A Look At Distributive Justice
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“As the income and wealth disparity between classes has grown in recent years, and American society has become increasingly fractured, I fear that our collective conscience has seriously eroded. ‘To have is to deserve’ seems to be our moral motto,” opines Richard S. Gilbert in his article, “How Much Do We Deserve? A Look at Distributive Justice,” in the November/December, 2001, issue of UU World.
“Yet at the deepest levels of our being,” he continues, “we who take pleasure in our unparalleled prosperity are vaguely anxious that millions of others in our midst are living in poverty.” There is a question of distributive justice, defined by the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics as the “virtue by which goods and burdens of the community are distributed with due proportion among citizens.” Is a distributive ethic possible, one that will be fair to all people and at the same time produce abundance to be shared?
Gilbert thinks there is. In our specialized world, he believes, economics seems totally divorced from moral analysis. He proposes that ethics and economics be rejoined in a common dialogue in which the economic system should be the servant, not the master, of humanity. He proposes six canons, or principles, as tests for the justice of our economic policies, drawing on principles developed almost 80 years ago in Father John Ryan’s landmark book, Distributive Justice. These canons strive to balance the lofty requirements of economic ethics and the hard requirements of an efficient economic system. They are as follows:
NEED: He says, “All human beings have the inherent right to have their basic human needs met before any economic surplus is distributed to others. Simply stated, the basic needs of the poor transcend the superfluous desires of the rich in moral importance.” This principle is affirmed in religious and philosophical traditions from Plato to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures. It is based on the idea that all human beings are worthwhile. Human beings are not to be used as a means to some higher end. They are ends in themselves. This canon recognizes the individual as a center of freedom with the ability to make real choices. Self-determination requires a minimal economic package, however. To exclude some members from that community because they have not produced enough is to erode the community’s foundation in human solidarity. A society may be judged by how it treats its poorest, weakest, and most vulnerable people.
PROPORTIONAL EQUALITY: Every human being should be limited in his or her consumption of income and wealth by the principal of sufficiency. This is an ethic of limits, a floor based on need and a ceiling based on proportionality, as articulated in Plato’s Laws. Robert Reich in The American Prospect points out that the average pay of a chief executive in the U.S. rose 18% in 1999 to $12 million. At the other end were 1) 400 janitors in Los Angeles protesting wages of less than $16,000 a year, 2) More than 2 million Americans earning between $7 and $8 an hour working in nursing homes, “bathing and feeding frail elderly people, etc.,” and 3) 700,000 home health care aids who earn $8 to $10 an hour. By comparison many law firms pay first year associates $120,000 plus a signing bonus, and Wall Street investment banks pay more than $75,000 a year for financial analysts. Reich says the policy of the Federal Reserve Board, which raises interest rates to check inflation, makes life harder for the people on the bottom rungs of the ladder, who end up paying more for first mortgages, car loans and other borrowing. “This year the richest 2.7 million Americans, comprising the top 1 percent will have as many after-tax dollars to spend as the bottom 100 million put together, and they’ll have 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.” These examples of extreme inequality attack the democratic egalitarian ideal as well as common sense standards of decency,” says Gilbert. “The class warfare under way in the United States undermines the principles of proportion and balance one might expect to see in a truly prosperous society.” Thorsten Veblen indicated the corrupting potential of excessive income and wealth. It is based on an ethic of “enough.” Beyond a certain level income is not only superfluous but morally and spiritually corrupting.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE COMMON GOOD: Work that served the community should be valued more highly than work that serves only a few. A study by the National Opinion Research Center evaluated 90 occupations in terms of social value. Physicians, who ranked second in social value, and college professors, who ranked seventh, are close in social value and work in professions that require the same amount of education and training. Yet physicians, on average, earn more than twice as much as professors. Sherwin Rosen in the 1983 issue of The American Scholar asks if the principle of payment by contribution has been abandoned. According to Rosen, “the distribution of earnings is far from proportionate to the distribution of ability…How can it be that many a mediocre free agent [in professional sports] earns far more than the Secretary of State or the President of the United States. The average family can hardly afford to attend professional sports games, which are often held in stadiums using tax dollars because the ticket prices are too high.
