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The Problem of Justice

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In a separate thread (Values et cetera) I raised some issues around the nature of values and their relationship to flourishing as Objectivists understand it.

The discussion led to the subject of justice which I think is better suited to this forum.

One poster claimed that people deserve what they create. In arguing that people don't deserve anything, I pointed out that:

1) It is not the only conceivable concept of justice. Others argue that people deserve equal outcomes. Or, more importantly, different people flourish under different concepts of justice (either in their pursuit or their enjoyment thereof).

2) It is not trivial to discern who is the creator of value. Adam Smith and Karl Marx put forward different claims here.

3) Even setting the above aside, even if we agreed on a capitalist concept of justice, it is impractical to actually allocate value to the creator. There is always a spillover effect. If I start a business I create jobs or new products that benefit others beyond what they receive or pay in the market.

I had expected to see an Objectivist argument for justice that reseted on an appeal to survival and/or flourishing. It's certainly clear to me that, by whatever definition, many people value justice and flourish by advancing their own concept of it. But that's a weak option that is unlikely to satisfy those who really care about justice. Perhaps there is a good argument for a creator-based concept of justice that appeals to survival and flourishing. Or maybe one must go outside of survival and flourishing for a good argument; but then what would be the appeal?

Whatever one thinks of the subject of justice, it is a hard question without easy answers.

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1) Of course it's not the only conceivable concept of justice, that's why you're even having a discussion, though you might mean simply that different concepts work. I understand what you're saying about different people flourishing under different concepts, but it doesn't follow from there that it's really the multiple concepts of justice at work. What is more reasonable is to look for any overlap between those concepts. The premise I'm coming from is that there are general things that all people require following from their identity as people, while you seem to be coming from the angle that it is impossible to generalize any concept to apply to all people (the concept "value", too).

2) I agree. At least, we can't treat value creation as purely intuitive. Identifying a value creator depends upon your ideas about what is even required to make something. Rand frequently points out that reason (figuring out how to put components together in the first place) is the key component in value creation, while Marx on the other hand focuses more on the material aspects (factories, labor, etc) of value creation. I don't know what Adam Smith says about it. After you figure out what creation requires, then it's easy to point out creators of value.

3) I see no problem in that spillover. I'd call that wealth creation. Wealth leads to flourishing in a societal context, and that's primarily why people deserve what they create. Wealth is something I benefit from and is in that sense egoistic. I see no reason to suggest, though, that a customer *isn't* paying for exactly what they receive. The spillover you mention is merely the benefit of trade in general, by ending up with more than you started with. Unless, perhaps, you mean to suggest that there is an intrinsic dollar value in some products.

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1) Of course it's not the only conceivable concept of justice, that's why you're even having a discussion, though you might mean simply that different concepts work. I understand what you're saying about different people flourishing under different concepts, but it doesn't follow from there that it's really the multiple concepts of justice at work. What is more reasonable is to look for any overlap between those concepts. The premise I'm coming from is that there are general things that all people require following from their identity as people, while you seem to be coming from the angle that it is impossible to generalize any concept to apply to all people (the concept "value", too).

What you say is true but my running example, capitalists vs. marxists, offers a pretty stark conflict of view. Of course, in practice, we compromise all the time in order to get by but in the world of ideas, it's never so simple. While a capitalist and a marxist might find enough common ground to get along in the real world, capitalism and marxism, as ideas, offer little overlap.

One argument for the very concept of justice (fairness, laws, etc.) is to avoid destructive conflict. If we know who this object belongs to or who has a right to do what then we can plan our lives accordingly and stay out of each others way. But, of course, people are not fools. If I covet your things I am not going to assent to a concept of justice that gives them to you but one that gives them to me. So instead of simply fighting over stuff we now fight over the system of justice and rights that allocates stuff.

