. I think it pretty fair to characterize that difference in values as basic to — indeed constituitive of — being a liberal.”

    No, sorry. You are describing libertarianism. Liberals regularly trade the weal of individuals for society through social programs and progressive taxation. Nor would a typical libertarian feel the need to grapple with the ethical issues you raise. Whatever facts may arise regarding group differences or human nature, they are not generally relevant to the individual rights or freedoms typically championed by libertarians.

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