Gilbert suggests that contributions that can be shared by the citizenry at large should take precedence over those enjoyed by the elite. He does not naively expect that this view has a chance of becoming public or private policy, but nonetheless the issue should be engaged. It would prompt a fascinating exercise in values clarification. The principle is that people who work in the service of the community must be rewarded more generously than those who work to further self-aggrandizement. Carol Gilligan in In a Different Voice, points out that the U.S. economy is based on the perspective that the world is composed of individuals in conflict with one another over claims to resources. This represents the male ethos. The feminist view, however sees the world as an arena not so much for conflict resolution as for preserving connections. This ethos is grounded in human attachment, the principle of caring. A distributive ethic needs to factor in this community-building value.
PRODUCTIVITY: Productivity is well established in the American economic and moral psyche and needs mainly to be disestablished as a canon of divine right. It is a useful and important principle of distribution–but not a sacred one. Why? To the extent that one’s remuneration is based on the skills one has acquired through a lifetime, this canon gives an unfair advantage to those who have backgrounds conducive to acquiring those skills. Economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis reported in 1997 that children from the wealthiest 10 percent of the population are 27 times as likely as children from the bottom 10 percent to be in the top 10 percent in terms of income. Society should work to ameliorate, not to compound, the natural inequity in people’s genetic ability to succeed. A just economy will encourage productivity among all its citizens who are able to produce economically. American society stresses incentives for the affluent at the expense of incentives for the poor. The plight of the working poor, the relatively high tax burden on the poor, and the social welfare system, which still tends to discourage people from working by dropping medical and other benefits for those who take jobs–all contribute to a reduction of productivity. People with limited ability nevertheless deserve to have their needs met because they are likewise members of the human community.
EFFORT AND SACRIFICE: It seems fair to reward effort, leisure being a form of income; but what about those who, by virtue of genetics or environment, are unable to work? Some people, for example, the very young and the very old or people with disabilities, are able to contribute relatively little economically, yet they should not be excluded from the community. Caregivers in the family who perform the tasks of maintaining a home and caring for children and elders, the costs of which would be enormous on the open market, are on the low end of the income scale. Also, unpleasant or unsafe working conditions should be considered in determining economic rewards.
SCARCITY: Rewarding the scarcity of a particular talent fails to recognize the joint inputs that mark so many economic endeavors. In professional sports, one superstar may be highly rewarded when the team wins a championship, but in most cases there is a kitty that is shared by all team members. The profit-sharing plans of some businesses could be said to follow a similar system of economic reward. Clearly, people with valuable skills must be rewarded. Given the realities of human nature, incentives must be included in any realistic economic scheme. Gilbert suggests only that the canon of scarcity find its proper place. Given an affluent society, it is quite possible to remunerate people by means of the other canons and still have a surplus from which to reward those who have rare skills.
Gilbert suggests the following steps for a more equitable distribution in the American economy:
- Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to bring the working poor up to the poverty level.
- Transfer the minimum wage into a living wage.
- Implement welfare reform that ends the cruel arbitrariness of a five-year time limit, putting more emphasis on the “carrot” (programs for education, child care, health coverage, and job training) than on the “stick” (attitudes and action that regard getting people off welfare rolls as more important than getting people out of poverty).
- Develop an affirmative action program that stresses class more than race or ethnicity, but still recognizes the underlying discrimination in American culture.
- Create a social policy that is “front loaded,” that recognizes that investing in human resources early on makes far more sense than applying draconian sanctions later.
- Institute tax reform that guarantees true progressivity, seeks to maintain a top-to-bottom quintile ratio of not more than five to one, and makes the payroll tax more progressive by raising the upper limit on which these taxes are paid.
- Create more effective taxes on wealth, involving maintaining the inheritance tax, but indexing it for inflation.
- Legislate a negative income tax, a system of income maintenance for people with the lowest wages, which will provide a floor under all Americans. Low marginal tax rates will also provide strong incentives for workers at lower income levels.
Following are some brief thoughts from Dr. Mulder’s presentation on Being Secular.
To be secular is to be free from endless theological debates.
