What do we owe to others as a basic minimum? Having such an account may inform theories of global justice, basic needs, or human rights (see, e.g., this paper). Moreover, having a good account can provide a basis for empirical work on the factors that contribute to such lives (and the connection between minimally good lives and other things that matter). It can, thus, offer some guidance for those who care for others who might fall below this threshold and for policy makers working to ensure that, insofar as possible, people rise above it.
Some deny that we owe people any basic minimum. Libertarians who reject positive rights and consequentialists who think we can sacrifice some for the greater good may reject the claim that there should be a basic minimum. Moreover, there are many different ways of thinking about what ensuring people can secure a basic minimum requires in light of what else we owe people. Some believe it is better to help someone just below the threshold reach the minimum rather than someone who is further below it come closer to the threshold. Others think we should prioritize helping people further below the threshold but give some weight to helping those who rise above it (and so forth). And, some agree that everyone should be able to secure the basic minimum but also maintain that we owe people much more than this. Yet others bring other considerations into the picture; desert, luck, responsibility and so forth may well have a role to play in modifying the role a basic minimum should play in a theory of justice. But what, at a minimum, must we help people in our personal lives and as members of society secure (taking into account the other things that matter)?
I believe everyone should be able to live at least a minimally good life — that we owe people at least this much and that this is something they can reasonably demand. I will not argue for this conclusion here, though I am happy to share some draft papers on the topic. Rather, I will sketch a mechanism that I hope is useful for policy makers and others thinking about what we owe to people as a basic minimum. My hope is that this mechanism can help us arrive at an adequate account of what everyone needs to live minimally good lives.
What exactly do people need to live minimally good lives? How can we decide?
I believe that, to live such lives, people need (1) an adequate range of the (2) fundamental conditions that (3) are necessary and important for (4) securing those (5) relationships, pleasures, knowledge, appreciation, and worthwhile activities etc. (6) a reasonable and caring person free from coercion and constraint would set as a minimal standard of justifiable aspiration. The relationships, pleasures, knowledge, appreciation, and worthwhile activities etc. a reasonable and caring person free from coercion and constraint would set as a minimal standard of justifiable aspiration just are the things that make lives minimally good. They set the minimal standard to which people can justifiably aspire.
I will focus only on the last condition here (though I offer a preliminary sketch of the other conditions in the last volume of Nomos if anyone is interested). There are two ways of thinking about what is necessary for a minimally good life – what Dan Haybron calls the reasonable affirmation and justifiable aspiration accounts. I am concerned only with the later. That is, I want to provide the justified aspiration account that provides the standard that everyone should get as close as possible to reaching. When someone does not secure this much, however, we can sometimes still reasonably affirm that the person lives a minimally good life. Even some of the most severely mentally and physically disabled people live minimally good lives in this reasonable affirmation sense.
We can get a sense of what will make lives minimally good in the justified aspiration sense – what a reasonable and caring person free from coercion and constraint would set as a minimal standard of justifiable aspiration – by considering what someone about whom we know little – say, a newborn infant – will need for a life at the lowest level of flourishing. Their life’s difficulties, pains, losses, and frustrations must be sufficiently compensated for by relationships, pleasures, and worthwhile activities that one would not seriously doubt their ability to satisfactorily live it. Moreover, at any particular point in time, this must be the case for their life to reach the threshold for a minimally good one. (Though, overall, one might live a minimally good life even if one falls below the threshold at some points in time and we can reasonably affirm lives that never come close). The question is not whether any given individual would trade her current life for a minimally good one – many fortunate individuals would not. Rather, it is whether there are any serious reasons to doubt that the life could be well-lived. Everyone must be able to fulfill their basic needs and secure basic resources, have a sufficiently wide range of opportunities and capabilities, and avoid dignity-undermining discrimination etc. At least, they should get as close as possible to meeting this standard. Of course, not everyone will agree that people must be able to meet their basic needs, have adequate resources, opportunities, capabilities, and so forth to live a minimally good life, but the reasonable caring person who is free from coercion and constraint should.
