Constructing an account of justice in the very teeth of a taboo is both daunting and exciting. Daunting because it is likely that much that had been said before on justice won’t really apply, and one must go back on one’s own to very basic principles indeed to do the necessary work. Daunting too because it is likely to be an endeavor that in the end will bring on ritual shaming from those who enforce that taboo.
It is exciting, of course, for those same reasons.
Yet given the likely paucity of thinkers who will have directly relevant and well elaborated theories of justice that can help guide a new approach, I think I’m going to have to go about the business of trying to devise such an approach iteratively. The development will proceed from small first forays into larger, more elaborate accounts. I expect mistakes to be made. I hope they will be noted and corrected. That I am not a moral philosopher by training will not help, because I will likely begin by falling into some confusions and misinterpretations. On the other hand, it may be a positive that I will feel less encumbered by previous thinking and less in awe of reputations when it seems important to me to contradict a widely accepted point of view. I don’t, though, begin to imagine that relative ignorance here is on balance a good thing; it’s just where I am–at least to start.
This post is intended to kick-start the process of assembling an account of justice informed by and responsive to the facts of human biology. I plan it to be the first of a series. Some of what I will say will be controversial, and will certainly seem just wrong to followers of John Rawls and to utilitarians. Yet my claims here will be at a very high level of abstraction. I doubt that they will entail much — or indeed, perhaps, anything – concrete which most liberals would find in any way discomfiting.
Likely, a good portion of what I will outline, at this level, may have been observed in one fashion or another by others. I can only say that I am here simply trying to come up with what initially seems most sensible to me as a theory of how we should think about justice and morality when taking biology into account. Perhaps later I can try to track down precedents.
The Inscribed Slate
If I had to single out the most salient defect in most contemporary accounts of justice and morality, it would be that they seem to adhere all too well to a notion of a human moral agent as representing a kind of Blank Slate. Now, of course, it is simply too strong to say that they really assume human beings are, in effect, indefinitely malleable in terms of their moral, social, cognitive, and emotional inclinations. But they do, I think, tend to assume vastly more malleability on such traits than we actually possess.
I think the broadest impact of the contrary view, which I will call The Inscribed Slate, is that principles of morality and justice must take into account, and be consistent with, our actual dispositions as a species. By consistency here, I mean, among other things, that the prescriptions of justice and morality must be feasible for most of us to live up to, or at least to approximate, in most of our actions. Alternatively, and maybe more precisely, what I think should be ruled out are prescriptions and principles that essentially require us to run deeply against our very nature on a regular basis.
One example of what I’m intending to rule out is the theory of justice embodied in Communism, as it was (apparently) originally conceived. Suppose one takes Communism to stipulate that a just economic system must implement the precept, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Is that precept feasible for most people, as they are actually constituted, to adhere to in the ordinary conduct of their lives? I think that the decisive answer to that question is, No. E.O. Wilson put the point thus:
What I like to say is that Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. Why doesn’t it work in humans? Because we have reproductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring. The great success of the social insects is that the success of the individual genes are invested in the success of the colony as a whole, and especially in the reproduction of the queen, and thus through her the reproduction of new colonies.
Now I don’t think that we ordinarily require the detailed evolutionary explanations offered up by Wilson as to why we as a species reject Communism – indeed, such explanations are mostly off point. It suffices to appeal to what we are, behaviorally, capable or incapable of doing. But the point is not only that we don’t as a species, in our current set of social institutions, exhibit the sorts of behaviours that an ant colony might. It’s that we aren’t capable of changing ourselves, by any imaginable social construction or system or indoctrination, into such a species. It’s quite fair to say on the one hand that human beings are likely the most malleable of species in virtue of the cognitive power of our brains, and our ability to recruit, redirect, and shape our emotions. Our theories of justice must very importantly figure that flexibility into account. But we simply are not, on the other hand, so malleable that we might ever be inclined to abide by any number of rules that are entirely natural to ants.
I think that a number of previous accounts of morality and justice run afoul of this sort of problem.
Let’s start with Utilitarianism. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:
Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people.
