Capitalists, workers and "natural" contributions to production
In an illuminating recent paper, "Capitalism in the Classical and High Liberal Tradition" [$$$], University of Pennsylvania philosopher Samuel Freeman seeks to offer some justification for the secondary status conferred upon economic rights and liberties within what he calls the "High Liberal" tradition of J.S. Mill, John Dewey, John Rawls. Capitalism follows more or less directly from the kind of rights to private property and contract defended in the "Classical Liberal" tradition of Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman (to be distinguished in Freeman's schema from the "libertarian" tradition of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, which leave no place for taxation, state-provided safety nets and public goods), but Freeman's high liberals reject capitalism in favor of alternative economic systems that give workers more control over both the inputs (capital and labor) and the outputs (profits/losses) of economic production. Why? Because high liberals reject the robust economic rights rights at the foundation of classical liberalism. According to Freeman, a "central feature of the high liberal tradition" is that "the rights and other incidents of property ... are relativized or adjusted to meet antecedent principles of justice..." That is to say, economic rights and liberties play little or no role in the formulation of the foundational principles of liberal justice. First, we come up with an ideal theory of the way free and equal people ought to live with one another. Then we define economic rights and liberties to accommodate this vision. Whether it's possible to justify treating economic rights and liberties as the redheaded stepchildren of liberalism is one of the big questions of contemporary liberal political philosophy. Freeman's excellent paper is part of that debate.
In this post, I want to touch on just one part of Freeman's paper that I think is wrong, but I'm not confident that I'm right about why. I'm thinking out loud here. And, fair warning, the difficulty level is high.
Midway through his paper, Freeman endorses Mill's distinction between "laws of economic production" and "laws of economic distribution" as well as Rawls' distinction "between the role of market prices in allocating productive resources and their role in the distribution of income and wealth." The thrust of the distinction as it is used by high liberals is that it's a good idea to use markets to allocate capital to its most productive use, but it's not a good idea to use markets to determine who gets what share of the surplus from cooperative production.
Freeman observes that many classical liberal's endorse the following distributive principle: "to each according to the marginal value of his or her contribution to production." This principle, Freeman says, leads many classical liberals to argue that "owners of capital should have a right to the entire profits, interest, and rent that result from their investment of capital ... because profits, interests, and rent measure the marginal product of their contribution." Freeman thinks the problem with this argument is that owners of capital don't actually contribute to production in the right way. This is the argument I want to examine.
Freeman wants to draw a distinction between natural contribution and institutionally dependent contribution. Here are some passages from Freeman:
There is a genuine naturalistic sense in which workers can be said to contribute their labor toward productive output, as well as a naturalistic sense in which land, raw materials, and real capital make a contribution. ...
The contribution of owners [of factors of production] is notional when compared to the contribution made by the factors of production they own; it is a manner of speaking dependent upon rights of ownership and control that owners in virtue of legal and other conventional arrangements.
[O]nce we go beyond the natural contribution made by workers' labor and productive resources other than labor, individuals' "contribution to" and "responsibility for" the social product are institutionally dependent, and indefinable outside an institutional (and normally legal) context.
Freeman goes on to examine the idea that capitalists contribute by investing rather withholding or consuming their resources, but I don't want to approach the issue from this angle. What interests me is the extent to which labor and other factors of production count as "natural" as opposed to "institutionally dependent." I'm skeptical that there's a real distinction here. All contributions to production seem to me institutionally dependent in the relevant sense.
By way of adding some theoretical heft to his distinction, Freeman references John Searle's distinction between brute facts and institutional facts in The Construction of Social Reality. Roughly, a brute fact is a fact that is independent of anything anybody thinks about it. An institutional fact is a fact based in certain collective beliefs and intentions. That I am 72" inches tall is a brute fact. That I am a citizen of the United States of America and the owner of a 1996 Honda Civic are institutional facts. That I am poking at a certain human artifact designed by humans for certain human purposes is a brute fact. That my poking counts as "writing in English" and "blogging" and "economic production" strikes me as a fairly rarefied institutional fact. I just can't grasp how it is that my labor is a more "natural" contribution to the Big Think enterprise than the owners' contribution of capital. That my keyboard banging now, as opposed to the keyboard banging I will do in a few minutes on Facebook, counts as labor at all seems to me entirely dependent on an incredibly complex and elaborated system of interlocking institutional facts.
Here's an example Searle likes to use. That a certain set of events count as a "home run" depends on the rules of baseball, which is body of conventions that have force because we all agree that they do. The are no "natural," institution-independent home runs. Likewise, that an Albert Pujols home run is a contribution to the production of a winning game of baseball is a dauntingly complex institutional fact. Albert Pujols can swing a lathed piece of lumber all day long and it won't count as a contribution to the production of a baseball game unless it occurs within the matrix of institutional facts the constitute a game of baseball. I don't see how running a lathe at the Louisville Slugger factory is different.
This is not to deny that there is no principled distinction between the kind of contribution the worker running the lathe makes and the kind that the capitalists who own the lathe make. Even if both of these contributions are thoroughly institutionally dependent, some other distinction may justify treating the contributions of workers and capitalists differently in a way that affects our conception of fair distribution. My point here is simply that the distinction between natural and institutionally-dependent contributions to production can't justify treating them differently because there is no such distinction. Freeman's appeal to "natural" contributions to production strikes me as about as useful as he finds libertarian appeals to "natural" rights to property.
Let me make a more general point about the debate between high liberals and classical liberals. High liberals are obsessed with the idea that property rights require institutional elaboration. If true, this does imply that pre-institutional property rights cannot stand as an already-fixed constraint on the formulation of principles of justice, because there are no pre-institutional property rights. But doesn't every political and economic right require institutional elaboration? The idea that people can't own other people requires institutional elaboration. Liberty of conscience, rights to democratic participation, freedom of speech--the whole gamut of liberal ideals--require institutional elaboration. By itself, the fact that property rights require institutional elaboration seems to me to get the high liberal absolutely nowhere in justifying their insistence on assigning economic right and liberties a secondary status in liberal theories of justice.
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Some back story
A Dunbar Correlation
Professor Dunbar's response:
Friendship, kinship and limitations
Gray matter matters
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
In the end
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.