Thursday, September 11, 2003

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem once wrote a story about a planet where it is decided that all the inhabitants shall live and breathe underwater. The tale is an obvious satire of Communist utopianism, but its crucial lesson--that deciding on idealized ends, irrespective of either the practicality or the morality of the means to them, is a sure path to disaster--has unfortunately never really been absorbed by Western intellectuals. On the contrary, recent political philosophy has been dominated by discussions roughly as absurd as whether we should all really be breathing underwater.

Consider, for example,, a Website (independently endorsed by two different members of the "Crooked Timber" collective) devoted to cataloguing and explaining the prominent schools of thought on the question of "distributive justice". This question was popularized by the late John Rawls, a widely revered philosopher most famous for positing the following thought experiment: imagine that you are permitted to design, top to bottom, the rules of operation for a society, with the proviso that you would then be placed in that society, in a "position" (role, social status, economic status, etc.) as yet unknown to you, and not of your choosing. How would you decide, for example, to order the allocation of wealth? Of honor? Of power? Rawls argues that the best strategy in this experiment would be to design something like a modern egalitarian welfare state, with a generous safety net to guard against the possibility of being cast in the role of indigent. Others, of course, have proposed alternative strategies, and outlines a few.

Well, political philosophers may love this type of question, but to me it's of a piece with Lem's characters' pondering what they really should all be breathing. After all, nobody in real life is in a position to order a society per Rawls' experiment, and any order proposed under its conditions is thus a "pure end", blissfully disconnected from any means that might achieve it. Unanswered are such questions as, "how much change has to be imposed upon the current society to reach the desired one?" "What will be the practical effects on economic prosperity, political order, or social peace?" "How much suffering will result from the transition?" And, of course, my perennial favorite: "will the new order be imposed forcibly by a dictator, stealthily by a Platonic oligarchy, or democratically by a supportive populace?" Discussing the morality or practicality of one distributive end or another without considering these questions about the morality and practicality of the means is, in my opinion, mere idle game-playing, offering no useful moral insight whatsoever.

It is often said that "the ends justify (or do not justify) the means". In fact, neither statement is true. Ends may or may not justify the means, but more importantly, ends and means simply cannot be teased apart and dealt with separately in evaluating the morality of the combination. And it's not as if the folks at "Crooked Timber" are unaware of this principle--the well-known ethical exercises referred to as "trolley problems", discussed there, illustrate it perfectly. Somehow, though, the temptation to imagine a world of ends freed from the chains of their means always seems just too tempting for philosophers to ignore.

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