At first blush, Utilitarianism might seem like a reasonable and intuitive way of defining what is moral; and certainly it is impressive in its simplicity. It would also seem to embody a fine way of reducing to the very minimum the need to make the jump from questions of naturalistic fact to those of moral obligation. We need only accept that utility must be maximized, and summed across all people, as our single overarching moral obligation. That is the only leap to an “ought” statement. All other moral questions can be answered by invoking rational and scientific calculations to determine whether a given action actually produces the sought for result of increasing the summed utility.
But this simplicity is achieved by importing from the beginning a proposition that is rather breathtaking: that, when we consider what actions we should perform, it is as much binding on us to consider the happiness or pleasure of someone who might live across the world, and never be known to us, as to consider our own happiness or the happiness of those whom we love. Suppose it could be proven that a man in Siberia, of whom we know nothing, might have a great increase in happiness if we were to perform a certain action – say, sending him $500. Suppose it could also be proven that if we were to perform an incompatible action, say buying our own child a mountain bike with that same $500, our own child would likewise experience an increase in happiness, but smaller. And finally suppose that it could be shown that, on balance, all else would remain the same. Then, by utilitarian principles, we would be obliged to do the thing that made the man in Siberia happier over the thing that would make our own child happier.
Now I think it pretty obvious to most people that this conclusion simply is not right. In fact, we simply owe a greater obligation to our own family than to an unknown person in Siberia, other things being equal. At the very least, very few people indeed would live by a moral code that demanded otherwise; we are surely, every one of us, failing abjectly every day to live up to this code.
Utilitarians have tried to defend their doctrine against the sort of counterintuitive consequences I have just described. Suffice it to say for the occasion, those justifications miss the point – the point being that, in our heart of hearts if nowhere else, we simply believe that we don’t really have the same obligation to the unknown man in Siberia that we do to our own family, or, indeed, to ourselves.
The theory of justice developed by John Rawls – certainly for the last several decades the best entrenched such theory — represents, in my view, another example of an account of our obligations that would subvert basic human dispositions. Now there is much in Rawls’ overall approach that is both useful and insightful. One of Rawls’ more basic contributions was his conception of a Reflective Equilibrium (which might be regarded as a kind of meta-metaethics). The notion of Reflective Equilibrium underpins the possibility that our theory of justice can come about through the reconciliation of a number of facially independent beliefs about what is the right or just thing in various domains. Now Rawls spells out the Reflective Equilibrium as a method whereby even different sets of moral principles might reconcile, at an appropriate level of abstraction, and on certain issues, into an overarching system of justice. I think, however, much of the same mechanism might be said to apply even to distinct or divergent sets of moral principles, which can likewise reconcile, underpinning our settling upon a particular overarching moral system as well.
I think the approach of a Reflective Equilibrium is sensible, important, and deep. Our strongest beliefs about what is just or fair or moral really do scatter across a wide variety of areas and issues. It is the proper task of a theory of justice (and morality, I believe) to take those certainties we really do have wherever we can get them, and to attempt to assemble a comprehensive and consistent account out of them. It seems moreover quite plausible that a morality consistent with our biology might exhibit this scatter; evolution s not a process of deduction from first principles. Our impulses toward the good might well follow how evolution has forged our nature. Those impulses may go in separate directions, and seek distinct objects. From that perspective, Rawls’ notion of Reflective Equilibrium, or something much akin, becomes only more urgent as a mechanism to engender a biologically consistent morality. I might go further and say that what makes the approach of Reflective Equilibrium most plausible is that our moral inclinations do indeed exhibit some scatter, and that this is in fact due to their origins in human evolution. (I think that the principle I articulated in an early post, that of Exacting Fairness, might be understood as a principle to become part of a reflective equilibrium.)
