We aren’t up to Part II of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality, but I’m going to jump the gun. There’s this bit about something from Amartya Sen – ‘his celebrated Prude/Lewd example’ – which I had never heard tell of. I’ll quote Cohen’s narration of the case:
There exists a pornographic book that might be read by one or other, or neither (but not both), of Prude and Lewd.
Let’s pause to admire that sentence. I think that is a great first sentence for a novel, or at least a Donald Barthelme story. (But I’m getting ahead of the story.)
Lewd has two relevant desires: he likes to read pornographic books, and he would like Prude to read one, because he thinks doing so would corrupt Prude into liking pornography. So strong is that desire that Lewd would prefer Prude to read the book, rather than read it himself; his desire to corrupt exceeds his desire to enjoy his own corruption. For his part, Prude dislikes reading pornographic books, and he also dislikes Lewd reading them; he wants no one to read them, but he prefers reading the book himself to Lewd reading it: that way, he thinks, less danger lies. In light of the strengths of their preferences, Prude and Lewd agree that Prude (alone) will read the book. That is their joint first preference, and so it is required by the Pareto principle. Sen claims that the principle thereby endorses an illiberal result. (p. 187)
You can find the original Sen paper, “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal”, in Rationality in Action: Contemporary Approaches [amazon – with some search inside]. I have only skimmed it, and my quick but distinct impression is that Cohen slightly mis-states the set-up. It isn’t that the book can mysteriously only be read by one or the other (and then it self-destructs?) Rather, Prude will only read it on the condition that only he read it.
Also, it seems that Sen’s argument is really bad. Cohen says it is bad, and others have said so, I gather. But it seems really bad. Basically, Sen seems to be taking ‘liberalism’ to mean, roughly, ‘an attempt to produce a bunch of Millian poster children’. Because otherwise there isn’t even any appearance of ‘impossibility’. The oddball Pareto optimal result is perfectly consistent with liberalism: everyone enjoying their freedoms to choose and make contracts and so forth. It’s just that this pair of prize idiots are going nowhere fast, but in Pareto optimal style.
But what really impresses me is the story itself. It’s timeless and speaks to all ages and sexes and classes of society. Why has no one developed it? I want Lewd vs. Prude comics. In each installment, Lewd acquires a new pornographic novel and, with child-like enthusiasm, attempts to get Prude to read it. Meanwhile, Prude is busy trying to destroy it – burn it, dynamite it, bury it, sink it beneath the waves, send it by post to Australia. But the efforts on both sides invariably cancel out. In the final panel, Prude sits down to read. Again.
We could have “Lewd and Prude on Holiday”, “Lewd and Prude Go Ballooning”, “Lewd and Prude at Baffin Bay”, “Lewd and Prude in the Big City”, “Lewd and Prude at Sea”, “Lewd and Prude and the Doctor’s Orders”, “Lewd and Prude at the Opera”. (I think comics would be best, but mere prose may, just may, be a match for such high occasions.)
It will be much better than “Spy vs. Spy”, because Lewd and Prude obviously have a somewhat dysfunctional, asymmetric-yet-mutual love. It’s like “Krazy Kat”, with a pornographic novel playing the role of the thrown brick. And yet: this brick will have subtly different moral properties! Will there be some sort of Offica Pup figure? Perhaps a pained, Millian liberal who can see it is all going nowhere very impressive. But this will be Offica Pup without a jail, because – strictly – there is no inconsistency with liberalism. (How sublime!)
Get to work in comments! Bonus points for involving Lewd and Prude in some sort of trolley car problem in which a pornographic novel and a vicar are tied to one track, and …
In conclusion: I am very sorry to jump the gun on discussion of Part II of Cohen’s book, in this way, but something tells me this post might end up being something of a tangent. Also, my copy has been recalled to the library, and I’m not sure I am going to spring for the hardback right away, so I may soon be in the same boat with dsquared. But I’m trying to get my reading done early in preparation.