The Philosophy of ‘You didn’t build that’

July 20, 2012

By now you've surely heard about Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" line. In case you haven't, here's the full quote, from a speech in Roanoke:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

 

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The Romney campaign immediately seized on the moment for a campaign ad. Ezra related this to research about what policy regime best promotes entrepreneurship. But, as Julian Sanchez notes, Obama's speech is murky in terms of what values it expresses. Descriptively, it's clear what Obama means: No one has even built a road on their own, and if they had, it wouldn't be good enough to drive on.

But let's suppose you did build a road entirely on your own, and you charge tolls and you make a lot of money off it. Do you deserve that money? After all, you did all the work yourself. Then again, maybe you only know how to build a road because you had good parents who paid for good schools where you learned about civil engineering. And even if they hadn't, maybe you're only capable of understanding the concepts needed to build a road because you inherited DNA that gave you a brain that can understand those concepts. Maybe you wouldn't even have had gotten into civil engineering unless an aunt had given you a book on it as a present, and if she had chosen to give you a book on rocketry instead you would have pursued that career. Do you still deserve that money?

Political philosophers are sharply divided on these questions. Many do not like the idea that people "deserve" things at all. For one thing, most people think that to deserve something, a person must have done something to deserve it. That implies that there are actions that for which certain people are responsible. Seem obvious? A lot of metaphysicians don't think so. For one thing, that claim presupposes the existence of free will. Some philosophers are what is called "hard determinists," who deny that anything that could be called free will exists. Others, called compatibilists or "soft determinists," believe that it is both true that free will exists and that every action is determined. They reason that free will exists if people can act according to their own motives without interference. Those motives are determined by factors outside those people, compatibilists argue, but they still have free will.

But if hard or soft determinism is true, how can people be responsible for their actions, and thus deserve things because of them? The philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton tried to explain how this could be so. In the 1969 paper, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility," he argued that there are many cases where we would hold somebody responsible for an action even when the person could not have acted otherwise. Suppose you are going to get a burrito for lunch and can either go to Chipotle or Qdoba. Suppose also that I have implanted a chip in your brain such that if you decide to go to Qdoba, chemicals are released into your brain that change your mind and you instead decide to go to Chipotle. Suppose finally that you get up, decide to go to Chipotle, and eat your burrito in peace without my chip ever being activated. You are clearly responsible for going to Chipotle, but you could not have done otherwise.

The problem is that you are not morally responsible for going to Chipotle if you were originally planning to go to Qdoba and the chip does fire. And if causal determinism is true, your DNA and brain chemistry are more or less equivalent to that chip. In both cases, something you have no control over is manipulating your brain and making you do things. So it's possible Frankfurt is wrong, and we cannot deserve things if free will is false.


John Rawls / Harvard University and Gerald Cohen / McGill University.

Some political philosophers think desert is possible even if determinism means individual moral responsibility is impossible. John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, endorsed what he called "institutional desert". There are certain institutions, he reasons, that a just society must have. People deserve whatever benefits or treatment these just institutions would provide them. But they do not deserve this treatment because of things they have done. They deserve them because justice demands institutions that provide this kind of treatment. Most Rawlsians and other "high liberals" who support an institutional notion of justice, such as my old thesis advisor Tim Scanlon, lean to the left in real political terms, believing that just institutions would provide considerable economic and social support to citizens.

Utilitarians and other consequentialists - who think that the moral action is about promoting good outcomes like happiness  - usually reject the idea of desert. Some, like J.J.C. Smart of Monash University, also believe (pdf) that determinism is true and precludes moral responsibility, and take this as a reason to believe that we should just maximize good things whether or not that results in people getting the goods they "deserve". Others concede that free will could exist but insist that even in that case, what matters is promoting good outcomes, not giving people what they deserve due to their actions.

Utilitarians are in some way even more left-leaning than Rawlsians, as the theory implies, according to Peter Singer (pdf) and many others, that residents of rich countries should give almost all their money away to the poor. What's more, it doesn't particularly matter to utilitarians whether people give the money away voluntarily or if the government takes it from them, as utilitarians do not believe that people have inalienable rights, such as a right against excessive taxation. NYU's Sam Scheffler, whose view combined elements of "high liberalism" and consequentialism, has expressed concern that the unpopularity of desert among liberals in political philosophy disconnects the discipline from real political debates about welfare, crime and other issues, where responsibility and desert matter a great deal.

Funnily enough, the main proponents of a robust idea of desert within academic political philosophy are luck egalitarians, who are arguably the most left-wing contingent in real world political terms, seeing as they support eliminating inequalities in wealth due to differences in intelligence. This school, which includes the late G.A. Cohen of Oxford and UC San Diego's Richard Arneson, argues that it is morally imperative to minimize the degree to which people's life outcomes are attributable to luck. And, if determinism is true, more or less everything is a matter of luck. This is why luck egalitarians generally reject determinism in favor of "metaphysical libertarianism" - the confusing term for the position that free will and determinism cannot be reconciled, and free will exists. In his classic essay, "On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice," Cohen wrote (pdf), "We may indeed be up to our necks in the free will problem, but that is just tough luck. It is not a reason for not following the argument where it goes."

Many right-leaning political philosophers reject the idea of desert as well. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick supported limited government because he thought government coercion was almost always an impingement upon individual rights, not because he thought rich people deserved what they got. At most, he believed that in virtue of their rights, people deserved not to be denied what they earned through "acts of capitalism between consenting adults." He in fact argued aggressively against those who would have the government distribute goods to people based upon what it judged they deserved.


JJC Smart / Monash University and Alasdair MacIntyre / Boston University.

Virtue ethicists like Notre Dame's Alasdair McIntyre who take their cues from Aristotle believe that just as we would call a dog with three legs defective, there are certain humans who are morally defective. They disagree about what moral defect like this looks like, though conservative virtue ethicists consider abortion, premarital sex, and so forth included, but few think moral action has much to do with giving others what they deserve. Instead, they think it has to do with you yourself living up to the standards of all humans. If those standards involve giving the government or others the money you earned, it does not matter if you "deserve" that money in some sense.

So let's say you built that bridge. Do you deserve the toll money? It all depends on whether you can deserve anything, and on whether or not it even matters, ethically, that you get what you deserve. In short, the answer a lot of philosophers give to "You didn't build that!" is, "All right, so what?" Which is perhaps why, in general, politicians don't spend a lot of time listening to philosophers.

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Ezra Klein · July 20, 2012