Notes from Kennedy School Conference

by Jon Mandle on May 17, 2006

At the end of last week, I attended the conference on “Equality and the New Global Order” at the Kennedy School of Government that I had mentioned here. The extremely impressive list of speakers lived up to the high expectations. I have written up some fairly extensive notes below. However, they are based on my recollections and notes, not any recordings or transcripts, so please don’t quote from these or rely on their accuracy – if you’re interested in pursuing these issues, many of the papers are available here.

Mathias Risse – the organizer – started the program by reading (something like) the following:

All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production.

Then he observed that this quote from Marx, while in some ways remarkably prescient, did not anticipate an important element of our current world – the existence of global political and economic institutions. It is with this awareness that the conference aims to consider the implications of these institutions from the points of view of philosophy and the social sciences.

There were also a few welcoming remarks by Amartya Sen – who promptly left to catch a flight to a conference in Paris (if I remember correctly).

I. “Linguistic Justice and Global Justice” by Philippe Van Parijs.
Let me say right off that I don’t know much of the literature on this topic, but it seemed that Parijs was taking a rather unorthodox position. He began with a fundamental premise some kind of equal opportunity for welfare holds at a global level. A shared language is a kind of public good, so it raises the issue of distributive justice because of the possibility of free-riders – in this case, those who benefit from the existence of a shared language without paying any of the cost of creating such a lingua franca – namely, the native speakers of that language. Sometimes the benefits of being able to be understood are very large – when you are traveling in a foreign country and say, “I believe I swallowed my spoon,” you very much want to be understood. So, he gave a specific account of how to calculate the amount that the native speakers of the lingua franca must be taxed to subsidize the learning of that language by non-native speakers – there should be an equal cost/benefit ratio, taking into account the number of speakers involved on each side. An actual global tax regime is not likely to be on the table any time soon, so he advocated “reciprocal free riding” – for example, “plundering the intellectual property on the web” (much of which is in English).

He then responded to a number of criticisms, many of which were directed against those who would say that acceptance of English as the lingua franca was itself an insult to the dignity of native non-English speakers, and to subsidize their becoming bilingual would be no consolation. One version of this criticism says that languages are associated with certain perspectives or ideologies. His reply was that English has the word “not” available…. A more serious version of this criticism says that this contributes not only to the arrogance of the native speakers of the lingua franca but to its completely taking over. The only real reply, he suggested, was to have territorially based languages that involve coercive rules that impose education and the public use of the native language in that territory (in addition to learning the lingua franca). This is to extend the Quebec solution worldwide. Finally, he emphasized that the existence of a lingua franca is necessary as a mechanism for collective reasoning and justification – for a global civil society – which is itself necessary to underwrite – both motivationally and normatively – global justice.

Michael Blake, not surprisingly, disagreed with the underlying account of the requirements of global justice. (He only received the paper just before it was presented, but I wouldn’t have noticed that if he hadn’t told me.) Liberal principles of justice are fundamentally about equal political standing, and distributive justice requires some kind of equalization only when there are shared political institutions of a certain kind. For Rawls, the two principles of justice work together and he does not think that the difference principle, for example, can be detached from a political structure in which the basic liberties are guaranteed. Unlike Nagel’s recent work, Blake is willing to consider the possibility that the EU is (or is close to) such a political structure. But the WTO and the UN pretty clearly do not rise to that level.

When it comes to language rights – and cultural rights more generally – not all changes and developments raise concerns of justice – even if there are unequal costs and benefits. Although he didn’t say much about this, the idea seems to be that the intentional destruction or suppression of a culture of language properly generates resentment and triggers concerns of justice, but other developments that are in some sense more “natural” do not. On this view, the dominance of English raises concerns of justice only to the extent that it has been enforced and achieved on illegitimate grounds – through practices of colonialism, for example. The unequal benefits to native speakers of a lingua franca do not by themselves raise issues of distributive justice.

During discussion, Parijs noted that his concern really was generated by reflection on the EU. He believes that in order to work, a civil society is needed, so communication is necessary among ordinary people – that is, a lingua franca is necessary – and so he wanted to think about what would be needed in order to be able to do this fairly.

II. “Inequality, Justice, and Multilateral Institutions” by Allen Buchanan and Robert Keohane.
They started with a puzzle: there is widespread agreement that the better-off should do more to help the worse-off – why don’t they? Many different theories of justice overlap on this point, even if they disagree about what would ultimately satisfy the goal of global justice. The Standard View is that altruism (which they understand in the widest sense – deliberate action to benefit the interests of another at some cost to agent) is limited by self-interest and attachments to particular others. Buchanan didn’t deny this Standard View, but some authors like Goldsmith and Posner (in The Limits of International Law) seem to relish these limitations and conclude that encouraging greater altruism is hopeless and against human nature. That’s to be resisted and we should look to institutional design to help overcome failures of rational altruism – cases where there is a motivation to altruistic behavior, but a failure nonetheless. For example, there may be a lack of reliable information about private charitable organizations that pushes individuals toward local organizations where there is more reliable information. Or, there may be a risk-sharing problem – wealthy people might be reluctant to make donations in order to protect against down-side risks, e.g., very costly medical bills. So, we could allow (wealthy) people to buy insurance against very expensive medical conditions – this would carry a very high premium but guarantee very high care – the surplus could be used for people in need. Another kind of failure relates to weakness of will, and this could be partially addressed through institutional changes that generate or diminish esteem. Here the model is university fundraising, which has been extremely successful by generating a community devoted to a particular cause and attendant relations of esteem among constituents. They advocated attempting to build an analogous cohort of constituents for private charitable organizations, for example through the creation of intern programs.

Tim Scanlon presented some comments, mostly related to the Humean basis for the Standard View. He also followed up on Buchanan and Keohane’s example of charitable giving following the Asian tsunami and Katrina by arguing that these were episodic events, unlike relentless, grinding poverty. This gives rise to an additional form of motivational irrationality – that giving is admitting to an obligation that seems unlimited, so is never enough – as a psychological mechanism, maybe it is better not to give at all and avoid this unpleasant result. This also suggests a focus on particular beneficiaries, and the college fund-raising model might help here, too.

It is easy to nit-pick the details of these proposals – and many of the questions did just that. But I don’t think Buchanan and Keohane were necessarily presenting them as blueprints for immediate implementation. Rather, they were modeling how to think of institutional design in order to attempt to solve what most theories take to be a problem. And in this, I must say, they were very successful, whether or not the specific proposals were convincing. Keohane was relentlessly practical in the sense of considering institutional design that would facilitate motivation among those who were favorably disposed, but who were not following through. In particular, in answering the question why we should rely on private organizations at all rather than the government, he said, “No member of Congress was ever defeated for voting against foreign aid.” The ultimate idea, as Buchanan pointed out, wasn’t to deny that there may be natural limits to our altruism as the Standard View says, but to adjust our institutions to find those limits or extend them. Consider: there are natural limits to our cognitive abilities – we have limited memory and reasoning abilities, yet, we develop tools to extend these. Why not attempt to find analogous tools on the motivational side?

III. “The Future of Global Equality” by Leif Wenar.
Starting from an assumption of equal moral worth, it seems that this would generate an egalitarian distributive requirement. Some objections: 1. Nagel argues that this would be too demanding, requiring redistributive interference with domestic self-determination – but this is an old libertarian objection that is not convincing in the domestic case. 2. Rawls relies on national self-determination of political communities – but this means that the “sins of our forefathers” permanently condemn the prospects of the descendants. 3. Temkin argues that a commitment to equality involves “leveling down”, a lowering of the better off in the name of equality, even if it doesn’t make anyone else better off.

