Many political theorists think about how to make societies more just. In recent years, with interests shifting from principles to their institutional realization, there has been much debate about feasibility and the role it should play in theorizing. What has been underexplored, however, is how feasibility depends on the attitudes and perceptions of individuals, not only with regard to their own behaviour, but also with regard to the behaviour of others. This can create coordination problems, which can be described as “feasibility gridlocks”. These problems are interesting from a normative perspective, not only because they arguably play an important role for the feasibility of institutions, but also because they contain a normative element themselves: individual might be willing to cooperate in order change the “feasibility frontier” (Wiens D (forthcoming) Political ideals and the feasibility frontier. Econ Philos), but only if others are also willing to do their bit, which contains a judgment about the fair distribution of burdens. Beliefs about the selfish nature of human beings, however, can make feasibility gridlocks more likely. This is why what I call, for the sake of brevity, “economic ideology”, i.e. an account of human nature as fundamentally self-interested, can be harmful. Finding a way out of such equilibriums therefore is an important task for political theorists and social reformers.
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Some authors, however, for example Sen 2008 and Wiens (esp. 2012) argue that we can address current injustices and institutional failures directly. This position seems correct with regard to some injustices—in fact, some current injustices might be such that we do not need any theorizing at all—but it does not seem correct with regard to all questions political theorists work on.
There can be indirect connections to questions of motivation, for example via the motivation of public service employees, but I cannot go into these details here.
See also Cohen 2001 for a discussion of G.A. Cohen’s critique of Rawls. One of J. Cohen’s replies is that for Rawls, egalitarian institutions would lead to an egalitarian ethos, which would make high incentives for talented workers less necessary.
One problem in this context is that economic models often work at a level of abstraction that makes it hard to reject their assumptions. For example, they assume that individuals prefer more money to less money, working with an implicit “ceteris paribus” clause: if one can work in exactly the same job for more or less money, it seems plausible that most people would choose more money. But often “ceteris” is not “paribus”; for example, jobs usually differ along more dimensions than the wage level. Thus, the statement that individuals prefer more money to less money may not be very useful for making predictions about their behaviour in real-life situations, and it may be misleading if it implies that this is the only, or the most important, factor determining their decisions.
Whether working harder and earning more actually go hand in hand in our economies is an open question. I here assume it only for the sake of argument.
Of course, there could also be different “economic ideologies”, for example in different historical eras. I use the term “ideology” because such views have wide-reaching implications for how one sees the world, which are based on—at least partly—wrong assumptions and which favour certain interests over others.
If the utility individuals draw from their income also depends on their relative position, this can add to the unwillingness to contribute if others do not do their bit, because in addition to the loss in absolute terms, there would be an even greater loss in relative terms.
In addition, it might also characterize economic failure as a matter of lacking ambitions or bad character, rather than bad luck or structural tendencies in the economy.
One might also imagine that individuals are not only “conditional co-operators”, but also hold certain views about what they are obliged to do depending on what others do. As Lawford-Smith (2013b) discusses, if some task is only feasible for a group, and an individual correctly anticipates that others will fail to do their bit, there can be cases in which individuals do not have an obligation to attempt to do the task on their own, because such an attempt would be futile. The cases I am interested in concern large-scale societies; one can imagine that in them some individuals hold such views, rightly or wrongly, which can exacerbate the problem.
Lawford-Smith (2013a, 247) explicitly notes that “uncoordinated aggregates of individuals” may not have the possibility to “bring about” an outcome that matters for evaluating its feasibility. In 2013b, she analyses various forms of collective action, and how they relate to the individuals’ duties. Wiens (2014, 5) mentions the “problem of assurance” as affecting an individual’s motivation to cooperate, but he does not discuss this point any further.
Of course, individuals might also hold overly positive beliefs about the willingness to cooperate and to behave altruistically. But a person who wrongly believes her peers to be more altruistic than they really are is likely to learn her lesson relatively quickly. In the scenario that underestimates the willing to cooperate, it is more likely to be stuck in an equilibrium in which individuals have no opportunity to find out that their beliefs are wrong.
van Someren Greve (2014) discusses feasibility and fairness from a different perspective, namely whether or not it can be unfair to be required to do something one cannot do, a claim which he rejects. What I am interested in is the question of fairness with regard to some doing their duty and other failing to do so.
I would like to thank Andrew Walton and audiences at the University of Tilburg and the University of Zurich, as well as two reviewers of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, for their helpful questions and comments.
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Herzog, L. Distributive Justice, Feasibility Gridlocks, and the Harmfulness of Economic Ideology. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 957–969 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-015-9565-9
- Distributive justice