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Justice and Desert-Based Emotions
eftir Kristján Kristjánsson
Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1 Mapping the Field
‘I experienced profound joy when I heard about the dot-com bankruptcy’; ‘I felt so happy about Anne’s promotion; she really deserved a break after all her tough luck’; ‘I was genuinely sorry for John when he was diagnosed with lung cancer although I suppose he had it coming to him after all his crazy smoking’; ‘I feel kind of guilty about my recent stroke of luck; my poor brother would really have deserved some of it’; ‘Don’t you feel, like me, that Bill has had more than his fair share of good fortune recently?’; ‘Why does my brother always get a bigger birthday cake than me? I know he’s three years older than me, but it still isn’t fair’; ‘I cannot honestly complain about my recent set-backs, I probably deserved them the way I behaved’; ‘I admit that Beth is talented, but I hate the way she seems to think this gives her a moral claim to an extra share of the good things in life’; ‘I know it is wrong, but when my colleague went to have her teeth bleached this morning and they turned a putrid yellow colour, boy, did I get a kick out of that!’
From an early age, our emotions take up a substantial part of everyday conversation. If we consider the judgements passed at the dinner table or while doing the washing-up – at the times when the tongue speaks what the heart thinks – many of those will, I believe, turn out to be of the kind exemplified above: that is, having to do with the good or bad fortunes, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved, of ourselves and of our relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbours, and how we react emotionally to our lot and theirs. Where do such emotions stem from? What beliefs and desires do they incorporate? What is their relationship to ideals of justice, and where does the notion of desert fit into the picture? Are desert-based emotions morally justifiable under some circumstances and if so, how should we cultivate them in moral education? The present book is precisely about such emotions: their genesis, nature, moral standing and schooling. The key terms to highlight here, as we initiate our discussion, are ‘emotions’, ‘justice’, ‘desert’ and ‘schooling’, and this is the place for a few prefatory remarks about each of those in turn.
There has been a burgeoning of interest in the emotions in recent years. After decades, even centuries, of relative neglect, empirical and evaluative research on the emotions has gradually been coming into its own as an established discipline – or, perhaps more aptly put, as a series of established sub-disciplines – in the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology and education. The phoenix-like rise of academic interest in the emotions, in general, and in their moral implications, in particular, is surely long overdue, given the fact, amply illustrated through history in countless intriguing novels and other works of art, that most of what is interesting about human life – at least from a moral point of view – is played out in the field of the emotions (cf. de Sousa, 1987, p. 17). Some of the academic interest has also percolated through to the public. The fundamental message of the prevailing cognitive theories of late, that emotions are in principle educable and regulatable, has, indeed, struck such a chord with the ordinary person that academic buzzwords such as ‘emotional intelligence’ have suddenly become topics of spirited discussion in the workplace and at the dinner table. I will assume here, from the beginning, that in order to make sense of the good life, the life worth living, we need to implicate emotions in our moral explorations, and to consider, for example, the moral basis on which the emotionally driven everyday statements of my opening paragraph above, about deserved and undeserved fortunes, could rest.
There has never been a dearth of interest in justice in academic circles. Since the ancient Greeks, questions of justice have riveted the attention of almost every major philosopher. It may be asked how many strings justice has to its bow. While a fair diversity of scholarly opinion continues to be generated on that question, the days are gone when the idea of desert as a possible string in the justice-bow could be dismissed with a few peremptory remarks. Indeed, as critical attention has shifted away from the Rawlsian (1973) and Nozickean (1971) accounts of institutional justice, which dominated the debate in the 1970s and 1980s, towards a Feinbergian (see originally Feinberg, 1970) discursive tradition that accommodates desert-based pre-institutional concerns as one consideration among others in a pluralistic account of justice, the notion of desert or deservingness – one systematically overlooked and maligned since Enlightenment times – has undergone a revival. This revival is not only evident among moral and political philosophers (see, for example, Olsaretti, 2003a), but also among social scientists (see, for example, Ross and Miller, 2002). Some have focused on what people mean by ‘desert’ (for example, Feather, 1999), others on what they ought to mean in order to advance the debate (for example, Sher, 1987), and yet others on children’s alleged acquisition of a ‘natural’ belief in a world where people get what they deserve (see various articles in Ross and Miller, 2002); lurking in the background have been deeper normative questions about what role, if any, desert should play in a sound moral outlook (see, for example, Miller, 1999).