2) I agree. At least, we can't treat value creation as purely intuitive. Identifying a value creator depends upon your ideas about what is even required to make something. Rand frequently points out that reason (figuring out how to put components together in the first place) is the key component in value creation, while Marx on the other hand focuses more on the material aspects (factories, labor, etc) of value creation. I don't know what Adam Smith says about it. After you figure out what creation requires, then it's easy to point out creators of value.

I'm speaking loosely, of course, but you see my point. As above, relying on value creation simply moves the debate to what constitutes value creation.

3) I see no problem in that spillover. I'd call that wealth creation. Wealth leads to flourishing in a societal context, and that's primarily why people deserve what they create. Wealth is something I benefit from and is in that sense egoistic. I see no reason to suggest, though, that a customer *isn't* paying for exactly what they receive. The spillover you mention is merely the benefit of trade in general, by ending up with more than you started with. Unless, perhaps, you mean to suggest that there is an intrinsic dollar value in some products.

Well, it's not a problem in the sense that this spillover is a wonderful thing. But it flies in the face of the notion that the ideal is a system that captures all value in the hands of the creator. It is a problem for the argument that value creation entitles rightful ownership.

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In terms of Capitalism vs. Marxism, how does Marxism provide justice? Simply because an idealogy defines its own terms for justice and abides by its own rules, this does not make it "justice" in terms of reality. History provides ample, tangible evidence that Marxism cannot and does not protect individual rights. Instead, it demands individual sacrifice for the greater good of the whole, which can be seen as nothing but immoral and contrary to any concept of justice. Without individual rights, justice cannot exist.

Regarding the idea of the spillover of value generated by a successful business, I think you are overlooking the pyschological/social value gained by the businessman. Not all value is measured strictly in monetary terms. A prominent businessman within a community enjoys many benefits from that community which are not directly measurable in a material sense. One successful business can also be leveraged to gain support/investment for another, and so on. The sense of self-worth gained by providing employment and a means of survival to others alone is something that cannot be measured easily. An individual's self-image/self-worth is vital to every action that person takes. The respect and admiration of your peers is rather difficult to quantify in terms of value.

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I had expected to see an Objectivist argument for justice that reseted on an appeal to survival and/or flourishing.

That is precisely what you will find in the Objectivist literature as the most prominent defense of a creator's property right in his or her creation. Our characteristic method of survival is through production. We take what is found in nature, improve it, and then use our creations and alterations to improve our lives, to flourish. The system of justice which provides the widest scope for this flourishing by one's own labor is precisely the system which protects a creator's right to use, transfer, and dispose of his work. This is the core argument at the center of Rand's defense of property rights as a vital component of individual rights, to be protected by a proper government, and the support for the argument arises directly out of her characterization of the way humans survive and flourish.

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In terms of Capitalism vs. Marxism, how does Marxism provide justice? Simply because an idealogy defines its own terms for justice and abides by its own rules, this does not make it "justice" in terms of reality. History provides ample, tangible evidence that Marxism cannot and does not protect individual rights. Instead, it demands individual sacrifice for the greater good of the whole, which can be seen as nothing but immoral and contrary to any concept of justice. Without individual rights, justice cannot exist.

Let's return to this in a bit.

Regarding the idea of the spillover of value generated by a successful business, I think you are overlooking the pyschological/social value gained by the businessman. Not all value is measured strictly in monetary terms. A prominent businessman within a community enjoys many benefits from that community which are not directly measurable in a material sense. One successful business can also be leveraged to gain support/investment for another, and so on. The sense of self-worth gained by providing employment and a means of survival to others alone is something that cannot be measured easily. An individual's self-image/self-worth is vital to every action that person takes. The respect and admiration of your peers is rather difficult to quantify in terms of value.

We are mostly in agreement here, perhaps more than you realize.

Allow me to elaborate.

My fundamental claim is that the pursuit of justice is objectively immoral.

Let us suppose, as you suggest (correctly, I think), that people derive (non-monetary) value from helping others. I call this altruism, though some will disagree with that definition.