To be secular is to see world religions and their mythologies from a rational, naturalistic perspective, and to enjoy the art and literature those mythologies have produced for the imaginative creations they are.
To be secular is to be free from Job’s great question about suffering: we need neither blame nor thank a non-existent deity for our good or bad fortune.
Problems of the Mormon Intellectual
From an address, “On Being Secular,” to the Humanists of Utah, March 2002. Dr. Mulder is a former professor at the University of Utah, and a chapter member.
A continuing problem of the Mormon intellectual is to remain both Mormon and intellectual. His is the problem of religious intellectuals generally: to dare to follow where the mind leads, to prevent the indecision that comes when intellectually they are persuaded in one direction but drawn emotionally in another. If one is robust he may, like William James, will to believe and find pragmatic reasons for the utility of faith, even when the premises are uncomfortable.
The Mormon intellectual, like intellectuals everywhere, wants to know the truth and shares their faith that the mind can lead the way to it. But the mind is only a tiny light in the great surrounding dark of the universe. Sometimes the seeker has to grope his way by other sensibilities, and senses other than sight, to move to an elevation where the little light he does have throws a farther illumination. Because he believes that faith is a s much a dimension of total experience as is reason, the Mormon intellectual may tolerate premises, doctrines, attitudes, and practices in his church which, rationally examined, seem archaic, untenable, even at times repugnant, on the chance these contain values he cannot now appreciate but some day will, or on the chance that he himself may be instrumental in changing them. When faith itself becomes unreasonable, however, putting too great a strain on his credulity, he has to make the hard choice of silence or separation.
The Mormon intellectual as scientist has a higher threshold than as humanist because, more familiar with natural fact than with social value, as scientist he is more willing to assign matters of value to the area of faith, where religious authorities can resolve doubts and make decisions. His religion is not in conflict with science because they don’t really meet. The Mormon intellectual as humanist, on the other hand, finds himself deeply entangled in kinds of truth not as readily verifiable as in chemistry or mathematics, but relative. In the humanities and social sciences, truth is not so much discovered as created. Social and moral and religious “truths” leave more room for argument and require, in any effort to institutionalize them, greater latitude of interpretation and application.
Abstract Mormonism, to the loyal intellectual, provides such latitude. Unfortunately, the concrete Church, or its officialdom, does not. Officially, spiritual truths are revealed truths, absolutes, and there can be no conflict between revealed truth and the discoveries about the natural universe, including human nature. In any apparent conflict, man-made truth must yield. Such an a priori commitment makes an apologist of the Mormon intellectual, not a seeker. The early church was full of vigorous thinkers whose main task in proving a doctrine true was to prove it scriptural. They were “intellectuals,” scholars and theologians, working, like the Puritans before them, with the Bible as the primary text and skilled in accommodating advancing knowledge to Biblical explanations. Mormonism, in the words of a twentieth-century apologist, a university man, prided itself on having a “rational theology.”
From the point of view of the Church, the intellectual is himself a problem. The Church is fearful that his findings will loosen his loyalties and may influence others to find a basis for their faith which is not simple and old-fashioned enough to be called religious. Work for the dead, the Negro question, the narrow proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom are matters where the Church would prefer not to have sophisticated answers because these might mean radical change. History is hard on Mormonism because Mormonism stakes so much on history, and if the evidence fails-if there really were no gold plates, if Joseph Smith really was more scoundrel than prophet-Mormonism faces a serious dilemma. Mormonism without a Book of Mormon as miracle is like Christianity without the Virgin Birth. But the intellectual may, in fact, provide the mystery religion requires and, with proper encouragement, give Mormonism its Sufis and Vedantists. When Mormonism can embrace both superstition and sophistication in the same fold, the intellectual will have found a productive place and revitalize the professed doctrine of the glory of God as intelligence.
Meanwhile, the Mormon intellectual faces a great test of humility to remain in an organization led by anti-intellectuals. If he is not to lose the name of action, he must, like Hamlet, resolve his dilemma. If to remain within the Church means paralysis of will and denial of the deepest urgings of his thought, he must make a break for the open sea. He leaves one haven, as every institution is a haven. There waits, perhaps, the larger harbor of a more inclusive humanity.
