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Perfect is the enemy of good
August 21, 2009 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Take three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because it is the fruit of her own labour. How do we decide between these three legitimate claims?

This is the point of departure for Nobel Prize-winning Amartya Sen's new book The Idea of Justice ("his most ambitious work to date") in which he seeks to create in practically-minded way a political philosophy that aims to reduce injustice in the world rather than to postulate what constitutes the perfect, just society which is unachievable. And thus taking a swipe at Rawls, as the Economist put it.

Lecture by Sen at the LSE (video).
posted by lucia__is__dada (193 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
There in a nutshell are the problems of humanity.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2009


Kill the children and keep the flute for yourself? Isn't that how this is usually resolved?
posted by roue at 6:59 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


Carla should lease the flute and a recording studio to Anne, who will need to hire Bob to run the mixing board.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:00 AM on August 21, 2009 [36 favorites]


Send 'em to band camp.
posted by autodidact at 7:01 AM on August 21, 2009


It seems strangely important that there's one inanimate object and two female humans in this conundrum.
posted by cillit bang at 7:03 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Seriously? Carla should labor more and produce two more flutes, one for Anne and one for Bob. Anne trades her flute-playing knowledge for a flute of her own, and Bob comes along for the ride, with the stipulation that he form the third member of the flute trio which will be playing at the Ren Faire this weekend, where the proceeds from busking will not only help cover paying Carla for the cost of the other two flutes, but will help Anne and Bob and Carla all pool their resources to buy dinner that evening.

The end result is: three individuals who have equipment and skills and experience in cooperative creation who have basic needs met and who can go on to create artistic value in the world from this day forward.
posted by hippybear at 7:05 AM on August 21, 2009 [44 favorites]


One of his ­earliest and most famous claims was that famines do not occur in properly functioning democracies with a free press, because the pressure of public opinion forces the fairer distribution of food.

As a corollary, if there is a famine then you don't have a properly functioning democracy with a free press. Now generalize "famine" to include other necessities of life, such as healthcare.
posted by DU at 7:05 AM on August 21, 2009 [21 favorites]


Smash the flute before it's too late.
posted by swift at 7:07 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wasn't able to find the concept of sharing the flute anywhere in that story.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:07 AM on August 21, 2009 [21 favorites]


I would break the flute into three equal pieces.

And then I would laugh at the tears of the children while I brought the fox and the bag of corn across the river.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:08 AM on August 21, 2009 [67 favorites]


Suggest that the flute be cut into thirds and each child get a piece. Whichever child would rather give up their piece than see the instrument destroyed is obviously its rightful owner.

(unless more than one child does that, in which case the Bible has nothing to teach us about this problem)
posted by Riki tiki at 7:09 AM on August 21, 2009 [19 favorites]


Damn you Alvy!
posted by Riki tiki at 7:10 AM on August 21, 2009


This problem will be solved on the day when we have cleansed the universe of the game theorists and carved their bones into little flutes for the children.
posted by adipocere at 7:11 AM on August 21, 2009 [45 favorites]


Carla should keep the flute she made. But if Carla is a truly rational agent, she will realise that the will of Bob and Anne can not be crushed indefinately, and Bob will overthrow her ownership of the flute in glorious, bloody revolution, formulated by Glorious Leader Anne. It is in Carla's self-interest to give up the occasional flute and ensure that there is a good minimum level of flute-ownership among the lowest desks of society's orchestra.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:12 AM on August 21, 2009 [13 favorites]


"Bob, the poorest, will have the immediate support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian hedonist will bicker a bit but will eventually settle for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument."

That's an interesting take, and I realize the flute and the kids are metaphorical, but it strikes me as ultimately too simplistic. I'm pretty egalitarian as such things go, but what the hell does Bob need a flute for? It doesn't reduce his poverty to give him a musical instrument as a toy -- that's a societal problem to be addressed by means other than dispute over an instrument. I'd characterize myself as a hedonist and fairly utilitarian, but I don't see how Anne gains rights over an object by virtue of her education. Education is great, but it does not confer nobility. I'm not that libertarian in outlook, but that pretty much leaves Carla to decide arbitrarily how she wants to distribute her stuff.

I think any examination of justice from the perspective of philosophy is mostly doomed to get bogged down by these sorts of details. Justice isn't something that comes from political ideology. It comes from careful evaluation of each and every situation for which just decision-making is needed, uniquely and without the preconceptions and biases inherent in political ideologies.

To put it back in the context of the thought experiment: The just distribution of the flute requires meeting each child, hearing their case, and examining the events that led to the dispute over it. The just distribution of the flute doesn't get automatically decided because I've personally declared a jihad against poverty.
posted by majick at 7:12 AM on August 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


I believe it is traditional for this matter to be settled by trial by combat. The one who wins is clearly the one who wanted it the most.

(According to Wikipedia:

The United States inherited its common law traditions from the English system when it declared its independence in 1776, with precedents before that date entrenched in the American jurisprudence, as the Rule In Shelley's Case in property law has. The British, however, did not abolish wager by battle until 1818 in Ashford v. Thornton, as noted above, and since independence, no court in the United States has addressed the issue of whether this remains a valid alternative to a civil action under the law. In Forgotten Trial Techniques: The Wager of Battle by Donald J Evans published in the ABA Journal 71:66 (May 1985) - the possibility of a trial by battle was set out in a parody of hard-boiled pulp fiction author Raymond Chandler but set in a lawyer's office.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:14 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I kept expecting a strange ironic twist near the end of this story, like the flute was really a train to Auschwitz or something.
posted by Spatch at 7:20 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


Carla definitely needs to seize the flute by force, killing Anne in the process, and take ownership of the means of production. Only by this method can Bob become liberated.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:21 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hmmm -- Bob is expected to be given a flute because he is poor -- if you give it to him, you are rewarding his victim-mentality, particularly since he is expecting to give without giving something in return. So to give it to Bob would be a grave injustice.

Anne expects the flute to be hers by the mere fact she can play it -- so she has a sense of entitlement -- she does not offer anything in return -- and she shows no gratitude -- she doesn't care where the flute came from, so long as it winds up in her hot little hands. To give it to her would give a false sense of expectation -- it is not enough to be able to have skill -- if she is taking something she does not own, you are rewarding her arrogance, setting her up for disappointment later on.

Carla is the only one who has legitimate ownership -- she was willing to work and earn the flute -- to take it away from her is to punish her for her willingness to invest in the flute by her own labors -- she had no expectation of special treatment. To take it away from her is to teach her that people who do the most deserve the least.

We have injustices because we appeal to special cases -- Bob is using the poverty card, Anne the entitlement card -- both Anne and Bob have the means to earn the flute -- and if toys really mean something to Bob, he can rake leaves for his neighbors until he saves up or he can make his own toys from material he does have and sell it to other kids. Anne can make a deal with Carla to swap something of hers of equal value that would be of use to Carla or offer something else to Carla in exchange for the flute.

And if we put artificial roadblocks to prevent Anne and Bob from getting what they want and need -- we need to tackle that directly -- not by punishing Carla or expecting her to be victimized with state-sanctioned theft to try to right society's wrongs...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:21 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


The answer is to shoot the hostage.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:22 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


flute 'em all and let god flute 'em out
posted by Greg Nog at 7:22 AM on August 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


Well, like the good little undergrad I am, I actually starting reading Rawls just today.

The practical brunt of Mr Sen’s criticism, however, is that just institutions do not ensure social justice. You can, in addition, recognise social injustices without knowing how a perfectly fair society would arrange or justify itself.

Obviously not having read either book fully, there are still a couple of points to be made:

1) Justice is how you define it, and "just institutions" may well deliver social justice according to one person's conception of justice, but not to another's.

2) The main jist of Rawls' book is that social contract theories allow us to imagine individuals outside of society who only engage in a society with one another if they all agree on what is just. Hence these individuals will attempt to define justice to be completely fair as they are not yet aware of their place - and so benefits derived from that place - in society.

3) Saying that we can recognize social injustices without knowing about a perfectly fair society is surely a form of intuitionism. It's more or less what we do everyday in our societies when we realize that the way we order ourselves doesn't quite generate the results we want.

(Oh, and Plato would say that flutes should be banned anyway, unless the music was for edifying purposes are not to stir false emotions. He probably also would have banned stupidly simple examples concerning children, flutes, and Bentham/Marx/Nozick fightoffs.)
posted by Sova at 7:23 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


majick: "but what the hell does Bob need a flute for?"

What do Anne and Carla need a flute for? I know you're then "defaulting" to Carla as the one who made the flute but that's kind of the point of the article: you default that way because of your particular property-rights alignment, but there are reasonable cases to be made for alignments that give the flute to Anne or Bob.

To an extent our view is limited by being in an overwhelmingly capitalist society. Most of us have never seen an alternative where individual property rights don't exist or are a negligible priority. We're automatically going to gravitate to the "Carla made it, it's hers" approach. Whether that's because ours is actually the best system or whether it's just all we know is up for debate.
posted by Riki tiki at 7:24 AM on August 21, 2009 [12 favorites]


how did ian anderson end up with it?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:26 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


Carla can keep her physical flute, so long as Anne and Bob can bit-torrent a copy of FLUTE.MIF
posted by anthill at 7:27 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Take three kids and a flute one hundred flutes. Anne says the one flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the one flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers all one hundred flutes are hers because it is the fruit of her own labour.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 7:29 AM on August 21, 2009 [44 favorites]


Actually, I think the proper answer to the dilemma is to ask if Carla would individually benefit more from her ownership of the flute, or from Anne's ownership of the flute and being able to listen to nice music. Kinda similar to the idea that if I made a scalpel, but Gertrude wanted it as she was a trained surgeon and I wasn't, I would potentially benefit more in the long run if I gave it to her. The benefit to others apart from me or Carla is kinda irrelevent beyond how much of that benefit would ultimately come back to us, that is through society being happier or healthier or safer.
posted by Sova at 7:32 AM on August 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


I assumed that Carla was paid or otherwise compensated for her flute building labor, and therefore has no legitimate claim to the flute. If not, then the solution is trivial since the flute has always belonged to her.
Given that, none of the three have any right to the flute, and the most just solution is for the current owner to keep it and not give it to any of them.
posted by rocket88 at 7:35 AM on August 21, 2009


I haven't read the article yet, but my first reaction is that someone should tell Carla to sell the flute to Ann and then HIRE BOB TO MAKE FLUTES. Then someone should tell Anna to START A BUSINESS teaching Carla and Bob to play the flute.

Think of a way for everyone to win. Don't make Capitalist Baby Jesus cry.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:36 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Ok, so the flute is healthcare...
Anne is sick.
Bob has never had any and has no idea if he has anything wrong with him.
Carla can afford it.

Now, anyone that argued anything where Carla is the only one with rights to it, please re-evaluate your argument based on your recent posting history.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:37 AM on August 21, 2009 [14 favorites]


Most of us have never seen an alternative where individual property rights don't exist or are a negligible priority.

