This dilemma – part of this series – comes from Amartya Sen. Three children, Anne, Bob and Carla, are arguing who should receive a flute. The arguments they give for getting the flute are not selfish, partial or arbitrary, but based on different theories of justice. Of course, since they are children, they don’t have a well-developed sense of the theories of justice they each adopt and use as a justification for getting the flute, but it turns out that the three of them present a crude version of three of the most common philosophical theories of justice.
- Anne claims that she should get the flute because she’s the only one of the three children who know how to play it (which is correct). It would, in her view, be unjust to deny the flute to the only one who can make proper use of it.
- Bob claims that the flute should be his because he’s poor and doesn’t have anything to play with (which is correct). He could possibly even learn how to play it given the opportunity. It would be unjust to deprive him of this opportunity and to leave him destitute compared to the other children.
- Carla claims the flute should be hers because she spent a lot of time making it (which is correct). Taking the flute away from her would be unjust.
All three points of view – or theories of justice if you want – sound persuasive, although some will sound more persuasive to some than to others. In fact, if you’re a utilitarian, you’ll be more persuaded by Anne. If you’re a liberal egalitarian, Bob will have your ear. And if you’re a libertarian, Carla will be the obvious choice. A utilitarian will argue that giving the flute to Anne will produce the highest aggregate utility (or happiness or whatever). After all, it’s better to play the flute than just play “with it”, or simply make it. Even the negative utility for Bob and Carla – i.e. not having the flute – would perhaps not outweigh the positive utility for Anne. And even Bob and Carla can get some utility from the fact that Anne has the flute: they may enjoy her playing it.
Libertarians would strongly support the property rights of Carla, rights which for them override utility considerations. Liberal egalitarians would point to the fact that Anne’s ability to play the flute – the reason for utilitarians to give her the flute – is perhaps the result of a privileged social position, as it the fact that Carla was able to make the flute – the reason libertarians put forward for giving her the flute. Giving the flute to Bob would equalize society, and that is what justice is about for them, not property rights or utility.