By In Happiness Comments (6)

Nicole Hassoun: What do we owe to others as a basic minimum?

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.[1] 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!

[1] 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.

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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.

6 Responses to Nicole Hassoun: What do we owe to others as a basic minimum?

  1. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Nicole (if I may),

    Interesting post. I don’t work on this but I am not sure how we are to apply the idea of the minimal standard to which people can *justifiably aspire* and get plausible results. Let me run explain my puzzlement and then you and tell me where I go wrong and how to apply your view better.

    Let’s assume I am reasonable and caring when it comes to people suffering in Syria or other harsh dangerous environments. I care about these people and project myself into their shoes. Then try to identify the minimal standard to which these people can justifiably aspire. I am worried my thinking about this will set a low minimal standard.

    Here is why:

    When I think about identifying standards to which people can justifiably aspire, in general, I think that questions about ability and feasibility are important. For example I cannot justifiably aspire to be a professional opera singer because I lack relevant singing talent and hearing skills. Roughly, the justification to aspire to P goes down as the feasibility of obtaining P goes down (and all else equal).

    In addition, when I think about identifying standards to which people can justifiably aspire in general, I think that questions about cost and risk (to self and others) are important. Jim’s aspiration to start his own business may be unjustified if having that aspiration will lead him to quit his secure job and risk his ability to support his ten kids and sick wife. Roughly, the justification to aspire to P goes down as the cost and risk of trying to get (or otherwise aspiring to obtain) P goes up (and all else equal).

    If we accept constraints of these sorts, then it seems that the basic minimum owed to people will depend on their circumstances. In general it would seem that talented and lucky people raised in supportive, resource-rich environments can justifiably aspire to a minimum that is higher than the minimum to which people in harsh dangerous environments can justifiably aspire. If the environment is so bad that it puts some central goods/options/etc out of feasible reach or it makes the aspiration to get those goods/options/etc sufficiently costly or risky then it seems to make it unjustified for the people in those environments to aspire to achieve said items. The obvious worry is that we will be forced to massively lower the bar for minimum owed to those in very bad environments. Well, that prospect worries me any way!

    I’m especially worried that this is how your approach would be “operationalized” in public policy cases or in the thinking of random agents, but of course my worries might not be sound.

    In any case thanks for the post!

  2. Marcus Hedahl says:

    Nicole (if I may),

    An interesting proposal, on which I was hoping for some clarification in order to be able to better understand it.

    1. Who is the ‘we’ in your proposal? In Scanlon’s writings I generally disambiguate ‘we’ to mean “Each one of us,” but that seems to not work in this case. Do you mean a political entity as the “we?” Or those individuals within a given political entity? And who then are the others? People within that political entity? Or those in other political entities?

    2. I don’t understand how the implication of requiring a standard that “a reasonable and caring person free from coercion and constraint would set as a minimal standard of justifiable aspiration.” Even if one were to grant your analysis of what it is to be ‘reasonable,’ ‘caring’ and ‘free from coercion and constraint,’ could there not be a wide swath of disagreement about what is a minimal standard of justifiable aspiration, with those with more Stoic leanings taking there to be very very little to be required to lead a minimally good life (perhaps merely a community of others), while those with more Aristotelian leanings believing that it might not even be theoretically impossible for everyone to lead a minimally good life. In short, I’m not sure what you take to be the kind of minimum standard reasonable free people would set and how to respond to those reasonable caring and free people who thought the standard ought to be higher or lower.

  3. Thanks Brad,

    My initial thought is that calling the standard at issue for the basic minimum the “justified aspiration” standard may be confusing. What I have in mind is the standard that, at a minimum, we should help people get as close as possible to securing (where helping them is possible and not too costly etc.). We can call it “the basic right” standard if you prefer.

    Although I realize policy makers may have to make rules that apply across a wide range of cases, I start by consider how we figure out where to set the basic minimum for a person because I think it is important to attend to each individuals’ needs in setting a standard sufficient for everyone. I suggest we think about whether we would now (reflecting on, but not yet occupying, the other person’s life) be content to live that person’s life fully understanding the person’s circumstances, psychology, and history. The rough idea is that a reasonable, free, caring person would not set a standard for others under which she would not be content to live.

    Note that this does not hold people’s judgments hostage to others’ poor circumstances. So one might decide that there is no way one would now be content to live a Syrian refugee’s life because that person just lacks any decent options; her life may not be minimally good. For the refugee to live a minimally good life, she might require the opportunity to resettle in another community and significant assistance in doing so.

    Moreover, the relevant standard involves “external” judgments about what people need to live a minimally good life so it is not hostage to their adaptive preferences or expensive tastes. People may need better circumstances, exposure to new ways of living, or even psychological counselling to live minimally good lives.

