Saturday, August 30, 2008

Away From Distributive Justice, Towards Collective Responsibility

Here's another cool Hayek quote, from chapter 5 of his New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas, entitled "The Atavism of Social Justice":
"...there can be no distributive justice where no one distributes. Justice has meaning only as a rule of human conduct, and no conceivable rules for the conduct of individuals supplying each other with goods and services in a market economy would produce a distribution which could be meaningfully described as just or unjust. Individuals might conduct themselves as justly as possible, but as the results for separate individuals would be neither intended nor foreseeable by others, the resulting state of affairs could neither be called just nor unjust" (58).

I've been arguing basically that point of view for a while, and this is far from the first time I've heard it articulated by someone else, but I really like the way Hayek put it here. But it also got me thinking. Hayek does use as support for his argument the fact that the results of the market process are not foreseeable. And it does seem to me that a great many people see certain regrettable outcomes of the market process as quite foreseeable enough to dodge this argument.

"Perhaps the precise outcomes of the process are not foreseeable," someone might argue, "but we can easily foresee that certain things will likely occur, like the occasional occurrence of instances of extreme need. Even if, as a society, we think ourselves justified in 'playing the game' of catallaxy (as Hayek puts it on page 60 and later throughout the essay), we nevertheless might be able to point to certain predictable and regrettable outcomes of that game and demand that they be 'cleaned up.' It's on those grounds that I claim that we have some sort of obligation to ensure that no one is left behind 'by' our playing the game of catallaxy. I cannot articulate, necessarily, exactly what that obligation entails, or what is its nature, but to deny the existence of any such obligation seems simply wrong."

I think that would be a pretty fair line of attack, and I think it deserves an answer. I'm not sure what I'll find, but the question seems to become one which is perfectly tractable within my notion of rights and duties. So I pose for myself the following questions: Do we have a duty to help those in desperate need, either collective or individual? How might we understand such a duty, and what would it entail?

I'll be working on an answer to those questions over the coming months.

5 comments:

JEK said...

For a while now I find Ayn rand great assitance in formulating questions and defenitions. So I'll do it here.
"Do we have a duty to help those in desperate need, either collective or individual? "
Define WE please. Such help, IMHO, lies in moral field, tied up with personal responsibility, and the key here is "personal". So what kind of "we" you have in mind?

Danny Shahar said...

Well the "we" that comes immediately to mind is the group of moral agents. That might be too broad, but it'll do for our purposes.

I think the better question is whether a duty to help those in need would apply to individuals or to groups of people, and, if the latter, what groups? But that's precisely the question I'm trying to answer.

Greg said...

The interesting thing about this question is that many people have this same intuition that as a collective group we should care for our weakest members. Yet, if you question people about why they do not individual help other individuals in need, they provide perfectly rational answers about how person A will only spend the money on alcohol, person B has been given too many chances already and taken advantage of them, etc.

There seems to be some cognitive dissonence when comparing what people think will work on a small scale to what they think will work on a large scale. This requires a moral evaluation of situations where the recipients of good deeds refuse to be helped, as that is the crux of the problem.

Danny Shahar said...

Well I think that's sort of at the core of the problem. People seem to hold a pre-theoretical view that the plight of the unfortunate is not their personal responsibility, but also that if these people do not get what they need, that would represent a moral failing on the part of everyone. I'm hesitant to say that there's necessarily something irrational about this, but it seems like it could potentially have something to do with politicization? I'd really like to figure out how to talk about the problem coherently. I'm starting to suspect, though, that this would be a far bigger project than I initially thought. Accordingly, it might have to wait until another time and place; I simply don't have the time to address it now with the focus it deserves.

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