Most theories of justice and morality either see us as driven fundamentally by self interest – such as Robert Nozick’s Libertarianism – or see us as bound by a nearly pure altruistic code. Even most game theory approaches to human behavior more generally seem to assume pure self interest. It is my view, however, that, in fact, as human beings we feel impulses in both directions. Insofar as we play a game in which we would decide principles of fairness and justice, we consider both our own self interest and the interests of others. We do not need to be forced by the rules of a game, or of a social contract decision process, to consider the interests of others in what we choose; we consider those interests naturally, or, more precisely, biologically; they have in effect already been internalized by the forces of evolution. More on this in a later section.
But perhaps Rawls’ best known contribution in his theory of justice is his conception of justice as fairness, as embodied in a celebrated thought experiment. Rawls has us imagine that we are engaged in an effort to settle on the fairest structure for organizing our society and its institutions. In that thought experiment, we imagine ourselves in the so-called original position, in which we must assume that we know nothing about our own personal circumstances or talents. We are to consider ourselves from behind a veil of ignorance, and regard ourselves as being individuals who might in fact be among the least fortunate, favored with the least of resources and abilities. Rawls argues that if we adopt this perspective, and engage seriously the prospect that we might indeed be among the least advantaged, then we will choose a society so organized as to maximize the well being of those at the lowest end of the scale (the so-called maximin rule). From this basic perspective, Rawls claims that we should adopt the so-called Difference Principle, which states that we should allow differences in distribution of wealth (strictly speaking, utility) only insofar as doing so raises the wealth of those at the lowest rungs. That is, roughly, the Difference Principle says inequality in income is permissible only insofar as such inequalities can serve as motivation for individuals and ventures to achieve more, raising the overall wealth of society, and thereby allowing more wealth to be available for, or to be allocated to, the least fortunate. One might think of the Difference Principle as being akin in its underlying goals to the principle of Communism mentioned above, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In each case, the basic object of the social system is, at least in effect, to promote the welfare of those lowest in wealth.
What the Difference Principle adds is a concession to human nature: to get those who have greater abilities to produce according to those abilities, society must grant them financial incentives. They aren’t going to do so out of the pure altruistic goodness of their hearts. Still, those incentives are going to be just enough of a carrot to get those donkeys moving so that they can pull along the least favored as fast as possible. It may be worth noting that even Communist countries such as the Soviet Union seemed ultimately to admit to this fact of human nature, and introduced financial incentives to individuals for productive achievements.
Yet, while Rawls’ Difference Principle is more accommodating to the demands of human nature, it’s hard to see it as anything more than an attempted workaround of our basic inclinations to achieve a goal whose motivation derives from other concerns and bases. Essentially, it requires a “tricking” of basic human desires and actual motivating goals. The ploy is to entice people to do things they simply would not do were they instead allowed only to pursue directly, and without side effect, the sole morally (or perhaps societally) acceptable goal of their efforts: the raising of the wealth of the least fortunate, not one of whom they may know personally. On Rawls’ view, the goals of society’s institutions and of justice in enabling productive activity, are, inherently, unrelated to the typical goals of individuals engaged in that productive activity. Now, I do believe that morality must generally make some concessions at least to human weakness. But it’s quite another thing to insist on basic moral (or societal) precepts and ends which effectively stand in contradiction to such broad and fundamental goals as occupy the dominant motivations of our most considerable activities, in terms both of hours and energy.
It’s hard not to see Rawls’ suggestion as a kind of exalted sounding deception – something resembling a “noble lie” at the very heart of the social contract. We are supposed, on grounds of fairness, to organize society and our institutions around a principle that, quite likely, the vast majority of people would not assent to if they clearly understood it: that no one, regardless of how much they actually contribute to society, in improved products or services, should be allowed to acquire more wealth than another unless doing so is fully “excused” by improving the lot of the least fortunate. Consider the internal monologue an aware, productive individual would have to entertain: “But of course I realize I don’t really have a right to this wealth that I, myself, have largely generated – it’s just that, vastly flawed human being that I am, I cannot make myself work hard without that reward.” The sentiment behind this speech sounds like one more consistent with a belief in original sin than with a belief in a fully natural human being. It exudes the distinct odor of incense and the musty afterlife. It seems to suggest an inversion of the La Rochefoucauld aphorism: from Rawls’ point of view, the Difference Principle is the tribute virtue pays to vice.
