Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sandel on Justice on the Radio

I haven't read his book, and I don't do political philosophy very much, but it seems to me that there is a pretty clear fallacy in Michael Sandel's thinking, at least as it is expressed in this recent NPR interview. Sandel argues that many CEO's and sports stars are unjustly compensated. This is supposed to follow from his definition of justice. Justice he understands to be, roughly, 'to each what they deserve,' and then specifies that by 'deserve' he means what results from one's doing. In general, one deserves the results of what one has done. CEO's today make roughly eight times what they made in 1980 relative to the average worker. It is hard to believe that they are eight times more productive, or work eight times harder. Thus, the increase in their compensation has not resulted from what they have done, and hence, they have no special right to those proceeds. He makes a similar argument about A-Rod: A-Rod may excel at baseball due to his hard work and natural talent, but his talent is not the result of his own doing, nor is the fact that there is a high demand for superb baseball skills. I detect an illicit conversion in both cases. Sandel is arguing that from (1) 'All things we deserve are things we have a right to' it follows that (2) 'All things we have a right to are things we deserve.' That can't be right, even if we stick with 'right' in an exclusively moral sense. Surely there are things to which we have a right even though we do not deserve them in the sense that they result from something we have done. For example, even in a Rawlsian framework, where we accept that I do not deserve my talents, can it really follow that I do not have a right to my talents? Or is this a bad counterexample?

UPDATE: Let me turn the somewhat hazy intuition informing this post into a question (okay, several questions): Is there anything, in a Rawlsian framework, that an individual deservesqua individual? Or do I 'deserve' only what is consistent with minmaxing, the difference principle, etc., regardless of my labor, effort, talent, luck, etc? In other words, do I, this unique individual, Michael, deserve anything? Or is it that only my behind-the-veil self, interchangeable with anyone, deserves anything? If so, it seems that Rawls is in fact missing an deep intuition about justice and desert, namely, that it is individual. As far as I can tell, according to Rawls, I only deserve anything as that behind the veil self, not as me. Alternatively: I just have Rawls completely wrong.

I might add at this point that I'm sympathetic to Sandel's conclusion, I'm just suspicious of his reasons. I can imagine a more libertarian-inclined fellow replying: 'Even if we grant your conclusion--namely, that we do not have a right to what we do not deserve--it hardly follows from the fact that I don't deserve a benefit I currently enjoy that you have a right to confiscate it. And that is what we are talking about: a collective of agents utilizing the coercive power of the state to confiscate the fruits of a good enjoyed by A-Rod that A-Rod doesn't deserve.' It's clear to me that A-Rod doesn't deserve it (in this I agree with Rawls and Sandel), but a lot more has to be said before we can conclude from this fact that A-Rod has no right to it. In fact, it's not entirely clear to me that these two should be related at all.

Assume for a moment that there is only one fan, that this fan is extraordinarily rich , that she has earned her money justly by Sandel's standards, and that she is happy to pay A-Rod $30 million a year to play baseball. I wonder if taking A-Rod's money (say through excessive taxation, higher than an average rate for that income level) is not in fact a violation of the fan's rights. And in any case, I would argue that A-Rod has a full right to this money, even if he did not earn it in a moral sense (does not morally deserve it). Remember, it seems to follow from Sandel's reasoning that 'excessive' compensation has nothing do with absolute earnings ($30 million/ year just being too much) nor with relative earnings (12 times the wage of the average worker), but solely with undeserved earnings. So, a just taxation system, it would seem to follow, would be one that taxed A-Rod at a higher rate than our fan, even if, let's suppose, they have the same income.

I can see avoiding this conclusion, but only if we accept that no one really earns their wage; that there is no such thing as a just wage individually calibrated. In other words, we can avoid the above conclusion if we rule out a priori the possibility that someone could morally earn $30 million, and then acknowledge that if one cannot morally earn $30 million, one can't really morally earn $30 thousand either.


  1. At the very least, I think it's important to distinguish the two principles of justice. You have a right to mutually compatible scheme of liberties. But you can't have a right to a specific distributional scheme, except insofar as you are least-advantaged and have a right to a distributional scheme that is better for you than a perfectly even distribution of goods.

    Sandel departs from this claim in asserting that you can have a right (or not) to some particular remuneration. In fact, there are some tasks (organ donation, for instance) for which you might not have a right to any remuneration at all, even if you have made a major sacrifice, because such a distribution scheme would not be to the advantage of the least-advantaged. (The opposite might also be true, especially with organ donation. It's an empirical question, and from what I can tell the evidence gathered from blood markets is against organ markets.)

    Joseph Raz has a somewhat technical critique here, insofar as you can have a right to remuneration from within a particular remuneration system. (So, you can still have a right to the pay that GWU promised you, even if you don't 'deserve' the talents that they're paying for.) I struggle to see the general efficacy of that critique, but it might help us to parse the CEO pay issue if there are clear indications of some sort of corporate board quid-pro-quo or other fraud/corruption issues. It seems to be a kind of Aristotelian plurality of saying critique: "just deserts are spoken of in many ways, but the right way to say them is...."

  2. Thanks, Josh. I think I agree with Raz, and could read his conclusion as consistent with my own above: there is a notion of right that is not tied to desert--eg., I have a right to my salary, even though I do not deserve the talents that earn that salary.

    But I think that my initial question still stands: not, Are there some rights I have not personally earned? but rather, Are there any rights I HAVE personally earned? I guess that my Phil 100 reading of Rawls leads me to conclude that, according to him, I don't deserve anything personally, and I find this conclusion akward. There is a close connection between right and personal desert that, I think, escapes my reading of Rawls. But I'm fully ready to accept that this is my blindspot...

  3. I find that you're using rights and deserts differently than I would do, so I think there's not a 'common sense' between us.

    I agree that, within a set of basic institutions it makes sense to say that I deserve my salary. But that's a distributional question: I actually deserve my salary ex taxes, which I -don't- deserve to be free from.

    But I don't think you can deserve a right. You might say, alongside Arendt, that you have 'a right to have rights,' but I think that's as far as you can go. I don't even think that it makes sense to speak of rights that some people have that others don't: to my mind, such differential treatment must always be dealt with in terms of the distribution of some goods, such that we'd even say that you or I have a 'right' to an abortion even if we're incapable of becoming pregnant. That's important because other medical privacy rights enjoyed by men spring from that fundamental right.

    The one possible exception is offices or honors, for instance, which must be open to all but obviously can't be enjoyed by all. The President obviously has a legal right to veto a bill rather than sign it, and that's a right I don't have. But I don't think he 'earns' that right: it is granted to him by the constitution on the basis of electoral outcomes.

  4. According to Rawls as I read him, you have a right to your social production. You do not deserve your talents and abilities, but if you did not USE them as you saw fit, then maximin redistribution would be diminished because social production would fall off. For Rawls, ARod deserves a LOT of money, but he also owes taxes to the basic system of cooperation that allowed him to develop his talents to his choosing and out of an understanding that some people are born unable to take advantage of this basic structure in the way that he has. Maximin is the place where both ARod deserves a lot of money and the least advantaged deserve resource support.