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The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Corning, Peter
University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2011
ISBN 9780226116273 (pb)

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Reviewed by Ted Metzler
Oklahoma City University

Cover of book The so-called "occupy" demonstrations that emerged as a global phenomenon in 2011 most notably have protested social partitioning that contrasts the wealthy and powerful few with enormous populations of disadvantaged people. Whether by prescience or happenstance, Peter Corning's The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice makes a remarkably timely appearance in this context, addressing generally the same kinds of departures from distributive justice - and proposing a solution. The first two paragraphs of the book's Preface focus attention immediately upon the American economy and its "dubious distinction of having the widest income disparity in the industrialized world". The Epilogue (bearing the engaging subtitle "What Can I Do?") at once quotes Bill Moyers: "The only answer to organized money is organized people". Indeed, The Fair Society might well become a text of special importance among the various Occupiers of 2011. At the same time, though, it is also a book of potential interest in other distinct (but possibly overlapping) communities, including those of moral philosophy and readers of JASSS.

Corning explicitly views his book as a sketch, rather than a detailed plan, of the corrective "Fair Society" that he proposes. Several of the initial chapters properly develop his understanding of the concept of social fairness, drawing first upon classical Greek philosophy (particularly, Plato's Republic), followed by some review of modern philosophical thinking (citing figures such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau - and, of course, John Rawls). In addition to these traditional sources, the author reviews what he calls a contemporary "science of human nature", comprised of such fields as anthropology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, and experimental and behavioral economics. Corning then tests free market capitalism and several forms of socialism against his understanding of fairness, rejecting both as "dog-eared and increasingly dysfunctional nineteenth-century ideologies". As an alternative he offers his Fair Society model, which he presents as a "biosocial contract" that seeks to approximate Platonic social justice by balancing the following three "normative (and policy) precepts": equality (equal provision of basic needs), equity (distribution of any surpluses according to merit), and reciprocity (each contributing to the "collective survival enterprise" accordinjg to ability).

Moral philosophers may find Corning's sketch of the Fair Society especially interesting on the fairly numerous occasions when he confusingly trips over his own apparent preference for moral naturalism. Promising, for example, that Platonic ideals of justice now can be "informed by modern science", Corning cites work in group selection theory by David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober as "evolutionary underpinning" for a human "sense of fairness". Nevertheless, he elsewhere repeatedly acknowledges a common human disposition to apply standards of fairness selectively, depending upon whether or not the subject individuals belong to one's own in-group (religion, race, nation, etc.). Evolutionary underpinning for such intuitively unfair "within-group niceness and between-group nastiness" was, of course, recognized by Sober and Wilson (in exactly those colorful words) as an expected product of competitive group selection. Again, the author complains against applauding economies on the basis of their Pareto efficiency. Corning's argument - implicitly, that one can question meaningfully the fairness of an economy, even though it is Pareto efficient - would make the late moral philosopher G.E. Moore smile at this apparent adaptation of his own "open question" argument against naturalistic definitions for moral terms. Whatever the case, Corning could improve this book substantially by furnishing a sustained and clearer identification and defense of the specific metaethical positions that he means to use. Parenthetically, addition of an index could be another helpful improvement.

Although the author explicitly takes Plato and Aristotle - rather than "John von Neumann or the game theorists" - as his "touchstones", The Fair Society contains material of potential interest to readers of JASSS, as well. Researchers using agent-based social simulation, for example, will find a fairly comprehensive call in the book for "a more nuanced and complex view of human nature" - more specifically, rejection of Homo economicus as a scientifically adequate model for the human agent. Corning also challenges economic modelers to shift their attention from popular objective functions such as growth, efficiency, or profit and to focus, instead, upon what he calls the "collective survival enterprise". In this case, of course, much depends upon how one chooses to define the "collective" that must survive. For some observers of current economic news it probably seems that deciding whether the collective ought to include Greece, or Italy ... or the Eurozone ... or the United States ... or anything outside of China, is close to the heart of the problem. Might one modestly suggest that - besides being "informed" by contemporary sciences (e.g., group selection theory) - our sense of fairness could profitably use some input from the parable of the Good Samaritan?


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