Hmm ... Soviet Union, North Korea, Somalia, various modern oligarchies ... no, no, I think most of us have seen a few, and we don't generally like how they turn out.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:40 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Carla will pass ownership of the flute to a musical instrument securitisation vehicle incorporated in the Cayman islands. She will then create FDOs (Flute Derivative Options), and bribe the rating agencies to rate them as AAA securities. Anne and Bob will both buy FDOs intending to benefit in the income being produced by the flute. When it is realised that the flute is actually producing no income at all, because no-one is playing it, Anne and Bob will be foreclosed on and Carla will receive a bail out from the Government's TFRP (Tainted Flute Recovery Programme). In two years' time, Carla will be made head of the Federal Reserve Orchestra.
posted by Electric Dragon at 7:41 AM on August 21, 2009 [28 favorites]


This is easy.

Clara can put a price tag on the flute. A fair price. Don't be a dick about it. Then Anne and Bob can pay her for it. Anne has more money. But maybe Clara chooses to go with Bob, because he's willing to do manual labor. The End.
posted by water bear at 7:43 AM on August 21, 2009


I think as long as we continue to justify who gets the flute, we're missing the point.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:43 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Alexandra Kitty: "if you give it to him, you are rewarding his victim-mentality" / "if [Anne] is taking something she does not own, you are rewarding her arrogance" / "We have injustices because we appeal to special cases" / "we need to tackle that directly -- not by punishing Carla or expecting her to be victimized with state-sanctioned theft to try to right society's wrongs"

Much like majick, you have a number of assumptions here that aren't necessarily founded on anything.

You assert that Bob has a "victim mentality", and yet Carla is simply "victimized" without it being a personality flaw. Who is the objective arbiter of what victimization is okay and what is simply a psychological complex?

You assert that Anne is taking something she does not own, and yet the very nature of the question ("which child should be given the flute") implies that she would own it. You're assuming that the base case is that it is Carla's and that we would have to take it from her to give it to either other child, but that is founded on a concept of individual property rights that is so predominant in the modern world that it seems to go without saying. However, this article is calling that concept into question and putting it in a framework of alternative theories, and the merits of those options need to be considered if only for the sake of argument.

Similarly, you assert that it is unjust to "appeal to special cases" but the point here is that the assumption that Carla automatically deserves the flute is as special a case as any of the others. It only seems to be the default because we're so used to things working that way, but if we'd been raised in a society where all property belongs to the Emperor, or where all property belongs to the community, we'd probably think differently. Not that we'd be any more "right", but our opinion would be just as subjective as it is now.
posted by Riki tiki at 7:44 AM on August 21, 2009 [13 favorites]


"It seems strangely important that there's one inanimate object and two female humans in this conundrum"

2 girls 1 flute?
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 7:46 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Rawls's approach, based on specific institutions that firmly anchor society, demand a single, explicit resolution to the principle of justice. Stalin had similar ideas.

Today kids, we're covering the associational ad homiem. Can you spot the fallacy in the text above?
posted by phrontist at 7:47 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


To an extent our view is limited by being in an overwhelmingly capitalist society. Most of us have never seen an alternative where individual property rights don't exist or are a negligible priority. We're automatically going to gravitate to the "Carla made it, it's hers" approach. Whether that's because ours is actually the best system or whether it's just all we know is up for debate.

Yeh, entirely. Probably the easiest example for people to understand is that as Carla is a child the flute is owned by her parents, or even that as Carla is female the flute is owned by her nearest male relative. Indeed, Christians among us might questions why she hasn't also made another flute and tithed it to her church. Perhaps further, the ancient Cretan would ask why she hasn't deposited the flute in Knossos for the wanakos to redistribute in the manner most satisfy to Demeter.

The capitalist economy is really just one out of many possible alternatives, many of which would still see Carla investing her labor into a good she knows she will have no ownership of.

Hmm ... Soviet Union, North Korea, Somalia, various modern oligarchies ...

Somalia has very strong property rights. There is no government presuming to own your goods in the form of tax, and you're perfectly free to extract justice from any individual who dares to take your shit. Indeed, in the state of nature, your property rights are equal to the labor you invest in them. If you're willing and able to defend your stuff, it's yours forever.
posted by Sova at 7:48 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


No one else can have it. The flute is mine.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:50 AM on August 21, 2009


Somalia has very strong property rights. There is no government...

Stop right there. No government = no property rights. If I can show up at your house with a big gun and take your shit, and you have no legal recourse to stop me, you have no rights. "Defend your stuff" doesn't count in a discussion about a just society.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:51 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the immediate support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian hedonist will bicker a bit but will eventually settle for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. While all three decisions are based on rational arguments and correct within their own perspective, they lead to totally different resolutions.

It's really easy to take an abstract problem like this and map some simple ideological choices into it, but in real life decisions like this seem to come down to much more universal and cynical choices.

Is Anne your sister? Then you give her the flute. Would giving the flute to Bob end up being a good photo op and take some of the heat off of your recent screwups? He gets it. Did Carla pay for your shiny new car in return for some kickbacks? Looks like she deserves the flute. And if giving the flute away doesn't get you anything in return, why not keep it for yourself?
posted by burnmp3s at 7:51 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow Rawls = Stalin?

Not this.

Rawls is not just authoritarian but also elitist and Eurocentric. Just as Mill had excluded "the backward nations", women and children from his Essay on Liberty, Rawls openly acknowledges that the world's poor have no place in his theory of justice. Indeed, the very "idea of global justice" is dismissed by Rawls and his cohorts as totally irrelevant. Moreover, the kind of "reasonable person" needed to produce a just society is found only in democratic, Western societies.

Or this

Sen is totally incomprehensible to me. Even his best work is horrible to read and full of confusing little stories which don't explain anything. I know graduate students are tortured yearly by discussing the relevance of the Paretian Liberal, Rational Fools, Sympathy vs. Commitment etc.

For what its worth this review is a terrible hatchet job on Rawls, who is not perfect by any means, but who is more and more nuanced the more you dig.
posted by munchbunch at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fling flute into flume. Flute floats? Foul, frightful fanfare! Flute fails? Fabulous!
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stop right there. No government = no property rights. If I can show up at your house with a big gun and take your shit, and you have no legal recourse to stop me, you have no rights. "Defend your stuff" doesn't count in a discussion about a just society.

To misquote Pauli, that's so obvious, it's not even right!

But then try arguing that with a libertarian...
posted by Sova at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


> Somalia has very strong property rights.

I don't think that's true. Would property rights not require a government (or at least a functioning court and enforcement system) capable of policing the property rights? If I can take your stuff simply because I've got a gun and you haven't, that doesn't imply strong property rights to me.
posted by Electric Dragon at 7:54 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jeez, it's like you people never had sisters. Bob can handle this.

*blasts Alouette repeatedly until dissenters are driven off, fingers in ears*
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:58 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


No matter what we try to do, the kid with the most power will end up with the flute (most of the time).
posted by orme at 7:59 AM on August 21, 2009


Cool Papa Bell: "Soviet Union, North Korea, Somalia, various modern oligarchies ... no, no, I think most of us have seen a few, and we don't generally like how they turn out."

Most of us have never seen those places. We can look at the raw data but we don't have an intellectual framework for how society works if you don't start from the assumption of individual property rights. You point to failed states, but certainly you have to acknowledge that there are any number of confounding variables that could make a perfectly legitimate system work poorly in any particular real case.

Again, I'm not saying that one or the other is better than capitalism, and neither is the article. The point is simply to recognize where we've perhaps made assumptions that are unfounded.

Personally, I'm pro-capitalist but with a lot of caveats for regulation, protection of the commons, and promotion of the general welfare. In the U.S. we call that a "liberal". Yes, that means sometimes I suggest we give the flute to Anne or Bob and yes I think that's unfair to Carla but I think doing so makes society as a whole fairer from Anne to, uh... Zebulon.
posted by Riki tiki at 8:03 AM on August 21, 2009


Wouldn't the best solution be the one that improved everyone's situation?

Ie. The flute is given to Anne, with the stipulation that she teaches Bob how to use it (provided he helps Carla make a second one?) and performs for Carla. This betters the circumstances of all three, maximizing the use of the flute.


Anne = No property claim, skill.
Carla = Property claim, no skill.
Bob = No property claim, no skill.

Anne and Carla benefit from their claims (Anne's skill increases through practice, Carla is entertained). Bob gains skill and perhaps some claim to a second flute.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 8:05 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh game theory, is there anything you can't abstract out to the point of utter meaninglessness?
posted by The Whelk at 8:09 AM on August 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


The main function of Rawls's theory of justice, it seems, is to maintain the status quo, where injustice is not just simply a part of the system, but the system itself. That's exactly why he is force-fed to students of social sciences.

What the hell?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:09 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The point is that none of them are inherently entitled to anything, right? What's true vis a vis who gets the flute should not be true every time. By which I mean to say: In this case, Carla should have the flute, because it's Carla's to do with as she pleases...and that's okay, because the stakes are essentially nil. Anne isn't poor, so while it would be nice if she had a flute and could play it for all of us, there's nothing stopping her from just buying a flute from someone who isn't Carla. There's no reason to believe Carla's is the greatest or only flute in the world. And it sucks to be a poor kid, but it doesn't so much suck to not have a flute as it does to not have anything to eat; giving away her flute will not help Carla solve Bob's real problems.

Now. Let's pretend that Carla is a doctor. She can see all sorts of patients -- should she choose to see them. Anne is dying, and has the money to pay Carla for her time and services. Bob...who is also dying...
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


No one else can have it. The flute is mine.

The drum is mine, you mean?
posted by effbot at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2009


"Whether that's because ours is actually the best system or whether it's just all we know is up for debate."

I get that I'm playing the straight man for your argument against cultural bias in concepts of justice and that's totally legitimate, but you're riding your perfectly valid hobby horse that I agree with in the first place at the cost of missing my point, to which I object somewhat: Trying to peg me -- as an individual -- as "ec egalitarian" or "libertarian" or "hedonist" and thereby assuming (as this article just did) my concepts of justice are derived therefrom is invalid. I'm a lot softer on property rights than most people in my culture, and a lot more egalitarian. Oversimplifying my positions (as this article just did) and making assumptions about what I consider to be justice (as this article just did) compounds the problem.

"Take three kids and a flute one hundred flutes"

Yeah, I want to live in a post-scarcity economy, too. Utopia is going to be awesome!
posted by majick at 8:12 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


How do we decide between these three legitimate claims?

The premise is wrong on two levels. First, two of the claims (those not by the creator) are not legitimate "claims". They are "wants", expressions of desire, which is not the same thing as a claim, which implies a property interest.

Second, the creator does not have a claim to the property, the creator owns the property. This a claim in the legal sense of the word, but its use in this argument is intended to lower the priority of her claim over the demands of the others.

The argument is flawed and confused, and it's purpose is have the reader arrive at precisely the conclusions we see in this thread - that the parties will fight over the flute and the one with the most power will get it. This is only the result where the rights are not allocated clearly ahead of time.

