Abstract

The appearance of a £70,000 polished stone sculpture outside a new London hospital has not gone down well in some circles. The money could have paid for three nurses said the Sun, while the Daily Mail questioned how the ‘gallstone’ could ‘possibly improve health care’. BBC News, 25 August 2005 The role of the state in fostering some social goods rather than others, and so favouring some values at the expense of others, raises a number of challenges. Most obviously it conflicts with the simplest (and indeed too simple) conception of neutrality. If societies dedicate resources in ways which favour one kind of value over another that would seem to undermine an attitude of impartiality among conceptions of what is of most value.1 In this article, I shall assume that there is some way to meet or dismiss such neutrality-based objections, for I want to focus on a starker problem even than that, one which would remain even if those objections could be met, and on which philosophers have had oddly little to say. Few of us would welcome a life in which the various social goods were to be removed. Yet the allocation of resources to these goods certainly takes away some resources from the meeting of urgent needs. How can the just society pursue the aim of providing for such social goods when some urgent needs are unmet?2 In addressing this question, our focus will be on claims that can reasonably be pressed on one for aid, and claims that it is reasonable for one to resist. I shall address the matter by moving back and forth between the perspective of the individual and that of social policy. Different ethical outlooks have different conceptions of what it is for there to be a genuine demand on an individual or a limit to any demand; and these different conceptions interact in diverse ways with conceptions of the constraints on social policy. My purpose, in this article, is to make some headway on how these balance. In Section I, I outline the relevant conception of social goods, before sketching the central problem. In Section II, I offer a theoretical framework for the problem and four possible responses—only one of these, I suggest, coincides with our intuitions that current distributions are not unjust while avoiding the implausible claim that certain values have an unyielding importance. But the real problem here is seeing how to maintain that position. Section III raises an interpretative problem about the notion of need and its role in generating or resisting claims. In suitable contexts, where someone has committed to one life over another, or where the opportunities for flourishing are determined by one range of cultural options rather than any other, they will have needs not mirrored in the demands of all humankind. These will be needs nonetheless. Section IV then explains the distinctive character and importance of shared needs. We can recognize the importance of museums and universities in social policy, I suggest, without having to appeal to the aggregation of interests across individuals. Properly conceived they are shared needs for us collectively. I do not seek to offer here any decision procedure for weighing social goods against individual welfare. The aim rather is better to understand the place of social goods in our deliberations about social policy: we should move beyond the view of them as mere preferences, preserved if at all by purely partial concerns. Social goods are a necessity for us, a necessary means to a full life, but this necessity can only properly be made sense of in a social context. It is only against that background that we can properly grasp why it is not unreasonable to devote funds to such goods even, sometimes, at the expense of meeting some urgent needs. What do we expect in just societies? Plausibly, a well-ordered society is one in which two traditions of social activity continue and flourish: the raising of funds collectively to meet the needs of the destitute; and the directing of resources towards certain values and ends so as to bring about particular social goods. Universities, concert halls, and museums are obvious examples of such social goods, but a proper catalogue of them would be much more varied and diverse. For example, one might mention the manufacture of musical instruments; or the way in which a whole culture has grown up on making and drinking coffee in particular ways in Italy. Again, one might point to the development of artisanal trades such as viniculture and the limited production of particular types of cheese. And we can also draw attention to the provision of resources to develop local traditions of playing and watching sports: be that rugby in Wales, football in Spain, golf in Scotland, or baseball throughout the US and Japan. As diverse as this brief sketch is, one can find common elements which justify the thought that there is a central concern or problem here worthy of attention. First, social goods develop according to a certain degree of local contingency. Second, while none of them is indispensable for a fulfilling life, it seems hard to imagine a good society in which no such goods are provided for, or a bearable society without the existence of at least some of the institutions which sustain them. Moreover, third, co-operation is required and demanded from many in order to provide these goods; so their provision spreads costs across a whole community, just as the meeting of urgent needs does. Finally, we should note that these institutions make things of value available, and, just as importantly, they provide for the transmission of an understanding of how these things are to be valued. Taking all this together, one may say: while it seems hard to imagine a good society which lacks some such common institutions, still we cannot say of any given society why it must foster the particular set of goods and values on which it does expend shared resources. The brief sketch just given of the special status of these goods should help remind us that much effort is in fact given over in all the societies we know to the development and sustenance of social goods, and that