Justice, ethos, and parliamentary expenses

by Chris Bertram on May 10, 2009

A brief note on “the crisis”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/ that is currently shaking public confidence in the British government and its MPs: some MPs are making the point that they merely did what they were entitled to under the rules. Much of the public reaction to their behaviour is predicated on the view that, whatever the rules said, strictly speaking, they acted unjustly in milking the public purse for private advantage. An interesting echo, there, of Jerry Cohen’s view that justice should not just govern institutional design, but also private attitudes and actions. Thomas Nagel observed,

bq. it is difficult to combine, in a morally coherent outlook, the attitude toward inequalities due to talent which generates support for an egalitarian system with the attitude toward the employment of their own talent appropriate for individuals operating within it. The first attitude is that such inequalities are unfair and morally suspect, whereas the second attitude is that one is entitled to try to get as much out of the system as one can. [_Equality and Partiality_, p. 117]

Nagel, thinks (on broadly Rawlsian lines) that the “personal perspective” is entirely defensible and that the difficulty can be overcome. The British electorate may take a different view.