In contrast to the desert-ignoring theories of a quarter of a century ago, the pluralistic philosophical justice theories of late tend to be either desert-sensitive – that is, they accept pre-institutional desert as a salient, if somewhat easily defeasible, ingredient in overall justice (for example, ibid.; this also seems to have been Feinberg’s view in his groundbreaking essay of 1970) or desert-prioritizing – that is, they consider desert the most important single ingredient in justice although it can sometimes be morally outweighed by other considerations (taken collectively), for example those of institutional entitlements (for an early formulation, see Sadurski, 1985). Desert-monistic accounts of justice – that is, attempts to couch justice solely in terms of desert – notably remain as scarce as before; rare exceptions to the rule are Feldman (1995a: ‘My conception of justice is based on the ancient and plausible idea that justice is done when people receive goods and evils according to desert’, p. 573), Pojman (2001) and McLeod (2003). Nevertheless, the recent drift towards accommodating desert concerns in justice signifies a major change of academic emphasis, particularly so when viewed in conjunction with another, largely simultaneous, trend, namely one which heralds the return to an Aristotelian conception of justice as primarily, psychologically and logically a personal virtue, rather than, as Rawls held, essentially a ‘virtue of social institutions’ (1973, p. 3).
Most of the recent accounts of justice are, in fact, triply pluralistic. In the first place, they suggest various ingredients in justice, including desert, which need to be weighed against one another; in the second, they argue that desert claims are traceable to a variety of irreducibly different desert bases (a view which I, incidentally, do not share); and in the third, they accept that justice may need to be weighed against other values in overall judgements of morally right distributions of benefits and burdens. Notably, even desert-monistic theories of justice can be pluralistic in the second and third of these three senses.
Now some would argue that the reintroduction of desert in justice theories has created more problems than it has solved. For instance, the question of what constitutes the basis or bases of desert, the grounds in virtue of which a person can be said to deserve some treatment or outcome, opens up a ‘new’ source of controversy. While public opinion seems to prioritize moral virtue as the most important – or even the single all-embracing – desert basis, many philosophers disagree. Even though I happen to be more sympathetic to such a single-basis view of desert than the philosophical majority, I would be getting ahead of my argument (in Chapter 2) to press that point here. Let me, rather, at this juncture, highlight the fact that the revival of desert in academic discourse typically represents more than just a conceptual thesis about the meaning of justice. It also tends to imply a psychological thesis about the origin, development and nature of justice concerns in human beings – and, additionally, a sympathetic view of the potential relevance of the latter for the former.
What has fuelled this new-found interest in desert in philosophical circles? One reason may be the widely heard call of a leading liberal thinker who fears that the failure of liberals to take sufficient account of desert-based ‘reactive attitudes’ – attitudes that are an ingrained part of the common person’s moral sense – could be leading liberalism into political isolation (Scheffier, 1992; cf. Strawson, 1962, on ‘reactive attitudes’ as essentially natural, morally ineliminable, human reactions). Whatever liberal politicians profess, there seems to be a broad consensus among the general public that desert should carry considerable weight in the distribution of benefits and burdens (see, for example, Galston, 1991, pp. 159–62). Another is probably the recent cautious venture of a number of philosophers across the barricades traditionally separating philosophy from the social sciences. Academics working in the latter domain have never considered justice to be primarily about a set of theoretical principles, but rather about a set of powerful personal feelings – that is, a deeply emotional matter. In the philosophical, as well as in the psychological, literature, insights have been resurfacing about the essential emotionality of justice itself: namely, that justice is – as the ancients realized – not primarily a lofty intellectual virtue, grounded in abstract, detached beliefs, but rather, at bottom, an earthbound, if complex, emotional virtue, grounded in certain compelling beliefs and desires which are deeply embedded in human nature (Scheffier, 1992; Solomon, 1995). As a complex emotional virtue, justice seems to encompass certain desert-based emotions that are certainly important developmentally – and perhaps also morally – for an understanding of this virtue. Interestingly, the trend away from justice as a grand political blueprint towards its personalization, emotionalization and (by implication) depoliticization takes us right back to the familiar and ancient territory of Aristotle’s nemesis: an emotional and moral disposition towards pain felt at fortune, either good or bad, if undeserved, and towards pleasure if deserved: a disposition which forms an inseparable part of Aristotle’s overall conception of justice (cf. Curzer, 1995; see further in Chapter 3 of the present book).
