In talking with people about questions of distributive justice, one often encounters a peculiar sort of conflict or tension. It’s not just that different people hold different views on the question. Rather, each individual person seems somehow to be pulled in a number of different directions.
In an exciting new paper in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Christopher Freiman and Shaun Nichols report an experimental study that helps to shed light on this sort of conflict. Subjects were randomly assigned either to receive an ‘abstract’ question or a ‘concrete’ question.
Subjects assigned to the abstract version were told:
Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages.
Subjects assigned to the concrete version were told:
Suppose that Amy and Beth both want to be professional jazz singers. They both practice singing equally hard. Although jazz singing is the greatest natural talent of both Amy and Beth, Beth’s vocal range and articulation is naturally better than Amy’s because of differences in their genetics. Solely as a result of this genetic advantage, Beth’s singing is much more impressive. As a result, Beth attracts bigger audiences and hence gets more money than Amy.
All subjects were then asked whether it was fair for the genetically advantaged individuals in the scenario to make more money. Surprisingly enough, subjects in the abstract cases said that the genetically advantaged did not deserve more money, while subjects in the concrete cases said that the genetically advantaged actually did deserve more money.
Freiman and Nichols suggest that this study might be getting at a fundamental conflict between two different aspects of the way people ordinarily think about questions of distributive justice. They then raise a difficult philosophical question: if our intuitions in the abstract case differ from those in the concrete case, which sort of intuition should we trust when we are actually doing philosophy?