The laborer is entitled to the fruits of his labor before all others.
The poor are the legitimate object of charity. A moral good would be to have the flute given to the poor boy.
The performer is entitled only to enter into a contractual arrangement with the creator (i.e. owner) of the flute. Her only interest is in exploiting the output of the labor. This has no moral component, and an economic transfer is all that is warranted.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:14 AM on August 21, 2009 [11 favorites]


I am nonplussed by this because I feel like I am missing something obvious. If Carla made the flute then why are we proposing to take it away and give it to anyone else? Unless....where did Carla get the materials for making the flute? Did it come from the jointly-owned woods? Did she spend her time making the flute while Bob set the table and Anne cooked the dinner? Could she not teach the other children to make flutes if they want them so badly? If you take away her flute what do you teach her? That it is better to just sit around with her thumb in her mouth then to expend any effort because that will end with the same result. However, taking away her entire inventory (one flute) should NOT be equated with paying taxes.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:16 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


iamkimiam: "I think as long as we continue to justify who gets the flute, we're missing the point."

There Is No Flute?

Does the flute have Buddha-nature?

Mu?
posted by PontifexPrimus at 8:19 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whoever is first to fill out their 27B-6 gets it.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:20 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


What kind of flute are we talking about, anyway? If Carla's related to the Brannen Brothers and she made that thing out of rose gold, she should sell it. She could buy three new student Gemeinhardts and still have plenty of profit left over to roll around in. Everyone wins!
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:22 AM on August 21, 2009


I was lucky enough to meet Amartya Sen in 2002 or 2003 at a tiny, tiny luncheon sponsored by my college at UCSC. How we managed to get even a fraction of his time is a mystery to me; we had only been open for a few years and may not have even had more than 100 graduates, let alone wealthy alumni sponsors.

He graciously answered a raft of queries from wide-eyed undergrads like me after giving a brief talk on his views about, I believe, microlending and other developing-world economic trends, and seemed, unlike many other bloviating academic types with books to push, both humble and interested in what we had to say.

I've been a fan ever since - to win a Nobel Prize but still be happy to earnestly answer questions from members of the public who are only barely familiar with your work and your field of academia as a whole takes the kind of person who is eager to put his or her ideas before his or her personal fame.
posted by mdonley at 8:31 AM on August 21, 2009


The explanation of Somalia's lack of property rights is spot on. That inquiry leads us much further than one asserting that the stateless scenario offers unlimited property rights (directly proportional to the energy one invests in exerting those property rights).

I'm sympathetic to Sen's (regularly espoused) view that Need itself is or should be an enforceable right, but let's not harbor any illusions that it's pretty revolutionary to suggest such a thing. We do it all the time, to be sure. But it isn't our default position on a vast majority of socioeconomic issues - at least in the US.

Yeah, I want to live in a post-scarcity economy, too.

I think this statement comes closer to identifying what Sen is really talking about here. Some of us believe that we DO live in a post-scarcity world, or at least that there is enough bounty out there for most people to live comfortably and not live in dire circumstances. (Whether that would be prudent or the advisability of such draconian measures is another thing entirely.)

Also Metroid Baby - Anne really needs a Haynes or a Powell if she's going to go anywhere. Though, I've seen lovely Yamahas.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:32 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


majick: "you're riding your perfectly valid hobby horse that I agree with in the first place at the cost of missing my point, to which I object somewhat: Trying to peg me -- as an individual -- as "ec egalitarian" or "libertarian" or "hedonist" and thereby assuming (as this article just did) my concepts of justice are derived therefrom is invalid."

I don't know you and wasn't trying to peg you as one thing or another, so sorry if it came off that way. I'm only going on what you said, where you did indeed make assumptions that I don't disagree with but I think are not necessarily logically sound.
posted by Riki tiki at 8:33 AM on August 21, 2009


What kind of flute are we talking about, anyway? If Carla's related to the Brannen Brothers and she made that thing out of rose gold, she should sell it. She could buy three new student Gemeinhardts and still have plenty of profit left over to roll around in.

On the other hand...
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2009


He's distracted everyone from his real points with a stupid thought experiment, clever.

So, as I've now been distracted, I think, following Rawls, that in the flute scenario we should imagine ourselves in a position where none of us know our position in society. I could be a skilled flute maker, a skilled flute player (sans flute), or an unskilled layabout. How would I like to structure society such that I can insure against being the unskilled layabout?

Hmm, I would aim to establish a society whereby the aim was to improve everyone's lot in life. Carla teaches Bob and Anne to make flutes; Anne teaches Bob and Carla how to play the flute; and Bob teaches Anne and Carla what it is like to have lived in a society where he was deemed worthless by no fault of his own. Thus, we end up in a situation whereby all three can make and play flutes, and none have a superiority complex.
posted by knapah at 8:35 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I want to live in a post-scarcity economy, too. Utopia is going to be awesome!

If there's really only one flute, and there's only going to be one flute, then any analogy to redistribution of wealth/resources is just silly.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 8:37 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


And how did Carla gain the resources from which to make the flute? Did she steal them from the commons? Where's her theory of appropriation? Hmm?!
posted by knapah at 8:37 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Please note: "(as this article just did)"

My original comments are entirely and wholly in reference to what I had read, I accuse you of nothing (beyond missing my point and holding me up as an arbitrary example to make your own). I'm going to step out now before this turns into a pointless derail and let the more fertile discussion proceed. Thanks for making the points you've made, because I agree with them in principle even if I don't agree with the manner in which you did so.
posted by majick at 8:39 AM on August 21, 2009


Various posters: Carla is the only one who has legitimate ownership -- she was willing to work and earn the flute -- to take it away from her is to punish her for her willingness to invest in the flute by her own labors -- she had no expectation of special treatment. To take it away from her is to teach her that people who do the most deserve the least.

I am nonplussed by this because I feel like I am missing something obvious. If Carla made the flute then why are we proposing to take it away and give it to anyone else?

The laborer is entitled to the fruits of his labor before all others.


Why do you believe that Carla's willingness to work to make the flute (or to earn the money to buy it) gives her a special claim to it? Her ability to work, and her ability to apply herself with effort to a work task in order to obtain or create the flute, Rawls would say (I think), are gifts of birth and/or upbringing (and having good parents who bring you up well is a gift of birth). What is the rationale for denying the flute to someone who was not fortunate enough to be given that gift?

Unless you're just a straightforward libertarian who believes the way that things (the capacity for effort, money, etc) are distributed now is automatically the best way. This is silly, but libertarianism is silly, so I guess that's only appropriate.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:39 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


A lot of people are assuming things that aren't really part of the question, like the idea that Bob will be able to work to buy his own flute or Anne can teach Carla how to play or whatnot. The point of the exercise is that you're supposed to figure out how you would apportion a scarce resource among...

[printer beeping]

"PC Load Letter"? What the fuck does that mean?
posted by Riki tiki at 8:40 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why doesn't Carla trade a flute to Anna for fluting lessons. Then she puts her out of business by supplying flutes and lessons. She then hires Bob and Anna as menial labour. Revolution ensures, Carla is killed, and Anna and Bob are left without practical skills, they resort to cannibalism, Bob eats Anna and then dies a sad, broken man.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:46 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The laborer is entitled to the fruits of his labor before all others.

That is axiomatic to most of us. Sen's point seems to be that we should question that axiom.

I'm not sure he understands that for a lot of people, that's equivalent to saying "Most of us think slavery is wrong, but let's step back and question that assumption."

I think the example might be more interesting if the maker of the flute had died and Carla was in a position to inherit the flute. There might be more people willing to question's society's duty to obey the wishes of the dead than there are who are willing to question the idea that what I make is mine.
posted by straight at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


If it's one of those Pan flutes that Zamfir played, can't they break it up into several separate pipes and make tootily Irish-tin-whistle-type instruments out of them? Then everyone can share in the (admittedly diminished) music.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2009


Stupid Carla. Making flutes instead of pointy sticks.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2009


The explanation of Somalia's lack of property rights is spot on. That inquiry leads us much further than one asserting that the stateless scenario offers unlimited property rights (directly proportional to the energy one invests in exerting those property rights).

Just liking to point out that my exposition on Somalia was a deliberate piss-take of libertarians, and not my own personal philosophy. I find libertarianism disturbing, and libertarians themselves philosophically illiterate. Most social contract theorists deal with state of nature scenarios, and cogently explain why societies are formed. It's as though the "my stuff, mine!" instinct in libertarians overrides their reasonability.

posted by Sova at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2009


The argument is flawed and confused, and it's purpose is have the reader arrive at precisely the conclusions we see in this thread - that the parties will fight over the flute and the one with the most power will get it. This is only the result where the rights are not allocated clearly ahead of time.

I'm not familiar with Sen's work, but this can hardly be the point of the argument. His argument certainly won't be that no-one has rights and people just fight all the time. The scenario is not an argument at all, yet, it's just a framework for talking about how to justly allocate rights.

You say that Anna and Bob's claims are just wants, and Carla's a legitimate claim. Well, then that's your answer to the question; it doesn't refute the question. There are two other obvious answers, and I can only assume that Sen does something to motivate the other two positions, so as to create an actual dilemma. But still, if you think only Carla's claim is legitimate, that's an expression of your values and not the only logically possible valuation. In our legal system, Carla seems to have the only legitimate claim, but that hardly settles the question of what system of distribution is truly legitimate, or truly just.
posted by creasy boy at 8:54 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think the example might be more interesting if the maker of the flute had died and Carla was in a position to inherit the flute. There might be more people willing to question's society's duty to obey the wishes of the dead than there are who are willing to question the idea that what I make is mine.

Interesting comment, but I disagree: this would make the example less interesting. As it is, the thought experiment is well constructed to bring out the hidden assumptions in our personal theories of justice. If you believe that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor, that's fine; what's not fine is presenting this fact as obviously, self-evidently true, because it isn't.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:56 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


guys, you've got it all wrong.

1. all property is theft. whoever gets the flute has stolen it.
2. altruism is evil. for carla to give it to anyone else would be wrong.
3. big gummint is evil. for anyone else to oversee the dispute would be wrong.
4. DEATH PANELS!!!! HITLER! LET THE MARKET DECIDE!

so there you go.
posted by shmegegge at 9:02 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've thought about it more and it's actually quite interesting. Sen puts aside our legal system; he doesn't say anything at all about who owns the flute. He says Carla made the flute, but factory workers make all kinds of things they don't own. There's an obvious plausibility to the idea that you should own what you make, but this is actually not recognized by our capitalist legal system. Many find capitalism unjust for this reason. He says Bob is the poorest. There's an obvious plausibility to the idea that justice demands we distribute goods more evenly, giving to those who have the least. But in this case, Bob has nothing to do with the flute, so why give it to him? Anna is the only one who can play the flute, so giving it to her seems the most practical; a vaguely utilitarian position would favor her claim. Three large conceptions of justice confront each other here, and it's set up so as to avoid a purely legal solution; you can only think about it normatively rather than legally. Of course your answer could then become the basis of a legal system, but our system doesn't actually decide this case.
posted by creasy boy at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


For what its worth this review is a terrible hatchet job on Rawls, who is not perfect by any means, but who is more and more nuanced the more you dig.

For what it's worth, I'd never heard of Rawls until this morning. I must be some kind of dirty artist. Nuanced he may be but, if the end result of the application of his idealistic approach to the "perfect, just society" is a perpetuation of the ongoing destabilizing injustice and inequality that we see in pretty much every society that has taken his ideas to heart, then fuck the nuance, his is a deeply flawed vision.