Rousseau considered the permissibility of inequalities with the introduction of the family, of property, and of the state. In each case, there are benefits from these institutions, but they also introduce inequalities. Think about the many goods associated with the family, for example, but also the inequalities that it generates. We can devise institutions and laws that at least aim to mitigate these inequalities while preserving the goods generated – we rule out nepotism, provide public schools, have inheritance taxes, etc. And this is the general strategy we should adopt with regard to states, as well: preserve the goods associated with multiple states, but mitigate the inequalities that get generated. In some cases, this will properly involve leveling down, but in other cases, only leveling up will be appropriate. Specifically, the process of decolonization can be understood as the leveling down of unequal political power. In the case of unequal life prospects among states, on the other hand, only leveling up seems appropriate – that is, we should aim at raising the prospects of the global least advantaged without lowering the prospects of the more advantaged. In the end, the picture is supposed to be this: although we start with an egalitarian basis, when we recognizing the goods associated with distinct political states, we must temper the underlying egalitarianism, although it still exerts a pressure.

In reply, Mattias Kumm asked whether global redistribution really would undermine the goods associated with distinct states. He also suggested that were we to discover aliens we considered to be moral agents who were worse-off than we are, we would have less of a duty toward them than toward the least advantaged humans. This shows that shared institutions are relevant to our duties.

In discussion, Wenar allowed that leveling down might be appropriate as a form of reparations, but not as an instrument toward the goal of equality. Risse pointed out that in order to assess the goods and bads of “the state system” we need a counterfactual alternative, and it is very hard to imagine what it would be. Blake pointed out that if the global order were just, and we discovered aliens were much better off than we were, it would not be obvious that they would owe us anything at all. Finally, in reply to a question of how we identify the sufficiency level, Wener pointed out that our difficulty finding a natural cut-off point might suggest that there is a latent egalitarianism doing the work.

IV. “What Kind of Global Institutions Will Accelerate Global Economic Catch-up?” by Dani Rodrik.
Rodrik started out by asking whether (simply in self-interested terms) you would rather be poor in a rich country or rich in a poor country. Define “poor” as bottom 10% and “rich” as top 10%. So, would you rather be in the bottom 10% of the top 10% of countries, or the top 10% of the bottom 10% of countries? It turns out the former is 3-4x wealthier than the latter, which shows most inequality is among countries not within them. (It matters that we’re talking about 10%, because that gets well beyond the very rich people in poor countries.) There is widespread agreement (on many different theories of justice) that it is imperative to raise the level of the global poor. But the conventional debate about how to do this is largely beside the point. Increased market access (e.g., for agricultural exports from poor countries) and increased foreign aid debt relief really won’t do that much. It’s not that he’s opposed to these things, but they are “small potatoes” compared to what really matters: increasing the productivity of poor countries. This comes about through a proper mix of market discipline and incentives – both sticks and carrots – and it not easy to strike this balance. When there is excessive market discipline, there are not enough incentives to invest in technologies that are uncertain and will result in shared benefits. But too much protection leads to monopolies and little incentive to increase productivity. During the 1970s, for example, when Latin America relies on import substitution, there was not enough market discipline. Some firms were protected when they were not productive and there was no way to shut them down. On the other hand, during the 1990s, Latin America was guided by the Washington Consensus, and productivity growth was even lower because there were not enough carrots for new investment. Productivity growth in East Asia was considerably higher during this period, where many countries resisted the Washington Consensus.

What is important is that countries have the flexibility to generate their own policies, attempting to identify the correct local balance of carrots and sticks. Unfortunately, the rules of the global economic order don’t allow this flexibility. Trade regimes of the WTO limit flexibility of industrial policies – the very policies that allowed East Asia, China, and India to increase productivity; international financial markets restrict financial codes and credit regimes; monetary rules insist on the free floating of currencies, where an undervalued currency seems to help (although certainly not guarantee) development. He concluded with a series of concrete policy initiatives that would help increase productivity and reduce global poverty, including a guest worker program that would facilitate labor mobility.

Josh Cohen
, in reply, largely agreed with the theoretical framework, but focused especially on the guest worker programs. It would be extremely difficult to get a multilateral agreement on guest workers – it would require standardized labor standards and visa requirements, for example. More generally, he suggested, there would still be a role for global institutions not as super-legislators, but as coordinators of the various diverse policies that Rodrik calls for.

Most of the discussion focused on why Rodrik thought that most economists got it wrong by focusing on the gains to poor countries from increased access to the markets of wealthy countries. It’s not that trade hasn’t helped, Rodrik emphasized. It has. But at most, ending the agricultural subsidies of wealthy countries would increase aggregate prices by around 10% – and the standard deviation in such calculations is typically 6%. The World Bank and others greatly overstate the gains from increased trade. This would be swamped by the potential gains in loosening the restrictions on countries making their own economic policies.

V. [Second day] “Labor Regulation in a Globalizing World” by Kaushik Basu.
Basu began by pointing out that different labor and environmental standards, in the context of integrated markets, means that there are pressures to lower or eliminate standards. He told the story of calling an exterminator for a termite problem he was having in Dehli. When the exterminator arrived and began spraying chemicals all over, he asked whether they were effective. “Oh, yes,” was the reply. “These are completely banned in the US.” In response to these pressures, many countries have granted exemptions to labor regulations for export companies. Such exemptions appear to be Pareto improvements since individuals are free to opt out of the regulations if they believe doing so to be in their own interest. It is important to remember that while child labor may be bad, the alternatives – say, starvation or prostitution – may be even worse. For very poor countries, simply banning child labor in the absence of supporting policies, may actually be harmful. On the other hand, as he later pointed out, there may be multiple equilibria. So, if you ban child labor, this may bid up wages (because labor becomes scarce) to the point where adults make enough that they don’t have to send their children to work.

Economists typically think of rights as being waivable (for a fee, obviously). So why shouldn’t we allow individuals to waive their labor rules for higher wages? Why not allow them to work in hazardous environments or waive sexual harassment laws if the wages are high enough? The answer, Basu suggested, is that if we move from a system in which there are regulations to a system where individuals can waive their protections, the people who keep their protections may wind up being paid at a lower rate. While individual transactions may be Pareto improvements, the result of changing the system may be that some are worse-off than they would have been if the protections remained in place. And when there are situations that are Pareto-incomparable, we need to make a judgment about which values to go with.

Sabina Alkire replied that focusing on contracts that are locally Pareto improvements neglects that background range of choices available to people.

In discussion, Keohane pointed out that when economists rely on narrow assumptions they conclude that some kind of laissez-fair policy is justified, but the strength of Basu’s presentation was that from these minimal assumptions, he was able to justify certain kinds of regulation. But many people asked whether, in fact, he was able to justify inalienable rights, as he claimed. I asked why, in a situation in which allowing people to waive their rights lowered the wages of those who kept their rights, the solution isn’t to tax those who waive them and subsidize those who keep them. He agreed that when that was possible, it made sense. Charles Beitz then drew the obvious conclusion: that these rights aren’t actually inalienable and we are still working in a welfare-maximizing framework.

