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Social Justice: Is It in Our Nature (and Our Future)?

March 5, 2012

John T. Jost in American Scientist:

After decades of exclusion from meaningful social and political discourse, themes of social justice are making a serious comeback. One can point to several recent examples from the disciplines of political science, economics and philosophy, including, respectively, Larry M. Bartels’s Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice and Derek Parfit’s massive two-volume tome On What Matters. These books have arrived to coincide with the apparent awakening of the sense of injustice in popular movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.

Peter Corning, who was trained as a biologist and is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, joins the conversation at just the right time. His most recent book, The Fair Society, was published in early 2011, and—like Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”—it has turned out to be remarkably prescient. Several chapters read like an annotated list of complaints made by the most well-informed campers in Zuccotti Park last fall. Corning notes, for example, that in the United States, “since the 1980s, some 94 percent of the total increase in personal income has gone to the top 1 percent of the population”; at least 25 million Americans (17.2 percent of the workforce) are presently struggling with unemployment or drastic underemployment; “close to 50 million Americans experienced ‘food deprivation’ (hunger) at various times in 2009”; and as many as 75 million Americans (25 percent of the population) live in poverty. Adding insult to injury, the top 10 percent of income earners in the United States live 4.5 years longer on average than the bottom 10 percent.

In a nutshell, Corning’s thesis is that human nature has evolved in such a way as to create a natural revulsion to states of affairs like these. In the opening chapters, he recounts various evolutionary arguments for the notion that our hunter-gatherer ancestors possessed a deep sense of fairness and developed “a pattern of egalitarian sharing” in which “dominance behaviors were actively resisted by coalitions of other group members.” He draws eclectically on studies of baboons, descriptive anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies and, in a few cases, the fossil record. With this biological framework in place, Corning endeavors to show that the capitalist system as currently practiced in the United States and elsewhere is manifestly unfair. His beef is not solely with laissez-faire capitalism, however; he claims that socialism is just as unfair, although in different ways, and that efforts to develop a “third way” that avoids the excesses of capitalism and socialism have been “anemic” and “unable to confront the status quo” of class-based inequality. [More]

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