However much we might welcome the recent philosophical trend towards exploring justice via desert-based emotions and through a productive, if still somewhat cautious, intercourse with the social sciences, it would be premature to assert here that the virtue of justice necessarily requires a disposition toward desert-based emotions. Qua particular emotions, the desert-based ones must pass the same test of moral justifiability as other emotions: they must be deemed both rational and morally fitting in the given circumstances (see Kristjánsson, 2002, chs 1–2). Questions still linger as to whether the desert-based emotions pass this test, as well as to what extent they should be allowed to shape our actions and allocation decisions. In other words, we cannot conclude from the assumptions that (a) justice is a virtue, (b) desert is an ingredient in justice and (c) desert-based emotions express desert claims, that the desert-based emotions are themselves virtuous and that desert claims express (other things being equal) a virtue. It could well be that these are morally neutral, or even immoral, and that there are other, perhaps institutional, aspects of justice which make it all-in-all virtuous. We still need, therefore, an independent moral justification of desert and desert-based emotions. After all, Strawson did not morally justify ‘reactive attitudes’, although he posited them as ‘essentially natural human reactions’, the absence of which would be practically inconceivable in this world (1962, pp. 195–7). In light, however, of the wide historic consensus on justice as a virtue and the recently growing consensus on the relevance of desert, in general, and desert-based emotions, in particular, for this virtue, it might seem reasonable to predict that the emotions in question will on many occasions pass the test of moral justifiability and, hence, be thought of as virtuous. But again, let us not get ahead of our argument here; this is another point that I will revisit and argue for later in the present book (Section 4.3).
Our final ‘key term’ was that of schooling. Recently, educationists have joined in the enthusiasm for justice with two major trends in values education extolling justice as a fundamental virtue to be transmitted to students. Thus proponents of ‘citizenship education’ highlight justice as a public, democratic virtue, whilst followers of ‘character education’ champion the virtuosity of justice as a personal, pre-institutional character trait. Once again, there is ample room for disagreement about which ingredients of justice should be emphasized and through what means as we explain this virtue to, and attempt to cultivate it in, our students.
Earlier I mentioned a recent venture across traditional academic lines. It is a commonplace that philosophical research on moral concepts, virtues and emotions, on the one hand, and social-science research into the same moral issues, on the other, have tended to run on parallel tracks without significant mutual acknowledgement. This familiar polarization, and its resulting lack of integrative work, is a lamentable state of affairs, not least so in the field of justice research where it often leads to the denial of insights that could have helped us to think productively about the issues at hand. One can, indeed, hardly think of another field where the combined efforts of describing the evaluative and evaluating the descriptive are as urgently called for.
One side of the coin has been the woeful lack of awareness among philosophers of the empirical research that has been conducted by social scientists concerning people’s justice-based intuitions, beliefs and emotions. When mentioned at all in philosophical writings, these tend to be dismissed out of hand as unconsidered and irrelevant: what matters is what people should think, not what they do think. The reverse side of the coin has been the corollary reluctance of social scientists to take account of work done by philosophers. In the following section, I argue for the indispensability of interdisciplinary work on justice. We should refuse the gambit offered to us by a strict descriptive–evaluative dichotomy and engage each other in debate on issues that are of relevance to both social scientists and philosophers exploring justice. Ideas of the natural origin and development of desert and other justice concerns, to take one example, are not merelypsychologically interesting; they can also have important moral ramifications, especially for naturalist theories of morality such as utilitarianism and virtue ethics. These theories assume that moral theory construction must take full account of empirical research and that we need to know a lot about how human beings are before we can construct a moral code which will help them to function and flourish. Furthermore, a developmental account of justice concerns appears to be the natural starting point for the construction of educational perspectives on justice, since educational interventions – for example in values education classes at school – aimed at stimulating or stifling certain intuitions students might have about just states of affairs would, I submit, have to rely on psychological facts about the nature and origin of such intuitions. Conversely, psychologists and educators urgently need to enlist the aid of philosophers in clarifying and analysing the concepts and issues that form the objects of social-scientific inquiry into justice.
Fortunately, as already noted, the age-old disdain that philosophers and social scientists have had for each others’ work seems now gradually to be subsiding and attempts at mutual engagement in critical, interdisciplinary debates on justice are slowly gathering pace. Once the myth of the mutual irrelevance of these two academic fields to one another has been buried, we can – as I plan to do in this book – proceed on a more extended front and make capital of research carried out in otherwise distinct scholarly areas. Although my main focus will inevitably be that of a philosopher, as I am educated as one and cannot claim equal competence in the field of social science, I will make the effort at least to step across the ‘imaginary barbed wire’ (Solomon, 2002b, p. 119) between philosophy and social science and to rely as much as I can upon both foci.