VI. “Does concern with global inequality require a different approach to international aid?” by Branco Milanovic
This presentation was very heavily empirical and gave an interesting insight into the theoretical difficulties of measuring inequality. He began by talking about the significance of the Gini coefficient and the extent of global inequality in income. But, he observed, any such measurement involves aggregation. So, if members of a wealthy country contribute to a poor country, it might turn out that some poor members of the wealthy country are subsidizing wealthy members of the poor country who are better off than they are. (See Rodrik’s example, above.) For many pairs of countries, this would be very unlikely to happen – there are few people in the poor country that have higher incomes than anyone in the rich country. But sometimes it might. For example, the wealthiest 15% of Chinese have a higher income than the poorest 5% of Germans. If we want truly progressive redistribution, we should have a way of measuring this likelihood. So, we need to take the internal distribution of a country into account. A progressive redistribution between countries should minimize the likelihood of regressive transfers. Furthermore, such redistributions should not make the national distribution more unequal. For example, even if the poor in a rich society are better off than the rich in a poor society, transferring from the former to the latter, although progressive, would increase the inequality within each country. The bottom line is that not only the richer, but also the more unequal a country is, the more it should contribute to the relief of global poverty.

Sanjay Reddy, in reply, pointed out that current aid patterns are not very progressive and not generally directed to basic social services. Furthermore, a focus on income inequality is misleading, because even the poor in rich countries have additional advantages over anyone in poor countries. And finally, some apparently regressive transfers may be justified if they bring about institutional changes that benefit the poor (beyond the direct transfers). An example might be paying for higher education in poor countries, which would directly benefit the relatively advantaged in the poor countries.

VII. “Fairness in Trade” by Mathias Risse.
Risse was interested in the following questions: When country A trades with country B, and B is an oppressive society, do the members of B have grounds for complaint against A? And, do the citizens of A have a complaint against their own government? If both A and B are legitimate, but have unequal wealth, are there still any concerns of justice? The answer – in one way or another – to all of these questions is: yes. The exposition moved from what he called a Strong Westphalian model to a Moderate Westphalian model to a Weak Westphalian model that he ultimately supported. Under certain conditions, trading with an abusive country is like trading in stolen goods and is objectionable on analogous grounds. In general, compensation is not sufficient to make up for such abuses. It may not be so clear what the practical implications are in all cases, but this is sufficient to move us away from the Strong Westphalian model – we cannot be simply indifferent to domestic arrangements in our trading partners.

Next, comes the Pauper Labor Argument – suppose country A has labor standards that are justified on moral grounds – citizens believe that these are moral requirements for just productive activities. But suppose county B does not have these minimal standards and is able to produce at a lower cost. Citizens of A have a complaint when they are undercut by trade with B – a country should not gain from the violations of moral standards in other countries. One implication is that Swedish workers (where there are very high labor standards) have a complaint when they trade with the US (where there are lower standards). But this complaint should have a relatively low priority. Finally, just as some citizens have a claim to subsidies or support based on how their economy is structured, similarly some subsidies may be justified based on how trade relations are structured.

Judith Goldstein pointed to several practical difficulties. It is unclear how to determine the baseline wage from which injustice is assessed. Trade always involves “lumpy gains”, so it always comes at some costs – does this mean it is always unjust and oppressive? Is it really objectionable for a country to help its own citizens if that puts foreigners at a competitive disadvantage? She also had doubts about whether the WTO could be part of the solution to these injustices, as Risse suggests in the written version of his paper. The WTO was designed to coordinate trade agreements and isn’t set up to redistribute wealth. Furthermore, although poor countries have been at a disadvantage during WTO negotiations and the rules currently favor the rich, to a large extent poor countries have been “free-riding” – they have typically been in violation of agreements and not pressed into compliance by the wealthy. As Rodrik pointed out, access to wealthy markets, although valuable, is relatively small compared to the gains available from increased labor mobility. It would also make a big difference if poor countries had more voice in trade dispute settlements. The WTO shows that we already have something like a weak Westphalian world – some duties are dependent on domestic policies, but it’s not so clear which are objectionable and which are acceptable – which are “trade distorting measures”.

In discussion, Wenar asked what to do if cutting off trade would make the poor worse off? Risse replied that he agreed with the implication – the point is that we need to take these effects into account. Allen Buchanan drew the conclusion that we simply aren’t yet clear about the legitimacy conditions of organizations like the WTO – at least, we need to be clear about its goals.

VIII. “Conceptions of Global Fairness” by Larry Summers.
Let me just say he is obviously a very smart man. He is equally obviously a very arrogant man. Speaking without any notes, he was basically interested in how a policy maker should value the effects of policies on different individuals. Assuming that we’re clear about the consequences of a policy, how should we weigh the effects on foreigners and fellow citizens? On the one hand, a pure utilitarianism would count the effects on all lives impartially – but “no policy maker in any democratic country would follow this.” On the other hand, he found it unacceptable to discount foreign lives altogether, or value them on instrumental grounds alone. So, there must be some principle that identifies the proper balancing, but he doesn’t know what it is. And while some policy-makers simply rely on their intuitions, it bothered him that there wasn’t some more solid foundation for these judgments. A similar problem concerns how to weigh effects on know versus unknown individuals. For example, how to choose between spending money on condoms to prevent the spread of HIV or spending that money on anti-retroviral drugs to treat many fewer people who are already infected? Policy tends toward helping identifiable beneficiaries, even when they are without a direct voice in deliberations.

Then Summers gave another example. Just before he became president of Harvard, he received a passionate letter signed by 150 faculty members calling for more money to be spent on expanded anti-retroviral treatments. There was no call for more money for condom distribution and prevention. The implication, he suggested, was that these faculty members were simply failing to confront the fact of limited resources and the necessity of making choices.

Jonathan Wolff cut short his comments to allow for more discussion. But he made a telling point. In her work, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan reports how two children respond when asked to consider a moral dilemma that concerns balancing your interests and that of others. Amy agonizes about what to do, constantly attempting to break out of the narrow confines that define the dilemma, questioning the assumptions and how the puzzle is presented. Jake, on the other hand, flatly states that you should give about 3/4 to yourself, 1/4 for others. Perhaps Amy is right – there is no formula that Summers is asking for. And perhaps the signatories weren’t as naïve as he suggested. Maybe they knew that choices had to be made, but they were pushing to change the terms in which the question was framed – for example, not simply taking the total budget size for granted.

Summers responded: “The one thing that will keep a first year law student from becoming a second year law student is failing to embrace the hypothetical.” Eventually, he said, you must confront the fact that choices must be made, and it is important to reflect on how those choices should be made – neither pure impartiality nor pure self-interest seems appropriate – so what is?

Scanlon remarked that although there are no easy formulas, rather than thinking in terms of how we value different people and their lives, we should start by thinking in terms of obligations. He didn’t state this clearly, but the idea (I think) was that we can say that all people are of equal worth, but that we have specific obligations to particular others. Pogge pointed out that there are widely recognized exceptions to the permission to show partiality toward one’s family and relations – for example, anti-nepotism laws and the requirements on judges. Summers agreed and said that as Treasury Secretary, he believed his obligations were to represent US interests, but he viewed things differently when he was chief economist of the World Bank. (I understood him to mean that he really did believe impartiality was required. Pogge pointed out to me that he didn’t exactly say that. I also mentioned to Pogge that I would have loved to hear his follow up: that shouldn’t impartiality also be required when setting up the institutions themselves? Pogge replied that his question had given Summers the opportunity to make that point himself, and he didn’t – but I’m not sure that this implication would have been so obvious.)

