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February 03, 2004

My Antipodes

Dear Michael:

Do you ever come across writings that are so completely opposed to your point of view that you find them perversely fascinating? Googling on the phrase generational equity I came across “Obligations to the Elderly and Generational Equity” which was written by Janna Thompson of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) of Melbourne University (you can read her paper here.)

She begins by raising a basic question:

Do grown up children have obligations to their parents? Do the younger members of a society have obligations to their elders?

Of course, this is purely a rhetorical question, as Ms. Thompson does not seem to have ever run into anyone (like myself) who would answer those questions ‘no.’ (Or even anyone who might answer the first question ‘yes’ and the second question ‘no.’) In her mind, the only issue present is coming up with an argument to support such an obligation. She considers the question of whether reciprocity (i.e., for the care provided by the older generation to the younger as children) would dictate such an obligation, and finds that there are unwelcome weaknesses in such an argument. For example, some people never provided care to children (even their own). Others were unable or refused to contribute to the support of childhood education.

This is the kind of thing that makes Ms. Thompson my polar opposite; first she blithely assumes an obligation that I doubt exists at all, then she rejects a theory I might be at least weakly persuaded by (i.e., reciprocity) on the grounds that it doesn’t sufficiently coerce every young person to support every old person at all times and under all circumstances. I mean, there’s a sort of moral absolutism here that just goes completely against my grain. But by this point I’ve developed a fascination with her argument like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. What approach will Ms. Thompson come up with? And I’m not disappointed; she comes up with an argument that could not have less persuasive power on yours truly:

Those who think that individuals ought to be cared for in old age no matter what they contributed, or failed to contribute, to the well being of the young will be attracted to what Allen Buchanan describes as a ‘subject-centred’ approach to entitlement and obligation. In a subject-centred theory individuals have obligations and entitlements simply because of their status and not because of their deeds or the benefits they have received or have given to others. By status Buchanan seems to have in mind the condition of being human. According to Buchanan’s account, we have duties to others just because they are persons and as such are entitled to our moral consideration.

I’m probably too stupid to follow the subtleties of this, but it doesn’t actually look like logic to me at all. What she’s doing appears, rather, to assume a postulate that gets her where she wants to go and leaves it at that. It’s sort of like proving that the Earth is one mile in circumference by announcing that from now on the definition of a mile is the circumference of the earth. Bingo, Q.E.D.

Is it just my moral perversity, or do you also note the similarities shared by ‘subject-centred theories of justice’ and the ‘peculiar institution’ of the antebellum South? Note the impact of a few simple word substitutions:

In [slavery] individuals have obligations and entitlements simply because of their status and not because of their deeds or the benefits they have received or have given to others. By status Buchanan seems to have in mind the condition of [one’s skin color]. According to Buchanan’s account, we [darker-hued people] have duties to others just because they are [white] persons and as such are entitled to our [labor, free of charge].

Obviously Ms. Thompson would regard my word-changes as mere persiflage. Armed with her mighty postulate, she can now blithely assume the justice of what—to me—looks like rank injustice:

If a society, a family or community has a moral duty to provide for its old – as subject-centred theories of justice insist - then surely doing so will often (if not always) take priority over ensuring that benefits we provide to the young outweigh burdens. What then is wrong with maintaining a generous pension or medical benefits scheme which is likely to impose comparatively greater burdens on the young and unborn?

Now, see, this is where I prove my utter unworthiness to be a member of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. When I think of the young and the unborn, I get all tender and protective, emotions that obviously Ms. Thompson does not appear to feel (at least toward the young or the unborn.) But lest I think she’s gone the limit with her theory, she rapidly disabuses me of that notion:

Let us return to our rational agents who face the prospect of old age and are aware that they are likely come to depend in one way or another on the care of their successors… They are justified in making moral demands [on the young] for the reasons rightly brought to our attention by the subject-centred theory of justice. They are members of our society who face the prospect of being needy. Possessing needs – some needs at least – is a justifiable basis for making moral demands. [emphasis added]

Kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Granted, she wimps out a bit with that ‘some needs at least’ business, but she’s on a roll and the occasional misfire can’t stop her. And she lays the capstone of her argument with the exact point that would give me the most pause:

To assume that we can legitimately make moral demands of our successors (and rightly believe that they have a responsibility for fulfilling them), we have to suppose that we are operating in the framework of a intergenerational practice or institution – either one already in existence or being formed – which requires the young of each generation to fulfill justified moral demands of their elders. [emphasis added]

Ah, we’ve gotten to the main point at last: the notion that when dealing with something as important as the needs of the elderly, we can’t leave things up to the silly prejudices of the young, who might be tempted to discriminate between nice old buffers and, say, Jeffrey Dahmer, when doling out the loot. No, Ms. Thompson’s theory simply would not be complete without the iron boot on the neck, the coercive power of the state, making its appearance and striding the stage, the Deus ex Machina of subject-centered theory itself.