Let us further suppose (contrary, I in this case, to reality) that you were able to fully capture and control 100% the value of your efforts. You could then disburse that value to those you either think are deserving or for whom you derive value by giving.

Wouldn't you agree that this would be a more just and fair reality? Wouldn't you like that sort of control? True, it would require some extra effort on your part but I think the rewards would more than offset it.

But, of course, we don't have such control. And it's arguably a good thing because most of what we have came to us from the efforts of those who preceded us. I don't mean just your parents but civilization, indeed, evolution itself and beyond. The reality is that we live in a very unjust world and it could not be otherwise.

If I am a businessman I will attempt to capture some value of my efforts. This is price. Price will always be less than value. If I attempt to capture 100% of value I will have no customers and I will be the poorer for it. Many businesses succeed wildly by price cutting (usually by a combination of cost cutting and profit slimming). This works because they make it up in volume.

Those who pursue justice inevitably destroy value both for themselves and others.

Returning to my claim, I suggest that it is always more effective and efficient to be charitable than to pursue justice. And there is no greater folly than to expect justice.

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That is precisely what you will find in the Objectivist literature as the most prominent defense of a creator's property right in his or her creation. Our characteristic method of survival is through production. We take what is found in nature, improve it, and then use our creations and alterations to improve our lives, to flourish. The system of justice which provides the widest scope for this flourishing by one's own labor is precisely the system which protects a creator's right to use, transfer, and dispose of his work. This is the core argument at the center of Rand's defense of property rights as a vital component of individual rights, to be protected by a proper government, and the support for the argument arises directly out of her characterization of the way humans survive and flourish.

While I mostly agree with the above I haver to caveats: First, it's less useful than you think. And, second, I think you (and Rand) gloss over the other characteristic method of survival: extortion. In the later case, we take what we find others have improved and we demand a piece of the action. Now there are obvious problems with that survival strategy but it is, nonetheless, a characteristic method as history reveals and you experience every April 15.

I understand what you (and Rand) are arguing but another problem is that even if we can envision a world without extortion, that is not the world that we live in and it is rather impractical to pursue it. I love Atlas Shrugged as much as the next guy but it's much easier to accomplish such things in fiction than in reality.

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I don't think thats fair, Justice is supposed to be the right of the creator to distribute what he created according to his or her preferences. It does not make any demands on how one actually makes these decisions. If someone wants to maximize profits as hard as they can (that is keep as many resources as they want inside their projects) they can do so, and that would be their right. They could also choose to build a homeless shelter because he didn't want to live in a city where homeless people were on the streets. Either one is a valid decision, neither one is more "just" than the other, and even on an ethical level I can't fault either choice out of hand.

I really do not understand your logic either because according to you price is less than value, and i have no idea how you came to this conclusion. If someone traded something for something else it is necessarily less valuable (to them) than the thing they traded for. You seem to be comparing what they gained to what the "could have" gained yet did not. According to this, someone has not profited unless they did not get all of the profit.

Lets say that someone did seek more profit, and like you said, failed to get any profit because of this. The reason why they didn't get all the profit possible is becasue they simply couldn't earn it, and through asking for what they didn't earn, they were punished. That is other people exercising their right to make decisions on how to distribute resources they created.

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I don't think thats fair, Justice is supposed to be the right of the creator to distribute what he created according to his or her preferences. It does not make any demands on how one actually makes these decisions. If someone wants to maximize profits as hard as they can (that is keep as many resources as they want inside their projects) they can do so, and that would be their right. They could also choose to build a homeless shelter because he didn't want to live in a city where homeless people were on the streets. Either one is a valid decision, neither one is more "just" than the other, and even on an ethical level I can't fault either choice out of hand.

Insofar as justice is "the right of the creator to distribute what he created according to his or her preferences" this is, for the reasons I cited above, a utopian notion of no value to those who embrace reality.