As for the flute, the kids should share it.
posted by philip-random at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2009


Why do I have the flute? Why am I in possession of it? How did I get it from Carla?

That's what i don't understand. How did I gain possession of her creation?

Also, giving it to Bob won't do anything as it's a freaking flute. Anna can play the flute but so what? Does that mean she already has a flute? And somebody must've given her a flute to learn how to play it so if Carla has the flute she can learn how to play it too. But why does the flute need to be given out anyways?
posted by I-baLL at 9:10 AM on August 21, 2009


You know one thing that never should have happened, ever?












Jazz flute.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:14 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"What's right" has nothing to do with it; it's actually a problem of power and expediency.

Anne and Bob should hire lobbyists to donate to the re-election campaigns of senators and representatives to pass legislation to confiscate the flute from Carla and split it between Anne and Bob.

And that, my friends, is how we do "justice" in the USA.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait wait wait everyone saying the flute belongs to Carla because she made it:

Capitalist societies do not base ownership on manufacture. Common law says it belongs to whoever owned the means of production.
posted by idiopath at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


That's what i don't understand. How did I gain possession of her creation?

You are Society, figuring out how best to distribute resources. Taxes are one way that every society gains possession of the fruit of people's labors, though there are others.

This and about 60% of the comments in this thread (I know lots of them are jokes) seem not quite to get the idea of a thought experiment. The situation at the start of the thought experiment is what it is. Now, what are you going to do about it?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


GET A JOB, HIPPIES!
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on August 21, 2009


The puzzle should get the flute, because it blows the most.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:20 AM on August 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


To an extent our view is limited by being in an overwhelmingly capitalist society. Most of us have never seen an alternative where individual property rights don't exist or are a negligible priority. We're automatically going to gravitate to the "Carla made it, it's hers" approach.

Sorry if this has already been said up-thread somewhere, but isn't this belief and its associated moral impulse really just as much an assumption of Marxist thought? After all, why shouldn't capital go on happily exploiting labor if not for the implicit assumption that, at some level, the fruits of labor should belong to the laborers?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:20 AM on August 21, 2009


I'd give it to Anne because then I'd be able to enjoy the flute as played by someone who can actually use it. She'd also be able to use her skills to make others happy, too.
posted by inturnaround at 9:21 AM on August 21, 2009


Jazz flute.
posted by creasy boy at 9:21 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman: in fact what they say is not capitalist at all, it is flatly socialist. Only socialists claim that making something makes it yours. In a capitalist economy the person who owned the raw materials and payed the wage owns the fruit of any labor done outright. The only economic system that says labor comes with a guaranteed economic stake in its fruits is socialism.
posted by idiopath at 9:31 AM on August 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


She'd also be able to use her skills to make others happy, too.

Not if she's playing f***ing jazz ... unless it's like the guy in creasy boy's link.
posted by philip-random at 9:32 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just can't get over the people in this thread who are going "Well, duh, give it to Carla. She made it therefore she owns it. Thats the law, man."

It's interesting to me that libertarian ideas of property ownership are so ingrained in our culture as to be virtually instinctual, and that we view our particular laws on the matter as being self-evident, universal and beyond question.
posted by Avenger at 9:34 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


In the future all flutes will be replicated endlessly for free, people making new flutes should either sell T-shirts or give up and become tax accountants.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


If Carla gets the flute, why don't Toyota auto workers get the cars?
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:38 AM on August 21, 2009


So I think we're all agreed that the thought experiment was fucking stupid, then?
posted by empath at 9:43 AM on August 21, 2009


Actually, I take that back. I've just been schooled by reading idiopath's comments. Libertarianism and capitalism certainly don't argue that "whoever makes it, owns it". If that were the case, I would be the fucking CEO of my company judging by how many hours I put in every week.
posted by Avenger at 9:45 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Carla owns it. It's her choice whether to give it to the poor kid, or sell it to the one who can play.
posted by w0mbat at 9:47 AM on August 21, 2009


The flute should probably be Carla's. The other claim's aren't illegitimate, but they are impractical in a dynamic equilibrium. Say the rule is flutes go to those who play the flute. Fine, but why make a flute, now maybe the flute maker is a utilitarian, who wants there to be music and the joy of playing, and maybe the flute maker crafts a flute for the love of the crafting but if these conditions aren't true then no flutes will get made. Similarly the flute going to Bob is predicated on flute makers being egalatarians to get any flutes made. Now the thing is if the flute makers were the way I described, utilitarian or egalitarians they could of course just give the flute away if it reflected their preferences.

Now I get that this is supposed to be the libertarian answer, but I think it is also, in a dynamic equlibrium, the utilitarian answer.
posted by I Foody at 9:52 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


So I think we're all agreed that the thought experiment was fucking stupid, then?

It's reductio ad absurdm which is generally considered to be a failure in logical reasoning. So it's useful to illustrate the basic philosophical difference between utilitarianism and libertarianism, but it doesn't actually help us figure out real-world problems.
posted by GuyZero at 9:54 AM on August 21, 2009


empath: "So I think we're all agreed that the thought experiment was fucking stupid, then?"

I'm not. I think the thought experiment was a one paragraph introduction to a much more complex and nuanced discussion. one that fills a whole book, in fact. and as such, it may in fact have served the very purpose that a first paragraph is supposed to.

what's kind of stupid is when everybody takes that paragraph, ponders it as though it contained within it every facet of the larger more nuanced argument, and then makes their decisions without giving any thought or consideration to the rest of the book.
posted by shmegegge at 9:54 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I choose to give the flute to Yusef Lateef. Crisis solved.
posted by symbioid at 9:54 AM on August 21, 2009


If the question involved bagpipes rather than a flute, would we think differently about the solution?
posted by kozad at 9:56 AM on August 21, 2009


philip-random: "She'd also be able to use her skills to make others happy, too.

Not if she's playing f***ing jazz ... unless it's like the guy in creasy boy's link.
"

I didn't see that link when I made my Yusef Comment. But I still stand by it. That said, it's not the Jazz Flautists you should be annoyed with. It's the damn alto sax players. (looking at YOU, Kenny G)
posted by symbioid at 9:59 AM on August 21, 2009


So I think we're all agreed that the thought experiment was fucking stupid, then?

I think we're all agreed that it's absurd to ever state that MetaFilter is ever all agreed on anything ... except ummm, that we're never all agreed on ummm ... jazz flute?
posted by philip-random at 9:59 AM on August 21, 2009


kozad: "If the question involved bagpipes rather than a flute, would we think differently about the solution?"

Yes, then Seamus should get it.
posted by symbioid at 10:02 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


If Carla made the flute then why are we proposing to take it away and give it to anyone else?

Bob and Anne can't (I assume) produce flutes of their own. So what happens to them in this situation? They go fluteless. Music is not produced. Bob is still poor. Carla owns a flute but produces nothing with it. Society does not benefit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:04 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also: You want to know the trick to this example. That there is only one flute. That's how they get you. If there is only one flute you can say, and I would say, "of course Carla should get the flute". And this is supposed to advance libertarianism. Well libertarianism in the world is really well advanced. It is by far the dominant philosophy at play, I think it should be. But on the other hand you have Libertarians with a capital L. They don't realise that they have more or less won and argue that Libertarianism should never not be the case. They are the equivalent of the cartoon utilitarians who sacrifice people in philosophy 101 coliseums.

Now Carla's claim is the most legitimate claim, but it is not the only legitimate claim. Let's say Carla made 3 flutes instead of 1. Should she get to keep all of them? When you switch it to an analog decision. It becomes less open and shut, I think it would probably be best to give the one flute to everyone. What if they're were 200 flutes and 100 people? What then? Politics is at this point in time, in almost every country, about arguing for exceptions to libertarianism. Not about rules other than libertarianism. And I think once you get out of carefully constructed thought experiments it becomes clear that yes, the world is better when you realize that you are a human being, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, you can try and balance different interests and in doing so make things better and fairer.
posted by I Foody at 10:10 AM on August 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


But in all seriousness, I'd rather this example use an example of something not quite as frivolous (please don't take my use of the term "frivolous" as demeaning -- music is a very very very important part of my life. but it is not, ultimately "essential" to my physical existence) Please, Karma, don't smite my eardrums as a lesson for making such claims...

Point being -- A few people upthread have alluded to this: a better scenario is one that deals with the essentials of existence Someone said Health Care. I'll say food.

I understand it's about limited resources. But someone upthread made the comment about 100 flutes, and I think that's another appropriate version.
posted by symbioid at 10:11 AM on August 21, 2009


Well, like the good little undergrad I am, I actually starting reading Rawls just today... Just liking to point out that my exposition on Somalia was a deliberate piss-take of libertarians, and not my own personal philosophy. I find libertarianism disturbing, and libertarians themselves philosophically illiterate.

Lovely. Today is the first time you've read John Rawls, but you're sure enough of your grasp on philosophy that you can comfortably announce that you've determined that libertarians are "philosophically illiterate". Surely none of your professors will make you read Nozick, then, because he (as an illiterate) cannot have written anything.

Anyway, under statelessness life expectancy in Somalia has grown, access to health facilities has increased, infant mortality has dropped, civil liberties have expanded, and extreme poverty (less than $1 PPP/day) has plummeted.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:11 AM on August 21, 2009


Civil_Disobedient: But would you honestly feel that way if it were your flute? And what incentive would you have to ever make another flute?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:11 AM on August 21, 2009


It's interesting to me that libertarian ideas of property ownership are so ingrained in our culture as to be virtually instinctual, and that we view our particular laws on the matter as being self-evident, universal and beyond question.

Personally I think it's just a case of people taking it too literally. The simple description makes it sound like Carla made the flute by herself (not as part of her job, or any other explicit social relationship), and now two other people are claiming ownership and some random unnamed third party is arbitrating the situation.

To make it even more literal, let's say Carla was making dinner, which is fried fish that she caught earlier that day. She's making it for herself, and it's really only enough of a meal to feed one person. Anne shows up to Carla's house and says she should get the fish because she really likes fish, and Bob walks in and says he should get it because he's starving and can't afford a fishing rod. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I know, there aren't too many cultures in which this literal situation would happen and not have Carla be the owner of the fish by default rather than Bob or Anne.

Thinking about the problem less literally, there are definitely cases in which resources are controlled by a third party and decisions have to be made about how to distribute those resources. But I think the idea of looking at the problem in terms of a single rational decision based on competing ideals is flawed as well. In reality, the problem is less about competing ideals and more about competing interests and stakeholders. There are no disinterested third parties that get to make decisions about justice and see those decisions get implemented perfectly, but rather a huge group of people who all benefit or suffer in some way from the result that fight over what actually happens.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2009


philip-random: If the end result of the application of his [Rawl's] idealistic approach to the "perfect, just society" is a perpetuation of the ongoing destabilizing injustice and inequality that we see in pretty much every society that has taken his ideas to heart, then fuck the nuance, his is a deeply flawed vision.