The Biologically Radical
This brings me to a definition of some importance to my view. Theories of justice or morality that would deny or subvert broad and basic human inclinations I call biologically radical.
I would describe Rawls’ Difference Principle, as well as Utilitarianism, and, on the right, Libertarianism and a pure laissez faire economic system, as biologically radical, and reject them on that basis. The idea here is that biology presents a strong constraint on what our moral principles might be. I see this mainly as a negative constraint. I do not so much see what may at first blush seem like the complementary point of view, a positive “constraint” to adhere to the biologically normal, as statistically defined, as definitive of moral principle. Among other things, morality is at least partly aspirational (perhaps we approach it asymptotically); in addition, it requires some room to operate for our intuitions and sensibilities and need to generalize basic principles. What impresses me as wrong and counterproductive is to reduce what is moral to what is a mere statistical summary or epitomization of human sentiments and opinions. I don’t see such a statistical account as by any means decisive as to whether a principle is moral. A decisive account requires appeal to moral principles and/or sentiments and/or arguments that go well beyond a statistical argument. On the other hand, a systematic and very broad acceptance of certain implicit principles does constitute pretty good evidence that those principles are authentic moral precepts. I’ll present an example of this later.
That moral principles should be rejected on the basis of biological radicalism is something that is not entirely obvious. Consider, for example, pedophiles, or sociopaths who have nearly irresistible urges to do things we regard as deeply immoral. It is very likely for these individuals that their urges are grounded in their peculiar biologies. Isn’t it the case that, for them, the imperatives not to engage in the activities they so strongly desire constitute “biological radicalism”? If we nonetheless insist that those activities are immoral, how do we square that with the idea of rejecting any kind of biological radicalism? How do we know, or why should we believe, that human beings in general don’t strongly and broadly desire things based on their biology that go against moral principles? I think that perhaps the only way to understand the possibility of such a universal resistance to moral principle is to regard such a circumstance as representing the breakdown of the possibility of morality itself. It is a contingent fact of biology and evolution that we are capable of morality; if we were a different kind of species, we might not be so capable – though it’s questionable that we might have survived as a species of intelligent animal, I think, if we weren’t so capable. It seems to me likely that we would have destroyed ourselves, much as certain strains of parasites do not survive if they too aggressively dominate their hosts; the combination of intelligence and socially destructive impulses would probably be the end of any such species.
In general, the trick will be to define a morality and conception of justice that respects both the constraints imposed by our biology, and the expansiveness, relative freedom, generality, and overall cognitive and behavioral flexibility we do in fact enjoy as human beings. Morality must be defined within a space bounded in its dimensions, but able to operate mostly freely within those bounds.
It seems quite natural to interpret both utilitarianism, and the kind of deontological ethics as proposed by Kant (and in key ways followed by Rawls), as being mostly framed in an intellectual milieu in which morality was conceived in an otherworldly context; the heavy hand of Christian ethics, with its denial of the urgencies of our physical beings, can be distinctly felt in their presuppositions. The point of view is captured well in the line from Robert Browning’s poem, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Or, from the deeply Christian Rose Sayer in The African Queen: “Nature is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
For Rawls in particular, I see this heavy hand in the very thought experiment he proposes. The intrusion of the Christian point of view into Rawls’ thinking is consistent as well, of course, with Rawls’ personal background – he wrote his thesis at Princeton on theological doctrines, and seriously considered preparing for the Episcopal priesthood. Indeed, I find this summary of Rawls’ undergraduate thesis (which I presume is accurate enough on the point):
Fundamental to the thesis is a rejection of Greek philosophical thought from Plato and Aristotle onwards. In a line of Christian thinkers going back at least to Tertullian, Rawls rejects the influence the Greeks have had on Christianity from Augustine onward. Why? Because Greek thought is what Rawls eccentrically calls “naturalistic”: it asks what the good life is for humans, what humans do desire and what they should desire. But for Rawls all desire is part of the problem. We cannot see God as truly ultimate if our relation to him is one of desire – as it is in Augustine’s longing for God, let alone in the erotic longings of medieval women mystics like Teresa of Ávila. Augustine sees the heavenly life as the best life – and that’s the problem. We shouldn’t be thinking about the best life for ourselves, or even for others.
