Tag Archives: social contract

Should shorter people be allowed umbrellas?

Umbrellas

Source

This may sound an odd question (or possibly worse). But I live in rainy England and am above-average height. And, anyway, answering this question can help us think about different theories of justice.

Distributive justice: how to share out benefits and burdens?

Keeping dry in wet weather is a benefit. Having to take evasive action so you don’t experience an umbrella spike in the ear is a burden – as is an umbrella spike in the ear.

We must also remember that streets, walkways, and paths are shared public spaces. The abandon with which people wave their umbrellas in the confines of their own homes may be no-one else’s business. But in a public place how you use your umbrella can be my business.

The communitarian

Communitarians doubt that there are universal values that can help us settle questions like ours. We live in ‘thick’ moral relationships: if we abstract from these, we cannot properly understand the value of what we care about.

Married life is a good example. Most people care deeply about their own spouse. But if you abstract from the particular history of any couple – their joys, pains and shared experiences – it is hard to make sense of this caring. There is no universal reason why any couple should care about each other.

The same might apply in other contexts. It could be that in some wet country carrying an umbrella is so useful that only the destitute don’t. Not carrying an umbrella may denote inferior status and so constutiute a moral stigma.

In Adam’s Smith’s day, the inability to appear in public in a white linen shirt was one such moral stigma. The implication is this:

whatever damage shorter people might cause by wielding their umbrellas, limiting their umbrella rights would confer inferior status on them – much as banning prisoners from voting does. The difference is that being shorter is no crime.

But does umbrella-carrying carry such thick moral meaning? Not in the UK. But limits could come to imply inferior status. How?

On average, women are shorter than men and countries like the UK have a history of gender injustice. Any rule that picks out only shorter people would disproportionately pick out women.

On this basis we might rule out limiting shorter people’s umbrella rights because it risks perpetuating and exacerbating historic injustice. But this argument would not apply in countries who have a different history.

The utilitarian

Would a world in which shorter and taller people have the same umbrellas lead to greater overall happiness? I have no idea.

While utilitarianism is theoretically simple, the number of factors to be included in the utilitarian calculation can make it practically impossible.

The philosopher’s response is to look at the possible implications of utilitarianism. If utilitarianism can have odd implications, we infer that it is missing something morally important. And, by golly, can utilitarianism have odd implications.

Imagine the simple-minded shorter person who treats his umbrella as an expression of his personality – unfurling it makes him very happy indeed. His happiness might outweigh the pain of ten (a hundred?) stoics who receive his umbrella’s spikes in their faces.

We are describing a ‘utility monster’ and intuition tells us that such monsters should not be indulged. The general form of this objection is that utilitarianism ignores issues of distribution.

We should not sacrifice the interests of larger numbers of people even if doing so benefits a small number enormously.

The social contract approach

We are to imagine justice in terms of an agreement between suitably suited individuals. What would I agree to if I were fully rationalfully reasonablefully informed and unbiased etc.?

Or, in John Rawls’s ‘original position’, what would I agree to if I did not know who I was – whether I was rich or poor, talented or not, black or white etc?

What umbrella rights would I agree to if I did not know whether I was taller or shorter?

The key point is that no answer can refer solely to the benefits to shorter people of keeping dry. If I don’t know whether I am taller or shorter, a persuasive answer must include reasons that taller people can accept.

The general idea is that society is fair only if everyone has reasons to accept the rules whatever position they end up in – rich or poor, tall or short.

It should be noted that ‘having reasons to accept’ something is not the same as ‘personally benefiting’ from it. Someone may never personally benefit from their country’s university system but they do have reasons to think it worth having.

Conclusion

All the views canvassed could justify limiting umbrella rights. Any answer would partially depend on the facts – how common are umbrella-related injuries?

Perhaps we should ignore theories of justice and focus on practical solutions. But practical solutions are invariably based on what people are prepared to accept.

And what people are prepared to accept (also invariably) is based on what theory of distributive justice they (often unconsciously) hold.

Practical solutions to the distribution of society’s benefits and burdens, then, do appeal to the kinds of theories explained above. But, mostly, they do so in a haphazard fashion.

Our only choice is between explicitly weighing the relative merits of different theories of justice or of doing so implicitly.

This is why political philosophy is essential for anyone who is required to think about how to distribute benefits and burdens in the public realm. And in a democratic society, this is all of us – including those of above-average height living in rainy countries.