Note that I am not disagreeing with you on your main point above; I believe it is perfectly reasonable for someone to dispose of the assets under their control (more or less) as they please. Where I am disagreeing is with your definition of justice itself or, to be precise, with the notion that there is any value to such a definition.

I really do not understand your logic either because according to you price is less than value, and i have no idea how you came to this conclusion. If someone traded something for something else it is necessarily less valuable (to them) than the thing they traded for. You seem to be comparing what they gained to what the "could have" gained yet did not. According to this, someone has not profited unless they did not get all of the profit.

You have hit upon exactly the distinction in the second sentence. People trade when they value what they get more than what they give. The price is what they give, the value is what they get. That is the beauty of trade.

But in a just world, as you defined above, people would be unable to gain through trade because the price would match the value. That's the situation in a monopoly where prices tend toward the value for lack of competition.

Lets say that someone did seek more profit, and like you said, failed to get any profit because of this. The reason why they didn't get all the profit possible is becasue they simply couldn't earn it, and through asking for what they didn't earn, they were punished. That is other people exercising their right to make decisions on how to distribute resources they created.

I agree that the outcome is entirely reasonable but it is unjust by your definition above. The person who is seeking a just outcome is screwing himself.'

Thus the pursuit of justice is harmful to oneself; thus it is immoral.

(Now I suppose I should make allowance for those who value justice above all other things. Perhaps the person who screws himself as you describe prefers that to allowing others to benefit from his trade. But that seems quite self-destructive.)

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I don't even know what it means to fully capture and control 100% the value of your efforts. Sometimes a thing produced does provide you a value that the creator does not see value in. Say I got more value from the social interactions with friends when going out to the movie, rather than the movie itself. Without the movie, that interaction would not have occured. But the producers of that movie probably are not pricing according to that social interaction and won't receive in monetary form any of the value enabled by the movie, the interaction. Perhaps you'd then say the movie makers are unable to capture the full value of their efforts. Would it be unjust that the movie goers are not paying for every single value enabled by the movie? In a sense, since you seem to suggest that all the above is unjust, that justice has to do with a precise osmosis of value transfer. I don't see any of the above as unjust because the creator of the movie can still do whatever they want with the movie, and the moviegoer is not denying the producer anything by not paying for the fun of hanging out with friends. Unequal in terms of monetary value, yes, but not unjust. Justice is about a person getting what they deserve, which does not translate into even controlling all aspects in which a creation provides value to a recipient. Your examples of justice gone wrong I see to be either examples of unjustice, or showing what's bad about a purely dollar-oriented view on justice.

And with a price, that's only a *kind* of attempt to capture value, but not the only way. You can capture value in a money exchange, but also in creating a type of environment that you value, you are capturing value.

Now there are obvious problems with that survival strategy but it is' date=' nonetheless, a characteristic method as history reveals and you experience every April 15.[/quote']

There are problems with that method because as a principle of action it would utterly faily. People try to create systems which perpetuate that principle of extortion, but extortion is unsustainable. In the pragmatic sense it "works", but it doesn't expand value in the least, actually resulting in wealth decrease.

Edited by Eiuol

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I don't even know what it means to fully capture and control 100% the value of your efforts.

Let me return to this, though I have attempted to illustrate it in various ways already.

Sometimes a thing produced does provide you a value that the creator does not see value in. Say I got more value from the social interactions with friends when going out to the movie, rather than the movie itself. Without the movie, that interaction would not have occured. But the producers of that movie probably are not pricing according to that social interaction and won't receive in monetary form any of the value enabled by the movie, the interaction.

Ok, so I think we're all violently in agreement on this point: there is more to value than cash (in fact, it would be more accurate to say that cash is a symbol or store of value).

Now it is certainly the case that movie producers are pricing their movie, in some very loose sense, according to non-monetary values including, but of course, not limited to, what you described. I can't think of any movie that has ever been marketed other than primarily as entertainment (yes, perhaps with some moral lesson, too). Social interaction might not be the primary aim but certainly it is not out of the ordinary.

