Thursday, February 29, 2024

Is ecological justice also a mirage?


David Schmidtz advocates “ecological justice” in his book, Living Together: Inventing Moral Science. Although Schmidtz does not refer to Friedrich Hayek in this book, his general line of argument is similar, in many respects, to that developed by Hayek in Law, Legislation, and Liberty. From Schmidtz’s earlier writings, it clear that he is well aware of Hayek’s views.

I presume Schmidtz has good reasons for not comparing his views to those of Hayek in this book. However, since Hayek argued that ‘social justice’ is a mirage, I thought Hayek would not object to me asking whether ecological justice could also be a mirage.

In this essay, I provide a brief summary of Hayek’s reasons for viewing social justice as a mirage before considering the basis for Schmidtz’s concept of ecological justice.

Why did Hayek view social justice as a mirage?

Hayek argued that it is “a dishonest insinuation” and “intellectually disreputable” to make reference to social justice in an attempt to bolster an argument “that one ought to agree to a demand of some special interest which can give no reason for it”. Hayek implies that where there are good reasons for assistance to the less fortunate, reference to social justice adds nothing to the argument. (LLL, V2, p 97. See also p 87 for Hayek’s discussion of reasons to support “protection against severe deprivation”.)

Hayek also argued that “a society of free individuals” … “lacks the fundamental precondition for the application of the concept of justice to the manner in which material benefits are shared among its members, namely that this is determined by a human will – or that the determination of rewards by human will could produce a viable market order”. (LLL, V2, pp 96-7)

Elsewhere, Hayek made the point that the size of the national cake and its distribution are not separable issues:

“We must face the truth that it is not the magnitude of a given aggregate product which allows us to decide what to do with it, but rather the other way around: that a process which tells us how to reward the several contributions to this product is also the indispensable source of information for the individuals, telling them where they can make the aggregate product as large as possible” (Conference paper published in Nishiyama and Leube, “The Essence of Hayek”, p 323).

Hayek went on to make the point that John Stuart Mill’s claim that “once the product is there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with it whatever it pleases” is really “an incredible stupidity, showing a complete unawareness of the crucial guide function of prices”.

Interestingly, David Schmidtz suggests that by pulling production and distribution apart, J. S. Mill “unwittingly pulled one question into two half questions that in fractured isolation had no proper answers and that would derail rather than facilitate our study of the human condition”. (p 6) Following Mill, questions about production were allocated to economists, while questions of distribution were the province of philosophers: “those who work on justice”. (p 5)

What is ecological about justice?  

David Schmidtz writes:

“We are social and political animals, and justice is a human adaptation to an ecological niche.” (p 220)

What does that mean? The common human characteristic of negotiating what we expect from each other is one of the reasons why humans are viewed as social and political animals. As people negotiate what to expect from each other, they create social niches in which they hope to flourish. (p 25) Schmidtz suggests that to speak of justice is to speak of what we should be able to expect from each other. (p 219)

Justice manages traffic. (p 220) People share an interest in avoiding collision, but otherwise have destinations of their own:

“The truth for political animals is that since we began to settle in large communities, being of one mind has not been an option. Being on the same page is not an option. Even our diverse ideas about how to resolve conflict are a source of conflict. And, disturbing though it may be for a theorist to admit it, theories do not help. It is a political fact that we live among people who have theories of their own, who do not find each other’s theories compelling, and who are perfectly aware that there is no reason why they should.” (p 221)

Schmidtz discusses several other features of ecological justice. For example, norms of ecological justice are an adaptive response to reality. Principles of justice are based on an understanding of which institutional frameworks are enabling people to flourish and which are not. Justice is somewhat testable: when the world tests our ideals and finds them wanting, we need to rethink.

The author ends up suggesting that the features of ecological justice that he has discussed “do not define ecological justice, and do not exhaust it, but they indicate whether a conception of justice is more or less ecological”. (p 226)

 Instead of seeking to define ecological justice, perhaps it is more helpful to ask what is the question that ecological justice seeks to answer. The title of Schmidtz’s book suggests that the question has to do with how we can live together. In his introduction, he asks:

“What if justice evolved as a real question about what people ought to be able to expect of each other?”

Since we have reasons to believe that justice evolved in that way, perhaps the relevant question is:

What rules of just conduct should influence what people ought to be able to be able to expect of each other, allowing for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways?  

(That question borrows words from Friedrich Hayek, and Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, as well as David Schmidtz.)