The Ascent of Man
When I think about my “Journey to Humanism” there are, of course, many things that have influenced my thinking and led me to where I am today. In the months ahead I hope to share some of these things with you (personal experiences, favorite quotes, even some song lyrics).
As someone who approaches humanism from a scientific point of view, I’d like to start with a passage from one of my favorite books, Jacob Bronowski’s, The Ascent of Man.
For a long time I had accepted evolution in the Darwinian sense, that is to say as strictly biological. But two phrases in the passage below helped lead me to a greater understanding of the scope of evolution: “the evolution of nature” and “matter itself evolves.”
Transmutation was, of course, an age-old dream. But to men like me, with a theoretical bent of mind, what was most exciting about the 1930s was that there began to open up the evolution of nature. I must explain that phrase. I begin here by talking about the day of creation, and I will do that again… Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh, a long time ago, about 1650, said that the universe was created in 4004 BC. Armed as he was with dogma and ignorance, he brooked no rebuttal. He or another cleric knew the year, the date the day of the week, the hour… But the puzzle of the age of the world remained, and remained a paradox, well into the 1900s: because, while it was then clear that the earth was many, many million years old, we could not conceive where the energy came from in the sun and the stars to keep them going so long. By then we had Einstein’s equations, of course, which showed that the loss of matter would produce energy. But how was the matter rearranged?
Very well. That is really the crux of energy and the door of understanding that Chadwick’s discovery opened. In 1939 Hans Bethe, working at Cornell University, for the first time explained in very precise terms the transformation of hydrogen to helium in the sun, by which a loss of mass streams out to us as this proud gift of energy… Hans Bethe’s explanation is as vivid to me as my own wedding day… Because what was revealed in the years that followed (and finally sealed in what I suppose to be the definitive analysis in 1957) is that in all the stars there are going on processes which build up the atoms one by one into more and more complex structures. Matter itself evolves. The word comes from Darwin and biology, but it is the word that changed physics in my lifetime.
The first step in the evolution of the elements takes place in young stars, such as the sun. It is the step from hydrogen to helium, and it needs the great heat of the interior; what we see on the surface of the sun are only storms produced by that action… What happens in effect is that from time to time a pair of nuclei of heavy hydrogen collide and fuse to make a nucleus of helium.”
In time the sun will become mostly helium. And then it will become a hotter star in which helium nuclei collide to make heavier atoms in turn. Carbon, for instance, is formed whenever three helium nuclei collide at one spot within less than a millionth of a millionth of a second. Every carbon atom in every living creature has been formed by such a wildly improbable collision. Beyond carbon, oxygen is formed, silicon, sulphur and heavier elements.
I think it is a mistake to view evolution as only a biological phenomenon. For me, it helps to clarify and enhance my understanding of the cosmos to understand that biological evolution is only possible when the matter we are made of first comes into existence. It comes into existence (as Bronowski puts it) by those “wildly improbable” collisions, known as nuclear fusion.
As you can see from this passage, Bronowski is a learned and passionate author whose writings have long inspired and intrigued me. The Ascent of Man has a prominent place in my library and I definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the evolution of man. However, The Ascent of Man is not only an eloquent treatise of science, but also a fascinating journey into history, anthropology, architecture and mathematics. I hope you will find it as inspirational and thought-provoking as I have.
May 23, 1916-June 5, 2002
Alice Humphrey Jensen, long time HoU Chapter member, was cut down in the prime of her life at age 86 on June 5, 2002.
Alice lived life to the fullest and every day was the prime of her life.
Born in Panguitch, Utah, May 23, 1916 to Joseph William and Helga Nielson Humphrey. Married Paul Elliott Jensen, April 3, 1935, raised five children: Eugene Jensen, Portland, OR; Jerry (Lee) Jensen, American Fork; Doris King, Murray; Linda (Kirk) Granat, Salt Lake; Julie (Bob) Mayhew, Salt Lake. She had many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and countless friends the world over who will miss her dearly.
