I closed out a recent post with the following observation from David Schmidtz:
Even when justice is cruel, it isn’t petty.
Here, Schmidtz puts his finger on something about the social justice movement that’s always bugged me. So many driving ideas behind what is labeled as “social justice” these days seem to have little to do with justice, and far more to do with spite or pettiness.
One reason we’re often told we should be worried about income inequality in wealthy nations, where even the (relatively) poor are by world and historical standards fantastically well-off, is because people are more concerned about their relative well-being than their absolute well-being. Michael Shermer once described a particularly dramatic illustration of this:
Would you rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 a year while other people get $250,000? Assume for the moment that prices of goods and services will stay the same.
Surprisingly — stunningly, in fact — research shows that the majority of people select the first option; they would rather make twice as much as others even if that meant earning half as much as they could otherwise have. How irrational is that?
Shermer goes on to describe how this is one of many cases where our baser instincts drive us to make others and ourselves worse off in the name of vague notions of fairness – similar behavior can be observed in other primates. But the simple fact that a particular instinct is evolved does not give us a reason to rate it as good, let alone build social conventions or political institutions to reinforce it. After all, there are all kinds of other similarly evolved primate behaviors that are widely recognized as bad and are subject to social sanction for that reason, however “natural” they may be.
This particular knee-jerk reaction is a very destructive one. To say “I would prefer to live in a world where I have half as much as I otherwise could, as long as I can make sure everyone else gets even less” is pettiness to an extreme degree. A world where real per capita income is $250k is very different from a world where real per capita income is $25k. To be willing to reduce everyone else’s income to one-tenth of what it otherwise would be and to cut your own income in half in the process in the name of relative well-being comes close to preferring that millions of your fellow humans die in an earthquake in order to save your own little finger.
Certain key concepts from John Rawls strike me as equally petty. Rawls’ original position stipulates that if we didn’t know what position we’d be born into in a given society, we’d prefer a world that maximizes the well-being of the least well-off person in that society. This means that if given a choice between two worlds, one where everyone lives in Star Trek level abundance, free from scarcity, aside from one unfortunate person who lives in terrible poverty, and another world where everyone equally lives at a just-slightly-above-terrible level of poverty, everyone in the original position would prefer the second world. Think about that for a moment.
Imagine God makes a rare public appearance and says to you: “Hey, I’ve decided to reboot the world. I’m going to let you choose which new world I create. In the first, you’ll be terribly poor, but everyone else in the world can enjoy incredible prosperity. In the second, you’ll be slightly less poor but still very, very poor, and instead of being prosperous and wealthy, everyone else in the world will be just as poor as you.” I’m rarely accused of being excessively altruistic, but I’d feel like an absolute monster if I chose to create that second world and condemned billions of other people to lives of poverty just to make myself slightly better off. That’s not justice. That’s pettiness.
As a final example, Rawls’ notion of the natural lottery has always struck me as petty, too. In Rawls’ view, nobody deserves to benefit from their natural endowments. He doesn’t simply mean the more milquetoast claim that someone born to wealthy parents who pour massive resources into giving them every possible benefit has gained some kind of unfair advantage as a result. Even if someone was born poor to uneducated parents but, through intelligence, hard work, and sheer dedication manages to become very wealthy, that too is unjust. After all, that person doesn’t deserve to be a smart, dedicated, hardworking person, so the benefits they gain from these having attributes is fundamentally unjust.
More than anything, this kind of attitude reminds me of what Boromir says to Frodo when attempting to take the Ring of Power for himself:
It’s not yours, save by unhappy chance! It could have been mine! It should be mine! Give it to me!
To Tolkien, these are the words of someone whose mind has been corrupted under the influence of a demonic evil. But to Rawls, this is merely what justice requires due to the unfairness of benefitting from your own attributes. As far as I’m concerned, Tolkien has more genuine wisdom to share with the world than Rawls.