Monday, April 28, 2014

Cage Match: Hume vs Aristotle in the Arena of Justice

Much of what we write about here at EE is underpinned by a tacit appeal to an ordinary sense of justice. Justice is the virtue offended when exchange veers from the confines of the euvoluntary world, and justice is the grand dame who hangs her head in despair when men seek improper dominion over their fellows. Justice is also the chief among the so-called pagan virtues, which helps explain why several intellectual traditions yearn to lay claim to its definition. I assure you that if you have a tough time trying to reconcile notions of divine justice and social justice, you are not alone. There's justice in thought, justice in deed, justice in outcome, justice as fairness... it's all quite Procrustean. And as with such things, the confusion and general disorder found in the wider society has a pedigree in the academy.

Consider this case (h/t T. Gill). The short version is that a guy in Nevada is riled up because the NFL and Ticketmaster won't sell Hawks tickets in the Silver State. There's an injustice in public funds going towards stadium construction, when the public at large is restricted from enjoying the spoils of the project. Without arguing the specific merits of the "lawsuit", or even the economics of the complaint, let's instead visit a brief conversation I overheard while in a bar in earshot of Aristotle and David Hume.

Aritstotle: Not that I'm a fan of the Seahawks or anything, but you'd figure that if the NFL had a passing familiarity with justice, they'd make their tickets available to any customer, not just the ones in the Pacific Northwest.

Hume: "Passing" familiarity, eh Ari? Cute. I'm not sure I understand your objection though. It's not like Ticketmaster and the NFL are gaining at the expense (your words, my friend [N.E. V.2]) of this dude in Nevada.

Aristotle: Oh, so you've read me then? Great. Then you surely read the very next passage dealing with proportionality. Justice is just insofar as it is proportional. I don't argue that playground fairness has to rule, that in an exchange both parties must in all times, places, and circumstances distribute the gains from exchange even-steven 50-50 equal, but rather something more like the old barnyard aphorism that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. The just is a species of the proportionate. There's nothing inherent to Nevada residency that warrants exclusion here.

Hume: Well, I'll readily admit that you do avoid the traps of relying on vulgar, peripatetic philosophies of justice, but I still think you're missing something important.

Aristotle: Oh? What's that?

Hume: The artifice of it.

Aristotle: Go on.

Hume: Remember what I wrote in my Treatise? Property arises from sense and sentiment. It is a product of enterprise, and any sense of justice so enjoyed is found in the relations between human minds. This distraught guy in Nevada has entirely misapprehended the nature of the offer if he thinks these organizations owe him consideration.

Aristotle: I'm with you to some extent. We're discussing the nature of voluntary acts, and in that regard, we needn't split hairs about restoring to this guy something that was taken from him. I urge you to review my third question in Book V: "whether it is the man who has assigned to another more than his share that acts unjustly."

Hume: Well, it so happens that I have my copy handy, so while I'm dong that, why don't you review what I noted in Part II, Section VI about the shimmering, insensate border between justice and injustice?

At this point in the conversation, Where Is My Mind by The Pixies came on the jukebox, and their murmurs got drowned out. Which I think was okay since they were mostly reading anyway. Here, enjoy:

Hume: "It is plain too that the distributor acts unjustly, but not always the man who has the excessive share; for it is not he to whom what is unjust appertains that acts unjustly, but he to whom it appertains to do the unjust act voluntarily, i.e. the person in whom lies the origin of the action, and this lies in the distributor, not in the receiver... he who gets an excessive share does not act unjustly, though he 'does' what is unjust."

Aristotle: "If we consider the ordinary course of human actions, we shall find, that the mind restrains not itself by any general and universal rules; but acts on most occasions as it is determined by its present motives and inclination. As each action is a particular individual event, it must proceed from particular principles, and from our immediate situation within ourselves, and with respect to the rest of the universe. If on some occasions we extend our motives beyond those very circumstances, which gave rise to them, and form something like general rules for our conduct, it is easy to observe, that these rules are not perfectly inflexible, but allow of many exceptions."

Hume: So you're saying that we should judge the NFL and Ticketmaster by their willingness to transact, but not so much simply by their large stores of wealth. That Piketty guy might disagree with you.

Aristotle: And you're saying that we're not especially well suited to judge the merits of this case from afar, since Justice, like other artifice, is subject to deliberative change. I think that Piketty guy might disagree with you, too.

After that, they paid their tab and left, so I missed whatever else they mentioned. But I did have a few lingering questions. Once something exists, is it reasonable to treat it as an endowment? The Roman god Janus had two faces, one looking forward, one looking back. Did each of his faces understand Justice in the same regard? It is plainly unjust in both an Aristotelian and a Humean sense to throttle innovation in the cradle, but shouldn't our sense of justice feel offended at blatant disproportionality in exchange, even if the natural alternative is no exchange whatsoever? Asking in EE terms: if there is no desperation in BATNA, is there justice in barring (ex ante!) disproportional trade under conditions of BATNA disparity? And if so, would this NFL case fit the bill? And is there a Coasean solution that doesn't rely on an embarrassing lawsuit?

Mama always said monopoly rents are like a box of chocolates.

1 comment:

  1. Nice. "Where Is My Mind" was on the mixtape my ancient philosophy prof circulated for finals.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?