As I said, Summers came across as very smart but very arrogant. On the one hand, it actually was heartening that a person who has exercised so much power worries about these kinds of issues. These were good questions and just the kinds of things that should trouble him. They are not easy to answer and it was good that he was encouraging others to reflect on them. On the other hand, many of the people in that room have thought long and hard about exactly these issues and some even have generated powerful insights into them. He obviously had no idea what any of them have said, and he came off as lecturing us that we should start thinking about these problems that he thought of.

IX. [Third day] “Incentives for Pharmaceutical Research — Must they exclude the global poor from advanced medicines?” by Thomas Pogge.
Pogge described a proposal to get necessary drugs to poor people and to encourage the development of drugs to treat their illnesses rather than the more profitable – but less deadly – problems of wealthy individuals. “It has come to my attention,” he observed, “that in the past when I have had some good ideas, they have not immediately been implemented.” Therefore, it makes sense to look for ways to line up private interests so that they lead to achieving important social goals.

So, think about intellectual property rights – patents – specifically in drugs. Such patents prevent the manufacturing of relatively inexpensive generic drugs that could do a lot of good. Some might say that there is a natural right to intellectual property. But: 1. why should drug companies get it if part of the basic research was publicly financed? 2. how are the details of this natural right to be specified and why should we think they line up with the current institutional implementation? 3. why should we think that these rights are so powerful to outweigh the life-saving results of violating them? In fact, most people try to defend intellectual property rights on grounds of social-utility rather than on natural right. This is a serious argument that must be addressed. But why is it assumed that the only choices are complete uniformity of intellectual property rights globally or no rights at all? Why not a mixed regime in different countries? The current regime – moving toward a single global regime – is unjust and is not made just simply because it was agreed to in the WTO.

Here is an attractive alternative. Allow pharmaceutical companies to waive their traditional patent and allow generics to be made and they will receive income from a fund based on the number of lives saved by the drug, no matter who has manufactured it. This will incentivize research where it can do the most good, and get the drugs produced and sold at the lowest price. Of course, it will take a global fund to pay for this, but he estimates that this would cost only about $50 per taxpayer (per year, I think) in the wealthy countries. On the other hand, they would know that it would only be spent when actual results can be measured.

Ani Satz commented that the general problem is that the current scheme doesn’t separate compensation from incentives in developing new drugs. The incentive for developing new drugs comes exclusively from the first users. But who these first users are really is a morally arbitrary matter. Instead, we should have a scheme in which taxpayers who may eventually have a use for the drugs pay for their development. (This is analogous to Jules Coleman’s point that in tort law we use damages to serve both goals of deterrence and compensation.) The specifics of Pogge’s proposal don’t fit well with US constitutional law. Currently, drug companies apply for patents far before they know the use or effectiveness of their drugs. Basically, Pogge is proposing a patent with a compulsory license (and a source of compensation). But this goes against a long history of US constitutional law. There is also a very serious problem in assessing the impact of a drug for purposes of compensation under Pogge’s scheme.

Pogge replied that his scheme is not supposed to be compulsory. It wouldn’t involve blocking or overriding the current patent system, but simply giving companies an alternative that might be attractive to them – a new way of making money by doing good.

Wenar raised the interesting idea that perhaps some use could be made of the takings clause of the fifth amendment. (I later asked Satz about this. She said that it would probably only apply in the case of a declared health emergency, and it has never been used for a foreign purpose.)

Risse said that although the Lockean Proviso is implausible with land, it makes more sense with intellectual property. After all, when I invent something new and potentially beneficial, it makes sense to say that I really haven’t made anybody worse off. Pogge replied by pressing on the peculiarity of a natural right to intellectual property. “Suppose,” he said, “I invent a wild new dance. You see me doing it, and copy it. I say: ‘You can’t do that. It’s mine. I haven’t made anybody worse off by inventing it.’ You can reply to me: ‘I’m not making anybody worse off, either, when I copy you.’”

X. “Women’s Health: Are Global Inequalities Greater than those for Men?” Ruth Macklin
She focused on areas where there was necessarily a gap between female and male health – various aspects of reproductive health. This was a survey of a seemingly endless list of health care deficits faced by women in all different parts of the world with regard to unsafe abortions (68,000 women die each year), female genital mutilation, physical violence related to reproduction, rape, etc. These failures are due to many factors, including deeply rooted customs and norms, ideological barriers, poor financial and human infrastructure, discriminatory laws and unequal enforcement.

Rebecca Cook
emphasized that the social determinants of women’s health need to be considered more directly. Specifically, it is important to consider how a “chastity code” is constructed and how women are understood culturally.

Several questions pressed Macklin on whether any of these horrors really established that women face an overall health deficit compared to men. After all, there are areas where men face higher burdens – gun-shot wounds and heart disease, for example. How to aggregate these different factors and if there are overall inequalities, determine whether they are unjust? Macklin wouldn’t take the bait, and insisted on the need to disaggregate factors without the need to determine overall inequalities.

XI. “Global Health Inequalities – a Matter of Justice?” Norman Daniels.
Daniels began by arguing that if we are interested in assessing the justice of global health inequalities, we can’t simply apply a framework designed for domestic health inequalities. Furthermore, it doesn’t help us to switch to a perspective of human rights – we still need to answer the same basic question. And most human rights perspectives refer to the “Highest Attainable Level” of physical and mental rights. This suggests a standard that is “progressively realizable” – it changes, in other words, with economic and technological development and other social changes. The very large gaps in health – say, life expectancy – between rich and poor countries really does seem to be unjust on most conceptions of global justice. The minimalist strategy (Pogge) says that we must avoid doing harm – but this requires identification of a baseline from which to assess harm. And it is hard to make the case that an intellectual property regime is harming poor countries. There certainly may be more attractive schemes (perhaps like the one Pogge outlined) but this seems to be a matter of positive duties, not the avoidance of harm. Nagel’s state-centered view can’t make sense of something like the WHO’s concern for health, impartially on a global scale. Cohen and Sabel’s recent proposal (P&PA 2006) might provide a more attractive framework for making these assessments.

Elisabeth Ashford replied by suggesting that between the extremes of statism and strong cosmopolitanism there is room for a moderate cosmopolitanism, where there are some duties of justice beyond shared political obligations and also beyond merely negative human rights, but without falling into an extreme cosmopolitanism. So, there may be a right to basic medical care and this generates a positive duty for everyone who is able to assist in satisfying and securing this basic right. But there may be additional duties beyond securing this basic right based on shared political affiliations. The strength of this positive duty will vary based on many factors, and there may be hard cases. But there will also be easy cases and even this would be real progress.

I had to leave before the final presentation by Angus Deaton. (His paper is available here.)

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05.20.06 at 6:15 pm



Kieran Healy 05.17.06 at 7:45 pm

On the other hand, many of the people in that room have thought long and hard about exactly these issues and some even have generated powerful insights into them. He obviously had no idea what any of them have said, and he came off as lecturing us that we should start thinking about these problems that he thought of.

Bwaahahaha. Where have we seen this M.O. before?

Mathias was a grad school contemporary of mine. Nice to see him organizing a big-picture conference like this.


Jacob T. Levy 05.17.06 at 9:34 pm

For those who are interested in the van Parjis-Blake exchange: the van Parjis paper sounds like the one that appears in Kymlicka and Patten, eds., _Language Rights and Political Theory,_ OUP– and Blake has a terrific piece on language presevration in that volume too (an independent piece, not a comment on vP).


david 05.17.06 at 9:43 pm

Thanks for this. The only day open to me was Saturday, until the floodwaters began falling. I like Pogge’s plan — and it’s a good and morally sound joke, that this is practical unlike my last plan business. I hear Pfizer’s just about on board, just after the ED craze starts dying down.

