22
Jul
11

Take three kids and a flute…

Eric Falkenstein discusses a curious example in the realm of ethics:

Take three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because she made it.

Sen argues that who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian will argue for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. Sen states there are no institutional arrangements that can help us resolve this dispute in a universally accepted just manner.

(Hat tip: The Fourth Checkraise.)

The problem with this example, as Falkenstein ably points out, is that the flute is presented as a fait accompli, just floating around in space, and only tenuously connected to Carla, who made it. I submit that the purported impasse would disappear for all but the most fanatical progressives and utilitarians were it presented somewhat differently:

Take three kids: Anne, Bob, and Carla.  Carla has just made a flute.  Anne says the flute should be taken from Carla and given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it.  Bob says the flute should be taken from Carla and handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with.  Carla, frightened, wonders why the bad man is pointing a gun at her.

If Carla hadn’t made the flute, there would be no flute.  Falkenstein elaborates:

If Carla knew she would not get the flute, she would not have made it. Therefore, just add a time dimension to the puzzle, and there’s no puzzle at all: only a libertarian form of justice is consistent with the flute existing.

(Emphasis added.)

This assumes that a world with three kids, one of whom can enjoy a flute, is better than a world with three kids, none of whom can enjoy a flute.  But commenter Jose notes:

There are, alas, quite a few people who believe that if the flute isn’t allocated according to their favorite rule, then it is better for the world if there is no flute.

So it goes.

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