Perhaps you'd then say the movie makers are unable to capture the full value of their efforts. Would it be unjust that the movie goers are not paying for every single value enabled by the movie? In a sense, since you seem to suggest that all the above is unjust, that justice has to do with a precise osmosis of value transfer.

Yes, that is right. Again, though, I am simply illustrating a very commonsense situation. The movie producer's options are limited by reality (e.g. competition, transaction costs, etc.) and will always fall short of his desire to capture the full value of his efforts. He makes the best choice from those options that are available to him. But we can imagine that when he goes to sleep at night he dreams of a just world that would compensate him for the full value of his efforts.

I don't see any of the above as unjust because the creator of the movie can still do whatever they want with the movie, and the moviegoer is not denying the producer anything by not paying for the fun of hanging out with friends.

No, I think you are being too sloppy here. The movie producer cannot "do whatever" but is limited to some very simple choices: he can release the movie and collect what he can or he can withhold it. This seems obvious but it has important implications as you start to look at other situations. (For example: the movie producer has a similar simple choice: pay his taxes or go to jail.)

Unequal in terms of monetary value, yes, but not unjust. Justice is about a person getting what they deserve, which does not translate into even controlling all aspects in which a creation provides value to a recipient. Your examples of justice gone wrong I see to be either examples of unjustice, or showing what's bad about a purely dollar-oriented view on justice.

Well, as I noted much earlier, everything hinges on your concept of justice. (I referred to marxism as an alternative competing conceptualization that I would assume has no fans here.) But now we are simply moving to the related question: what do people deserve? Do people deserve anything? Who decides? Etc.

Think about the typical bargaining/negotiation situation. Two people are trying to make a trade but they are bargaining over the terms. Is there a just price or terms of trade or not? Are they each working together to discover this fair trade or merely competing to see who can get more out of the deal?

And with a price, that's only a *kind* of attempt to capture value, but not the only way. You can capture value in a money exchange, but also in creating a type of environment that you value, you are capturing value.

Well, I'm thinking of price in a general way. If we're trading sea shells for beads then price is the ratio of exchange.

There are problems with that method because as a principle of action it would utterly faily. People try to create systems which perpetuate that principle of extortion, but extortion is unsustainable. In the pragmatic sense it "works", but it doesn't expand value in the least, actually resulting in wealth decrease.

I don't understand how you can claim that. History is filled with examples to the contrary and people live their entire lives subsisting on this.

Now it is a very interesting question as to whether, for example, government is a net benefit overall. We can readily observe that the more socialistic the society, the worse things become over time. But that's very different from saying that it's not possible to earn a living through extortion, that any such attempt is doomed to failure.

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By the way, lest anyone think that I am being heartlessly antagonistic here, or even deliberately acting the devil's advocate, let me stress that I am entirely sincere in posing this question. It truly vexes me.

There seem me to be two possible ways out of this. 1) Appeal to something outside of ethical egoism, or 2) distinguish friendly associations.

The first alternative is pretty obvious and I know will only elicit great howls of protest here. But there it is. One simple example of this is to think about the problem of human procreation and continuation. Rand was not big on family values, and I don't see much of that from Objectivism generally, but it seems perfectly obvious that if we imagine two societies existing side by side, over time, the one that most successfully propagates itself is going to overcome the one that doesn't. There is a Darwinistic value to having children and raising them properly quite apart from any joy or satisfaction that we get from raising kids. The society that finds a way to do this will succeed against the one that fails.

The other option is to think about how friends interact. Maybe it is hopeless to expect justice in the wider world but that doesn't mean that we can't treat each other right in smaller contexts. For example, I'm pretty confident that we could all agree, among ourselves, not to extort one another. That's not cosmic justice but it's certainly not nothing.

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