Home > Economics, Politics > Arrupe’s first guest post! A thought exercise on justice.

Arrupe’s first guest post! A thought exercise on justice.

Editor’s note: Along with Mr. McDoof and Beedeekay, there is now Arrupe joining us to write his first post below. Other guest submissions are thoroughly welcome. (Enjoy!)

In his book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen uses the following example to illustrate how it is possible for there to be “plural and competing reasons for justice, all of which have claims to impartiality and which nevertheless differ from, and rival, each other.”  The examples serve as a good thought exercise in helping people identify the grounds upon which they base their notions of “justice”.

Example:  You have to decide which of the three children – Anne, Bob and Carla – should get a flute about which they are quarrelling.  Anne claims the flute on the ground that she is the only one of the three who knows how to play it.  Bob contends that he should be given the flute because he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own.  Lastly, Carla interjects and points that the she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labor.

Who should get the flute and why?

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  1. mrmcdoof
    April 8, 2010 at 5:07 am

    OK, first of all I like the thought experiment but I wonder what kind of sick father would teach one of his kids to play the flute, the other one to make flute and say f!@# off to the last one and say “You’re gonna be poor Bob.” Nonetheless, judging the father’s parenting ability is not the scope of the question and thus I will take parenting, along with everything else, and hold all things equal. Hence, I am going to assume there aren’t extenuating circumstances to this situation, meaning Carla didn’t steal metal from Bob to learn how to make flutes.

    Long story short, Bob deserves nothing and Carla deserves the right to the flute. She spent her whole time diligently making this flute, why doesn’t she deserve it should be the real question. Good for Carla for making a product that makes the whole world (or in this case the ABC family) that much better. You say, “Carla can’t play the flute, what a waste”. Nope.

    Since Bob’s only contribution to this micro-society is telling everyone how poor he is, lets ignore him again. (Remember, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit!) Anne can play this flute and we know she wants it because of that very reason. At this point, I think Anne should offer a product/service (perhaps she can clean Carla’s room) to Carla to acquire said flute. In this limited market, I am not sure Carla is gonna hold onto the flute no matter what Anne offers (then again she could be a sick sociopath like her father who apparently left Bob to rot in his crib).

    There is a market to be made here: Carla wins (gets money, room cleaned etc.), Anne wins (by virtue of making a voluntary exchange; she doesn’t play this flute, she’ll get something she wants more), Bob wins (listening to his sister now play the flute) and the father wins the most by seeing his little deranged thought experiment in action as he tells himself it was all worth it to give one girl flute making lessons, the other flute lessons and his son a big, fat middle finger.

    Nonetheless, am I the only one who thinks Ceterus Paribus, Bob is just a waste of space?

  2. Dan A
    April 8, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I think Anne deserves it. As a musician, I like people who actually use their stuff 😉 It makes me sad when I see a fancy guitar standing alone somewhere because a non-playing collector wanted it 😛

    All kidding aside, have you read this article:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704588404575123522374730464.html

    It’s a real life example of the above (deals with monetary compensation after the Binghamton shootings a little while ago). If the link doesn’t work, just search for Wall Street Journal and “A City United by Tragedy, Divided by Its Kindness.”

  3. ii
    April 8, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    I totally agree with Dan. Why would Carla decide to make a flute, of all things, if she doesn’t know how to play one? Unless she’s only claiming it to blackmail Anne into cleaning her room… and yes, let’s ignore Bob. He can go and make his own toys.

  4. Greg
    April 9, 2010 at 10:02 am

    This reminds me of the South Park fish sticks episode.
    We have:
    Jimmy – Carla
    Cartman – Bob
    Carlos Mencia – Anne
    Fish Sticks Joke – Flute

    In conclusion, I think Carla would be happy to share the flute with the world, as long as she doesn’t have to give it to that d-bag, Anne. And I am going to agree that Bob should be ignored, lest he grow up to be a completely spoiled brat.

  5. April 10, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Dan, I read the article. It is definitely an interesting piece on our notions of fairness. Its interesting because some of these people seemed almost peeved at the circumstance that they aren’t getting “enough” money. Granted it is a huge tragedy in their lives but every dollar they receive should be perceive as something better than nothing. I think it speaks of our nature as one that finds more utility in having more than others. I’ve been meaning to crank out a humongous piece on this topic vis-a-vis an Econ/Christian perspective, so wait for it!

    II, I think blackmail is too strong a word. Why should I bake cookies, if I am not going to eat them? Or why should I make clothes if I am not going to wear em? The argument can get a little extreme in that sense. I think we cannot totally disregard the labor that she puts into making the piano. Remember without the Carlas of the world, Annes would have nothing to play.

    Both of you sound a bit like you have a little more invested in this argument than lets say your average dude. I wonder why?