The linked article certainly portrays Rawls' views that way, but it's not really the case, I think. The standards of justice he proposes in A Theory of Justice are actually so strenuous that pretty much every country -- ever -- fails them horribly. There's a lot of nuance to this standard (A Theory of Justice is intimidatingly huge, more brick than book, and every sentence seems framed like a lawyer angling to cover every possible loophole) ~ but essentially, Rawls' just society has to be constructed in such a way that any inequalities are societally justified. If you want to have inequality in your society, you need to make sure that the system is set up towards the greatest benefit to the poorest and least advantaged folks.
(Which doesn't sound particularly like any country I know about.)

Similarly, in the heat of its Rawls-takedown, the article somewhat disingenuously argued that Rawls ignores the needs of foreigners and the idea of global justice --

"Indeed, the very "idea of global justice" is dismissed by Rawls and his cohorts as totally irrelevant. Moreover, the kind of "reasonable person" needed to produce a just society is found only in democratic, Western societies."

If you're only talking about A Theory of Justice, then this criticism (that the theory ignores everyone outside of Rawls' perfect society) is indeed both valid and cutting. So cutting, in fact, that when this point was brought up by critics upon the book's publishing in 1971, he realised that he had to make a larger theory of justice that worked on the global stage. Which he did (with another book, which basically advocated a slightly-altered version of his Theory of Justice, applied to 'Peoples', rather than 'people'). It isn't overstating it to say that global justice was "totally irrelevant" to Rawls' circa A Theory of Justice ~ all he was concerned with at that point was making a single society good ~ but towards the end of his life, he acknowledged that this was myopic, and devoted a lot of time to addressing global issues.

Note that I'm not defending Rawls' ideas on this -- just pointing out that criticising a thinker for a problem in an old book that he spent an entire subsequent work adressing is kind of like criticising me for eating my snot when I was 5. I mean, yeah, I did it ~ but I'm a different man now! I swear!
posted by Rumpled at 10:13 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


And this is supposed to advance libertarianism. Well libertarianism in the world is really well advanced. It is by far the dominant philosophy at play, I think it should be.

As pointed out up-thread, the idea that workers own the fruits of their labors is NOT a libertarian principle. It's a socialist one.

In Libertarian World, employers have every right to establish monopolies and force their laborers to work under whatever conditions they see fit, for whatever compensation they see fit, without the workers having any recourse to appeal to an outside authority for fair treatment or compensation. You'd need an outside authority in the mix using the threat of violence (in Lib speak) to protect workers in order to prevent that kind of economic exploitation from occurring, and libertarians don't want that.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:16 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


One problem that strikes me -- without having read the book -- is that mostly justice doesn't concern specific goods like a flute, but well-being and affluence in general. Bob is a distortion of his real-world analogue; he doesn't need a flute for any reason. Anna simply doesn't exist in the real world; the means of general well-being, like food, money, health care, water, etc., aren't things that are especially useful for any one person. So if we replace the flute with general affluence, Bob and Anna are the same person; the person who's poor is the person who could actually use the things that are being redistributed.
posted by creasy boy at 10:23 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


A new government program provides a guaranteed a minimum flute per year for Carla, Bob, and Anne. Anne, caring for nothing but making music, drops out of the workforce and bums around the country, supporting herself by giving the occasional performance.

Carla stays on at her job in the flute factory, in part because she enjoys making flutes and in part because the extra income allows her to pursue her true passion, didgeridoo collecting, as a hobby.

Bob immediately sells his flute and uses the money to finance his technology start-up, Orange Computers. The business goes through some rough times at first, but Bob perseveres because he knows he knows he can always count on his annual flute to fetch enough to cover his basic needs. Twenty-five years later, Orange Inc. introduces a portable, flash-memory based music player and a website that sells digital copies of Anne's performances, and Bob becomes a multi-billionaire.
posted by homuncula at 10:24 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


As pointed out up-thread, the idea that workers own the fruits of their labors is NOT a libertarian principle. It's a socialist one.

It's both. Consider the thought experiment, someone, on their own made a flute. Libertarianism allows that people are entitled to the products of their labor. Now in the real world since libertarianism allows any deal to be made between two consenting parties you get situations like you described as the common place solution. But in the battle of property rights the Carla answer was clearly supposed to be standing for libertarian property rights.
posted by I Foody at 10:25 AM on August 21, 2009


If Carla made the flute then why are we proposing to take it away and give it to anyone else?

Bob and Anne can't (I assume) produce flutes of their own. So what happens to them in this situation? They go fluteless. Music is not produced. Bob is still poor. Carla owns a flute but produces nothing with it. Society does not benefit.


It sounds like you're assuming no system of trade exists, which is a pretty basic component of any society that doesn't require everyone to be self-sufficient. Carla owns a flute which is useless to her but does hold value for others. So Carla could start as the owner of the flute, and trade it for something else of value, with the intent of getting something in return that she can actually use. Anne may be able to trade something which she considers to be of lesser value than the flute to get it, since she knows how to play. Bob gets screwed in this situation, because he's poor and thus can't trade for the flute.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:29 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whoever wants to use the flute can do so, provided it returns to the common area shelf when they are done with it. If your "use" limits the others' use for an unwelcome period of time, you should probably seek your own flute or make some kind of arrangement with the others. Sharing is caring.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:33 AM on August 21, 2009


So, for some reason, I am now in possession of the flute that Carla has made, and Bob and Anne have claims to it as well.

My inclination is to sell the flute to whomever can pay for it and then set Carla up as a flute maker, hire Bob as her apprentice, and Anne as a flute instructor. I would also give Carla a share of the proceeds made from selling the flute, since she made it--as I am in possession of it, I can only assume that I provided the materials and tools from which Carla was able to make her flute in the first place, so this all sounds fair to me.

I would probably, being the kind and compassionate soul I am, also set up a charity to help others like Bob become useful contributors to society. While I'm at it, I'd use a share of the profits to support the arts so that Anne and her ilk could benefit.

Do I win the internets?
posted by misha at 10:36 AM on August 21, 2009


What's wrong with jazz flute?
posted by juv3nal at 10:39 AM on August 21, 2009


I too was searching for video of Eric Dolphy playing flute before I hit on Rahsaan.
posted by creasy boy at 10:44 AM on August 21, 2009


A flute with no holes is not a flute. And a doughnut without a hole is a danish.
posted by Zambrano at 10:48 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]



Bob and Anne can't (I assume) produce flutes of their own. So what happens to them in this situation? They go fluteless. Music is not produced. Bob is still poor. Carla owns a flute but produces nothing with it. Society does not benefit.

BUt if we give it to Bob, aren't we in the same situation? Now Carla is in Bob's situation, and Anne has no flute. Anne is in the same situation that she was in, and Carla is worse off, because her labor had no benefit.

How about if we start in the situation where Bob starts off with possession of the flute, for whatever reason. Now Anne wants it because she can play, and Carla wants it as compensation for her labor. Who deserves the flute now?
posted by happyroach at 10:53 AM on August 21, 2009


The standards of justice he proposes in A Theory of Justice are actually so strenuous that pretty much every country -- ever -- fails them horribly.

Rumpled: Change a few words here and you could be defending Karl Marx. My point being that if the theory is that complex, it is inherently flawed regardless of how ideal its intentions.

Thanks for the elaborating though. Good basic Rawlsian backgrounding.
posted by philip-random at 10:54 AM on August 21, 2009


Libertarianism allows that people are entitled to the products of their labor.

But in its strict commitment to laissez-faire capitalism, doesn't libertarianism in practice view property rights as trumping whatever implied right there might be to the benefits of one's labors? The libertarian commitment to the idea that people should benefit from their labors is pretty weak, really, compared to its commitment to property rights.

For example, suppose Carla would only be able to make the flute in the first place if she had access to specialized tools and raw materials belonging to a fourth party, Mr. Pennybags. Despite the fact that Mr. Pennybags has no practical use for the tools (not being a flutemaker himself, but having inherited the tools from his grandfather), in the libertarian view, he's entitled to impose whatever conditions he likes on Carla before letting her use the tools. As it turns out, the poor kid, Bob, has taken matters into his own hands and has kidnapped Carla's entire family, threatening that if Carla doesn't make a flute for him, he'll kill them all.

In the libertarian view, regardless of the circumstances, Mr. Pennybags is under no obligation to let Carla use his tools and materials, much less to do so without any expectation of compensation in return, so Mr. Pennybags would be completely within his rights to ask for whatever terms of payment he deemed fit, even if those terms were exploitative, as long as Carla willingly accepted the terms of the agreement. In a libertarian worldview, Mr. Pennybag's behavior, no matter how cruel, could only be regarded as just.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:54 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


now that's how you over-think a plate of beans, friends...
posted by saulgoodman at 10:55 AM on August 21, 2009


Lovely. Today is the first time you've read John Rawls, but you're sure enough of your grasp on philosophy that you can comfortably announce that you've determined that libertarians are "philosophically illiterate".

Yes, because they're proposing solutions to problems everybody else discounted hundreds of years ago. It's not like we haven't tried some of their solutions, either theoretically or practically. Our current position societally was not achieved through mindless fumbling from one mistake to another, nor relentless government expansion. The problem that libertarians ignore is that when faced with their policies real people have chosen otherwise. We're not just saying that libertarianism isn't a solution, we already know. So let me rephrase: libertarians are philosophically and historically illiterate.

Anyway, under statelessness life expectancy in Somalia has grown, access to health facilities has increased, infant mortality has dropped, civil liberties have expanded, and extreme poverty (less than $1 PPP/day) has plummeted.

Compared with what? A twenty year dictatorship? A completely imaginary Somalia that has stayed exactly the same since 1994? Or even with Somaliland? I wonder how the part of Somalia which actually has a functioning government compares with the rest? Oh wait, he's counting Somaliland in with the rest, what the fuck libertarian guy? Why are two of the new universities you mention in Somaliland claimed as libertarian successes? Could you please write more about remittances from asylum seekers in governmented lands that seem to be the bedrock of the entire financial sector and a good chunk of the economy? No wait, don't skirt around how NGOs provide healthcare and other services to Somalians...hey, where you going?
posted by Sova at 11:03 AM on August 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Change a few words here and you could be defending Karl Marx.

You assume there is something wrong with defending Karl Marx. There might be something wrong with defending the exploitation and abuse of his thought to establish dictatorships, but Marx himself made a lot of sense from my perspective.
posted by knapah at 11:05 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


phillip-random: Change a few words here and you could be defending Karl Marx. My point being that if the theory is that complex, it is inherently flawed regardless of how ideal its intentions.

Thanks for the elaborating though. Good basic Rawlsian backgrounding.


You're welcome. I didn't glean the complexity=fatalflaw aspect from your original post, and, to be honest, I just saw a chance for some of my 1st-year philosophy to actually be of use to someone!
Use!
In real life (almost)!

I confess, I don't really see what your point about Karl Marx means (is Karl Marx meant to be indefensible? Are we allowed to 'change a few words' of arguments to lead them into bad implications?) ~ but I'm not in any kind of position to discuss the thing further -- need to sleep.

(Just before I leave -- and I've already favourited the relevant posts, but I thought it might be nice to also say -- I Foody, I've very much enjoyed your take on all the questions of this thread.)
posted by Rumpled at 11:24 AM on August 21, 2009


I'm amazed how many are saying Carla's claim is the most legitimate. If Carla labored on the flute, but someone else provided the raw materials, tools, and training she used to do so...AND compensated her for her labor (i.e. she's not a slave), then what claim to ownership can she possibly have?
posted by rocket88 at 11:28 AM on August 21, 2009


There might be something wrong with defending the exploitation and abuse of his thought to establish dictatorships, but Marx himself made a lot of sense from my perspective.