Okay, so I’m enough of a zaney to think that civilization doesn’t exist for the sake of the elderly, but rather for the young; that ‘obligations’ of the cast-iron sort run only one way, from parents to children; and that if you want your kids to take care of you when you’re pathetic and old, maybe you should treat them well when they’re young so they’ll freely choose to reciprocate the care, rather than lecturing them on their ‘obligations’ to you, backed up by the tax collector and the policeman.

Ah, but that’s just me—obviously, a moral idiot.



posted by Friedrich at February 3, 2004


Consider yourself lucky to be an American. I would say that over 95% of the people of the UK would share Ms. Thompson's attitude. Indeed, they take it as read to such an extent that no one would bother to publish her article here. It would be, to return to your anology, like trying to get an article published called "The earth really does revolve around the sun".

Posted by: Peter Briffa on February 3, 2004 7:22 AM

Friedrich, I really, really don't understand what you're up to here. You've taken a perfectly run-of-the-mill piece of ethics writing and turned it into some monstrous piece of propaganda. Some points:

1) Can you give me an example of ethical philosophers you admire? I have a sneaky feeling here that it's the entire institution of Ethics as a subject which you're uncomfortable with, or at least any attempt to actually apply its conclusions to the real world.

2) On to your treatment of the "‘subject-centred’ approach to entitlement and obligation". Would you agree that we humans have the right to life? To freedom of speech? It's basically exactly the same thing. Yes, it involves drawing a distinction between humans and other animals, and if you want to ask why we draw the distinction there, I can go into quite a lot of quite compelling detail. On the other hand, if the distinction was drawn between whites and blacks, then it would be very easy to show why that was a bad thing to do.

3) You deliberately misconstrue Thompson's use of "unborn". She's referring to future generations, not the babies in pregnant women's wombs about whom you're so tender and protective.

4) Possessing needs is a justifiable basis for making moral demands -- that takes your breath away? It's pretty mainstream ethics, I think, although I'm no expert. If I'm drowning in a lake and you're walking by, I have a need (to be rescued) and that alone creates a moral demand for you to rescue me. I don't see what you're objecting to here.

5) Finally, your putting the word "requires" into italics. Take it out of italics, and the sentence is a lot less objectionable. Again, it's quite clear to me that Thompson is not talking about "the iron boot on the neck, the coercive power of the state". We already have an "intergenerational practice or institution" whereby the young look after the old -- it's been going on for hundreds of years, if imperfectly. What the state can do is less provide an iron boot than try to stop a minority of the elderly from falling through the cracks. Not Jeffrey Dahmer, but what about those whose children have died?

Now, maybe you're what a friend of mine would call an Eskimoist: when someone reaches the age at which they're no longer economically productive, we should hustle them onto an ice floe, saw it off, and watch them float away to their deaths. It makes sense on a purely economic level. But sometimes, wouldn't you say that ethics trumps economics?

Posted by: Felix on February 3, 2004 10:58 AM

Mr. Briffa:

I'm not sure that most Americans wouldn't agree with Ms. Thompson as well, but thanks for the support; since Felix has chimed in, I may need it.


Thanks for dropping by. I don't think what I'm saying is that hard to grasp, but maybe I'm being dense.

(1) Um, Nietzsche. It should be obvious what my opinion of Ms. Thompson's god, John Rawls, is.

(2) No on 'right to life'--last time I looked we're still mortal--and yes on right to freedom of speech, as it simply involves asking the government to, er, butt out. (That's the advantage of negative freedoms--they aren't purchased at the cost of other people's un-freedom.) I don't understand the rest of this paragraph or its relevance to what I'm saying. Sorry.

(3) I feel tender both toward the unborn, both the already-conceived and the potentially-conceived. I don't think I'm misconstruing anything, but then I obviously lack a moral education as I would absolutely privilege the claims of the future generations over the claims of the elderly, unlike Ms. Thompson. Is it not permitted to think this way?

