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)


4 thoughts on “Sandel’s Justice: extrapolating from the extreme

  1. “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.”

    True , but monetary policy doesn’t actually involve the injection of funds to the economy; that is the job of fiscal policy. Monetary policy (generally) just sets a policy rate for the overnight lending of base money.

    1. If you went and wrote that on Sumner’s blog you’d get an interesting reaction. Though I agree that this would be half fiscal – the giving money is fiscal. The method of financing is monetary

  2. Hmm thought experiments can be very helpful inisolating what moral factors are decisive in a given situation.

    But it depends on the TE. Usually the trolley ones are pointless; they tell you about your reactions to trolleys. Great. (though sometimes these ones are handy for exposing the shallowness of utiltarianism).

    But what you may be seeing is that Sandel is a bit of a crappy philosopher, TBH. Also a heads up: his criticisms of Rawls are largely off-target. There are problems with Rawls, but not the ones Sandel thinks he’s identified.

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