this effort is often in tandem with, or even sometimes prioritised over, the meeting of urgent needs. This is a feature of society which does not immediately strike most of us as problematic. Yet if a concern with the proper functioning of society and its distribution of resources should be exercised solely with an eye on need, then such complacency is problematic. Consider a somewhat artificial example.3 There are some diseases which lead to death in teenage years, or shortly after. We expend a significant amount of resources on researching cures and remedies for such fatal, early illnesses. But it is quite conceivable that were we to devote an even higher level of resources, we might discover a cure for one such disease much earlier; and thereby, perhaps, advance the successful treatment by five to ten years. Think now of a very rare illness: one which affects one in a hundred million people in their early teenage years. There is some teenager somewhere who as things stand will die soon. However, if we expended the resources which communally are directed towards museums, or arts, or pure mathematics in universities, and focused it solely on the relevant medical research, they would survive beyond their mid-teens. If any individual has an urgent need, surely this teenager does.4 So does this teenager have a claim with priority over social goods? When faced with this example, most people's reaction is that we are not required to abandon resourcing the arts and universities in order that the teenager should survive; however unfortunate their plight. Perhaps the idea implicit in this reaction is that there is a limit to the demands any one person can make on the rest of us, and that that limit is in play even in relation to the distribution of resources towards things which are not needs stringently conceived.5 The difficulty is to find a plausible manner in which to think of this sort of limit. Even if there is no precise boundary or algorithm which one can define, we must be able to give a more helpful account of what reasons are in play in this kind of case. As yet, this seems elusive. If claims of urgent need are a priority for justice, then we should sacrifice social goods in favour of urgent needs. Most of us reject the consequent, but deny that social goods are more important or have greater priority than the urgent needs of others. How, then, can we justify our rejection? This, briskly put, is our problem. Let us look at the example more closely. One reaction is immediately to suppose that with social policy, numbers are always germane. As the example is specified, the disease is relatively rare and those who will be adversely affected by re-distribution are great in number. So, one might think, this is simply a matter of balancing the demands of the many against the misfortune of a few. Suppose that Jones has suffered an accident in the transmitter room of a television station. Electrical equipment has fallen on his arm, and we cannot rescue him without turning off the transmitter for fifteen minutes. A World Cup match is in progress, watched by many people, and it will not be over for an hour. Jones's injury will not get any worse if we wait, but his hand has been mashed and he is receiving extremely painful electrical shocks.6 There are important differences between the two examples. Depriving the young of school or university education is not on a par with missing out on a football game, even a thrilling one. There is also a contrast between the one-off occurrence of an accident and adoption of general social policies. However, given the remaining similarities in the distribution of burdens and benefits, and in the ratio of numbers on each side, the question remains: why do our intuitions go in opposite directions in the two examples? The first thing to note is that Scanlon's example has several layers of complexity, and that might bear on the disanalogy.7 We might feel that giving in to our desire to continue watching the game, demanding no intervention should interrupt the broadcast, is tantamount to actively harming Jones. The thought would be that the difference in attitudes towards Jones and the teenager is underpinned by the distinction between a stringent duty to refrain from harming others, and an imperfect duty to help people in need. However, given the extreme plight of the teenager, this would, at best, be only part of the explanation of our difference in attitudes. If as many as one in two, or three, children died at such a young age, our reaction would change. We might think that our society is not well-ordered if it lets this happen; we would feel that children are victims of neglect. Yet in our actual example, most of us feel disposed to support the status quo. Few would be inclined to consider that this is because the need of the teenager is outweighed by the number of people who enjoy education and art (or indeed by the value of art or education). Yet we doubt that all these funds must be redirected for research to cure his illness. If the numbers involved across these examples can give rise to such conflicting intuitions, we might do best initially to leave aside considerations of numbers entirely, and focus first on the kinds of objections individuals would have to each of the potential policies. A familiar version of this procedure is often called the ‘Complaint Model’. This compares the respective objections that each of the people submitted to particular policies would have.8 It has at least two appealing features. First, it is individualistic insofar as it examines and weighs the complaints that each person might have against each of the policies available. This model also has the result that we pay particular attention to those who do worst under each of the candidate policies: we try to adopt the policy with the least significant objection to it. So of those available to us, and subject to some constraints such as respect for rights, or considerations of fairness,9 the correct policy is that in which the worst-off still would do better than the worst-off (not necessarily themselves) would do under each