Nice on Summers — he always seems to be a smart person who can’t help regressing to the Econ. 201 student role that must make him feel his best. “you must confront the fact that choices must be made, and it is important to reflect on how those choices should be made.” Apart from the banality, you just know where the axe is going to fall when the talkative boy in the second row starts talking like this.


jonst 05.18.06 at 5:37 am

I felt sorry for you when you wrote there was a “second day”. Then when you announced there was a third day I thought; “this is some kind of parody”. As for Summers, I would love to see someone of integrity, Eliot Spitzer perhaps, carry out an in-depth investigation of his (Summers) role in Russian financial matters.


Barry 05.18.06 at 7:40 am

“Summers responded: “The one thing that will keep a first year law student from becoming a second year law student is failing to embrace the hypothetical.””

IIRC, Brad DeLong once said something to the effect that most of the differences in opinions between economists stem from disagreements about the starting assumptions.

(personal opinion) From a basic bargaining viewpoint, you don’t start out by embracing somebody else’s hypothetical.

“Eventually, he said, you must confront the fact that choices must be made, and it is important to reflect on how those choices should be made – neither pure impartiality nor pure self-interest seems appropriate – so what is?”

Wow, what an insight. I hope he’s patented that, because I’m sure that nobody’s ever thought of that before. (/sarcasm)


Tom Hurka 05.18.06 at 3:50 pm

Of course Summers is going to get ripped on this site, but …

1. It’s only incompletely reported, but Wolff’s comment on Summers sounds pretty feeble. It’s the old Jake-and-Amy ploy, which we’ve heard countless times in the last 25 years. Someone raises the question of how we choose between values or principles A and B. Then someone else, citing Gilligan, says “If you were more sophisticated and especially feminist, you’d see that we don’t ever have to choose between A and B. We can always refigure the situation so we can get all of A and all of B, with no sacrifice of either.” To which the only response, which in effect was Summers’s, is “Dream on.”

2. The ploy is also patronizing. Summers raised an issue for discussion. Wolff, at least as reported, refused to discuss that issue, suggesting in effect that Summers’s very raising of it showed that Summmers is at a lower level of moral consciousness, i.e. is a Jake rather than an Amy. You don’t have to be a Harvard President to find that irritating.

3. Summers is ripped for making banal statements, but he only made them in response to Wolff! If Wolff had actually engaged with Summers’s issue, the statements wouldn’t have been needed. A speaker repeats obvious points because his commentator has ignored them, and the speaker gets lambasted for making obvious points. Sheesh.

4. Contra Mandle, I doubt that anyone in the room had discussed Summers’s issue. It was a very specific issue: assuming that in some contexts we should give some preference to our own citizens’ interest, how much preference should we give, and is there a general principle that explains why we should give that much? People in the room may have discussed the more general question of whether we should give some preference to our citizens’ interests vs. giving none, but Summers was asking more specifically about how we make the “some” (assuming that’s the right answer) more precise. Had people in the room really discussed that question?


harry b 05.18.06 at 5:05 pm

Will someone respond to Tom? I had more or less his reaction to the report of Summers (except that I trust Jon’s judgement about his character traits, and had a similar report from another attendee). Policymakers are in the business of making decisions under uncertainty and under deadlines. Those decisions should be guided by the best evidence that they can get hold of, and the right (or the best available) judgment about which values and principles really matter and how much weight they should get relative to one another. What we (analytical moral and political philosophers) are very good at doing, I think, is figuring out 1) the architecture of theories and 2) what moral reasons are in play. What we are very bad at is discerning how much weight they have relative to one another in particular contexts with sufficient precision to be helpful to policymakers. Perhaps we should work harder at conveying to policymakers how to think with more rigour for themselves about how to discern what moral reasons are in play in particular situations and how to weigh them.

At an APA conference it would have been unreasonable for Summers to pose his question (at least to pose it and expect much of an answer); but at a priority in practice conference (wasn’t this one in that series?) it is a natural question to ask I think.

Jo? Defend yourself!


james 05.18.06 at 5:24 pm

The ideals presented seem to flow from the supposition that state actors have some obligation to assist all peoples. This is contrary to the philosophy behind a representative government. Namely, that the state derives its authority from the consent of its citizens and that representatives are required to look out for the interrests of its citizens. Excluding the express consent of its citizens, does a representative government have the right or obligation to assist others?

What if innate moral obligations stop at the individual and do not transfer to groups as a whole? Does joining the book club automatically make an individual responsible for other members non-book related issues? What about conflicts between a groups expressed moral goals and other accepted moral values. For example, do environmental organizations have a moral obligation to support poverty relief? What if the over all best method of poverty relief causes pollution?


Tracy W 05.18.06 at 6:20 pm

In response to comment 8 – Your first paragraph implies that the Australian Government, being an elected government deriving authority from the consent of its citizens, should be playing as hardball as is consistent with international law with East Timor over the mineral deposits (in the absence of express consent from Australian citizens that it should act otherwise).

Your second paragraph presents an issue which is a puzzle to me too. I belong to a tramping club which in turn gives me membership of the FMC. The FMC’s newsletter presents some rather puzzling attitudes, amongst other things I understand the only use of land they find acceptable is use of land for tramping (based on their opposition to land being used to build houses/commercial forestry/farming/etc). How they justify the paper they print the newsletter on puzzles me – let alone the print or the printing machine, or the manufacture of the cameras their photographers presumably use. Do I have a moral responsibility to be doing something about their inadequately-thought-through thinking? Or to fight to withdraw my own club from the FMC, or to withdraw from my own club if I can’t win the second battle?


Jo Wolff 05.19.06 at 2:08 am

OK. Here are a few points:

1. Of course, I began my comments by saying that I was cutting them short to allow room for others to talk. (Summers had arrived late and I was told that we had to end the session at the scheduled time – which actually turned out not to be true.) The truth was that Summers had not written a paper and so there was nothing to see in advance (I had known that this was the situation when agreeing to reply.). A brief phone call with him got me thinking that his paper was going to be on something else. So these were entirely off the cuff remarks, in a somewhat tense situation. But even if I had been given time to prepare I would have said similar things.

2. On the plane home I realised what I should have said in reply to Summers: ‘the one thing that will stop a Philosophy student entering the second year is failing to understand the difference between law and morality’.

3. Tom, if calling a philosophical argument an ‘old ploy’ is a way of refuting it, that would rule out most of what we do. The situation was that Summers had asked the philosophers for a principle to apply to a couple of difficult policy issues. His view was that the policy makers more or less knew what to do, but they didn’t have the principle to justify it, and he challenged the moral philosophers to formulate the principle. I wanted to make three points, although whether they came out distinctly is another matter:

i) Thinking that moral philosophy is done by the formulation and application of principles, on the model of a mathematical or scientific theory, is to assume a particular conception of how moral reasoning is to be done. There are alternative conceptions. (I also believe that the alternatives are more plausible, but didn’t press that point.)

ii) Sometimes the best way of trying to solve a moral problem is by thinking through the assumptions that seem to give rise to it, and find another way out. I suppose this might be true in maths too. Also in Summers’ cases he gave precise predictions about exactly what would happen if we made particular choices. It is touching that he has such faith in social science, but it may be that we need to think about ways of making decisions which have tolerance if our guiding assumptions are wrong.

iii) This may not have come through very well but I wanted to say that it may be that the policy makers who reason without clear principles are already doing better than Summers thinks – that they are doing ‘Amy-style’ moral reasoning: judging things in context, and not expecting an answer that can be applied to other cases.