  6. ii
    April 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    True, though Carla’s intention behind making a flute, knowing Anne is the only one who can play it, is a little questionable (so I guess I am assuming she is a sick sociopath)… Yes, Carla obviously has the right to a flute she worked hard to make, but when the situation involves the fate of a precious musical instrument there is reason to be biased… 😉

  7. arrupe
    April 13, 2010 at 11:50 am

    What I appreciate most about this exercise is that highlights the tension of the principles that govern free market meritocracy and the counter cultural social “economy” espoused by Jesus. Recognizing this tension from afar is the easy part; massaging the tensions away to create a workable set of principles that are pragmatic but yet maintain the integrity of the central tenets of each position is difficult, if not impossible. Below are some thoughts on the responses provided by others:

     Mr. McDoof, to say that Bob’s only contribution to the micro-society is his proclamation of his own destitution is a bit harsh. Would not Jesus say that Bob’s presence alone is worthy of appreciation in and of itself and that because he too is created in the image of God? More specifically, my reading of Luke’s Gospel makes me believe that Jesus would give the flute to Bob because that action would be in line with the “preferential option for the Poor” that Jesus regularly exercised throughout this ministry.

     What if the reason that Anne is musically talented and Carla is industrious is because Anne benefitted from being a child of Mozart and Carla is the daughter of Heinrich Steinway (http://www.steinway.com/), where as Bob was an orphan raised in the South Bronx? The backgrounds of these individuals must be considered when deciding how to allocate resources, especially when merit is the metric used and the resources being distributed are less ancillary than a flute (e.g. housing, education, health care, etc.)

     As a Protestant, Mr. McDoof, have you considered how the “micro-economy” described in Acts 4:32-37 (32All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.) would inform the distribution of resources? Moreover, if we believe that Aristides’ description of the early Christian community (see below) is the ideal for which all Christians should strive for, then I think even a stronger argument could be make for giving Bob the flute.

    o In 125 AD, the historian Aristides said of the first Christians: “They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them. And they love one another. They despise not the widow and grieve not the orphan. He that has distributes liberally to him that has not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him as if he were their own brother: for the call themselves brethren not after the flesh, but after the Spirit of God…and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs….and if there is among them someone that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with necessary food”(The First Apology of Justin Martyr)

    Though I recognize the necessity of incorporating pragmaticism into decisions such as these, Jesus’ own ministry requires Christians to make substantive departures from the meritocracy of the free-market to ensure that the “least of these” (e.g. Bob) are provided for.

    “Ad Dei Gloriam Majorem”

  8. April 14, 2010 at 8:58 am

    The limited amount of info here makes it tough Arrupe. That is why I set a few assumptions in place in my argument (which again makes for a rather terrible father). While I won’t make remarks from a Christian perspective (we’ll leave that to Beedeekay), I will make one from a “liberal” one. I would argue that the Christian worldview you espouse is, in itself, only valuable not when you force it on others but they are practiced by their own volition. I argue this from a perspective of personal autonomy and freedom, but the argument is strengthened when you realize the very things you mention above (sharing of possessions, Aristedes, etc.) were done freely. I suppose the idea of grace, a freely-given act of mercy, is so powerful when it is exactly that.

    Take that very choice away, I am sure you are gonna have resentment and social problems from the Anne or Carla camp, whether they are hidden and seething or openly pissed. I suppose there are a whole host of issues you’d have to contend with there as well.

  9. Dan A
    April 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    i agree that the lack of info made this exercise harder.

    in terms of the christian worldview, i am not sure that Jesus would give the flute to Bob solely because he is poor. my belief is that the apostles and such gave up their goods and such to support the poor (in terms of housing, food, etc). a flute, to me, is not equatable with necessities like food. and more importantly, this was done as a community… they did not simply give out stuff to the poor and leave… there was a personal and intimate relationship. there was no mention of this happening if we were to give bob the flute. The apostles gave and supported out of love, not out of obligation. i also don’t think that the people they supported would have been like “im poor. you HAVE to help me and give me things.” (which is what bob is doing).

    From a scriptural standpoint, im not even sure that Jesus would agree that the poor deserve nice material things on the earth. In Luke 6:20-23:

    20Looking at his disciples, he said:
    “Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
    21Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
    Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
    22Blessed are you when men hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.

    23″Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

    All the material things of this world, be it flutes or food, does not measure up to our reward in heaven. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give to the poor, because that’s not scriptural either. But we need to be wise in how we use and give away our money. We are, after all, called stewards. I would rather not give something to someone poor simply because they are poor and because that’s the “right thing to do” (in fact, i think it can even be a veiled form of pride). i would rather use / give my money and time in a way that will both impact that poor person’s life as well as introduce him/her to the bigger treasures of God’s kingdom.

  10. arrupe
    April 15, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Good points Dan A. Regarding your first point that Christian charity only took place within the Christian Community, the 1st century history Josephus records that the early Christian communities were actually promiscuous with their giving, often directing it towards people outside their community. In addition, I do not think the posture of the recipient should influence or determine our decision to give, so whether Bob is gracious or demanding, we should give, as you rightly suggest, out of love. Moreover, I tend to shy away from comparisons of “food to rewards in heaven” recognizing that my economic stability allows me to under appreciate the value of the former. Moreover, I agree with Rosemary Radford Ruether in her claim that the status of an individual’s soul is inextricably link to his/her bodily presence, for forsaking the needs of the latter in the name of the greater significance of the former cannot be just.

    Mr. McDoof, I agree that it would be ideal for individuals to act charitably (in or outside of the Christian context) out of their own volition; however, if we take a Hobbesian view of the Carla, Anne, Bob situation, would you not agree that rules must be set in place to ensure that the integrity of each person is maintained. More specifically, I think the fault of your liberal argument is that the laissez-faire approach over-estimates the individual’s ability to do what is good.

  1. April 13, 2010 at 8:15 am

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