available alternative policy. Where there is conflict of interests, no result can be completely acceptable to everyone. But it is possible to assess each result from each point of view to try to find the one that is least unacceptable to someone than this alternative is to anyone. The preferred alternative is in that sense the least unacceptable, considered from each person's point of view separately.10 Of course what this model directs us not to do is to aggregate complaints. In our second example, we do not aggregate the cost (in terms of sacrificed pleasure) that the many viewers of the football game are incurring. Their combined displeasure is not allowed to outweigh Jones's hour of excruciating pain. In other words, we build in an Individualist Restriction. Parfit, to whom we owe this expression, defines it thus: ‘[i]n rejecting some moral principle, we must appeal to the principle's implications only for ourselves and for other single people.’11 Using this conception, it is easy to see how Jones would have a reasonable complaint against our continuing to enjoy our Sunday afternoon entertainment at the cost of an hour of excruciating pain for him. However, it is much less easy to see how this approach can lead to a contrasting verdict in the example of the teenager. It seems that the loss of a number of years of life in one's early years is an even greater harm than suffering a traumatic pain for an hour. True, one may suppose that a liberal education or the opportunity to spend weekend afternoons in an art museum is a more significant benefit to people than watching a football match. But still, as we are now to understand the Complaint Model, at least one of the undergraduates must be in a position in which depriving him or her of a liberal education (as opposed, say, to a vocational training which will help medical research), or the enjoyment of the arts, is a worse harm than the loss of years of life is to the teenager. As important as art and knowledge are to some of us, it is difficult to put anyone in the position of claiming that these are more important to them than someone else's life. Yet unless we are prepared to make this claim, how are we to avoid the consequence of the teenager's claim being the strongest, thus rejecting any principle which does not save him or her? What then if we lift the restriction? Those attracted to maximizing models of moral considerations certainly find the Individualist Restriction puzzling. Among the many critics of this idea, Parfit puts the matter particularly sharply: using cases where we can either save one person or several people from a similar type of harm, he argues that the Individualist Restriction leads to the wrong kind of result, and that a more plausible understanding of moral duties would do away with it.12 Might the same be said with our problem? We can explain our intuitions in the case simply by removing the Individualist Restriction and recognizing the conclusive force of aggregated burdens or benefits which groups of people together bear. Before we rush to endorse this solution, we should reflect on whether we really are happy to offer this kind of justification of the policies we pursue to the teenager whose life is at stake. Advancing aggregative considerations to explain our policies to the teenager just seems formidably callous. And this doesn't seem to be a matter of mere politeness or diplomacy in spelling out the real reasons. If the sacrifice for each seems so superficial in relation to the teenager's plight, piling up the number hardly makes our resistance more acceptable. The problem is compounded because the alternative (i.e., to claim that it is unjust not to make these sacrifices) doesn't seem the right thing to say either: we do not feel that a just society must systematically redirect all of its available resources to meet claims of need for survival. So we may doubt that the Complaint Model, even with due modification, would allow us to distinguish between the case of the teenager and the case of Jones. The question is: beyond their structural differences, are the two examples the same; are we led to the conclusion that it would be wrong to refuse to sacrifice certain cultural goods in order to give a few more crucial years to the teenager? As suggested, one option is to claim that for each student currently enjoying a liberal education, the benefit he or she gains from this aspect of life just greatly outweighs the cost to the teenager. Any policy which led to the deprivation for any of them of this education would leave them worse off than the teenager is now under the status quo. Access to art and knowledge are just too important to be sacrificed in this way. Such an insistence on the importance of these values indubitably sounds as odd as the demand that the resources should be redistributed. We surely don't want to insist, even given our position in the business, on the central importance of learning and knowledge. It seems as if, when we have to compare the importance of the opportunity to read a significant piece of literature, to enjoy a superb painting, or have one more life saved, there is little choice but to opt for the third of these. And at this stage, it may then look as if the only way to rescue the status quo without over-inflating the claims of universities or museums is to appeal after all to some aggregative considerations. Perhaps it does matter in the end that the teenager is one of so few such afflicted members of our society, and those with the opportunity to benefit from education or from the arts are so many. As already stressed, the difficulty of resting here is the recognition that we already have from Scanlon's example that if aggregation can come to bear, it cannot do so directly in all cases. Let us now make more explicit a couple of elements left intentionally unclear in the Complaint Model. When we engage in a pairwise comparison of individuals' situations in relation to different policies, there are different things we could be comparing.13 On one conception, working out the cost of a policy is a relative matter, contrasting an