On the general issue of engaging with Summers, the issue is more subtle. Several of the most important moral philosophers tried to engage with Summers in the terms of the example he set. In my view – and others may have a completely different impression – they didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. Some slightly changed the example to deal with it, without admitting this. Some simply said what they felt about the cases without coming up with a principle. Some offered fragments of a theory to cover the case, and Summers, to his great credit, was able to point out counter-intuitive consenquences. (e.g. one person said that we should ignore very small benefits; Summers then pointed out that safety regulation is based on giving very small benefits of risk reduction to many people.) An outsider may have thought that if the job of moral philosophers is to craft moral principles, and this is the best that can be done, then we should wonder whether the university should continue to fund work in this area.

No one made a point I make when I talk to scientists about moral issues, and someone is very impatient to know the answer to a question: formulating moral principles which justify the public policies we want is REALLY, REALLY hard. It is not a completed branch of enquiry, like geometric optics was once said to be. The subject continues because it is so difficult. It might look like it ought to be easy, but it isn’t – and the problem doesn’t seem to be that moral philosophers don’t work hard or have low IQs. So the honest reply to Summers, from those who accepted the challenge in his terms, should have been ‘we are still working on that’.

In sum, I think Summers was perfectly justified in raising these questions, and trying to provoke philosophers to respond. As philosophers, it seems to me, we should expect challenges like this, especially from people who fund what we do, and we need a better set of responses than we have so far.

Tom, if you are still reading, if you were there what would you have said?


Mathias Risse 05.19.06 at 8:32 am

Just in case somebody would like to read another account of the conference, see the conference report written by Martin O’Neill (which I had asked him to do to have something to show to the donors) —


Mike Otsuka 05.19.06 at 8:57 am

As a response to Summers’s reported specific criticism of the letter calling for more money for anti-retroviral treatment, I think it was perfectly appropriate for Jo to question Summers’s implicit assumption that an increase in money for such treatment would have to be at the expense of more cost-effective spending of money on the distribution of condoms.

But I think the following two rejoinders — which sound like points Summers made in reply to Jo — would be on target:

(1) Even if it’s true in the particular HIV case that both prevention and treatment are such urgent matters that we could justify enough spending on both that a trade-off between prevention and treatment doesn’t have to be made, we’re not always going to be able to avoid hard choices between more cost-effective prevention and less cost-effective treatment. When we take the whole range of illnesses and accidents to which the government might devote money to prevent and/or to treat its victims, we’re going to need to figure out how to make tradeoffs. This sounds like a natural and charitable construal of the following ridiculed point that Summers is reported to have made: “Eventually, he said, you must confront the fact that choices must be made, and it is important to reflect on how those choices should be made.”

(2) When, however, you’re posed with a hypothetical thought experiment of the sort that is familiar to those who have been to law school or have taken courses in moral philosophy, you’re just not getting it if you reject the assumptions in Amy-like fashion. Summers is right to say “The one thing that will keep a first year law student from becoming a second year law student is failing to embrace the hypothetical.” That’s also the sort of thing that will prevent a student from doing well on a moral philosophy exam. Suppose that a student is presented with the familiar trolley example — should you do nothing, in which case the trolley runs over five, or divert the trolley onto a side-track, in which case it runs over one. If the student writes on his exam that he’d find a way to derail the trolley so that it harms nobody, then I’m sorry but he fails Moral Philosophy 101.


david 05.19.06 at 10:40 am

But that student would be given command of a starship instead, Mike.

“It is touching that he has such faith in social science, but it may be that we need to think about ways of making decisions which have tolerance if our guiding assumptions are wrong.”

It’s this well-put point that leads to the ridicule of Summers. Nobody denies that hard choices have to be made — Summers rubs people the wrong way when it looks like he’s misidentified the choices that have to be made, and then bullies and patronizes people who question his assumptions.

The hypothetical here quickly slides into an actual case. From Jon’s description, it sounds like Summers waltzed in and made clear that he is a powerful person who thinks clear thoughts, unlike muddle-headed moral philosophers, and he tried to frame an issue to talk about how he sees hard choices that the muddle-headed sentimental faculty at Harvard, for instance, just aren’t strong and sharp enough to get. If this is an uncharitable reading, well, Summers has said things in the past to cost him the benefit of the doubt.

And, of course, uncharitable accounts of events we haven’t seen are what the internets are all about.


Mike Otsuka 05.19.06 at 11:12 am

Perhaps Henry Sidgwick would have been a moral philosopher after Secretary Summers’s own heart. If Summers had asked him where precisely he should set the optimum level of population growth, Sidgwick would have obliged as follows:

“strictly conceived, the point up to which, on Utilitarian principles, population ought to be encouraged to increase, is not that at which average happiness is the greatest possible … but that at which the produce formed by multiplying the number of persons living into the amount of average happiness reaches its maximum” (pp. 407-08 of Methods of Ethics).


Mike Otsuka 05.19.06 at 11:31 am

…and, no, David, the one who gets to command the military starship is the one who says the trolley should kill as many as possible.


david 05.19.06 at 12:06 pm

Well, that’s probably true in Starship Troopers (and today); but it was James T. Kirk that famously gamed the program at the Academy so as to avoid certain defeat.


Jo Wolff 05.19.06 at 12:50 pm

Two responses to Mike.

(1) I think we need to distinguish two uses of hypothetical reasoning. There is the trolley problem type which we use to try to refine our intuitions. Here I agree that to refuse the hypothetical is to evade the issue, and one should get no marks. And then there is the Summers type where he depicts what he claims to be a real policy dilemma, but described as if the parameters and options are known with certainty. Here the response ‘can you really be sure things are like that?’ seems to me perfectly appropriate. In fact it seems to me that it is those who neglect to ask it who should get no marks.

(2) Summers, in fact, made essentially the Sidgwick argument, but claimed it for the economists. Another way of putting his challenge was: if philosophers don’t accept maximizing consequentialism, what do they believe?


loren king 05.19.06 at 12:56 pm

mike otsuka: “When, however, you’re posed with a hypothetical thought experiment of the sort that is familiar to those who have been to law school or have taken courses in moral philosophy, you’re just not getting it if you reject the assumptions in Amy-like fashion.”

Very interesting discussion. The “Amy-like fashion” referred to here is, obviously, not a philosophical approach to moral problem-solving, but a (not entirely uncontroversial) experimental finding about how some young kids actually approached a moral dilemma.

It seems obvious to me that professional philosophers and theorists who either raise Amy-like behaviour for discussion, or even adopt it themselves, may well “get it,” but they may simply not find “it” very interesting or helpful. They may be wrong, of course, but we shouldn’t confuse their contempt for ignorance and incompetence!

More seriously, Mike and Tom: do you think that how we reason through moral dilemmas in real life should follow at least the structure (and perhaps at least some of the substance) of how professional moral and legal theorists analyse the same dilemmas? Do moral and legal theory offer for moral problem-solving something akin to what some (hopeful) Bayesians believe probabilism offers for thinking about choice under uncertainty?

And even if actual problem-solvers aren’t getting it and instead resist the assumptions of a hypothetical they’re confronted with, is there something valuable for moral and legal arguments in studying how people actually approach moral dilemmas, and how their solutions tend to perform on a range of plausible measures?