(4) I don't agree that possessing needs is a basis for moral demands. Putting one's shoulder to the wheel in a social (i.e., more-than-one-person) effort earns one the right to a certain consideration from those one has helped or attempted to help; otherwise (as I hint, ever-so-gently) one is simply enslaving others via one's 'needs'. Not a moral approach, in my book. If I'm drowning, I would very much like it if someone would rescue me, but I don't see that as constituting a moral obligation on their part, unless the rescuers in question were my parents. I mean, would even you consider it moral if some innocent passer-by isn't a good swimmer and would be seriously risking his own death as well as mine by attempting the rescue? Perhaps you need a better example.

(5) Italicizing a word does not change its meaning, and the text absolutely supports the importance--the centrality--of the world 'requires.' Ms. Thompson is referring to the iron heel of the state, bub--read it a little more closely.

(6) I'm not inherently an Eskomo-ist. I believe that we have an obligation to the 'spirit' of previous generations, and that we discharge it by being responsible toward our children. I have no objection to the elderly living a great life, as long as that is managed without compromising the health and prospects of the rising generation--a situation that does not obtain in the United States at the moment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 3, 2004 11:27 AM

Food fight! Food fight!

Me, I'm gonna slink back into the shadows and enjoy the show.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 3, 2004 11:37 AM

2) Your criticism of the subject-centered approach took the form of a little word-substitution game, where you drew a distinction between whites and blacks rather than between humans and other animals. My point was that your game was not very compelling as argument.

Also, "right to life" and "right to immortality" are obviously not the same thing.

3) You "would absolutely privilege the claims of the future generations over the claims of the elderly". Interesting. Of course it is permitted to think this way, but it is a little, shall we say, idiosyncratic. Let's say I'm a municipal government, working out a budget. On the one hand, I can spend some money saving little old grannies from freezing to death in the winter because they can't afford their heating bills. On the other hand, I can put that money into a fund which will go towards building new schools for future generations. Listening to you, the granny doesn't have a right to life, while the claim of the future generations should be privileged. Do I start the school fund?

4) No, let's stick to the drowning-man scenario. Don't complicate things with bad swimmers and whatnot: let's say you're a good swimmer and could easily rescue me at the cost to yourself of maybe 10 minutes and some soggy clothes. I consider that in such a circumstance, you have a moral obligation to do so. You don't think that way, but I would be interested in finding out what does constitute a moral obligation in your book. You say that we should be responsible toward our children: is that a moral obligation? And by "children" are you speaking literally, of offspring, or metaphorically, of future generations and the young in general?

6) Sentences which make no sense: "I have no objection to the elderly living a great life, as long as that is managed without compromising the health and prospects of the rising generation." Since neither the elderly nor the rising generation are economically productive, we're talking a zero-sum game here. Whatever we give either group comes out of the toil of the economically productive, and whatever goes to one does not go to the other. If I give my granny caviar, I deprive my children of Christmas presents, at the margin, and likewise for healthcare. The single biggest cost of being old is healthcare, so "the elderly living a great life" is exactly coterminous with the elderly spending vast amounts of money on healthcare -- money which otherwise could be rerouted to the health and prospects of the rising generation. Could you clarify what you mean here?

Posted by: Felix on February 3, 2004 12:13 PM

Gotta agree with Friedrich here, completely, except that I'm not sure society is based on the "needs of the young", either. The boot of the state isn't comfortable whoever's getting a benefit that I don't choose to voluntarily provide. And if I volunteer, the boot of the state was unnecessary.

Posted by: annette on February 3, 2004 1:19 PM


If John Rawls can get away with his swindle - why shouldn't a mere mortal like Janna Thompson get away with using the exact same trick?

Posted by: ZEKE on February 3, 2004 2:08 PM

I nominate Felix as The Shadow Blowhard or perhaps Darth Blowhard.

The problem I have with the essay in question is that it emphaises the justness of giving someone "rights" without arguing for the justness of imposing "obligations". And for every right you give someone an obligation.

Ethics as a study is nearly incomprehensible, especially in this case, without economics. The first sentence of an Policy Econ book is this: Economics is the study of the best use of scarce resources.

If you ask me should we give old people health care, I'd say yes!

If you ask me if someone should come over and give me an ice cream cone, I'd say yes!

Ah, but when you make me consider the costs, opportunity costs, and trade offs of my needs requests, then we can start talking.

In this light, I've been quite miffed at the current bloated Medicare handout. At the very least, it needed to be coupled with a reasonable sacrifice that helps support the cost, like raising the age of eligibility for benefits gradually to 70 by 2030. It's an ice cream cone, but no one talks about who the cone is being taken away from.

