Peter Corning wants to improve, even transform, American life, but perhaps the most dramatic aspect of his project is its sheer ambition. He proposes to "bend the arc of the moral universe" and turn the country into a "fair society." The transformation can be achieved only by collective action, he says, of the sort that was revealed in the 2008 presidential election campaign—a "take-home lesson" in the possibilities of volunteer participation.
What constitutes "fair," of course, is not something people entirely agree on, but fairness is everywhere the watchword of today's radicals. And of many trend-chasing politicians. The British government has declared that its project is to "put fairness at the heart of the government's program." When both professors and politicians are to be found singing the same song, we must be in for a happy time, or perhaps we'd better just duck.
Mr. Corning's "The Fair Society" certainly expresses one of the most powerful politico-moral sentiments of our time. But it owes a great deal to the work of the philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) and the vast literature on "normative politics" that followed the publication in 1971 of Rawls's "A Theory of Justice," which asserted that "the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position." Rawls gave us the "veil of ignorance" thought-experiment that calls on us to consider any policy or moral proposition without knowing what our own attributes—age, race, intelligence, economic class, education—would be.
Mr. Corning regrets that John Rawls has not yet been taken up as a guide to the remaking of America. The extent of current "injustice" might seem to be revealed in the fact that, when compared with many other developed nations, the U.S. suffers from high levels of poverty—and the poverty seems all the worse because of the widening gap between rich and poor. Are Americans therefore fleeing the country and seeking greener pastures elsewhere? On the contrary. Aspiring immigrants clamor for American visas—or clamber over fences to get in. Why would so many fling themselves toward an "unfair" land? It is difficult to reconcile the clash between poverty and immigration statistics. What is the reality? How should we orient ourselves?
The Fair Society
By Peter Corning
University of Chicago Press, 237 pages, $27.50
Mr. Corning suggests bringing science into the matter—it's right there in the book's subtitle: "The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice." Making America a fair society, he says, is a project that has behind it something he calls "the multidisciplinary science of fairness," which has supposedly found that "most of us do have a bias toward cooperation and a readiness to reciprocate—a sense of fairness."
That's odd: Science usually deals in things more concrete than human dispositions. But Mr. Corning's claim is even grander: "An organized complex society," he says, is "a purposeful biologically based survival enterprise." We never quite learn whose survival is at stake or how evolution figures into all this, with its decidedly unfair survival-of-the-fittest theme. Nevertheless, survival—of the species? of the American state? of American individuals?—is the highest value, above both liberty and property. Mr. Corning would obviously have no truck with Patrick Henry's "liberty or death" proposition. Large questions slide by here without the attention they deserve.
But if the science seems obscure, the result that Mr. Corning wants to extract from it is not. The survival enterprise entails a schedule of "primary needs" common to all humans—e.g., warmth, nutrition, clean water, physical safety, social relations. The egalitarian satisfaction of such needs constitutes the first principle of the "fair society." The second principle is that any economic surplus should be distributed according to effort and ability. Finally, "each of us is obligated to contribute proportionately to the collective survival enterprise." In short, there must be reciprocity. These fairness principles are translated into a "biosocial contract" that replaces the social contract of earlier thinkers.
For Mr. Corning, the biosocial contract has "the legitimacy of science" behind it and is a great advance on what he calls "a fantasy based on some simplistic view of human nature or some outworn nineteenth-century ideology," such as socialism or capitalism. The fairness he seeks must apparently navigate two complex—and often conflicting—impulses taken to exhaust the natural activities of human beings: self-interest and altruism.
The defect of this whole way of thinking is that it fails to take seriously the fact that a great deal of what humans get up to is neither self-interested nor altruistic. It is disinterested, activities that people enter into just because they happen to want to be thus engaged—with no thought of personal advantage or the world's benefit. Many pursuits, from playing a musical instrument to making academic inquiry (the "disinterested pursuit of truth," as it is sometimes described), fit into this vital category. It is a place where many of Western civilization's great achievements originated. But disinterestedness finds no place in Mr. Corning's claims or in the tradition to which he belongs.
Mr. Minogue, a professor emeritus of political science at the London School of Economics, is the author, most recently, of "The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life" (Encounter).