I note that Jo seems to be using the Gilligan findings at least in part to suggest that the model of moral reasoning suggested by prevalent moral-philosophical and legal-theoretic exercises isn’t the only game in town as a model of how people might fruitfully approach actual moral dilemmas (there’s a very rough analogy here with how some findings in evolutionary game theory may temper worries about violations of subjective expected utility, i.e. sometimes people systematically violate independence or modular rationality, but in some contexts that’s not so bad, and may even work out pretty well).


loren king 05.19.06 at 1:27 pm

mike otsuka: “If the student writes on his exam that he’d find a way to derail the trolley so that it harms nobody, then I’m sorry but he fails Moral Philosophy 101.”

Okay, but just for kicks, would your grading be different if he explained that, in his judgement, the sincere but futile act* of trying to save all of the lives and failing was one he could better live with, compared to the feasible act of choice that deliberately saves some lives by taking another? I mean, if the student tried to make the argument, and it wasn’t ridiculous, then that seems worthy of consideration as a valid answer on a first-year philosophy exam, yes?**

* Perhaps the student would argue for flicking the switch back and forth frantically in an attempt to derail the train before the point of either impact? Of course the scenario could be framed to hypothesize a perfectly discrete, error free switching mechanism with instantaneous and similarly discrete effect, admitting no intermediate states; and the flawless design and functioning of this superswitch the hapless student has no reason to doubt. Or perhaps the switch is such that, improbably, it can only be flipped once, or is so heavy and cumbersome (but nonetheless perfectly discrete in its two states and the corresponding two states of the track switch) that only one switching is feasible given the trolley speed and location. If the hypothetical were this painstakingly well-specified, then the answer I outline above would be mere avoidance. I’ve sometimes wondered whether there’s somewhere waiting to be discovered an existence proof, one way or another, about whether or not a thought experiment can ever be fully specified in the sense of excluding reasonable “outs” relying on some imperfection in one of the relevant mechanisms of the experiment. Is there a finite, fully specified example in action theory, or do they all admit of cascading “but what if …” assaults on assumptions which require an endless number of tweaks?

** Of course, if the student made something like this argument, it’s hard to see how he could avoid discussing arguments about utilitarianism, and about the ‘causing versus letting happen’ distinction that you’d no doubt have them read, and then I suppose he’d be engaging with the readings this question is testing him about, and there wouldn’t be an issue at all.


loren king 05.19.06 at 1:30 pm

david: “Well, that’s probably true in Starship Troopers (and today); but it was James T. Kirk that famously gamed the program at the Academy so as to avoid certain defeat.”

To be clear: Kirk didn’t cheat. He changed the conditions of the test.


Jon Mandle 05.19.06 at 2:27 pm

I generally agree that the comments from the philosophers in the audience were less than enlightening. On the other hand, I think that was partly because of how Summers insisted on framing his questions. I don’t agree with Tom that he was interested in “the very specific issue” of how much weight we should give to our own citizens’ interests against that of others. (I’m sorry if my summary was misleading on this.) That was only one of several issues that he presented. Others included: how to weigh harms and benefits to known individuals against unknown individuals (anti-retroviral drugs versus condoms); many small benefits against few greater harms (see below); current benefits versus future harms (global warming, toward which he had a shockingly dismissive attitude). It was clear that even if he recognized some differences among these issues, he was looking for a general formula that would resolve them all. As Jo indicates, he was looking for a formula that could be an alternative to maximizing consequentialism.

Purportedly real-world cases are sometimes presented in ways that artificially narrow the range of options available. This may be one complaint that Jo was making. But there’s a different, though related criticism. Sometimes there is no general solution in the terms that a dilemma is presented. For example, Summers presented a case in which (basically – I don’t have notes on the precise details) we have to choose whether to adopt a policy that will result in 10,000 people becoming unemployed but 100 million saving 50 cents each. I just don’t think there is a general answer to these kinds of questions without specifying much more detail. I would want to know (among much else): What else is going on in the economy? How hard would it be for those 10,000 to find other work? Would they be geographically concentrated? Would they lose their health insurance? Are retraining programs available? What are the medium- to long-range prospects for their industry if the policy is not adopted? What would the likely results of the 50 cent savings be for the rest of the economy – greater tax revenues, higher savings, more demand in other areas? Answering these questions might open up different possibilities that were not previously considered. On the other hand, they might not. There really are hard choices that involve trade-offs that don’t go away. Still, the answers to these questions are relevant for determining how the trade-offs should be made in particular cases. There is no general formula to answer the questions in the terms they were originally presented.

I wouldn’t quite put the point as strongly as David does (#13). But there certainly were moments when that description seemed to fit. Specifically, Summers’s reference to the letter from Harvard faculty concerning antiretroviral medication. It really seemed that he was trying to settle old scores – it was just very out of place and he didn’t say enough about the case for it to be useful. (I don’t know the history of this letter, but there is obviously a lot of baggage.)

In reply to a question, Summers said that for many of the policy people in the Clinton White House (he was clear: not all), there was a self-conscious commitment to trying to figure out what was the right thing to do, and then see how much of that they could achieve politically. I must say, I more-or-less tend to believe him. But that made his reference to the faculty letter seem especially odd. Here was a constituency exerting pressure in the direction that they believed to be correct. He just seemed full of resentment toward the very idea that that they would have the gall to try to influence his decision. Like I said, there must be more going on here that I don’t understand.


harry b 05.19.06 at 2:33 pm

And then there is the Summers type where he depicts what he claims to be a real policy dilemma, but described as if the parameters and options are known with certainty. Here the response ‘can you really be sure things are like that?’ seems to me perfectly appropriate. In fact it seems to me that it is those who neglect to ask it who should get no marks.

But the answer has to be: “no, of course I can’t be sure, but that is how it seems to be after responsible reflection on the best evidence I have available to me in the limited time I ahve to make up my mind”. So, in the context of this conference of course that is an appropriate question to ask, but as a philosophical advisor to a policymaker one has to assume that the policymaker has a good grasp of the situation. Bad policymakers distinguish themselves, among other things, by not having a good grasp of the situation, but there is nothing in our training or expertise that equips us to process the relevant information, much of which cannot be made explicit in the timeframe available but depends on tacit knowledge developed through longterm and intensive engagement in the relevant policy environment.

I’m not defending Summers here, or criticising Jo whose presentation of what he did sounds fine (in what anyone would have found an annoying situation). But “can you be sure its like that?” doesn’t seem the right question.


Mathias Risse 05.19.06 at 5:37 pm

Just a couple of thoughts on some points made in this discussion.

1. To clarify Jo Wolff’s role in this: Originally, Summers could be scheduled only for an hour, and he accepted the invitation under the condition that he would not be expected to have a paper ready in advance. (He always speaks freely, without notes.) Jo bravely agreed to be his commentator on these terms, which implied in particular that his commentary would have to be quite short to allow time for disucssion. When Summers arrived, it turned out that, although he was 15 min late, he had more time than originally thought. So although his session was still shorter than the others,it was longer than expected. However, all Jo knew about that at the time was that Summers was 15 min late, so that from his standpoint this session would last only 45 min altogether. So it was good of Jo to stick to the original plan and keep it short, and negligent of me not to inform him that Summers could in fact stay longer. I simply didn’t think of doing that at that moment. Mea culpa.