It strikes me as pretty fair to say that much in Rawls’ apparent early rejection of Greek philosophical thought on the grounds of it being “naturalistic” remains, both subtly and deeply, in how he attacks the philosophical problem of justice later in life – after, of course, he has abandoned, at least explicitly, any religious basis for his theory of justice.
While some have criticized the Difference Principle as not being a necessary entailment of this thought experiment, that principle strikes me as a fairly natural product of the terms of the experiment – at least as natural as any other principle one might derive. Given how the experiment is framed, the Difference Principle is at least a quite plausible choice for most people entertaining the original position. But, given what I think is its biological radicalism, it shouldn’t be plausible. The difficulty with the experiment is that it requires people to think about themselves from behind a veil of ignorance in which they don’t know their talents, abilities, class, gender, or (presumably) even such personal characteristics as one’s innate predilections for perseverance, etc. I regard that step as already biologically radical, denying the most basic of human inclinations; having taken that step, it cannot end well. I simply do not believe that when most human beings contemplate their relation to society, and the social contract they might adopt with other parties, they are willing to give up consideration of their own peculiar talents and (at least partially genetic) character traits. They do not bargain away or abstract away those features. They seek instead to come to an arrangement whereby they can preserve those features, and yet interact profitably and fairly and humanely with all other parties to the social contract. Our impulse to be both fair and humane does not, I believe, have to be inferred from some thought experiment or other form of calculation. It inheres in us from our very biological nature. But what also so inheres is our disposition to pursue our own self interest, to believe that, in the main, the products of our efforts should be our own; that our talents and ambition and perseverance are all part of who we are and what we bring to any social context. This latter disposition may or may not be fairly characterized as entailing a moral principle of desert; but it is, I believe, certainly inherent to who we are as human beings. Denying its legitimacy would constitute biological radicalism. In short, I don’t believe we come to the social contract essentially naked of personal characteristics, but regard ourselves as encompassing our biologically endowed traits. We engage our social contract with both our self-interest on the one hand and a pre-existing desire for fairness and cooperation on the other already robust within us.
In defense of his concept of the veil of ignorance, Rawls might say that we have no moral right to the products of our labor when they derive from characteristics of ours which we were favored with simply by the chance of our genetics. Therefore, he would conclude, the veil of ignorance should comprehend such characteristics, and our concept of a just distribution of wealth should be built around that ignorance. But this is exactly where most people would strongly disagree, I believe. Yes, they would say, we did nothing to deserve our genetic gifts; but No, we don’t therefore lack a moral right to the products of our labor that depend on those gifts.
Looking on all this, the good news I think is that we are not merely the agents of self-interest that some theories, such as certain stripes of libertarianism, seem to assume. Rather, we harbor a complex set of inclinations: mostly self-interested (or at least interested toward our immediate families), but also, and very importantly, other-interested. The point is, we don’t have to come to accept some altruistic principles only through a careful calculation of our own interests taken together with the larger interests of society. We come by them quite naturally – they are, most likely, wired into us (or into those of us who aren’t sociopathic deviants); at bare minimum, most of us incline to altruistic interests with relatively little indoctrination. In this sense, Libertarians, or those who advocate principles based on the assumption that we are purely self-interested, are also adopting a theory that is biologically radical, every bit as much as utilitarians or Rawls.
I should note a qualification regarding how Rawls spells out his view of the social contract. Rawls himself actually thinks of his approach in his thought experiment as being more accommodating to self-interest than many previous approaches to social contract theory and the original position. Other approaches presented the defect of allowing the interests of others fully to dominate an individual’s own interests in settling on the social contract (more in line with utilitarianism). Rawls takes issue with such a consequence. According to Rawls’ view, an individual in the original position actually is supposed to calculate what is best for him or her under the conditions supposed for the thought experiment. But those conditions are, in fact, quite radical, as I’ve noted: one must suppose oneself not to know any of one’s relevant personal characteristics. From my point of view, it’s hard not to see Rawls approach here as introducing a rather artificial “fix” on the social contract theory – the veil of ignorance, and his particular elaboration of what it comprehends — in order to avoid the unwelcome consequence of something resembling unfettered utilitarianism. What Rawls’ veil of ignorance gives in terms of accommodating self-interest it mostly takes away in the very things it requires us to ignore.