David Schmidtz’s concept of ecological justice is certainly not a mirage. It has to do with the nature of humans as social and political animals, and the nature of justice as a human adaptation to an ecological niche.

Rather than seeking to define ecological justice precisely, perhaps it is more helpful to ask what is the question that ecological justice seeks to answer. My suggestion is:

What rules of just conduct should influence what people ought to be able to be able to expect of each other, allowing for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways?  

Thursday, February 15, 2024

What makes a narrative good?


I asked myself the question posed above as I was reading Michèle Lamont’s book, Seeing Others, How to Redefine Worth in a Divided World. The passage quoted below seems central to Michèle Lamont’s book:

“The hegemony of the American dream manifests in the emphasis Americans put on neoliberal virtues of material success, self-reliance, individualism, entrepreneurialism, and competitiveness. These criteria of worth have gained more and more influence as “models of ideal selves,” and encourage many to internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives. This model can also lead people to seek out a scapegoat group to blame.” (p 31)

Those sentences seem to suggest that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame.

Internalizing blame

The author doesn’t explain why she believes neoliberalism can cause people to “internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives”, but she lists several references in the notes section which may support her claims. The one which seems likely to be most relevant is an article by Glen Adams, Sara Estrada-Villalta, Daniel Sullivan, and Hazel Rose Markus entitled ‘The Psychology of Neoliberalism and the Neoliberalism of Psychology’, Journal of Social Issues 75 (1), 2019.

Adams et al use the term ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to an economic and political movement that came to prominence in the late 1970s, advocating “deregulation of markets and free movement of capital with an emphasis on fluidity and globalization”. Such usage of ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to advocacy of free markets is now common, even though the term was once generally understood to refer to advocacy of left-leaning policies, e.g. a ‘social market economy’, rather than free markets. Like most advocates of free markets, I would prefer to be referred to as a classical liberal or libertarian, but I can usually assume that I am among good company when I am labelled as a neoliberal.

The authors argue that neoliberalism encourages “an entrepreneurial approach to self as an ongoing development project, an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment, and an emphasis on affect regulation”. I don’t object to that characterisation. It describes some aspects of the approach to human flourishing in Part III my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

However, the authors suggest that neoliberalism also supports psychological “responsibilization” - an ugly word for an ugly concept. The claim they make is that neoliberals advocate that individuals should not only accept personal responsibility for problems which it may be possible to ameliorate through behaviour change (such as obesity and substance abuse) but also to accept responsibility for misfortune more generally.

Neoliberals argue that free markets tend to reward individual effort, but that doesn’t mean that they believe that economic misfortune is always attributable to lack of individual effort. In fact, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism is recognition that social problems of poverty, unemployment etc. are often attributable to foolish government economic policies that are opposed to economic freedom.

I don’t know any neoliberal who would suggest that individuals should “internalize blame” for any disruption of their lives associated with innovation and competition. Neoliberals are more likely to suggest that people who lose jobs or other remuneration because of the disruptive impact of innovation and competition should view such setbacks as beyond their control. The potential for such setbacks is a price that previous generations have willingly paid to enable to enable their descendants to enjoy the benefits of economic growth. Deirdre McCloskey – a prominent classical liberal – has coined the term, ‘bourgeois deal’, to refer to the willingness of people to accept the potential for their lives to be disrupted by innovation and competition in exchange for ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. (See Bourgeois Equality.)

I doubt that many psychologists would suggest that their clients should “internalize” blame for all the bad things that happen to them. When psychologists suggest that individuals should take responsibility for their lives, I am sure that the vast majority would mean that individuals should focus on taking personal responsibility for problems that are within their locus of control.

Who is responsible for the scapegoat narrative?

It took me some time to work out why Michèle Lamont believes that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame for misfortune. Her reasoning evidently has more to do with her belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal than with the beliefs of neoliberals.

On the page following the passage quoted above, Lamont writes: 

“From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, neoliberalism has come to be understood as a precondition for a successful society”.

I believe that free markets help societies to become and remain successful, but it is hard to understand how anyone could perceive Donald Trump to be an advocate of that view. While in office, Trump administered the final blow to the “neoliberal consensus” on international trade that characterised the post-Cold War period, and he currently favors further restrictions on international trade and international movement of labor.  

