View from the bottom

September 14, 2007

You can seriously doubt that any human life ever goes well. (The denial that it can is one of the more morose readings of the teaching of at least one great religion.) No one, however, doubts that many human lives go dismally badly: racked by pain, haunted by fear, bathed in endless humiliation. A tepid term for subjection to these ills is "disadvantage". Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit, professors of political philosophy in Britain and Israel, have set themselves the task of capturing what it is to be utterly miserable (subject to gross disadvantage) and showing what democratic states should do about its distribution among their citizens. They leave aside, prudently enough, the thornier issue of what such states should do about its distribution beyond their borders.

What it is for a human life to go badly is certainly a question for philosophers, as it is for all of us. Any special force of their answers must lie, if it lies anywhere, in the clarity and shapeliness with which they can learn to express perceptions and sentiments that stretch across the entire species. What democratic states should do for the lives of their own citizens that go badly is still one of the central questions in contemporary politics, despite assiduous and potent efforts to thrust it back to the margins. It, too, is a question for those philosophers who choose to think about politics, though it is less clear in a democracy what political weight shapeliness and clarity in intuition can or should lend to their answers.

Disadvantage is an aggregative conception, which takes its current intellectual cue from the most striking feature of John Rawls's theory of justice, its insistence on the distributive primacy of the claims of the worst off. The most attractive feature of Wolff and de-Shalit's book is its effort to reinject some of the colour and urgency of real life into Rawls's sober category and use the resultant density to intervene more realistically and to better effect in democratic conversation and struggle over what our states should do or avoid. Although not aspiring to the depth or resonance of Tolstoy or even Malcolm Lowry, they make a painstaking attempt to register the intricate and painful structuring of distress and hazard at the bottom end of the class structure.

They draw their philosophical instruments for analysing the impairment of individual lives largely from Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, but test them, worthily and sometimes instructively, against the judgments of the suitably impaired and their professional handlers in Britain and Israel, subjecting their own intuitions to "dynamic public reflective equilibrium". If reflective equilibrium is juggling your own intuitions until they reach a steady outcome, and striving correspondingly to demonstrate the relative instability of your colleagues' efforts, dynamic public reflective equilibrium is a less cloistered activity with poorer prospects for steadying down at any point whatever. It is perhaps what democratic politics aspires to, yet, inevitably, virtually never reaches.

Their book's message is sympathetic enough, but it has pronounced limitations, as much political as philosophical. Wolff and de-Shalit's main philosophical claim is that disadvantage is irreducibly plural and cannot reasonably be conceived as a single continuum. Fair enough. It takes a lot of theoretical habituation (or the wrong sort of economics) to be a monist of disadvantage - to doubt that jeopardy, misery and frustration are infinitely various and imperfectly substitutable. Their principal political claim is that disadvantage can and should be compared by states and their subordinate agencies, public or private, to equip them to intervene most effectively to diminish its incidence among their citizens. These two judgments, each irreproachable in itself, pull hard in different directions and can be prevented from sailing out of sight of one another only by incessant, purposeful and conspicuous exercise of intellectual discretion. The experience of democratic politics, in the imperfect circumstances of any real society, strongly confirms this diagnosis and dulls any special éclat of professional philosophers all too thoroughly.

What makes the worst-off politically so vulnerable is that they form a clear minority with few natural allies beyond the specialists in disadvantage. Those who know most about disadvantage, from the outside as from within, deserve special attention on the topic because of what they know. But this will not win them (and has not won them) special weight in democratic politics. It will take more than a handful of philosophical coadjutors to give them effective purchase on governmental choice and the state budget.

In the short term, that is a task for political leaders. In the longer run, it would require a revitalisation of social imagination. None of us has much clue who could accomplish the latter, let alone how. In the meantime, over to you, Gordon Brown.

John Dunn is fellow of King's College and professor of political theory, Cambridge University.


Author - Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 244
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 97801998268

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