I'm actually in favor of state support for old people who can't support themselves. But, given a choice between the helpless old and the helpless young (like the inner city school hell holes we're throwing little kids into), I choose the young. The old have had their opportunity shot at making themselves well off in the richest country in the history of the world.

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on February 3, 2004 2:09 PM

Wow, isn't it weird to see a post-modern attempt at a reconstruction of Confucian ancestor worship?

Posted by: David Mercer on February 3, 2004 2:16 PM

She's just worrying about the coming retirement of the babyboom-generation. Which will give enormous economic pressure everywhere, especially in the EU countries, where soon every worker has to produce enough to support himself and one such pensioner. And realizing the babyboom-generation really has spoiled it all for everyone after them, she probably is afraid there are going to be limitations on the time these people still are allowed to live. Which would be a good idea of course, but only purely economically speaking.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 3, 2004 2:53 PM

Felix or should I call you Darth Blowhard per Mr. Holzbach--(kind of catchy, actually):

(2) I'm rather fond of the word substitution game, and I don't think it's so weak. It clearly pointed out something that upsets you, so I must be on to something there. Insisting that someone else is obligated to perform uncompensated labor to support me based strictly on the fact that I require support is perfectly equivalent to the economic 'deal' of slavery: coercing labor by force for the sole benefit of the coercing party. I don't see why it's okay for old folks to do the coercing (via the ballot box) when it's not okay for Southern planters to do the coercing at shotgun point.

As for 'right to life,' perhaps you should explain the concept. I take it to mean the right to extension of life, and I pointed out that since infinite extension is not possible, and we have limited means, we have to get into discussions of whose life we should work on extending and what value that life extension represents. Let me start that discussion by suggesting that the life of a child is worth more than the life of an elderly person in absolute terms (the elderly person having enjoyed the privilege of being alive considerably longer) and the child is almost certainly capable of a greater extension time wise at a much smaller price. Hence, if I have to choose between them (and as you point out I do) I choose the child.

(3) You are supposing what sounds to me like a false choice (schools vs. freezing grannies) but if such had to be made on exactly those terms, I would vote for the school fund.

(4) Adding in details about my ability to swim and the amount of time taken are, in fact, elaborating your original point and changing it considerably by eliminating uncertainty about such things, which would ordinarily weigh heavily against the idea that such an action could be considered an obligation (in the sense that Ms. Thompson, not a particularly fastidious thinker, appears to be using the word). So from my point of view, you just made my point--no sensible person would consider it the rescue of a drowning man an obligation without knowing those things, and hence it cannot be a moral (unconditional) obligation.

Whereas, I would say that the obligation to children is, in the case of one's own children, absolutely a moral obligation. It becomes something less than that when dealing with other people's children, but I would consider all children as having a fairly good claim to make on society's resources.

(6) In a wealthy society, it is possible to pursue many goals simultaneously, if you don't pursue each one monomoniacally. In that sense, I have no argument about the elderly getting health care, as long as it does not unduly harm the prospects of the young, who in most cases are vigorous and don't require vast resources. But when we can't pay for decent schools or basic healthcare for children because we're shelling out for elder healthcare, in my opinion we've crossed the line from a moral arrangement to an immoral one. To give an example, the U.S. pays more for healthcare for people in the last six months of life every year than it does for all forms of public schooling. Is that really a rational distribution of resources?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 3, 2004 3:27 PM

The breaks the elderly get in this country make me so mad... I'm with Robert: these people have had their whole lives to lay up money; it's not like they didn't know they'd get old someday! Back in my early twenties, just married, struggling with my wife and I each working multiple jobs, no financial way to even consider having kids or buying a home, there was nothing more distressing than sitting in a doctor's office, waiting for hours to spend half a week's pay to get an appointment and some antibiotics for a lingering flu (which was keeping us out of work without pay), and having some old wheezy bitch come in shouting "I have medicare! I have medicare! Let me in!" Of course she got in first, since she had "insurance." And it turned out she just wanted to have the doctor, who she felt was cute, rub some medicated skin-cream on a rash. She did this every week.

To quote Maddox, "If you slit my throat right now you'd be hit in the eye with boiling blood!"

I know there's oldsters out there with misfortunes, whose children have died, who maybe invested poorly or not at all, who lost their life-savings to Nigerian 419 scams... That doesn't mean that I have a moral obligation to donate a percentage of my paycheck each week to every old person in America.

The AARP, however, populated with millions of folks who have lifetimes of savings and countless work-free hours for political lobbying, seems to disagree. Who can lobby like they do for kids in trouble, for youngsters trying to afford educations, and start businesses, and raise families? F***in AARP.