The Social Contract and Evolution
One way to think of thought experiments invoking a “state of nature” or “original position” or the like is that they roughly recreate a dilemma that has already been faced in evolution itself. But we are the product of such evolution; evolution has already settled upon a particular solution to that dilemma, and we now own the dispositions the particular solution enforces. We are, effectively, now “stuck” with those dispositions; we will not be happy as a species if we cannot live consistent in the main with them. We cannot undo those dispositions, or systematically resist them, and it is of little point to revisit the circumstances under which they were evolved.
Paul Krugman, oddly given that he’s an economist, makes a relevant observation here. In hunt of other prey, he describes an analogous phenomenon, relating aspects of economics to accounts of evolution:
The fact is that maximization and equilibrium are astonishingly powerful ways to cut through what might otherwise be forbidding complexity – and evolutionary theorists have, entirely correctly, been willing to adopt the useful fiction that individuals are at their maxima and that the system is in equilibrium.
Let me give you an example. William Hamilton’s wonderfully named paper “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” imagines a group of frogs sitting at the edge of a circular pond, from which a snake may emerge – and he supposes that the snake will grab and eat the nearest frog. Where will the frogs sit? To compress his argument, Hamilton points out that if there are two groups of frogs around the pool, each group has an equal chance of being targeted, and so does each frog within each group – which means that the chance of being eaten is less if you are a frog in the larger group. Thus if you are a frog trying to maximize your choice of survival, you will want to be part of the larger group; and the equilibrium must involve clumping of all the frogs as close together as possible.
Notice what is missing from this analysis. Hamilton does not talk about the evolutionary dynamics by which frogs might acquire a sit-with-the-other-frogs instinct; he does not take us through the intermediate steps along the evolutionary path in which frogs had not yet completely “realized” that they should stay with the herd. Why not? Because to do so would involve him in enormous complications that are basically irrelevant to his point, whereas – ahem – leapfrogging straight over these difficulties to look at the equilibrium in which all frogs maximize their chances given what the other frogs do is a very parsimonious, sharp-edged way of gaining insight.
Now some people would say that this kind of creation of useful fictions is a thing of the past, because now we can study complex dynamics using computer simulations. But anyone who has tried that sort of thing – and I have, at great length – eventually comes to realize just what a wonderful tool paper-and-pencil analysis based on maximization and equilibrium really is. By all means let us use simulation to push out the boundaries of our understanding; but just running a lot of simulations and seeing what happens is a frustrating and finally unproductive exercise unless you can somehow create a “model of the model” that lets you understand what is going on.
Now I would argue that there is something quite similar going on with regard to the attempted deduction of principles of justice or morality from social contract considerations, such as represented by Rawls’ thought experiment. One might think of Rawls’ experiment as akin to an attempt to mimic the dynamics by which human beings have developed, via evolution, a disposition to help others, and be fair to others. The experiment offers in its stead an explicit calculation that helping others and being fair to others works (at least roughly) overall positively for the entire group, the individual included. (Of course, we must quite artificially abstract away most of our own characteristics in so determining, but the point here is that we must go through a calculation, an inference.) But it is far more sensible to take the outcome that we have these dispositions as a biological given, and as a given from the standpoint of constructing our accounts of morality and justice. Again, taking these dispositions as givens doesn’t imply they can’t be partially redirected or occasionally overruled by other considerations. But, as we try to achieve a reflective equilibrium comprehending all of our various beliefs and dispositions, these must play a central role, and be accorded considerable weight. They are, in general, much better understood as points from which we infer other beliefs and principles and constraints than as items themselves to be inferred.
