Thursday, 19 April 2018

Justice and the Meritocratic State

This post is by Thomas Mulligan, a faculty fellow at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. He talks about his new book, Justice and the Meritocratic State.

A striking feature of the philosophical debate about justice is that our most popular theories are rejected by the people who would have to live under them.  Since the 1970s, libertarianism and egalitarianism have dominated political philosophy despite being unpalatable to the public; we know, for example, that “empirical studies provide almost no support for egalitarianism, understood as equality of outcomes, or for Rawls’s difference principle” (Konow 2003: 1199).

The goal of this book is to provide a theory of justice that is consonant with human intuition and more conceptually compelling than these competitors on the right and the left. Although you wouldn’t know it from our politics, there is deep normative agreement about the structure of a just economy.  Human beings across lines of gender, race, class, and culture believe that people should get their just deserts.  This is why, for example, if you pay a person less than she thinks she deserves, or more than she thinks she deserves, she is unsatisfied with her compensation.  

That justice is desert has been verified by decades of research in experimental economics, social psychology, neurology, evolutionary history, and other fields.  Rather than reject that consensus, as most philosophers would, I argue that we should embrace it, and agree that “the concepts of moral desert and justice are deeply connected, and one needs the other for a proper definition” (Rustichini and Vostroknutov 2014).

The theory of justice I advance is monistic (justice is desert and nothing else), deontological, and leads to a society that is “meritocratic” in character.  The theory rests on three principles. Principle one: Equal opportunity.  We normally want to say that the fastest runner deserves the medal on the basis of his merit.  

But this is no longer true if the other runners were hobbled before the starting gun went off.  In that case, the winner’s claim to deserve the medal is weakened, if not nullified.  As it goes for races, so too for our economy.  Justice requires that we provide robust public education, healthcare, and other forms of social support to children born into disadvantage, and that no one has a head start owing to inheritance or nepotism.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Distorted Memories and Self-defining Beliefs

In this post I introduce a paper I wrote with Ema Sullivan-Bissett on the epistemic benefits of clinical memory distortions, which recently appeared open access in Mind and Language. It is one of the core outputs of two recent projects, the AHRC-funded Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions and the ERC-funded project PERFECT. The key message in the paper has received some coverage in the press (Medicalxpress, India Blooms, Laboratory Equipment, and Health Canal). 

In Keeping Mum, Marianne Talbot describes how her mother was a great storyteller before she had dementia. One of her best stories was how one day, when she was 14, she was late for school because her mother had just given birth to twins. The headmistress did not believe that that was the reason for being late and punished her, which she felt was a great injustice. When dementia advanced, the story about the twins’ birth ended up being merged with other stories (for instance, other stories about being late for school) and was repeated many times.

Martha, who had Alzheimer's disease, often told the story of how she learnt to drive, and she bought her own car, defying the doubts of her husband and her own family (Hydén & Örulv, 2009). This was something she was presumably very proud of because not many women at the time would have done the same. Aspects of her story were repeated frequently, even during the same conversation, and presented a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

The distorted memories and repetitive scripts in the examples above are epistemically problematic because they involve false beliefs. However, it is important for people with dementia to repeat stories that they find central or even self-defining (the unfairly punished teenager, the defiant woman) even if details in such stories are inaccurate. Why so?

Due to serious impairments in autobiographical memory, people with dementia have been found to lose their identity, having progressively fewer and more vague beliefs about themselves and their past (see the classic Addis and Tippett, 2004) with negative effects on wellbeing. It is particularly challenging for people with dementia to integrate information about their lives before the illness into their current personal narratives.