Thursday, January 20, 2011

Redistributive Justice

Each Economics of Compassion course contains a beautiful, but, also disastrous lecture called: What is Justice? The question is beautiful because humans have a deep-seated desire to set to rights all the wrongs they see in the world. To explore the nature of right and wrong seems like an essential adventure. On the other hand, whenever I'm giving such a philosophical lecture I feel like a man caught in raging white water rapids with no rock to cling to. So, the question must be, why? Why give the lecture? The answer: The question of "What is Justice?" matters that much.

Unlike other flights of philosophical fancy justice has real practical application. That is, what we think about justice shapes the kinds of policies that appeal to us. Below is a quote about Charter School Policy in Harlem,

"When officials of the city’s Department of Education announced last year that they planned to place a charter school inside the Public School 123 building in Harlem, Mr. Perkins was infuriated. With help from his chief of staff, several parents and teachers’ union representatives staged a protest there on the first day of school, holding signs that labeled charter schools as “separate and unequal." (New York Times, March 8, 2010)

Additionally, in the discussion about Universal Health care there were a number of statements made about how nobody should be able to receive better medical care than anyone else. Both the quote and such statements are responding very strongly to justice as equality. If any single person received different healthcare or a different education that would be unjust. Certainly, however, equality is not the only dimension people care about. The late Robert Solomon noted in his book "What is Justice?":

"What are the definitive ingredients of justice? Is it need (as the Marxists say, "to each according to his needs")? Is it merit (as in Aristotle, for example, who one is and what one has done)? Is it equality (and in what sense is it true that all men ---or, rather, all people --- are created equal)? . . . How do we measure these ingredients, need against merit against rights, in an adequate conception of justice? This is no abstract question, a mere plaything for philosophers. Our public policy depends on an answer, and every citizen has a stake in it."

Here is an example culled from history and included in Peyton Young's book Equity: In Theory and in Practice. The first story is set in 1943 and revolves around demobilization during World War II. The War Department did not know who ought to return home first and therefore took a survey of the soldiers about what criteria they considered important for selection.  Serving overseas and having dependents mattered. Also, not included in the questionnaire but included in many write-in portions of the survey soldiers thought that exposure to combat was an important criteria for determining demobilization. So, here we have an example of a mixture of merit and need based criteria for demobilization.

This story contains the insight that merit and need are the most appropriate principles to apply to this situation. What about other situations? Because I'm lagging behind in my lectures for The Social Justice Living Learning Community I'll be delving deeper into this philosophy more and more. And, blog posts will bear the fruit of this investigation. To close I want to leave you with a quote from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which puts the importance of justice succinctly: "Economics, at its best, can tell us the effects of pursuing different policies; it cannot, without the guidance of normative principles, recommend which policy to pursue."

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