    Still, I take it to be an advantage of the account that it requires us to attend to differences between people and their circumstances in deciding whether there is any serious reason to doubt that their lives can be well-lived. Someone who needs a particular kind of food for medical, religious, or cultural reasons to remain well-nourished needs it to live a minimally good life, while other people might need other things. Some will never live a minimally good life and we may not even be able to help them get closer without sacrificing things that are more significant. But (while I have not argued for this conclusion here) I do think there is reason to try to help people live at least minimally good lives other things equal.

    I worry that we risk leaving the most important issues aside if we focus on possible worlds in which hopelessly depressed talent-less opera singers can only live a minimally good life if they are able to become opera stars (don’t take this personally please :). I really think most would-be opera singers can live a minimally good life without singing opera professionally. But if we focus on a case where we can only help someone live a minimally good life by providing singing lessons or antidepressants, perhaps we should help her get the former when nothing more significant is at stake. I suppose I’d say the something similar about Jim.

    My hope is that the critical distance between those of us considering a person’s ability to live a minimally good life and the person just experiencing her own life allows us to see whether a person’s circumstances and/or preferences must change for that person to live a minimally good life and, if so, how they must change. Again, someone who has adaptive preferences or expensive tastes may need better options, psychological counselling, or exposure to different ways of life to live a minimally good life whether or not they think these things will benefit them.

    So what can we conclude? Perhaps there are just two different perspectives one can take up in setting a “justified aspiration” standard – 1) the internal standard where we consider what we should justifiably aspire to in our circumstances 2) the external standard where we consider what another individual has a justified aspiration (or basic right) to obtain whether or not she can, will, or should aspire to secure it for herself. I am concerned with the later. Is this helpful?

  4. Thanks Marcus!

    I came to this idea from thinking about human rights and would love it to work for both political affairs and interpersonal relations. Of course, I have just issued a giant IOU. So far I have some draft papers arguing that this standard has advantages over some competing capability, resource, and welfare standards others have proposed as an account of the basic minimum. I’m trying to stay neutral here on the scope question – though I’m inclined towards a cosmopolitan sufficiency theory. I don’t suppose the proposed mechanism will resolve all the debates about the content of the minimally good life but I do hope it can get us agreement on some “core” components expressed very concisely in 1) through 5) above. It takes almost a paper just to cash out each of those and say a bit about why I think the reasonable, free, caring person would endorse each part of this account. I have spent some time worrying about how people with different experiences will think about the minimally good life differently. I also suppose those with different orientations will sometimes disagree. What I’ve said here is just that deliberation will have a role to play in resolving disagreements for any particular purpose. I suppose in some cases (of personal ethics) deliberation will play a much smaller role than in others (political decision making). All of that said, do you have worries about whether the reasonable, caring, person would object to one or another of 1) through 5) in particular (perhaps depending on their philosophical orientation)?

  5. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Nicole,

    Thanks! That does help, but I am now worried about the focus on whether a reasonable caring person would be content living a target life.

    Piggy-backing on Marcus’ question, there seem to be many people who would be content with a life that lacks things freedom and other “external” goods. Buddhists, Stoics, and even Kant claim that we can have inner contentment and peace of mind in all sorts of bad situations because (roughly) our own virtue is a sufficient ground for contentment. Each view also leaves room for wanting or preferring more, but insofar as I can get a grip on the question about contentment I am lead to think that many reasonable and caring people (Buddhists, Stoics, and Kantians) would be content living lives that lack some freedoms and other “external” goods – ones that I suspect we want on our list of goods needed for a minimally good life. Right now this leaves me thinking that there is more to a basically good life than what one needs for warranted contentment.

    But perhaps you have more packed into the idea of “being content living a life” than believing that you could or would be justifiably content while living that life?

    Or maybe you could avoid the issue by recasting the view in this way?

    X is a part of the basic minimum if some reasonable caring person would feel discontent with any life that lacked X.

  6. Hi Brad,

    against the Buddhist at least I’d be inclined to push on the empathy/caring condition. Would a Buddhist be content now to live a non-Buddhist life? I’m not sure. But I do think that most Buddhists who empathize with others would recognize that many people who are suffering and will continue to suffer because they lack external goods do not live minimally good lives (after all they seek release from all suffering, right?). I’m not sure if the same line will work for the Stoic or Kantian but I’d like to know what you think… Again, I’m pretty sure even generally reasonable, caring, free people will disagree for all kinds of reasons – lack of information, failures in empathy, and so forth and substantive discussion will be necessary to resolve some of these disagreements. Still, the standard is meant to be useful for those of us reasoning as well as we can about what others need to live minimally good lives even if we need more experience or reflection to improve our judgments. Of course, it is also *possible* that the perfectly reasoning caring person who had all the relevant information would *know* what a minimally good life requires, but I share Connie’s worries about full information accounts of such things. It is hard to know *what* such a person would think…