I’d like to buy the world a Coke. I imagine you would too, though perhaps we’d both make it something a little lower in sugar.

Unfortunately, making the world a better place for some people, even for the vast majority of people, cannot but make it a worse one for others, even if only a very few others. That “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” makes good patter on Star Trek, but back here on Earth those few are probably not going to cooperate with the worsening of their condition. And neither are you when you find yourself one of them.

The fact that by definition the many always outnumber the few doesn’t mean they’ll always outgun them. And the distribution of the world’s goodies is a function of anticipated body count, not bodies to be counted. Wish, if you like, that it could be otherwise. And maybe it will be in the Hereafter. But for the Here and Now, good statesmanship is about keeping the body count down to a minimum. And that involves encouraging people with guns to ask the least they can from other people with guns.

That pretty much sums it up. The rest is rhetoric. Rhetoric fit for children, and for men and women who, in their moral acumen, remain children. But for those of us charged with keeping all these children alive, healthy and, if possible, happy, yep, that pretty much sums it up.

* * *

By “those of us charged with”, I don’t mean these statesmen themselves. Nor do I mean those who give them counsel. I mean those who give counsel to those who give counsel. I mean political philosophers.

Unfortunately, some political philosophers imagine that the Here and Now is what they imagine is the Hereafter, and they counsel accordingly. For example, John Stuart Mill imagines that insofar as 1) each of us values his own happiness, it follows that 2) the aggregate values the aggregate happiness, from which it then follows that 3) each of us values the aggregate happiness. In the Here and Now this would count as the fallacy of composition followed by the fallacy of division. But apparently the rules of logic are very different in the Hereafter.

Not to be outdone, John Locke thinks we came from the Hereafter. Or more accurately, from the Heretofore. There, apparently, God can give Himself authority to make something true just by so declaring it, and He’s let it be known that 1) He owned the world, 2) He gave the world to Adam and all his descendants in common, but 3) we could appropriate from the commons to our exclusive use that to which our labor adds value, provided we leave as good and as much to others. And, because God said so, 4) the same rules apply to the Here and Now. Well, that’s one way to bootstrap your theory. Just assume it, right?

But there remains at least one political philosopher who refuses to engage in any such cheat. He introduced himself as Glaucon in Book Two of Plato’s Republic, but two thousand years later he took the name Thomas Hobbes, and lives on today under the moniker of contractarianism.

Most contemporary contractarians are embarrassed by Hobbes’ lack of moral vision, by which they mean his indifference to how much better things could be in the Hereafter. They want to give Hobbes a kinder, gentler face.

He’s having none of it. And neither am I.

On our view, who gets what is a function of the wherewithal we have to offer to improve another’s condition, coupled with our wherewithal to worsen it. People like Mill and Locke – and ‘soft contractarians’, a.k.a. contractualists, like John Rawls and David Gauthier – acknowledge this. But they then add, “Ah but that’s not how it ought to be!”

We have no idea what they’re on about. If morality/justice is not an emergent property of people pursuing (what they take to be) their own interests, we’re baffled why anyone would take any interest in it.

* * *

If a theory about space tells me I can’t get from here to there, and yet I do, that’s a good reason to rethink my theory about space. So Zeno was wrong. Though space itself is infinitely divisible, the occupy-ability of space must be atomic.

If a theory of ethics tells me there’s nothing wrong with sticking a baby in a blender feet first just to watch its expression, that’s also a reason to at least recheck my premises. Why? Because if we were systematically wrong about what’s right and wrong like this, chances are we wouldn’t be here.

So a theory of distributive justice must submit itself to a similar test. We must’ve managed to get things close enough to right or we wouldn’t have survived. That’s why Mill and Locke and Rawls and Gauthier have got to be well off the mark. But if the theory ratifies everything we’ve ever done, it leaves itself no work to do. So we need a theory that gives us somewhere between a pass and, say, a B+.

That’s the range we Hobbesians are working in. We can acknowledge the right of conquest, and yet still say the residential schools were a bad idea. We can honor the nineteen martyrs of 9/11, and yet still say the Americans should have seen it coming. We can ridicule the claim that if a plague rendered all but a half dozen women in the world infertile a woman would still have the right to control her own reproductivity, and yet insist that women should be free to control their own bodies today.

The gulf between us lies not in our extremism but in your rhetoric. For us a civil right is a report on a relatively stable equilibrium of competing desiderata. For you it’s part of the furniture of the universe. For us assigning ownership is the giving of uptake to it. For you there’s a mind-independent fact of the matter about who owns what.

To say that “We get to the same place, and so what does it matter?”, is to overlook that we often don’t get to the same place. Because you imagine this land belonged to its indigenous people, you don’t take the trouble to distinguish between their getting here first and their getting here ahead of us. These are two very different premises to two very different arguments, appealing to two very different moral principles. I’m not sure how you get from primo geniture to automatic heir to the throne, but in the second case you’d have to appeal to their right of conquest, in which case you’d have some difficulty denying the same right to us.

I could go on. Examples are legion. But my case should be clear enough. Heartfelt rhetoric works on hearts that have been trained to feel, not think. Feeling has done us yeoman service. But it’s also given us “My country right or wrong!”, homophobia, and the delusion that no matter what you do with or to yourself, “Jesus loves you!” He doesn’t, by the way. And even if he does, with his love and thirty-five cents you can make a local phone call.

Okay, I’m done now. ‘Cuz I think that pretty much sums it up.

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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