The issue for me is that the exploitation and abuse of his thought to establish dictatorships are somehow inherent to Marx; not stated in his theories anywhere but, based on way too much historical fact, it seems to play out that way anyway. And thus there's a flaw in his thinking, something to do with not "getting" human nature. Same problem with Rawls if you follow Sen's logic.

Finally, I'd like to point out that I'm very disappointed that this thread continues to be relevant and interesting and hasn't derailed into a series of increasingly ridiculous jazz flute links ...
posted by philip-random at 11:31 AM on August 21, 2009


Carla keeps the flute, but all three are taxed to create public education, the result of which is that Carla will come to appreciate why she should share the flute.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:34 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


The flute is destroyed fro the greater good.
posted by Artw at 11:41 AM on August 21, 2009


How's this: So fair's fair, and Carla gets to keep the flute.

But, overtime, Carla becomes increasingly paranoid, slowly becoming more and more certain that the shiftless Bob and Anne are spending all their time plotting in secret, formulating various plans for taking the flute from her by force. So she abandons flute-making, and starts making and surrounding herself with weapons, determined that Bob and Anne will only take away her flute when they finally pry it from her cold, dead hands.

And with that, our hypothetical world in microcosm is transformed from what once might have been a place filled with beautiful music, to a place in which the only remaining possible future is one dominated by fear, suspicion, and a tense silence that no one dares break or something even worse.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:51 AM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Carla should lease the flute and a recording studio to Anne, who will need to hire Bob to run the mixing board.

Yep, that's pretty much the current system. And it works. Except when Bob gets sick and his health insurance runs out, Joe the Doctor doesn't want to treat him for free, nor will Arnold the Drug Company provide medicine without reimbursement. They don't want to part with any of the fruits of their labor, even though they have plenty.

Who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the immediate support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian hedonist will bicker a bit but will eventually settle for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument.

Yes, the use of a flute, an indivisible asset, as the fruits of labor does tend to oversimplify the actual conundrum of society, because it doesn't afford even the most basic sharing that is required to have a society in the first place. Given the author, I suspect the argument is more nuanced in the book itself than in the review article. I hope.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:06 PM on August 21, 2009


The laborer is entitled to the fruits of his labor before all others.

Not sure about this. Depends on how you define "fruits." Usually this only refers to a salary or wage, because the product of labor is almost always legally owned by the employer, a diffuse set of shareholders in large companies. The exceptions are the owners of a company, who basically gets to keep all the proceeds beyond expenses.

Also, note that most laborers are paid in arrears. So also not entitled "before all others."
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:19 PM on August 21, 2009


People seem to be assuming that Marx would say the flute should go to Bob, but since it was the product of Carla's labor, he would regard it as Carla's property. Marx's moral critique of capitalism was that it consisted of the theft of the efforts of the workers for the benefit of those who owned the tools, the capitalists. We don't see that in Sen's scenario.

The libertarians believe that the capitalists live on the fruit of their own labors, and that the poor (Bob) and the workers (Anne) are parasites on their good will, and thus they see Carla as the capitalist in the story. But she isn't. She's the worker.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:25 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


We had to destroy the flute to save the flute.
posted by R_Nebblesworth at 12:26 PM on August 21, 2009


Carla, Bob, and Anne, after grappling with the flute-distribution problem, decide that they will institute an Indigent Flautists' Fund to which all three will contribute, though Bob will contribute the least as his poverty dictates, and Carla the most, as her flute-making enterprise has become quite lucrative. This fund is sufficient to purchase a flute for Bob from Carla, who has plenty of flutes anyway.

However, Anne soon grows resentful. The Fund's funds are limited, and so it is compelled only to purchase flutes for the poorest flautists. Anne is not poor enough to qualify; she could, the Fund decides, afford to buy her own flute. However, she is not possessed of unlimited resources and such a flute would require a significant expenditure. She is only a little richer than Bob, but he gets a flute for free! Moreover, she has to contribute somewhat to the costs of his flute, though Carla pays most of them.

Anne decides that Carla ought to kick in some more so that she, too, can have a free flute, but Carla will not do this. Anne decides to contribute less and less to the Fund until, eventually, it can no longer afford to buy flutes even for those as poor as Bob. In this she is joined by Carla, who was happy enough to send a flute over to Bob now and again but has decided that giving flutes to Anne and everyone else who wants one is going a bit too far, thank you very much, and wants to wash her hands of the whole business. Poor Bob, now suddenly fluteless, never knew what hit him. Anne remains without a flute, but takes grim comfort in the knowledge that at least that freeloader Bob hasn't got one either. With the money she has saved by ending her contributions to the Fund, Carla hosts lavish parties for her fellow flutemakers at which she bemoans Bob's plight and blames the whole thing on Anne for voting against her own interests.

Eve, who has been following all this after having bypassed the authentication for flute-distribution-l via a clever side-channel attack, can only shake her head.
posted by enn at 12:36 PM on August 21, 2009


The flute is divided equally into thirds.
posted by Artw at 12:36 PM on August 21, 2009


Carla and Anne, each possessing suspiciously advanced skills, are sent into the countryside for education through labour.
Bob, having no such skills, becomes president for life.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:42 PM on August 21, 2009


There is no flute.
posted by Artw at 12:47 PM on August 21, 2009


Carla, Anne, and Bob decide to share the flute, then rent an apartment together and get involved in wacky situations. Hilarity ensues.
posted by dirigibleman at 12:48 PM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Carla and Anne realize that they have no need for Bob. They ditch the male heirarchy, run off together, and make beautiful music together.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:05 PM on August 21, 2009


A lot of you are assuming it takes a factory to make a flute. What if the delightful Carla takes a stalk of bamboo from the forest, and with the skills she has developed over the years, makes a beautiful flute for free? (Of course, she would need a knife, but she could borrow one from Bob who lives in a bad neighborhood and needs a knife for protection.)
posted by kozad at 1:06 PM on August 21, 2009


One last scenario:

Carla strikes a deal with Anne. She'll give Anne the flute, and make another one for herself, in exchange for flute lessons. Anne eventually becomes a skilled flautist and Anne and Carla form a performing duo. Each week, they put on free performances in the downtown park, which Bob calls home.

Even though Bob is intractably stuck in grinding poverty, he finds Anne and Carla's passionate and technically flawless performances inspiring enough to give him the strength to carry on day after day.

Eventually Bob lands a gig as a self-important music critic for Pitchfork. Despite his shared history with them, Bob consistently gives Anne and Carla's performances ratings in the low 1.0--3.0 range, partly in an expression of long pent up class resentment and partly to gin up advertising revenues by playing to the controversy.

The End.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:19 PM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Be the flute, Bob.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:20 PM on August 21, 2009


The premise is wrong. What kid would want a flute?
posted by Memo at 1:27 PM on August 21, 2009


kozad: "What if the delightful Carla takes a stalk of bamboo from the forest, and... makes a beautiful flute for free"

Then the flute really belongs to the forest. Carla should take it back and plant it and grow a flute tree.
posted by Riki tiki at 1:37 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I confess, I don't really see what your point about Karl Marx means

Simply that, based on real world application, Marx's theories have tended NOT to achieve a worker's paradise. Anything but. Hence, fail. Likewise, based on real world application, Rawls' theories seem NOT to have provided for a fairer, more just society. Anything but.

Does this utterly discredit all the work of both men? No. Does it reflect my intense and hard-earned distrust of any and all ideology. Yup.
posted by philip-random at 1:40 PM on August 21, 2009


As John slept, Dagney lay back, sated, listening to the sound of a lonely, poorly-played flute echoing off the empty walls of Galt's Gulch.
posted by Artful Codger at 1:52 PM on August 21, 2009


Death of a flautist.

.
posted by philip-random at 2:08 PM on August 21, 2009


Most people here are not reading the thread. Carla already got paid. Goddammit.
posted by fcummins at 2:15 PM on August 21, 2009


The way the thought experiment is presented makes me want to attack it like a logic puzzle.

Anne can play the flute.
Anne is not poor and has other toys to play with.
Anne did not make the flute.
Anne should have the flute because she has the ability to make use of it the way it was meant to be used, and produce potentially pleasurable sounds with it.

Bob cannot play the flute.
Bob is poor and has no toys.
Bob did not make the flute.
Bob should have the flute because he could sell the flute and thus alleviate his poverty, or play with it in a non-musical manner.

Carla cannot play the flute.
Carla is not poor and has other toys to play with.
Carla made the flute.
Carla should have the flute because she spent hours making it (for whoever commissioned her) and deserves its possession as a reward.

Then it becomes easy to see that if you value pleasure, art, and education, you would choose Anne, if equal distribution of wealth and helping the less fortunate, then Bob, or if training and labor, then Carla. But all this presupposes that you value ownership.

What if you replaced "flute" with something intangible but valuable, like "scholarship"? Do you award it to the smart kid, the poor kid, or the hardworking kid?
posted by Lush at 2:28 PM on August 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


For what it's worth, I'd never heard of Rawls until this morning. I must be some kind of dirty artist. Nuanced he may be but, if the end result of the application of his idealistic approach to the "perfect, just society" is a perpetuation of the ongoing destabilizing injustice and inequality that we see in pretty much every society that has taken his ideas to heart, then fuck the nuance, his is a deeply flawed vision.

Right, well Rawls was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, so it would be somewhat surprising if he hadn't thought about this. Firstly, in Philosophy its completely legitimate to think about what a perfectly just society would be like in theory, since this is a great way of working out which direction your none perfect society should be going. This is one of the things that Rawls was trying to do.

He even put forward a road map to how you achieve this by suggesting that the principles of Justice have lexical priority over one another. Such that we should first attempt to get our society to have 'equal basic liberties' after that we should aim towards 'the difference principle' - that is to only have socially beneficial inequalities. And then only when that is achieved should we aim to have 'positions open to talents' - a from of meritocracy.


Two more things, A Rawlsian society has never existed. Social democracy in nordic country's in the 70s and 80s probably came closest, but this wasn't intentional. Furthermore, these societies were very, very successful. Now we shouldn't draw conclusions from this (correlation is not causation). But we should be skeptical about Sen's claims, as they were reported in the philosophically illiterate review that OP linked to. In any case, one should realise that Rawls is describing a thought experiment with his ideal society. An ideal society could be one country, union or the whole world. I would disagree with the poster who thought that the law of peoples was a correction of ToJ. LoP is, in my opinion, a stand alone work.

I am not a Rawlsian, but I do think Theory of Justice is an awe inspiring work. An achievement unrivalled in late 20th century political philosophy, in fact. Unlike say, Anarchy, State, and Utopia which even Nozick later agreed had holes the size of the Albert hall in it.
posted by munchbunch at 2:29 PM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Who has the flute now? How did they get it? How did they get the power to give it someone else and make it theirs?