Lamont’s claim that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame seems to rest on the behavior of Donald Trump. She observes that in 2015 former president Trump advanced a false narrative in which immigrants from Mexico were rapists and drug dealers. (pp 51-2). During the 2016 campaign Trump appealed to “America’s forgotten workers” by recognizing their plight and “by blaming globalization and immigration for it”. (p 70)

Lamont also suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class “who are often perceived as “the losers of the system”. (p 165). Early in the book, she notes:

“Instead of depicting ‘everyday Americans’ as ‘deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton was perceived to do in the 2016 presidential campaign, her opponent Donald Trump affirmed their worth in his various electoral speeches, explaining their loss of social status as a result of globalization and immigration.” (p 8)

Lamont’s narrative

The title of Lamont’s book, “seeing others”, refers to “acknowledging people’s existence and positive worth, actively making them visible and valued, reducing their marginalization, and openly integrating them into a group”. (p 6) She suggests that having one’s sense of worth affirmed “is a universal need that is central to our identity as human beings and our quality of life”. (p 7) She urges that we “bridge boundaries with those who are different” via “ordinary universalism”, or “emphasizing similarities over differences”. (p 144)

I don’t object to those sentiments, and I doubt whether many other neoliberals would either. It is certainly appropriate to recognize that ordinary universalism can be “a vital counterweight” to “Nationalist populism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” which “are on the rise in many countries”. (p 146) As an advocate of ordinary universalism, however, I think it is unfortunate that the author was not sufficiently “inclusive” to recognize that anti-Semitism also belongs on that list.  

I also object to the idea that “individualist approaches” to improving wellbeing “may harm more than they help, since they pull people’s attention away from more meaningful efforts”. (p 48) The author seems to be suggesting that excessive attention is given to approaches that help individuals to improve their assessments of their own worth. Instead, she urges:

“We need to ask ourselves hard questions about how we decide who matters and what we can do to create a more inclusive society.”

It seems to me that people who are lacking in regard for their own worth are unlikely to make a positive contribution to ensuring that the worth of others is appropriately recognized.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of how it is possible to change hearts and minds in order to reduce stigmatization of marginalized groups, and thus build a more inclusive society. That discussion is largely beyond the scope of this essay.

In Chapter 7, however, the author discusses the result of a survey of the attitudes of Gen Z students (aged 18 to 23). She seems a little perplexed that Gen Z tend to “embrace some neoliberal ideals – hard work and success” but is pleased that they “combine personal professional aspirations with the promotion of collective well-being”.

The author claims that apart from “the wealthiest of the wealthy” every other group “finds itself reeling from an onslaught of difficulties, disappointments, and anxieties, grasping for dignity and stability”. (p 47) That is implausible and seems at odds with her message about destigmatization of marginalized groups. However, it fits well with another theme of Lamont’s narrative.   

As already mentioned, Lamont suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class. She suggests that the Democratic party should counter that with “messages of solidarity and dignity”:

Redirecting working class anger toward the one percent is more likely to sustain fruitful alliances than driving wedges between diverse categories of workers who have so much in common.” (p 159)

Is Lamont’s narrative good?

It seems to me that appropriate criteria to consider whether a narrative is good include whether it encourages ethical behaviour and whether it is factually accurate.

Regarding ethical behaviour, Michèle Lamont seems to be seeking to “mobilize” good narratives when she suggests:

“We engineer our world together by mobilizing narratives that expand recognition of who is worthy.”

Leaving aside engineering, the message she is attempting to convey seems to be that narratives have a role in reinforcing the ethical intuition that we should respect other humans and behave with integrity toward them, irrespective of gender, sexual preference, race, nationality, religion, wealth, social status, political affiliations etc. I am not entirely convinced that she would include ideological opponents among those who are “worthy”, but she does acknowledge that “it is worth trying to understand even people we may strongly disagree with”. (p 159).   

On the question of factual accuracy, Lamont’s narrative, which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent, seems to me to be just as questionable as Donald Trump’s narrative which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry about globalization and immigration. Neither of those narratives promotes an accurate understanding of economic reality.  


In this essay I have examined Michèle Lamont’s narrative that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame. My conclusion is that her claim that neoliberalism encourages people to internalize blame is baseless. Her claim about seeking to blame scapegoat groups seems to be based on the false belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal.

Good narratives should encourage ethical behaviour and be factually accurate. One of Lamont’s objectives in this book seems to be to “mobilize” good narratives that reinforce the ethical intuition that we should behave with integrity toward all other humans. However, the factual accuracy of her narrative that workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent is highly questionable. If accepted by governments that approach would encourage unethical redistributions of incomes and further dampen incentives that are essential to the ongoing growth of widespread economic opportunities.