initial situation and the outcome. So one might think that an individual had a complaint against endorsing the new policy because the resulting situation would leave them too badly off relative to their actual possession of resources, and so would be too demanding of them. If we take this way of thinking seriously, then the grounds for reasonable rejection will in part be comparative across outcomes. On the other hand, we might measure a person's welfare relative to some appropriate standard. We do not first have to compare a situation with any other possible outcome (i.e., an outcome determined by some different policy about distribution from that which holds in the status quo) in order to determine whether the person is in an unfortunate position and has claims on us. We need only to know that in this situation the person in question is below some given standard. And it is this fact about the situation which would ground the verdict that a policy which resulted in this outcome would be reasonably rejectable by that individual. Talk of rejectability may however mislead, and suggest a particular decision procedure. The point, rather, is that there is an absolute standard according to which we rate the urgency of a person's claim.14 In turn, a question arises as to what the baselines used for comparison are. On one way of doing this the baselines used are determined just by average welfare, so that costs and benefits are a matter of how a subject moves relative to the overall average welfare. An alternative way of conceiving of them, though, builds in more structure to the idea of a complaint: claims, we may suppose, are distinctively grounded in the needs of individuals, not in their preferences. In identifying the claims of individuals we need to look at their opportunities to lead a flourishing life, and to possess the means necessary for that. And here we help ourselves to a substantive conception of what it is to lead a good life, rather than thinking of it simply as a formal notion filled in by appropriate values for an individual's preferences. Such a substantive conception may draw on the contingent possibilities that arise given the specifics of culture and history that individuals find themselves in. Hence, the claims that any individual has, in the actual world or in any possible world resulting from a given policy, are always relative to a potential good life, actualisable in their historical circumstances. Given this richer conception of the baseline, we arrive at a different picture of the costs that individuals face. Rather than simply asking whether an individual will end up with fewer benefits under this policy than that, we can ask whether they will be left with the means themselves to live a good life. That is, rather than simply conceiving of them as beings with a certain set of preferences and resources, we should think of them as having needs which form the basis of claims against others, including claims which balance or block the claims of others. With respect to any bundle of resources in excess of the minimum required for living life well, we might think that an individual has no good complaint against a policy which would deprive them of those resources. On the other hand, we can, in the context of a pairwise comparison, point out that any policy which deprived a particular individual of the necessary means to a good life in order to provide another individual with their needs would be self-defeating from the point of view of such distributive policies. An individual faced with such a demand could reasonably reject the policy. The basis of this rejection we might think of in terms of the very moral concerns which would give such a policy its point in the first place: that such policies answer to the demands of meeting needs which all of us can recognize. We thus operate with a different conception of reasonable rejection. We start from the fact that we tend to think that someone's claims of need issue from their situation in the actual world—how far their resources fall below a certain baseline. That is, someone has claims on the rest of us where they have need of things that are necessary for life to go well. In mirror form, we might contrast the resources others have beyond what they need with that which they have which meets their own needs. If another's need is stringent enough, it is not reasonable to resist their claims if one has suitable surplus resource; but where it would deprive one of the necessary means for flourishing oneself, it is. (Again, there is a further question here whether, in terms of policy making, there can be further comparative ranking of urgent claims.) One element of the puzzle with which we closed the last section was the question of how any of our undergraduates could resist the demands of the teenager without claiming the greater importance of philosophy or art over the teenager's life. The supposition that we would be committed to such a claim in the face of the teenager's needs itself presumes a particular conception of the Complaint Model introduced above. We can now see that we need not be committed to any such conception, and that on reflection it should be rejected. If we just think that the cost in question is determined by some quotient, then the deprivation of education for one of the undergraduates must be greater in disvalue than the loss of life for the teenager. And it is natural to think that this calculation can only hold if impersonally (allowing now for comparison across people) the value of an education to someone is greater than the extended life of a teenager. But we can avoid this demand if we focus instead on the grounds of rejectability that an agent may have. For the basic idea is that it is reasonable for someone to reject a claim against them where meeting the claim would deprive them of the necessary means to live life well. This consideration does not entail that the ground of rejection have greater weight or value than the claim it forms the resistance to: what matters is the relation it bears to the person resisting the claim, that it be a need for