If the point of the exercise is to get me to ask this and similar questions I guess it succeeded. But if that's the whole point I guess I'm also a bit annoyed.
posted by wobh at 3:36 PM on August 21, 2009


"Is a man not entitled to the sweat flute of his brow? 'No!' says the man in Washington, 'It belongs to the poor.' 'No!' says the man in the Vatican, 'It belongs to God.' 'No!' says the man in Moscow, 'It belongs to everyone.' I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose... Rapture!"
posted by Rangeboy at 3:45 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


What if you replaced "flute" with something intangible but valuable, like "scholarship"? Do you award it to the smart kid, the poor kid, or the hardworking kid?

Well played, well played.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:49 PM on August 21, 2009


Unlike say, Anarchy, State, and Utopia which even Nozick later agreed had holes the size of the Albert hall in it.

And that is understating the problem.
posted by knapah at 3:53 PM on August 21, 2009


Re: the purported analogy between Marx and Rawls, bear in mind that Rawls' theory allows you to pinpoint particular sites of injustice within a given society. So whereas achieving a Marxist utopia would generally require overhauling society from the ground up, a Rawlsian can profitably and pragmatically propose changes in particular social practices. While no society is ever likely to be perfect on Rawls' theory, it does give us a way to loosely measure the degree of injustice in a given society.
posted by voltairemodern at 4:11 PM on August 21, 2009


Nuanced he may be but, if the end result of the application of his idealistic approach to the "perfect, just society" is a perpetuation of the ongoing destabilizing injustice and inequality that we see in pretty much every society that has taken his ideas to heart, then fuck the nuance, his is a deeply flawed vision.

Can you expand on your hostility towards Rawls? It really seems like you're just riffing on the harsh words in the reviews. His major work was written in 1971. I have no idea what society could be said to have "taken his ideas to heart".
posted by Wood at 5:46 PM on August 21, 2009


What if you replaced "flute" with something intangible but valuable, like "scholarship"? Do you award it to the smart kid, the poor kid, or the hardworking kid?

Personally I'm comfortable with the idea of applying different theories of property ownership to different classes of property. The underlying rationale for me is that the applicable property ownership theory ought be the one that creates the greatest total utility, and that will differ from class to class of property.

In the case of scarce luxuries, like hand-made (or high-end machine-made, custom-designed, special) flutes, I'm happy with a classically-capitalist "free market", ie state-enforced property ownership of the item commencing with the funder of the production, ie the person who purchased or gathered or otherwise contributed the materials and labour to make the item, without which it would not exist. It is desirable that people aspire to the ownership of a scarce luxury, because part of the utility of having such a thing is that others do not. Things like that are a source of "points" in the great game of human competition, by which humanity is improved.

In the case of infinitely duplicable luxuries like music, I prefer a much freer market (ie, greatly reduced copyright protectionism) than presently exists in the capitalist nations. Physical luxuries are about to become nearly so infinitely duplicable, and when that happens, the property ownership class applicable to them should shift accordingly - but even when the Maker Revolution comes (may it be soon!) there is still value in a flute carved by Carla's own hand that does not exist in an equally musical (and at the naked-eye level, identical) flute made from dripped plastic or carved from pseudobone by a ThingMakerMachine. In that case I would argue that people should generally be free to scan and reproduce Carla's handmade flutes, but must not make any claim that they are anything other than such a scan and reproduction, for that would be fraud. (We can have citation, even extremely strongly enforced citation, even in the complete absence of copyright. I believe we should.)

In the case of scarce necessities like healthcare or that standard of food and shelter that is necessary for basic survival, that a necessity is scarce at all is an inherently undesirable state of affairs. It is the duty of the deciding authority to address that problem first and foremost, and if need be compel those over whom it has authority (tautological - authority is the capacity to compel) to act in ways that will actually reduce the scarcity. However until the scarcity is addressed it is necessary to allocate the resources. I would argue that the most appropriate means of allocating scarce necessities is purest communism: from each according to ability (and no less), to each according to need (and no more). This further implies an intelligent approach be taken to both increasing ability to create the goods and provide the services (for example, training more doctors, nurses, first aid providers, pharmacists, biochemists, paramedics, etc) and reducing need (for example, promoting healthy activity, good diets, monitoring and mitigating use of harmful luxuries such as tobacco, heroin and alcohol).

Scholarship and education is an unscarce, even infinitely-duplicable, necessity. Any scarcity of education at all in our modern world is inexcusable but is explicable as an artifact of two things: scarcity in capacity to provide good education (ie, teachers and classrooms); scarcity in individual time available to allocate to receiving education. The first is being addressed as we discuss this, in the course of a reframing of what education is, what knowledge is, and how it is provided. Junior high school students, in most places that have junior high schools, are now taught how to use Google, Wikipedia etc. There are more instructional videos on YouTube teaching you how to do whatever you want to do than you could possibly watch in a lifetime. Certification will always be needed but over time it seems that the function of educational institutions is moving from provision of knowledge with some testing, to provision and testing of knowledge, and may eventually move to testing of knowledge with some provision. (My own ideological approach to education is that it's not a right to be taken up or not as one sees fit, nor a privilege available only to the financially and/or intellectually deserving, but a duty that you have as a sentient being. No-one has a right to be ignorant, or worse, knowingly wrong; ignorance is a pestilence of the mind, the secular equivalent of a sin, and to be proud of ignorance and error and promoting them as desirable--the social function of Fox News--seems to me as bad as being proud of having cancerous tumors and recommending acquisition of them to others. But that's an ideological viewpoint.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:08 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm amazed how many are saying Carla's claim is the most legitimate. If Carla labored on the flute, but someone else provided the raw materials, tools, and training she used to do so...AND compensated her for her labor (i.e. she's not a slave), then what claim to ownership can she possibly have?

You see what you did right there? You added additional information. We can all make up different scenarios to fit our different ideas, "If this, then that." I can think up a multitude that would make the ownership of the flute very murky indeed. For example:

What if Bob's father was the one to teach the family secret of flute making to Carla for a deathbed promise to take care of Bob?

What if the very special flute wood belonged to Anne, was stolen by Bob who then sold it to Carla?

What if the very special flute wood made a rare, toxic sawdust during the manufacture of the flute which left Bob greatly dibilitated and unable to do any manual labor?

What if Bob spent every night keeping watch so that flute bandits would not steal the flute and Anne spent every day cooking and cleaning so that Carla would have the free time to make the flute.

However, we are not given any other information. We are told that Carla made the flute. Anne and Bob have reasons for wanting the flute. So it is back to basics and I cannot think of any reason why if someone put the time, effort, and skill into making something it should not belong to them.

What if, instead of a flute it was a novel? What if Carla wrote a novel and we took it away from her to give to Bob so he can sell it to a publisher and make money. Or we give it to Anne just because she loves to read. Would that be all right in any world, in any society? The problem with taking away whatever Carla makes (without compensation-- the original thought problem does not factor in any compensation) is that Carla has no incentive to produce anything more. Oh as an artist she may struggle on for awhile for the sheer love of it but if you keep taking away the end results and doling them out as you see fit, she will soon come to realize that it is a waste of her time. Note that this can change if you allow Carla to decide where the end results go. For example, she makes quilts, lovely artistic quilts and then she hands them out to the homeless. As long as she is rewarded with the satisfaction of giving, she will continue to do so.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:22 PM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Can you expand on your hostility towards Rawls? It really seems like you're just riffing on the harsh words in the reviews. His major work was written in 1971. I have no idea what society could be said to have "taken his ideas to heart".

As I stated above somewhere, the first I ever heard of Rawls was today, so yes, I am guilty of just riffing on the harsh words of the reviews. Sorry if I've come off as hostile toward Rawls, the man. My hostility, if I have it, is aimed at ideology in general (you'll notice I've hardly been nice to Karl Marx either in this thread) as my experience has lead me to view it (ideology) as one of the principle evils that humans perpetrate. That is, the notion that a perfect society, perfect system, perfect anything can be imagined in the abstract and then put into place. This goes for economics, philosophy, religion, EVERYTHING.

What I like about Sens thinking is the complexity it throws into the most simple of situations (the flute analogy, still going strong in this thread). This is human relations in a nutshell. Infinitely complex and as such, the enemy of ideology ... and so on.
posted by philip-random at 6:27 PM on August 21, 2009


You see what you did right there? You added additional information.

You're absolutely right. To be fair though, the problem is fundamentally unanswerable without additional information. Obviously it's meant to be an analogy, but without any additional information it's impossible to clearly relate it to any real-world scenario, and wide open to speculative interpretations.
I would posit that everyone who has answered so far has added additional information, even if they didn't do so as explicitly as I did.
posted by rocket88 at 7:06 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


You give the flutes that were hidden behind the rock to everyone, because you hacked into the computer before the test . Then you swing your leg over your other leg while sitting in your captains chair, like some smug bastard.
posted by Artw at 7:11 PM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


More cowbells.
posted by cogneuro at 8:11 PM on August 21, 2009


Scholarship and education is an unscarce, even infinitely-duplicable, necessity.

I'm sorry for the confusion in terms, aeschenkarnos, and I appreciate your well-thought-out response, but in my mind, I meant "scholarship" as a scholarship grant awarded by a person with finite funds (you, hypothetically) to use for one lucky kid's college/university tuition (assuming tertiary education/knowledge, like the flute, is optional but desirable). So in that sense, it is a finite resource.
posted by Lush at 9:28 PM on August 21, 2009


I really am digging the flute as a jazz instrument.
posted by philip-random at 9:37 PM on August 21, 2009


I don't want a flute. Got any drums?
posted by Eideteker at 10:30 PM on August 21, 2009


Many indigenous societies have (or had) weak or minimal concepts of individual property rights, strong ethics of reciprocity and collective rights, perfectly functional governance and good social order, and little conflict over material possessions.

In fact, if these were traditional Inuit children, Carla would give the flute to Anne, who would then teach Bob and Carla how to play it, after which they would just pass the flute around to whomever wished to use it that day and had the most pressing need for it.

And by doing so, Carla would assure her status as the moral leader of the group, and would be the recipient of many future flutes once she also taught Anne and Bob how to make them.

It really is the only effective long term solution to limited resources. Call it socialism, but successful human societies with limited resource bases have been practicing it for millennia.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:59 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Correction: it is one of two effective solutions. The other would involve the death of two of the children and the awarding of the flute to the one who killed the others.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:00 AM on August 22, 2009


tl;flat
posted by flabdablet at 6:45 AM on August 22, 2009


Secret Life of Gravy: You see what you did right there? You added additional information. We can all make up different scenarios to fit our different ideas... However, we are not given any other information. We are told that Carla made the flute. Anne and Bob have reasons for wanting the flute. So it is back to basics and I cannot think of any reason why if someone put the time, effort, and skill into making something it should not belong to them.

People are adding information in an effort (a futile one, I'd argue) to reach a solution that everyone can agree is self-evidently right. But you are trying to perform essentially the same move in this comment, with the phrase that begins "I cannot think of any reason why..." The fact that you cannot think of any reason why the maker of the flute shouldn't get to keep it simply exposes your personal subjective commitment to the idea that people should get to benefit from the fruits of their labor. That's a perfectly respectable opinion, but it is not self-evident or obvious, and it doesn't represent an answer to the thought experiment on which everybody ought to be able to agree.

