Distributive Justice in the Abstract and Concrete

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?

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9 Responses to Distributive Justice in the Abstract and Concrete

  1. Interesting! I tend to think that concrete scenarios are apt to yield more reliable intuitions. It seems plausible that we make a real judgment there, whereas to answer abstract questions one may simply regurgitate whatever theoretical platitudes they’ve previously internalized, without really reflecting much on the issue. (Though I guess that’s an assumption to be confirmed or not by cognitive psychology.)

    p.s. Did the questions take in account Estlund’s non/un issue, or were participants forced to make a choice about desert applying one way or the other?

  2. Josh,

    I’d be interested in seeing how philosophers respond to your question when they know the results of Chris and Shaun’s work and when they don’t. Tell philosophers in group A that subjects have different responses to the abstract and concrete cases, but don’t tell the philosophers what the subjects think. Now ask the philosophers whether intuitions about concrete or abstract cases are more reliable. Then, for group B, give them all the information you just gave us, and ask them which set of intuitions are more reliable. For both groups, find out what their pre-existing attitudes about re-distribution are. I suspect that in group B, you’ll find that there’s a tendency for egalitarians and desert-skeptics to say abstract intuitions are more reliable, while non-egalitarians and believers in desert will say that the specific intuitions are more reliable. In contrast, philosophers in group won’t be as strongly subject to conformation bias. (You might ask them to hypothesize about what the results were, and then see if they end up having the same problems as group B probably would.)

  3. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Interesting study, thanks Josh!

    Cheers, N

  4. Joshua Knobe says:

    Chris Freiman is still in the process of registering as an official user on this site, but in the meantime, I am putting up his comment for him. Here it is:

    Hi all,

    This is Chris Freiman—my thanks to Josh Knobe for allowing me to post under his name while I’m awaiting registration confirmation.

    Richard: We noticed a fairly dramatic divide on the issue. Most seem to agree that concrete scenarios will do more to engage subjects’ emotions, but there’s disagreement about whether this will lead to better or worse judgments. Some think that the moral emotions play an indispensable role in judgments of desert, while others worry that the influence of emotion is corrupting. Also, some might think that because the abstract condition isolates the morally significant features under consideration, it allows agents to better focus their moral judgment. Alternatively, ordinary moral agents may be more competent in making judgments in concrete cases because our normal capacity for making judgments of desert is directed at these sorts of cases. We don’t take a stand on this in the paper, but it seems like a question that is worthy of further consideration. Re: the non/un issue. That’s a great question—the results would be ambiguous on the matter, which suggests an intriguing follow-up possibility.

    J: That’s a really interesting suggestion and it speaks to what could be a component of wide reflective equilibrium—namely, beliefs about the reliability of different sorts of moral judgments. This might be another way of giving us some critical leverage on our antecedent moral beliefs. A brief survey of philosophers suggests that pro-abstract and pro-egalitarian/anti-desert judgments tend to go together (arguably Rawls, although the reading of Rawls as pro-abstract might be contested), as do pro-concrete and non-egalitarian judgments (we discuss Adam Smith in the paper, who is explicitly pro-concrete).

  5. Chris – Hayek seems like an interesting counterexample to the claim you make in your response to Jason. Hayek in Law Legislation and Liberty and especially in The Fatal Conceit is strongly in favor of governing society by abstract rules and quite distrustful of our intuitions regarding issues of distributive justice in concrete cases – regarding them as a kind of atavistic holdover from an earlier, smaller and more primitive form of society. But, of course, he’s also very anti-egalitarian. (Though not necessarily pro-desert)

  6. Derek Bowman says:


    Your question “[W]hich sort of intuition should we trust when we are actually doing philosophy?” suggests that there is some general answer which covers most or all cases. But it seems to me that we have good reason to reject that assumption.

    Just look at the things Chris suggests (in the comment above – I confess I haven’t yet had a chance to read the full paper) that “some might think” on either side of the issue. Maybe emotions are indispensible to judgment, or maybe they hinder judgment. Maybe abstract situations allow a better focus on what matters, or maybe our capacity for judgment operates better with concretes. Isn’t it most plausible that all of these things are sometimes true?

    Sometimes abstract framings will obscure important elements of particular cases, making it harder to exercise reliable judgments. Other times the particulars of a case will trigger our biases in ways that prevent reliable judgment. That emotion is likely indespensible for decision making doesn’t take away from the fact that emotion can also cloud our judgment.

    So it seems to me the fruitful question is: In cases of conflict, when ought we to put greater trust in our intuitions about (more) abstract cases and when ought we to put greater trust in our intuitions about (more) concrete cases?

  7. Derek – I think your question speaks to an underspecified dimension of reflective equilibrium. Little is provided in the way of substantive guidance for conflicts between incompatible concrete and abstract judgments, other than to compare them in terms of their “initial credibility.” What we need, as you indicate, is a well-developed account of when to favor abstract versus concrete intuitions. We offer some suggestions in the paper but my hunch is that articulating a complete and satisfying answer would be a major project.

    As a first pass, an account will probably hang on one’s antecedent ideas about the nature of moral theory. In the paper we suggest that Rawls might actually be committed to a presumption in favor the concrete in cases of conflict. He speaks of moral theory as involving a description of our sense of justice and offers the famous linguistic analogy. Linguists study intuitions about concrete sentences rather than abstract principles. So depending on how seriously one takes that analogy, one might think that we have prima facie reason to favor concrete judgments. Moral theorists with different assumptions will likely dispute this.

  8. Chris,

    I think Rawls’ and others’ view of reflective equilibrium is simply this: Whenever there is a conflict between a concrete or an abstract judgment, you reject the one that you have less confidence in. That’s it. (I won’t bother cite passages from Rawls to support this. Sorry. But I’ll just throw it out there as what I think he’s up to. You probably have read him on this more carefully than I.) There’s no general rule about the concrete or the abstract having priority. Rather, I think for Rawls is just reduces to whatever confidence you happen to have, after reflection, in those judgments. So, if the principle of utility conflicts with certain concrete moral intuitions, but you are more confident in the principle of utility, then you keep the principle of utility and toss out the concrete stuff. Or vice versa if that’s how your confidence goes.

  9. J – I agree with that reading of Rawls. Shaun and I don’t argue that Rawls himself offers a general rule about the priority of the abstract or the concrete but rather that his conception of moral theory might commit him, uncomfortably, to some sort of presumption in favor of the concrete. As you mention, when our confidence in either the abstract or concrete judgment is decisive, Rawls doesn’t have any difficulty. Yet a problem seems to arise when our considered judgment is not decisive. It would help to have something like a rule here to help us arbitrate. I noted earlier that perhaps this would feature in wide reflective equilibrium.

    And there’s a worry lurking in the background–and it’s one that’s been voiced by many of Rawls’s critics like Hare, Brandt, Singer, etc.–namely, that something other than credence is needed to substantiate a judgment. Of course, Rawls and others have responded to this worry, but I think that an account of the reliability of concrete and abstract intuitions might be useful here too.

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