them. The point can be made vivid by focusing on certain special cases involving psychological impossibility. We find it entirely understandable if someone cannot bring themselves to act in a way which costs them a finger to save another's life. Their attitude here is not well-modelled by saying that they value their little finger more than the life of the other. Rather, the kind of sacrifice here, breaching the integrity of one's body, is something that is psychologically impossible, or near to, for most people. We have a background concern for the preservation and integrity of our bodies, and this concern is not normally up for comparison with other things we value; rather it structures what is possible or impossible for us to do. Note that this is not to say simply that the value of one's finger is incommensurable with the value of a stranger's life. Nor is the thought that there is a privileged realm for partial or prudential concerns which the demands of others cannot breach. The psychological impossibility of sacrificing part of one's body holds even when we are concerned solely with the prudential. After all, this is why we find the action of a man who sawed off his own arm in order to avoid starving to death both fascinating and heroic.15 For as prudentially essential as the action might be, and as rationally commanded on one conception of decision theory, still we recognize that so acting may well be beyond what we are normally capable of doing. So the idea here is that questions about what it is reasonable to ask of someone must take into account what is practically, and hence psychologically, possible for them to do. Someone may resist a certain demand because it requires giving up on something that one cannot sacrifice, that is the flipside of its being a necessity for them. And these aspects of the reasonable and the unreasonable cannot simply be reduced to questions about how much we value or disvalue certain outcomes. Hence we cannot conclude from the fact that someone reasonably resists a sacrifice that the cost to them of the sacrifice is of greater value than the benefit which would accrue to others. The prospect of sacrificing a finger offers a vivid case for grounding the resistance of an otherwise worthy claim. But it seems to fit the model of basic or urgent needs as a ground of resistance rather better than the social goods that we are principally concerned with. So how can we generalise the moral of this discussion? One who cannot sacrifice their finger for the life of another is not claiming the indulgence of caring more about a finger than about a human life. The integrity of the body puts a limit on what someone can do. This illustrates a point which has wider application: that just as the grounds for making a claim are principally one's needs rather than preferences, so too one's grounds for resisting a claim are needs rather than preferences. While we may rank preferences in terms of their importance or urgency, there may be no such ranking for needs—claims for redistribution occur in circumstances of scarcity, but not such scarcity that there are no resources which otherwise would be superfluous to some people leading a flourishing life. The contest of claims is therefore over this superfluous element.16 We have here a contrast between the resources that an individual has which are superfluous to their leading a flourishing life, and those which, in the circumstances, they cannot flourish without. One undermines the shared purpose of policies aimed at meeting the demands of the benevolence we all share, if in succumbing to those policies one is required thereby to sacrifice the good life one seeks to help others achieve. So we can avoid the move which seemed compelling given the account above of the Complaint Model. It is just not true that any of the undergraduates who would reject the policy of redistribution to the teenager must see his or her education as more important than a human life. Rather, the thought is that there are normally limits to the claims that others in need can make on us. Where meeting the claims of another would entirely disrupt one's life, it is not generally taken to be a requirement that one answers to that claim. And it is in this spirit that an undergraduate can resist the claim of the teenager without having in addition to insist that there is more value in his or her gaining an education than in the teenager gaining more years of life. We should note, however, one important issue which will arise in the broader case. When we are concerned with those needs protected through our psychological makeup, it makes little sense to claim that we have chosen to value these things over the concerns of others. What our discussion above illustrates is that on the whole these are things which just aren't options of choice for us at all. The same cannot be said in general in relation to any specific need one has which is variable across people. For often such needs arise in the context of someone having pursued one kind of life over another. Hence we can locate within a life choices made where things could have turned out differently; on that alternative history the thing in question would be no need. This raises a further challenge: the opponent may try to locate the question of policy acceptance or rejection at the point of opting for the life i

Highlights

  • The appearance of a £70,000 polished stone sculpture outside a new London hospital has not gone down well in some circles

  • How can the just society pursue the aim of providing for such social goods when some urgent needs are unmet

  • Different ethical outlooks have different conceptions of what it is for there to be a genuine demand on an individual or a limit to any demand; and these different conceptions interact in diverse ways with conceptions of the constraints on social policy

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Summary

Introduction

The appearance of a £70,000 polished stone sculpture outside a new London hospital has not gone down well in some circles.

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