Henry Sidgwick on Distributive Justice

I’m kind of impressed by how much of the late twentieth-century argument about distributive justice among liberal political philosophers is basically anticipated in this paragraph from Sidgwick’s Principles of Political Economy (1883), pp. 506-7:

In this perplexity it may perhaps be suggested that we should measure desert not by achievement, by the utility rendered to the recipient of a service, but by the effort of the worker. And certainly this measurement is more in harmony with the general notion of good and ill desert, outside the region of exchange: we generally consider that the merit of a deserving act lies in its intention rather than its result, since this latter may be materially changed by causes for which the agent cannot be made responsible. But the attempt to apply this principle to the distribution of social produce involves us in difficulties that seem even theoretically insuperable. For not only shall we have to abstain from rewarding physical strength and quickness, and ingenuity, since these are qualities independent of voluntary effort; but we shall find it hard to justify the allotment of higher remuneration to those who have exhibited energy and perseverance, as we cannot prove that these qualities, like the former, are not merely gifts of nature, rather than manifestations of the free choice of the individual agent. Thus practically on this line of argument the principle of rewarding desert will find no realisation, through our scrupulous anxiety to realise it exactly! Now, whatever may be said, on the principles of necessarianism in favour of practically discarding the attempt to reward Desert, [Note: The reconstructors of society who discard Desert seem driven to adopt as their principle of distributive justice either simple Equality, or Equality modified by differences of Need…] it must be admitted that this conclusion is not in harmony with our common notions of Justice. Still, the reasoning which has gradually led to this conclusion seems to shew that the demand for greater equity in distribution can only be practically interpreted as a demand that differences in remuneration, due to causes other than the voluntary exertions of the labourers remunerated, should be reduced as far as possible.

5 thoughts on “Henry Sidgwick on Distributive Justice”

  1. Very interesting bit of text from Sidgwick. What I don’t understand is why he quite perspicuously points out the difficulty of conceiving of talents as ‘morally arbitrary’, namely the point that the ability to work hard may itself be a talent (to name but one thing), but then goes on to defend a sort of egalitarianism which seems to rely on precisely the distinction between ‘luck’ and intention he has himself undercut just now.

    But perhaps that was precisely what you meant by saying that this passage anticipates many of the difficulties in liberal political philosophy

  2. What I don’t understand is why he quite perspicuously points out the difficulty of conceiving of talents as ‘morally arbitrary’, namely the point that the ability to work hard may itself be a talent (to name but one thing), but then goes on to defend a sort of egalitarianism which seems to rely on precisely the distinction between ‘luck’ and intention he has himself undercut just now.

    Well, surely the significant bit is where he says: “Now, whatever may be said, on the principles of necessarianism in favour of practically discarding the attempt to reward Desert,it must be admitted that this conclusion is not in harmony with our common notions of Justice. Still, the reasoning which has gradually led to this conclusion seems to shew that the demand for greater equity in distribution can only be practically interpreted as a demand that differences in remuneration, due to causes other than the voluntary exertions of the labourers remunerated, should be reduced as far as possible.

    I.e. Sidgwick recognises that the notion that are talents are in some sense “arbitrary” or “undeserved” is intuitively strange (or wrong), yet when we step back from these intuitions and reason about such things, we appear compelled to such conclusions, in spite of the fact we find them intuitively strange (or wrong).

    There doesn’t seem to me anything wrong with that, either: Sidgwick notes that reason compels him to position X, though intuition would have led him to Y. Being a good, consistent philosopher, he proceeds to defend X, noting along the way – for surely it is of at least interest, and quite possibly of significance too – that intuitions on this point differ from the conclusions of careful reasoning.

    The interesting question to me seems to centre around why people generally tend to have intuitions about e.g. the nature of talents which diverge from where reasoning takes us on such matters. Some story about Christian conceptions of free will and metaphysical non-determinism lurk in the background, methinks. But then, I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche recently…

    I wish he’d distributed the piece into paragraphs.

    Aye, but t’would be a very un-Sidgwick-like thing to do.

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