Friday, February 11, 2011

Fairness: The Puzzle of "Knowing" and "Doing."

Why is "Fairness" (and ethics in general) such a complex line of human inquiry? There are many different possible answers to that question. In this blog I will argue that one important, but often neglected, source of moral complexity is the Aristotelian distinction between "knowing what's good" and "doing what's good." Let me start off with a few basics.

First of all ethics is inexorably teleological; that is to say it is about "goal-directed" behavior. It's about how we go about pursuing ends by various means in a social context. Hence, we argue over whether our individual and/or collective goals are "good or bad;" and we argue over whether the means that we employ in pursuit of those goals is "good or bad." Thus fairness, and ethics in general is about knowing what's good and then doing it. For Aristotle, both are necessary conditions for moral action. Sometimes we "know" what's good, can easily do it, but just choose not to do it (which is usually immoral); and sometimes we "do" what's good without "knowing" it (which is amoral). I would argue that at the level of theory, this is all pretty much self-evident and consistent with how we humans go about making moral judgments and assessing moral responsibility, especially fairness.

Second, fairness is ultimately about what we "know and don't know"; and what we "do and don't do." Are you still with me? Let me see if I can clarify this. How often do you find yourself in a situation where you know what's a good goal, such as feeding homeless people, but don't know exactly how to do it. Should I give the old guy panhandling in the Kroger parking lot $5, or should I donate that money a local charitable organization? If I give him $5 I don't "know" if he'll buy food, booze, or drugs. If I give it to a charity, I don't "know" if that charity is legitimate. If the old guy buys a six pack or if the charity pocket's my donation I really didn't do any good. Right? On the other hand, if I want to "know" these things I'll have to expend my own time, energy, and research finding out. My only point here is that moral action requires knowledge and acquistion of knowledge requires time, effort, and resources.

For now, let's assume that we all agree on a universal set of moral ends. For example, my friend Peter Corning identifies 14 basic human needs that any "Fair Society" must address in order to insure human survival: theromregulation, waste elimination, nutrition, water, mobility, sleep, respiration, physical safety, physical health, mental health, communications, social relationships, reproduction, and nurturance of offspring. I happen to agree with this basic list, although I would probably add a few other human "needs" such as: creative and artistic expression and recreation. Now if we all agree that fairness demands that we identify (know) and bring about (bring to fruition) these 14 or so goals, the logical question is how do we go about acquiring the knowledge necessary to achieve them? After all, we could all agree that we "ought" to pursue these goals, and nevertheless fail miserably to achieve them for lack of knowledge. A Fair Society, therefore, must not only "know" what's "Good" but it must also expend time, energy, and resources developing the knowledge necessary to bring about what's good. 

Take for example, one of my scholarly interests, "physical health." If we expect to maintain a reasonably healthy population, we obviously must "know" something about how the human body works and how it interacts with our social and physical environment. What kinds of food should we eat and how much? How much and what kinds of exercise do we need to maintain health? How do we avoid and/or cure diseases? This is all "knowledge." Right? But the acquisition of knowledge requires more than a Philosopher King contemplating "Truth." It's much more complex than Plato or Aristotle ever envisioned. It takes many scientists working in expensive laboratories communicating, cooperating, and competing with one another.

So if I'm right (which I am) the production of scientific knowledge is a necessary condition for human need fulfillment. This raises a whole new level of moral analysis. Here are few questions that must be addressed by any Fair Society. Where do we find the time, energy, and resources necessary to conduct scientific research? Where do we find the time, energy and resources necessary to teach scientific research? How do we go about providing incentives that might influence young people to study the natural and social sciences? How do we develop and maintain a sufficient number educational institutions that can effectively teach science to this next generation of scientists? And, finally how do we go about distributing the products and services developed by Science? Should all Americans have equal access to state-of-the-art cancer treatments? Motorized wheel-chairs? Heart transplants? If so, exactly how should that distribution be managed? My conclusion is that we are not going to meet our basic survival needs without investing in scientific knowledge. For health care, we need not only biological knowledge, but also social, political, and economic knowledge. And none of these knowledge bases can be acquired for free. "There is no free lunch!"

Now during the Pleistocene era, out hunter-gatherer ancestors "survived" for centuries without the benefits of modern science. I'm glad they did! In fact, I'm glad that over the past fifty years scientists expended time, energy, and resources studying primitive societies and other primates. Although, primitive societies were probably egalitarian (and therefore met the basic the basic needs of all members of the group, more or less "equally") they really didn't "know" very much. In fact, thanks to modern science, we know they didn't live very long. They certainly didn't know anything about how their bodies worked, or how to identify and cure diseases. They didn't know how to distinguish pure from impure water sources. The fact that they didn't "know" very much suggests that they really couldn't "do" very much, and therefore, they didn't "have very much." Hence, there really wasn't much for them to distribute fairly to begin with, maybe: food, clothing, shelter, a few tools, sex partners. In short, it's easy to be "Fair" in a society that doesn't have much to distribute. If everyone lives to be about 40 years old, and if 25% of women died during childbirth, that's certainly a "Fair Society," but not necessarily "Good." One of the fruits of the Scientific Revolution has been that we "know" a lot more, we can "do" a lot more, and as a result we "have" a lot more to distribute (especially in the area of health). The hidden puzzle for us today is how to keep the "Ball of Science" rolling in a world of "free riders;" that is a world where the cost of the acquistion of scientific knowledge is unequally distributed. We need to "know" much more today; and unfortunately, there is no guaratee that we'll continue to acquire the knowledge we need to survive as modern society. We have to know how to nurture Science.

In my next blog I'll try to make the argument that scientific knowledge requires global cooperation, global scientific institutions and free markets.