Why Philosophical Justice Theories need Social Science, and Vice Versa
I do not think that any of the reasons typically given by philosophers for disregarding the social-science evidence about justice beliefs is a particularly good one. The first reason given above may appeal to writers of a formalist persuasion, but rationalist and other formalist accounts of justice no longer hold the field in philosophical justice discourse, and for the growing number of philosophers who are interested in justice as a personal virtue, the appeal to the non-naturalist nature of the virtue will seem alien. Also misdirected for the most part are the second and third reasons: concerning people’s alleged conceptual confusions and inconsistencies, and concerning the lack of historical sophistication, leading to formally and substantively indeterminate research designs. Even if this were, indeed, a faithful description of a large proportion of existing research, then it would simply be the job of the social scientists to overcome such problems, by making clear to their respondents, in advance, the relevant conceptual grounds and asking more searching questions that elicit not only unconsidered and/or self-interested justice intuitions but morally informed justice judgements. This can be achieved and has been achieved through better designed questionnaires and research scenarios as well as through careful correlations of respondents’ appraisals of just or unjust situations with other appraisal criteria (see, for example, Liebig, 2001; Mikula et al., 1998). If the respondents need to be taught some philosophy into the bargain, then so much the better for them! In other words, philosophers do not have good reasons for ignoring all social-science findings about people’s justice beliefs; they only have a reason for ignoring the results of badly conducted research and, at the same time, a duty to encourage and help social scientists improve their work.
So far, Adam Swift (1995, 1999), the author who has written most astutely on the relation between philosophical justice theories and social-science research into popular beliefs about distributive justice, would probably agree with my line of argument. He thinks that empirical research into such beliefs and their causal determinants provides invaluable food for thought, and that the beliefs themselves constitute important feasibility constraints on the realization of philosophical justice theories. He refuses, however, to go further and grant that the justice beliefs can be constitutive – in any significant sense – of the rationale of justice and, hence, that they can play a role in the justification of particular justice principles. The reason given by Swift is that even after the necessary pruning of conceptual inconsistencies and the amendment of research designs undertaken by the philosopher (or by the social scientist under philosophical supervision), there is no guarantee that the informed results of public opinion on justice will coincide with the well-argued justice theory of the philosopher. It may still be the case that public opinion rests upon faulty inference that can be demonstrated through subtle philosophical argument (1999, esp. pp. 356–7, 361).
As a thorough-going naturalist, I would be inclined to go further than Swift allows, and I will do so in Section 4.3 when I tender my arguments for the justification of desert. Let it suffice to remind the reader here of the Millian insight that the best reason we can give for something being morally desirable lies in its actually being desired by competent (wise and experienced) judges. Now, this is obviously not tantamount to saying that the actuality of a large number of people having converged upon the same view of justice provides a reason for giving this view a constitutive role in the justification of justice principles – for we cannot assume that those people constitute wise and experienced judges. Nevertheless, if we advisedly follow Miller in rejecting the view that philosophers can discover truth by means which are, in principle, not available to lay people (1999, pp. 52–3; for a discussion, see Mason, 2002), then the actuality of a large number of people having converged upon the same view of justice, combined with the fact that the research into their views was carried out in accordance with the best available standards (sufficient formal and substantive determination of research design and so forth), provided good reason for giving this evidence a justificatory role as the evidence of competent judges. It may still be the case that their particular view is wrong, as shown after further scrutiny by philosophers or lay people, but then again the essential fallibility of all theories (moral, political or otherwise) is no novelty in post-Popperian times.
Swift’s defence of the philosophical salience of social-science findings on justice is thus, in my view, an unduly limited one. I fully agree with Miller that ‘empirical evidence should play a significant role in justifying a normative theory of justice’, with such a theory being tested, in part, by its correspondence with considered everyday intuitions about justice (1999, p. 51). I also agree with Simmons, who claims that the obvious starting point for the construction of philosophical perspectives on justice lies in the ‘origin and development of social justice principles’ (1981, p. 41) – both, I would hasten to add, their historical development (through the history of moral ideas) and their psychological one (through the development of the relevant conceptions in the individual person). I will, however, suspend further exploration of those developmental and justificatory issues until Chapter 4.
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