I could just as easily state:

We know that Carla is a person capable of making a flute — we don't know if that's because she has the inborn gift of flute-making technical skills, or the gift of being able to motivate herself and apply herself with effort to learning how to make a flute, or family privilege enabling her to hire a flute-making tutor, or what... but we know she has been gifted with some kind of flute-making capacity. We know that Anne and Bob want the flute too, but have not been gifted with the same flute-making capacity (they might be poor, or lack intelligence, or they might just be lazier personalities — in all cases, they've not been gifted with the same capacity as Carla to fulfil their wants). So I cannot think of any reason why the random bestowal of certain gifts and capacities on Carla, and not on Anne and Bob, ought to mean that Carla gets to benefit disproportionately from them.

(I don't fully believe this and, yes, would get mad if you tried to take my salary away from me on the grounds that my effort counted for nothing. But the point is that it is no less "obvious" or "self-evident" than your proposed answer to the question.)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:50 AM on August 22, 2009


I don't fully believe this

Bingo. I think that it is obvious and self-evident that Carla owns the flute but some people are attempting to tie themselves into pretzels in order to argue that she doesn't or might not. Given only that Carla made it and others want it then I cannot imagine a just world in which Carla is not the owner. If you want to add other details, fine, I can be convinced. But to simply argue that she made it but does not own it, is bending over backwards to come up with some imaginary morality that no one believes.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:35 AM on August 22, 2009


Bingo. I think that it is obvious and self-evident that Carla owns the flute but some people are attempting to tie themselves into pretzels in order to argue that she doesn't or might not. Given only that Carla made it and others want it then I cannot imagine a just world in which Carla is not the owner. If you want to add other details, fine, I can be convinced. But to simply argue that she made it but does not own it, is bending over backwards to come up with some imaginary morality that no one believes.

As I alluded to above, I think this thought experiment was a bad idea on Sen's part as people have latched onto it at the expense of a detailed reading of his book.

However, my main problem with the thought experiment is that the object we are discussing is a flute. Without further information about their situations in life we can't deal properly with the problem. Why would Bob want a flute? It's not going to help him survive.

If Carla had instead made a cake, Anne had a fantastic palate and would appreciate the cake more than the others, and Bob was too poor to buy food. In that situation I would certainly say that Bob should be given, at least some of, the cake. This despite the fact that I am apparently subscribing to an imaginary morality.

If the flute/cake made by Carla is then given to Bob based on his need (who needs a flute?) and she decides that she therefore has no incentive to make more flutes/cakes, then I will judge her, from my imaginary morality (and following Jerry Cohen's interpersonal test), as not much better than a blackmailer. If she already has sufficient resources for life and Bob does not, it is quite easy to justify the redistribution of resources to rectify the disparity.
posted by knapah at 8:20 AM on August 22, 2009


Never mind the fact that Sen assumes the need for a single one of them to own it. If only one is allowed to own it, we are guaranteeing them their liberty to use it, whilst restricting the liberty of everyone else.
posted by knapah at 8:23 AM on August 22, 2009


Just because you cannot imagine a world without private ownership of objects does not
mean such a world does not exist. Or has never existed.

Western cultural bias (or any cultural bias) makes things seem obvious and sel-evident when they are in fact historically and culturally contingent.

Study the anthropological literature and get back to me.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:23 AM on August 22, 2009


Bingo. I think that it is obvious and self-evident that Carla owns the flute but some people are attempting to tie themselves into pretzels in order to argue that she doesn't or might not.

The only obvious point is that she made the flute. "Ownership" is an enormously complicated word and concept, the definition of which is necessarily influenced by one's culture, ethics, mores, you name it. The degree to which this is NOT immediately evident to us is the degree to which the world is vastly more nuanced and complicated than we know.

But to simply argue that she made it but does not own it, is bending over backwards to come up with some imaginary morality that no one believes.

Morality has nothing to do with it. I suggest you spend a little time getting familiar with the concept of reality tunnels.
posted by philip-random at 8:24 AM on August 22, 2009


Damn, I just discovered that Jerry Cohen died on the 5th of August. Here's an obituary from the Guardian that even outlines the interpersonal test argument briefly.
posted by knapah at 8:27 AM on August 22, 2009


And what incentive would you have to ever make another flute?

In all likelihood, the same incentive she had to make the first one. Which is to say, no incentive besides the process of creation.

Kind of like how the RIAA argues that without directly incentivising musicians, they'll somehow mysteriously disappear from the planet.

Unfortunately, as everyone else has already said, we need more information.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:26 AM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Regarding ownership and self-evidence, think land...
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:56 AM on August 22, 2009


I don't fully believe this

Bingo. I think that it is obvious and self-evident that Carla owns the flute but some people are attempting to tie themselves into pretzels in order to argue that she doesn't or might not. Given only that Carla made it and others want it then I cannot imagine a just world in which Carla is not the owner. If you want to add other details, fine, I can be convinced. But to simply argue that she made it but does not own it, is bending over backwards to come up with some imaginary morality that no one believes.


My not fully believing the alternative scenario I was outlining it is pretty irrelevant. The point of the thought experiment is to try to say why you think one distribution of the resource is better than the others, and you have not come up with any reason for preferring yours over mine except that a) you think yours is obvious and b) you think mine is a view that nobody actually believes. Do you really want to commit yourself to the notion that the correct version of morality is, by definition, the morality that most people believe in, as a matter of empirical reality, at the point in history at which you happen to live?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:36 AM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


If Carla had instead made a cake, Anne had a fantastic palate and would appreciate the cake more than the others, and Bob was too poor to buy food. In that situation I would certainly say that Bob should be given, at least some of, the cake. This despite the fact that I am apparently subscribing to an imaginary morality.

Again, I think the literalness of this is making a lot of people disagree with this reasoning. Pretty much everyone agrees that we should somehow provide public or private assistance to people (and especially children) who don't have enough money to buy food. But generally that assistance makes more sense in the form of food stamps, soup kitchens, charity donations of food, etc. Almost no one would be in favor of a policy in which any given poor person was entitled to ownership of a fraction of any privately baked cake, because such a system would be needlessly confusing and unorganized.

I think Lush's college scholarship example above was the best at actually illustrating the point of the thought experiment. That situation is actually pretty close to a decision that gets made in real life quite often, and there is no easy answer as to who should get it, which according to the article was what the thought experiment was trying to show. Even if we can't decide on who the absolutely best candidates are, we can at least agree on who the worst are and remove them from the running.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:16 PM on August 22, 2009


lucia__is__dada: "Take three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because it is the fruit of her own labour. How do we decide between these three legitimate claims?"

Three children desire one flute
"I made it!" - "I need it!" - "I toot!"
Said Ayn Rand, "It's the first's!"
Said the commies, "Perverse!"
But the puzzle is dumb, so it's moot
posted by Rhaomi at 2:46 PM on August 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Possession is 9/10 of the law. Who has the flute now, and how did they acquire it?
posted by mikewas at 7:39 PM on August 22, 2009


When having a normative deliberation citing the way things are now, with no other content, offers little to nothing. The question is not "what is legal or just according to our current standards", the question, rather, is "what would be best or most just".

Citing the way things are, says simply that you cannot imagine any desirable alternative, thus you are not interested in the premise of the conversation.

Furthermore, most of us live under a legal and economic system where neither
a) utility
b) need
nor
c) labor
are considered, by themselves, grounds for claiming ownership. So a status quo property rights response to the question is a non-sequitur.
posted by idiopath at 8:48 AM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would just like to thank everyone who favorited my comment upthread, and would like to specifically invite all of you to come help rebuild civilization with me once everything finally collapses.
posted by hippybear at 9:32 AM on August 23, 2009


you have not come up with any reason for preferring yours over mine except that a) you think yours is obvious and b) you think mine is a view that nobody actually believes. Do you really want to commit yourself to the notion that the correct version of morality is, by definition, the morality that most people believe in, as a matter of empirical reality, at the point in history at which you happen to live?

There are actually 4 people in this problem: Carla, Anne, Bob and the person who takes the flute away and makes the decision as to its future. This gives the fourth person power over Carla, Ann, and Bob. If someone else has power over Carla, how far does this power extend? Does she own her own ideas? Time? Kidneys? Life? And how did this mysterious fourth person achieve this power? Is it an accident of birth? Power wielded through violence? Any morality that begins by placing Carla in a powerless position, subject to anothers whims, is neither moral nor ethical.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:49 PM on August 23, 2009


Secret Life of Gravy: I really must be insistent about this point: I have made a large number of things in my life, most of which I never owned. Most things that get made in this world are not and never were the property of the one that made them.
posted by idiopath at 3:52 PM on August 23, 2009


"Fruit of her own labor" doesn't mean Carla made the flute. She could have worked and bought it from someone who made it. If she obtained the flute through her efforts, then obviously it was worth the effort to her.

Bob's poverty doesn't mean he can't learn to play the flute....if he has one. He needs to figure out some work he can do in order to get a flute for himself, assuming he is interested in actually playing it.

Anne had enough access to a flute to learn to play it...why can't she work and/or make a flute like Carla? Isn't owning a flute to play worth the effort to her?

@philip-random:
Marx's theories have tended NOT to achieve a worker's paradise. Anything but. Hence, fail. Likewise, based on real world application, Rawls' theories seem NOT to have provided for a fairer, more just society.
You're confusing Marx's theories with Marxist-Leninism. The flaw is in Leninism, and its doctrine of the vanguard party. Every Marxist failure has actually been a failure of the vanguard party and its essential hostility toward democracy. Marx himself disavowed the movement that was named for him.

I'm curious as to where you see Rawls's theories being implemented and failing. Universal health care, as practiced in most industrial countries, for example, is quite Rawlsian, and also quite successful, especially as contrasted with the crony-capitalist system that is the default.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:27 PM on August 24, 2009


I'm curious as to where you see Rawls's theories being implemented and failing. Universal health care, as practiced in most industrial countries, for example, is quite Rawlsian, and also quite successful, especially as contrasted with the crony-capitalist system that is the default.

I honestly can't take this any further. As I admitted above, I'd never even heard of Rawls until this post. To further clarify:

The standards of justice he proposes in A Theory of Justice are actually so strenuous that pretty much every country -- ever -- fails them horribly.

This statement is what got me started as it reminded me exactly of the many people I've heard over the years defending Karl Marx's theories. ie: it's not the theories that are wrong, it's the implementation. But at what point do we accept that maybe the reason that the implementation always fails is because human nature is not up to theories? In other words, the theory may be brilliant but humanity ain't. Therefore, maybe the theory has a colossal hole in it.

That is all. I'm on vacation.
posted by philip-random at 12:51 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


But at what point do we accept that maybe the reason that the implementation always fails is because human nature is not up to theories?

I once gave a talk to a bunch of physicians about determining whether a particular medical device could benefit a particular patient by intra-operative testing algorithms. I said, more than once to my shame, things like "This result indicates that the patient is not suitable for the device" I was roundly and rightly chastized by one eloquent MD for implying that the patient needed to suit the device and not vice versa.

You, on the other hand, recovered nicely with your penultimate statement...
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2009


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