2. On the subject of Summers’s “waltzing in:” Of course, he came because I invited him, not because he forced himself upon this event. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for that. How many people in functions like his engage with philosophers? The problem is that all too often people with actual real-life decision power (and it’s far from clear that his days in that category are over) often engage on value questions with so-called public intellectuals, or opiniated clergy and journalists, rather than philosophers. And to a large extent that is our (the philosophers’ fault) because we are not holding up our own in public debates about value questions. So unless we just want to cede these matters to those types, I think we need to cultivate exchanges with people like Larry Summers, but then also acknowledge that they have different intellectual backgrounds, and, well, personality features than the typical philosopher.


Mike Otsuka 05.19.06 at 6:20 pm

In reply to Jo’s #17 (1):

I think that, insofar as someone like Summers is making an argument about what is to be done in the real world, one ought to question all of the non-controversial assumptions of the argument. If any of the assumptions is factual, then one needs to see whether it corresponds to the way the world is. So I agree that one ought to have questioned Summers’s implicit assumption that one would be forced to make a tradeoff between prevention and treatment in the HIV case.

But here we’re not engaging in hypothetical reasoning.

When, by contrast, someone is engaged in hypothetical reasoning, I don’t think it’s appropriate to question the hypothetical assumptions regarding the facts, since the person raising the hypothetical isn’t claiming that the factual assumptions represent the way the world is.


harry b 05.19.06 at 6:43 pm

I guess I’m not sure that we (philosophers) should question all the factual assumptions, at least in many arenas where time is short and when we are talking to people who are more expert than we are on the factual questions, and less than we are on the matters of moral reasoning.

And to a large extent that is our (the philosophers’ fault) because we are not holding up our own in public debates about value questions. So unless we just want to cede these matters to those types, I think we need to cultivate exchanges with people like Larry Summers, but then also acknowledge that they have different intellectual backgrounds, and, well, personality features than the typical philosopher.

strongly agree with this, except for the bit about personality features…. certainly Summers seems to be at the far end of some spectrum, but many philosophers are closer to him than to, I don’t know, let’s say Alan Bennett, on that spectrum….


david 05.19.06 at 7:12 pm

To Harry’s point in 22 — what you say is right. I just assumed that when Jo said “‘can you really be sure things are like that?’ it was a polite version of “you are being too clever and your hypothetical is full of useless parameters.” When I read about the Harvard letter, I thought, that sounds like a bad policymaker. Tone, and artificial parameters in the hypothetical drawn from a real case, can make it reasonable for a “philosophical advisor” to doubt that “the policymaker has a good grasp of the situation.”


Mike Otsuka 05.20.06 at 3:25 am


(1) I think it would be a disaster if one’s reasoning about what to do in the real world consisted of nothing but reflection on hypothetical cases of the sort that philosophers construct. For one thing, such reflection wouldn’t reveal the crucial facts of one’s situation — including such things as the motives and likely behavior of others. But there come points where reflection on such cases can be illuminating. Suppose, for example, that you conclude that you’d be willing to do x but would not be willing to go so far as to do y in this situation. Then you ask yourself whether the line you’ve drawn between x and y is defensible and conclude that it is for such and such reason. Reflection on hypothetical cases might be useful in revealing whether this reason is sound.

(2) I could see myself giving high marks to an exam question on the trolley problem in which the student made a good case that such hypothetical cases are problematic.


Jo Wolff 05.20.06 at 3:28 am

Sorry to leave people speculating about what I meant: brevity is a virtue but not the only one.

In one of Summers’ examples some medium size number of US textile workers were going to be affected in such a way that they would lose 20% of their wages, and so could not afford their spring vacation. This was to be balanced against slightly cheaper clothes for some very much larger number of Americans and a hugely improved life for some number of textile workers abroad. The example was set up so that these were the only effects of then policy; it was a one-off so that it was not part of a larger set of policies which might have cumulative effects; and that no redistribution of the surplus to compensate the losers was possible.

If we observe the distinction I made in 17 we can either treat this as a hypothetical example to test our intuitions about preferences for our fellow citizens against those in developing nations, or as a real-policy maker’s dilemma.

To be fair to Summers he was probably using it as a philosophers’ example, challenging us to state our principles – and then we do need to have something to say. And, actually, for myself when thinking about the strength of our obligations to those in other nations I would accept a prioritarian view, but modified by something like Jake’s principle – it is about three fourths us and one fourth them! In Summers’ case the significant benefits to those much worse off than ourselves (pretending for a moment I’m a U.S. citizen) justify our smaller sacrifice. But don’t ask me for a chain of argument leading to this conclusion.

However, when we treat this as a policy decision we are surely entitled to be sceptical in two ways: first, that we can know exactly what the effects of the policy are, and, second, that we know what the options are. On the menu of options issue, some Amy-like subversion may be helpful. On the effects of policy issue I may differ from Harry in one respect here, although I am not sure. Harry appears to suggest that we should accept best evidence as if we knew it to be true, and act on that basis. I am much more inclined towards a ‘failsafe’ approach to decision making: what bad effects would we be creating if these assumptions were false?

This is partly based on scepticism about the likely truth of these projections. For example, I argued against the introduction of a minimum wage in the UK because I was convinced by every economist I spoke to who said it would increase unemployment among the poorly paid. But when it came in it appeared to have no effect on unemployment at all.

To take the HIV/AIDS example, part of the dilemma was that ‘our best social science’ tells us that if we distribute condoms at truck stops we would save 100,000 lives. My first thought on hearing this is that I had no idea that truck stops were such an important part of African life. But anyway, having learnt that much, you have to ask whether African truck drivers are having unprotected sex through lack of condoms, or for some other reason; whether availably of condoms would make a significant difference to the ratio of protected and unprotected sex, and so on.

Again the example can be taken in two ways. It could have been intended as a hypothetical dilemma to bring out questions underlying what to do when reducing risk to a large number of people comes into conflict with giving benefits to known people, in circumstances where the expected utility calculation massively favours reducing risk. This, I think is a really interesting question, and, in fact, related to issues I have been chipping away at for a couple of years. Or it could be taken as a policy-makers dilemma, where the uncertainties of the situtation crowd in on you, and may tend to push you towards a mixed-strategy (including scrambling for more money) in the hope of at least doing some good somewhere.


Helen, school teacher 05.21.06 at 8:06 am

I think that to keep pace with the contemporary world of globalization it is of high importance to lt puples see different cultures with their own eyes. I’d vote for summer holidays school exchanges with other countries’ puples be a must.


Thom Brooks 05.22.06 at 12:56 pm

I have quite enjoyed reading the exchanges with Jo.

In short, I take his point in 28 that Solum’s example can be understood in two perhaps contrasting ways (and Mike Otsuka’s pt in 27 that relying only on hypothetical examples is a worry). However, I simply don’t see the worry if Solum was only attempting to state a philosophical dilemma whereby our intuitions are tested and, as Jo says, we “state our principles,” so to speak.

While “real world” problems perhaps ought to be the main concern of political philosophers, hypothetical examples are quite valuable. Often these examples best help us understand why it is that we hold the views we have.


adamh 05.22.06 at 4:28 pm

It’s true, as Jo Wolff says above, that the replies to Summers’ (well articulated) questions were less than spectacular. But presumably this isn’t just because the questions are hard, as Jo says, but also because the global justice literature is still in its infancy. Suppose Summers had asked about some trolley case. There wouldn’t have been unanimity, but the philosophers would’ve had something much more substantial to say. So, good job Mathias on organizing a conference about these little understood issues!

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