I am only 70 pages in Michael Sandel’s Justice, but am already slightly tired of the technique, which is familiar to me from undergrad philosophy. It is, of course, to illustrate moral dilemmas with extreme examples. Already, off the top of my head, there has been:
- two real world examples of cannabilism (one a willing victim to test out libertarianism, another an unwilling cabin boy to test out utilitarianism)
- fat men being pushed in front of trolley cars to save other people
- Christians amusing thousands of Romans
- unshot Afghan goatherds
- contrasting the pleasures of WWF wrestling with Shakespeare
- the horrors of Bentham’s belief in enforced workhousing of beggars
What bugs me, however, is that extreme examples seldom help with real world problems. My economics analogy is with the Quantity Theory of Money, and its usefulness in terms of how to understand the effects of QE. Now, we all know that if Mervyn King actually DID go all Weimar on us then he could double prices. It might not be precise, but surely about £2trn printed and handed out would do something. But that is no guide at all to the actual relationship between money and prices over more realistic levels (see my stuff on this). Lines are not straight, they wiggle.
So it is when criticising rules of thumb for what they might imply were they extrapolated over an impossible distance.
I am enjoying this book, but I would really like it to solve some moral dilemmas that bug me. Like: how much should we tax real world bankers who are paid, voluntarily by the shareholders, an amount that feels ‘unfair’ to other people? How far should I go in ensuring that my kids have advantages over other kids? I hope by page 150 I am closer to the answers (and that they don’t involve cannibalism)