Graduated Snow College 1951, BS from BYU 1952, MS from U of U 1966. Served on State Board of Alcohol & Drugs, Utah Mental Health Comm., ACLU Board, Andrews Committee Against Capital Punishment, Gina Bachauer Board, and the NAACP. Received COPE (Community of Political Education) Award from the AFL-CIO and co-founded a half way house for mentally ill returning to society from the State Hospital. Ahead of her time she began an “Adopt a Grandparent” Program in the late ’50’s, pairing 8th grade students with convalescent home residents and set up a remedial reading program enlisting parent involvement.
She was a mother, teacher, counselor, political activist, promoter of the arts, and respected community leader. Alice was the ultimate human being and saw and brought out the best in people. A lifelong “Liberal” Democrat she was a tireless crusader for the underdog. Open minded and accepting she was a haven for anyone who didn’t fit the mold. She treated people from all walks of life equally and believed in the value and worth of every individual.
She adored working with junior high students, an age when, in her words, “even their own parents don’t like them” and as the school counselor at Orem Junior High, she made a difference in countless lives. She had a passion for the arts and advocated to keep art programs in the schools.
We already miss her very much.
March 21, 1921 – April 24, 2002
Humanists of Utah member Frank Miller, husband of our chapter Librarian Lorille, the only child of Etsa Johnson Miller Talmage and Frank R. Miller, was born in Seattle, WA. Shortly before his first birthday, he was hospitalized with TB of the left hip. His father died of acute peritonitis when Frank was 21 months old. As soon as he could be released from the hospital he and his mother returned to Salt Lake City where they lived with his grandparents, Soren and Sophie Dorius Johnson, Uncle Bob and Aunt Doris “Dodo.”
The Shriners offered treatment when Frank was six. He was hospitalized two and a half years until he was strong enough to tolerate surgery–a noteworthy success. He attended Lafayette, Horace Mann, West High and the U of U. Against all odds, having been told he would never walk, he made the tennis teams at West and the “U.” He also swam, rode bicycle and bowled in a league until 75.
Frank danced the hours away at Lagoon, The Terrace, and The Manhattan with many girl friends until he met Lorille. From that time on he only had eyes for her. On June 3, 1948 he married Rill, the love of his life, who came as a package with Larry and Judy whom he adopted in 1949. Thomas Frank came three years later and Charlene Etsa three years after that.
Frank spent most of his working career, 36 years, with Phillips Petroleum in Woods Cross. He also worked many years part time at the old Deseret Gym and YMCA. After retirement he worked with his son, Larry, “to keep me young.” He was a diehard U of U football and basketball fan. After Larry acquired the Jazz, he, Lorille, Char and many grandkids didn’t miss a home game as long as he was able. Due to the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease, Lorille took care of him at home for his last two years.
A celebration of Frank’s life was held at the First Unitarian on Saturday April 27th. Anyone wishing to honor Frank is encouraged to send donations to Shriner’s Hospital in Frank’s name.
Chris Sampson Walker
November 19, 1936-June 10, 2002
Christine N. (Chris) Sampson Walker, long time HoU member, died in Salt Lake City June 10, 2002.
Born in Salt Lake on Nov. 19, 1936 and adopted by Thea Almsteadt Nilsen. Attended schools in Salt Lake and Los Angeles and graduated from West High school in 1954. She worked for American Oil Company from 1960 until 1971. Attended the University of Utah and worked part time for the Utah Museum of Natural History for approximately 10 years. She graduated from the University with a BA in 1980 and a MA in 1981 in Linguistics. She was employed by Salt Lake Community College from 1982 until 1998 beginning in the ESL Program and left on long-term disability from the Admissions Office where she served as coordinator for 10 years. Married to Gordon Sampson in 1971. He died in 1984. Married to Edwin E. Walker in 1986.
Christine leaves one daughter, Deena Slye McCain of Boulder, CO; and one granddaughter, Erin McCain.
She loved traveling, sewing, reading and above all, music. As long as she could listen to her beloved music while working on a project of one sort or another, she was happy. Making things for others was one of her greatest joys.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Idaho Youth Ranch or the Humane Society.
Steven Jay Gould
September 10, 1941-May 20, 2002
“Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information. It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as information processors.”
“Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again.”