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Fairness, self-deception and political obligation

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In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, ‘No.’ I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.

(Woody Allen, “A Twenties Memory”).


I offer a new account of fair-play obligations for non-excludable benefits received from the state. Firstly, I argue that non-acceptance of these benefits frees recipients of fairness obligations only when a counterfactual condition is met; i.e. when non-acceptance would hold up in the closest possible world in which recipients do not hold motivationally-biased beliefs triggered by a desire to free-ride. Secondly, I argue that because of common mechanisms of self-deception there will be recipients who reject these benefits without meeting the counterfactual condition. For this reason, I suggest that those who reject non-excludable benefits provided by the state have a duty to support their rejection with adequate reasons. Failing that, they can be permissibly treated as if they had fair-play obligations (although in fact they might not have them). Thus, I claim that there is a distinction, largely unappreciated, between the question of whether we have a duty of fairness to obey the law and the question of whether we can be permissibly treated as if we had one.

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  1. In this paper I will use the words ‘goods’ and ‘benefits’ interchangeably.

  2. The focus in the debate is on the second condition. This is because, as it will become clear, we are rarely in a position to try and obtain the benefits produced by the state. Normally these benefits are provided to us without any need on our part to do anything to receive them. For this reason, in the rest of the paper I focus on the second condition and largely ignore the first one.

  3. The ‘receipt-based view’ is also defended in Arneson (1982), Cullity (1995) and Dagger (1997).

  4. Here I am paraphrasing Klosko (2004, pp. 41–42).

  5. In the rest of the paper I will assume that conditions (a) and (b) are always met in the cases I discuss.

  6. Notice also that while Klosko presents his view as a receipt-based view, he seems to ultimately appeal to voluntaristic considerations, namely the fact that presumptive good are so important that we can presume that everyone wants them.

  7. Of course some will disagree with one or more of these assumptions, but my aim here is not to defend them against the classic objections raised by philosophical anarchists. My aim is to provide the best formulation of the principle of fairness for those who do believe in these assumptions. If these assumptions are not shared, the argument for fair-play does not even begin.

  8. A few assumptions must be made, for the sake of the argument. These are: (a) that the government can make sure that the water containing the antidote only reaches the houses of those who paid for it; (b) that only one person lives in each house (so that the choice made by those who refuse to pay will not prevent others from receiving the antidote); (c) that the antidote tax is reasonable and that everyone can afford to pay it.

  9. It is important to notice that the benefit received by Anna in Antidote Received meets all the conditions listed by Klosko as sufficient to generate fairness obligations for non-excludable goods (See above, Sect. 1). The antidote is indispensable and it is worth its cost to Anna. We can stipulate that the costs and the benefits of the governmental scheme for the distribution of the antidote are fairly distributed.

  10. Mele labels these mechanisms ‘negative misinterpretation’, ‘positive misinterpretation’, ‘selective focusing/attending’ and ‘selective evidence-gathering’ (Mele 2001, pp. 26–27).

  11. I come back to this point below (Sect. 3). For ease of exposition, in the rest of the paper I will use “self-deception” to mean “self-deception triggered by a desire to free-ride”, unless otherwise specified.

  12. Prominent examples of non-intentionalist accounts that attribute moral responsibility to self-deceived agents are Barnes (1997) and Mele (2001). For a criticism of the standard view, see Levy (2004).

  13. Again, this problem does not arise in the cases of excludable goods, whose rejection can be presumed to be genuine, given that it normally precludes their receipt.

  14. This argument is modeled on the analysis of truth conditions for counterfactuals pioneered by Lewis (1973). Of course accepting this analysis does not commit one to also accept modal realism.

  15. Thanks to Christian Barry and Victor Tadros for pressing this point.

  16. See above, Sect. 2.

  17. For the same reason, obligations of fairness cannot be attributed to those who reject presumptive benefits out of ignorant or misinformed beliefs. There are complexities here that concern how these ignorant beliefs came into existence and whether we can be held at least partially responsible for having them. But, unless they are connected to a desire to exploit the cooperative scheme, they do not trigger a duty of fairness. (Notice that this is in line with our intuitions in Antidote Received. One of the most likely explanations of the fact that Anna rejects the antidote in that case is that she has a misinformed beliefs about the real dangerousness of the virus.)

  18. I say ‘hardly ever’, because in the same way in which there are cases in which it is clear enough that, say, someone is deceiving herself about her partner’s fidelity in order to avoid confronting marital problems, there might be cases in which it is equally clear that someone is deceiving herself about her desiring public goods in order to avoid having to contribute to them. However, I intentionally bracket this consideration here. For the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph, employing the Counterfactual Condition is the right way to assign fair-play obligations for non-excludable goods, even if we could never know when the condition is met.

  19. At least when Klosko’s two further conditions (above, Sect. 1) are met.

  20. As we have seen, in cases where self-deception does not ultimately depend on the desire to free-ride, the agent cannot be said to have fair-play obligations.

  21. Arneson calls these ‘nervous cooperators’ and ‘reluctant cooperators’, respectively (Arneson 1982, pp. 622–623).

  22. Notice that the reverse case, although unlikely, is also possible. It might be that someone who does not meet the Counterfactual Condition deceives herself to the point that she can indeed offer reasons that would pass the Plausible Rejection Condition. This person does have a fair-play obligation, but since we do not have access to this information, we cannot know that it would be permissible for us to treat her accordingly.


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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the University of Warwick, at the Australian National University, at an IVR Special Workshop on Political Obligation in Frankfurt and at the 2012 MANCEPT workshops. I am grateful to participants at these events for stimulating discussions. I am especially grateful to Christian Barry, Peter Chau, Matthew Clayton, Richard Dagger, Antony Duff, John Horton, Matthew Kramer, Conor McHugh, Fabienne Peter, Victor Tadors, Bas Van Der Vossen and an anonymous reviewer for very helpful written comments. Finally, I would like to thank George Klosko, who co-authored a number of early versions of this paper, before we realized that our positions could not be reconciled.

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Correspondence to Massimo Renzo.

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Renzo, M. Fairness, self-deception and political obligation. Philos Stud 169, 467–488 (2014).

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