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February 22, 2008



I would say this pretty much puts Will's argument to bed, but there seem to be no limits to the liberatarian enthusiasm for completely reducing "human flourishing" to "household income" (and no, Will, I'm NOT saying there is no correlation between material wealth and general happiness).

I've been following this argument and have been much more troubled by Will's assertion that these non-citizens have a legitimate moral claim on us to grant them access to the resources and opportunities we enjoy. I say troubled because in a certain sense I think he is right, and there's something almost beautiful about turning Christian charity into humanistic duty.

And Will must know (as he's expressed an interest in this kind of research), how unreflectively biased human beings naturally are to those in their immediate communities. One of Joshua Greene's papers (I don't have the time right now to find which one, it's on his website here: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/) describes a thought experiment which lays bare how much more inclined we are to go to great expense to help someone in need who we happen upon in person than we are to send aid across an ocean to a stranger. Greene's point, and I imagine Will would agree, is that behavioral tendencies may have been selected for in the Pleistocene that incline us toward this kind of "chauvinism," and we find it difficult to become because these same mechanisms are still operative (we have not evolved biologically to keep pace with globalization), but just because we are this way doesn't mean we ought to be this way.

This is what I think Will is getting at when he talks about stunted moral development or what have you. But if we're to render citizenship irrelevant when it comes to distributing resources and opportunities, what other group affiliations will have to go by the wayside? After the polis, then the household, right? Maybe when I die my estate shouldn't pass to my wife, who after all is just my wife, but to whoever squats on it first.

Will Wilkinson

James, Can you please say something about why citizenship as you construe it is so valuable for people according to some broadly shared notion of value, and not just according to your personal pet theory of what makes life meangingful? That way, it would be possible to have a productive debate. And I'd like to believe that citizenship (and the word "polity") is not just a personal fetish of yours, but I don't.

Wealth is good for people in terms of health, longevity, life-satisfaction, education, etc. I can prove it. And I suspect that the places in Arizona and California that you so shamelessly denigrate represent an improvement in quality of life for most of the people who live there, which would help explain why many of them do.

Your disdain for those communities and the people who live in them reflects very poorly on you, my friend, and very much illustrates what concerns me about citizenship fetishism: it practically encourages you to dehumanize people with other passports.


Yeah, it seems your argument hinges upon answering Will's question. Please do!

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