With respect to Rawls’ thought experiment, we cannot re-engineer ourselves as such an exercise would presuppose. If the results of such an experiment were to differ from our inclinations, except in minor ways, we would not in any case be able to abide by them. The only “correct”, acceptable result will be what we might know more directly from understanding our dispositions themselves; why then imagine such an experiment will add much to the result? Indeed, conducting such an experiment would seem instead only to render possible a subtraction from the correct and acceptable position, by positing principles we can’t adhere to.
Political Systems, Self-Interest, Altruism, and Biology
I’ve argued that we as human beings harbor interests in the wellbeing of others. What is difficult is the question: at what cost are we willing to pursue those interests? Here is where I think that consideration of what we choose as citizens to do in industrialized democracies is instructive, especially for the theory of justice. Virtually all industrialized democracies today are welfare states of one description or another. Basic to the welfare state is the notion of a social safety net. Over many decades, and across many, many developed countries, the welfare state has been converged on as the solution that works for most people. I don’t see how this might be possible except that that solution should represent something toward which our biological nature inclines us. It is a pretty obvious truth that the basic values implicit in the welfare state are not biologically radical. If those values were biologically radical, we would not be able to live with them; yet we are able to live with them, and continue to choose a system embodying them. (See my post on The Human Disposition to Help for more explication of this point – I further elaborate the argument in my comments following the post.) Many arguments on social contracts, as well as our biological dispositions, try to bring us back to a “state of nature” and think about our choices in that context. Yet I believe it is far more reasonable to take the current form of advanced society as, in an important sense, our true state of nature: it is that to which we tend as human beings when our inclinations toward civilization and cooperation are played out over time, and balanced one against the other to approach an optimum.
I believe that the point in fact goes beyond the bare claim that the welfare state represents values that are not biologically radical. I think further that the values implicit in the welfare state can be taken as a fair, if still rather rough, estimate as to how we do and should weigh the benefits we feel obligated to offer to others versus the costs we are willing to incur ourselves. Without question, we really do believe in providing a safety net for those less fortunate. I don’t see how one accounts for the structure of the welfare state without giving due credit to that basic impulse in the great majority of human beings.
None of this is to suggest that the numbers for programs supporting altruistic ends can’t be prodded up over their current values — perhaps considerably past those values. Our current state need not be our final state. But we are not Communists, naturally; nor are we Libertarians, naturally. We are somewhere well in between those extremes.
But what’s important to note about the welfare state is how inconsistent it appears to be with Rawls’ Difference Principle. The presumption of a welfare state is that those who are unfortunate should be brought up to some minimum standard of financial well being, so that certain basic needs can be met. There is no presumption that their financial position should be raised as far as the productive members of society can, with sufficient incentives, enable through their efforts. In fact, politically, virtually all of the discussion of the safety net has to do with what those basic needs might reasonably be; essentially no serious debate is accorded to how far the circumstances of the poorest might possibly be lifted before damaging the system. It suffices that the least fortunate might be able to live a life of reasonable comfort, if circumscribed financially.
I should, finally, observe that Rawls uses his thought experiment to justify two principles – not just the Difference Principle, which I’ve discussed, but also what he depicts as an even more fundamental principle of equal basic liberties. Certainly I think that on the biological approach, we will also endorse such a concept of equal basic liberties. And, no doubt, that principle enjoys some precedence over any principle of a right– if it can be said to be a right— citizens may possess to a baseline of economic wellbeing. But I do think that the underlying concept of a baseline, as opposed to some kind of purely redistributive motivation, applies to both cases. In the modern welfare state, the citizen is guaranteed both a baseline of equal liberties, and some determinable baseline of economic wellbeing. That, I believe, is how the vast majority of people really think about both issues. Social contract theory, however conceived, should be consistent with this point of view. We are, I think, fundamentally concerned with what any member of our society should enjoy as a minimum set of rights or privileges, and this has two aspects: those having to do with basic liberties, and those having to do with basic economic viability.
Update 12-16: I expound a bit more on my views regarding Rawls in the comments.