An Interesting Case of Philosophical Consensus

This is just a brief note to point out something I think rather obvious but which bears more emphasis. As far as I know every theory of distributive justice, or maybe justice in property holdings, agrees that the present actual global distribution of stuff is not just.

I don't have any fancy argument for this. It's actually quite an immediate entailment for most of them. Trivially, for instance, realist theories (or those versions of Marxism that have realist elements), are not going to say that the present world order is just if only because they won't say that about anything. Only slightly less trivially libertarian theories - or really anything which grounds the justice of a division of property in its being justly acquired and transferred by free consenting agents - are bound to say that the present distribution of stuff is immoral. We all know that De Beers don't own those diamonds, and Shell-BP doesn't own that oil, because of a series of free trades with the people of South Africa or Nigeria. More generally, assuming that conquest, theft, and fraud, do not count as justifiable means of coming to own something, any historical theory of justice is gonna say that a lot of actually existing property entitelments are actually pseudo-entitlements. See here for instance.

Then there's the pattern theories like Rawlsianism or utilitarianism or Marxism-with-a-theory-of-justice. Evidently we don't live in the kind of world that any kind of egalitarians are going to like. There's no plausible suggestion that our institutions are arranged to even roughly meet the difference principle's strictures. A whole lot of debate in the exploitation literature is simply a reflection of the fact that plenty of people do not enjoy republican freedom and the ethicists of the powerful are trying to restrain the otherwise free hand of those who can arbitrarily intervene. (More controversially, republicanism may also require much more workplace democracy and maybe even socialism. In any case Pettit's own account of what republicanism requires on the global scale notes that "the actual world falls far short of realizing" the ideal.) Inheritance laws and cronyism see to it that we're not living in anything like the epistemocrat's ideal world. And even if utilitarianism isn't necessarily an egalitarian theory, given some plausible claims about the decreasing marginal gains from money and the impending climate disaster it'd be hard to argue that our deeply unequal world has found the distribution of stuff that just happens to max out expected global sum utility. Finally various more Smithian or egalitarian liberal theories that have been developed in the modern era would tend to be horrified at what amounts to the mercantile capture of the state implicit in much of the neoliberal era's international and national level institutional arrangements.

How about Burkean conservatism or some such? Well, again, I doubt it! In fact aforementioned history of force and fraud has tended to massively destroy communal ways of life and traditional mores that gave people stability and purpose. In much of the world how things are distributed actually has little to do with the power structures and mores people had developed over time (see the discussion on global justice here), the status quo did not grow organically out of what went before but was colonial imposition. What is more, between the way capitalism incentivises constant innovation (well discussed here) and the changes climate change shall impose, we have no reason to expect this to slow down. We've distributed power, authority, and stuff, in a way that breaks down all the things Burkean conservatives find valuable. 

Confucianism is one of the world's most influential philosophies, and again rules the status quo out. Partly for similar reasons as just surveyed in the case of Burkean conservatism; even most of the historically Confucian nations do not, after all, embody anything like the cultural forms which they think are vital for inculcating virtue. That might not sound like a distributional issue - but actually key to this for Confucians typically (even in times and places wherein trade thrived under Confucian governance) is that merchants and mercantile activity should not be given too much social prominence and prestige. Don't think we're doing too well on that front! But also there at various times discussions of principles of distributive justice attached that seem to mandate much more to insure the poorest among us, and also to actually forbid the level of inequality we now see. Note, for instance, the little calculation about permissible income inequality found in the Mengzi that has its modern comparison drawn out here. We also very rarely see Aristotlean mixed constitutions, nor do we typically obey his strictures about the best gap between rich and poor, nor in many places have we set up the state to encourage virtue. Similar arguments could also be made for Thomist theories, and we might add there that the way the financialisation of the global economy has gone does not go well with any theory of justice (Thomist or Islamist, for instance) that condemns usury. 

And so on. Obviously I have no proof that I could make this list exhaustive (if I did I'd write more than a blog post!) and it would be a lot of work to turn these somewhat flippant remarks into proper arguments, but my suspicion is that so it will go on. For all our history we've had a lot of clever people think about how the world ought be. None of them would pick out our status quo as what we should be aiming for, not even close. Of course its no shock to learn that the world is imperfect, but I think the consensus is obviously deeper. They may not all agree on why, but my sense is that setting aside amoralist realists, this is a consensus that the status quo is very bad. We have so arranged the world that none of our moralists, theorists, or prophets would agree that it is even remotely just. And it's not like these people are in agreement that no actually existing society could ever be just - the Confucians, for instance, were quite insistent that good societies had been realised, and I think Burke could point to actual social arrangements he'd have thought ok. In any case, as I said, I think this negative appraisal of the status quo is rather obvious, many of the theorists will note that their particular theory has this consequence. Often quite urgently! But I actually rare see it cited as an instance of philosophical consensus, and since it seems to me to be of some social significance I feel it is at least worth a blog post.

Therefore the only way to be pragmatic and sensible is to be a radical. Don't @ me.


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