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« Michael Dummett on Frege | Main | Gideon Rosen on Moral Responsibility »

October 25, 2010



1. AV assumes that the words "unequal" and "unfair" are synonyms. But we need the chain of reasoning which gets us from one to the other. We can't just assume it. Societies treat convicted criminals worse than they treat law-abiding citizens. But it doesn't follow that the inequality of treatment between the proven guilty and the assumed innocent constitutes unfairness. Treating them equally would be more unfair.

2. Though AV doesn't endorse it, I don't understand what he means by "cosmic unfairness"? Does it apply to different species on different planets? Is it a kind of cosmic pathetic fallacy, attributing concepts of human agency to the vast, cold, unknowing empty spaces of the Universe? Is it a religious notion?

3. It's a pity Alex Voorhoeve didn't consider any of the standard anti-egalitarian arguments, even to dismiss them:

That some people get richer than others because of hard work and effort, while others stay poor because of indolence or regressive social attitudes; that a society needs reward mechanisms; that cultivating attitudes of self-help, self-reliance and self-improvement can lead to general human progress; that much inequality is simply down to brute physical facts (ie that some people are inherently smarter, more sexually attractive, stronger etc.).

4. AV's examples of medical resource allocation are exactly the opposite of what happens in practice, for obvious reasons. Doctors allocate rationed supplies of drugs and treatments primarily on the likelihood of a successful outcome. Someone with an advanced metastasised cancer is clearly worse off than someone with early diagnosed cancer. But it makes more sense to operate on the less badly off patient, because they have a much better chance of survival.

Scott Nandor

Out of curiosity, why is inequality wrong? Certainly the prevailing view of life is that evolution, via the survival of the fittest, has brought life and humans to this point in history; this means that the only way to make life, and humans in particular, better is to promote inequality. Surviving is the ultimate good in a material world. Therefore, inequality is not only counter-productive to survival, but if life is about survival, inequality is bad. The distribution of resources to those who are not strong is only watering down the gene pool.

I do not hold this view, but it seems inescapable if one is a materialist. Any instinct or intuition, to help Bob or Anne, at least from a materialist worldview, appears to actually harm our evolutionary development rather than help it. Why not spend the resources on the fit to help them become fitter and allow humanity to grow stronger?

As a correlation to this, why should we trust counter-evolutionary intuitions? Certainly not simply because they are 'unattractive?' There would seem to be a need for something concrete and rational rather than a chemical/emotional reaction of dislike.

Mark Patterson

Another excellent interview. I'm a bit skeptical, however, of the survey evidence Alex cites- might it be the case that subjects have a difficult time understanding the equality in gains between Anne and Bob? The concept of decreasing marginal returns is so powerful that I'm worried subjects are in fact answering a different question than Alex asks. Further, we should hesitate to eliminate the possibility that subjects are indifferent between the two allocations- even if a large portion of the sample elects to improve Bob's plight, this decision may be quite contingent on the particular description given- in order to claim that subjects in fact have a strong preference, it seems we'd need to test the robustness of this preference to alterations in the situational description (perhaps make Bob closer to death, Anne an individual who contributes to charity, etc.)

Despite my reservations, I think Alex's work is exactly what we need-- more appeals to experimental evidence!

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