To see why, consider what makes people reasonable, caring, and free from coercion and constraint. We can follow John Rawls in saying people are reasonable when they are appropriately impartial; they are committed to seeing others as free and equal. We can say they are caring when they empathize appropriately with others and are motivated to promote others’ interests in proportion to their weight. The kind of empathy at issue is what Stephen Darwell calls projective empathy. When we empathize in this way, we share others’ feelings as their outlook warrants and put ourselves in others shoes understanding their circumstances, history, and perspectives (and this is distinct from the sympathy Darwell himself endorses). Finally, drawing on Joseph Raz’s work, we might say people are free from coercion and constraint when they have some internal and external freedom; they can reason about, make, and carry out plans for themselves, and they have decent options and bargaining power. Reasonable, caring, free people would not set a standard under which they would not be reasonably content to live. The basic idea is simple: People should be content to bear the costs of living the “merely” minimally good lives the least fortunate will live when setting this standard fully understanding their circumstances, psychology, and history. The question is not whether the person one is deciding for will be content in their condition, as that person’s preferences may be adaptive and his or her bargaining position poor. Rather it is whether the (reasonable, free, caring) person who is deciding would now (reflecting on, but not yet occupying, the other person’s life) be content to live that life fully understanding the person’s circumstances, psychology, and history.
Consider why the proposed mechanism for figuring out what people need to live a minimally good life is likely to issue plausible results. If I empathize with others in the appropriate way when considering what they need to live minimally good lives, and am free from coercion and constraint, I will set a standard under which I would be content to live as they do. To see why, consider why I might set a standard that was different for them than one I would want. I might do so because I do not actually care about their interests as much as mine (I am partial – I do not give free others’ interests equal weight). I might also fail to set a sufficient standard because, although I am impartial, I fail to care appropriately for both others and myself (I am not caring – giving everyone’s interests sufficient weight or fail to understand others’ interests). Finally, I may simply lack decent options myself (so accept something only someone who is subject to coercion and constraint could reasonably accept).
Put another way: If I am appropriately impartial, I would not set for others a standard under which I would not be content to live as they will. If I am caring, I will set a standard that I believe is sufficient for someone with other’s particular interests. If I am free from coercion and constraint and appropriately empathetic and have all the relevant information, I will not make a mistake about whether the standard is sufficient for others with those interests.
Although the idea that a reasonable, free, caring person must be content to live the lives she would say are adequate for others may seem to guarantee too much, it does not. Again, the question is not whether a fortunate individual would be happy, or even willing, to trade places with someone who is only able to live a minimally good life. The proposal is just this: minimally good lives are ones a reasonable and caring person free from coercion and constraint would be content to live fully understanding others’ circumstances, psychology, and history.
I believe reasonable, free, caring people would say people need only an adequate range of the natural and social, internal and external, conditions for securing the things that make life minimally good which includes relationships, pleasures, knowledge, appreciation, and worthwhile activities amongst other things.
That is, I think they will endorse the other conditions in my proposed account of the minimally good life. I also think that reasonable, free, caring people should agree that everyone must be able to meet their basic needs, have adequate resources, opportunities, capabilities, and so forth to live a minimally good life. But I must leave defending all of these claims for another time.
My hope is that this mechanism for figuring out what makes lives minimally good will be useful for real people in their particular (and limited) historical circumstances and that it gives us some critical leverage on the limits we face; sometimes we will just have to say that there is no way someone can live a minimally good life in their world (though they should get as close as possible to doing so). We might recognize that, like people in earlier time periods, we do not live as long as we might, but often live minimally good lives for a large part of our time on this earth. That is, we can recognize the limits of the ideal for the actual world. The proposed mechanism for figuring out what people need to live a minimally good is not fail proof – people can be more or less reasonable and caring or fail to freely occupy an appropriately impartial deliberative stance in a way that provides some space for reflection relatively free from framing effects. Deliberation may be necessary to guard against unintentional biases and to figure out what is actually reasonable and caring in any particular case. (We may also have to limit people’s claims to live even minimally good lives significantly in light of the other things at stake in some circumstances and we will almost certainly have to bring other considerations into the picture to get a full theory of justice.) Still, I genuinely believe that our world would be a much better place if we considered whether we would be content to live as others do in thinking about what we owe to them and what they can reasonably demand. There is a lot more to say but I look forward to your thoughts on the basic idea!
 Moreover, the reasonable person will recognize the normal limits of the human situation and give due weight to the cost to others of helping to ensure everyone has a basic minimum in making her judgment.
Nicole Hassoun is Nicole Hassoun is a visiting scholar at Cornell University and an associate professor in philosophy at Binghamton University. She specializes in social and political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of economics.2