Aargh. Gonna go punch an old person...

Posted by: Nate on February 3, 2004 3:36 PM

Sorry to bring the intellectual tone of the conversation down a bit. I punched a wall instead... and I feel a good deal better. (Damn wall...)

I also don't mean to imply that I'm looking for handouts myself, or for people at my age or in my situation. Just that it's unfair that the AARP has so much lobbying power because of the retired, well off nature of its constituents, and that as a result I see them as the ones wearing the metal boot which is pushing down on our necks. (No doubt they'll get Bush re-elected thanks to his prescription drug benefit fiasco.)

Posted by: Nate on February 3, 2004 3:46 PM

Mild observation - spending on old vs. spending on young isn't zero sum. We spend on young people's care and education, they become more productive adults. We spend on oldsters' care, they become, uh, fertilizer in cemeteries. In the hard-hearted analysis, spending on old people is waste.

Also, moral impremateurs on individuals do not necessarily carry over to the state. Peter giving money to Paul to help him out is moral, though not obligatory. Senator Thomas taking Peter's taxes to give to Paul is neither moral nor obligatory.

Posted by: rvman on February 3, 2004 5:17 PM

Also, even were we to assume that I have an obligation to take care of my parents doesn't mean "we" have an obligation to take care of "our" parents. "We" do not have parents. You have parents, I have parents. They are a disjoint set, strictly so unless one of my half-siblings happens to be reading this. I have no more more obligation to your parents than I do to you, or some guy in Jersey. That is to say, only the obligation to "live and let live", respect property rights, and so forth.

Assuming "we" have an obligation to our elderly smuggles in the same collectivist assumptions that saying "we" have an obligation to the poor, handicapped, stupid, or whatever does - the elderly have no special claim.

Posted by: rvman on February 3, 2004 5:25 PM

Like daddy said:

"I had you. You didn't have me.
Now bend over, Rover."

... not sure about that last part.

Posted by: pinky on February 3, 2004 6:17 PM

May I suggest yet another line of logic? It followes from Mr.Holzbach'(and Friedrich') statement that old people had had an opportunity to build their financial stability during their lifetimes. By this same logic young people WILL have that opportunity, because they look at the bigger stretch of money-producing time ahead of them than the middle-age generation. In fact, that's what popular financial advisers tell us (f. ex., Susie Orman) - when you have limited income and have to choose between building your retirement account and your child educational fund, you are advised to choose the former. And, to continue Rvman' thought, children don't have any special claims to the pie either.

All this talk about moral obligations society has towards it's members painfully reminds me of failed socialist principle 'From everyone by his ability, to everyone by his need'. Folks, that blanket simply is'n big enough! Does the world still needs to theoretize pros and cons, when there is such "right into your face" tremendous practical argument as failed experiment of Soviet Union? Just amazed at certain circles' ability to shut their eyes at the obvious.

Friedrich, what in your view is the appropriate budget spending percentage (on elderly and the young)?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 3, 2004 6:32 PM

Hi Friedrich: I have to say I'm with you on the Darth Blowhard thing, it's pretty cool. I'm even thinking about registering and parking it at

Your slavery analogy still doesn't hold up, I'm afraid. Your labor is not uncompensated, for one: insofar as it is uncompensated, you don't get taxed.

And no, by "right to life" I didn't mean "right to healthcare", I meant "right to not be killed".

I also don't buy into your idea that moral obligations are, ipso facto, unconditional obligations. Where did that come from?

But this discussion is veering away from me, I think. I took your original post to be about a certain piece of rhetoric, and I thought you did an unimpressive job of fisking it. But -- and here I'm sure I'm going to disappoint Michael and his hopes for a food fight -- I actually agree with you and everybody else here on the issue in question, which is societal support for the elderly. Yes, there's too much of it, and yes, it's going to bankrupt most of the industrialised nations of the world unless we do something abut it now. Demographic time bombs, yadda yadda yadda. But we've heard all those arguments before.

So, I agree that the old get too much money from the government, but I disagree with your take on ethics and the role it has to play in public life. I think ethics, when it's done well, can be an important part of public discourse -- and in issues like cloning and genetically modified food, it's actually central.

Posted by: Felix on February 3, 2004 8:03 PM

According to Plutarch (IIRC), Solon established that a bastard son need not support his father in old age, since daddy-o did not support the son in his youth. And, if I hadn't used the courts to shake my old man down for a pretty penny, I would seriously resent paying his Social Security benefits.

Posted by: Anon on February 3, 2004 10:19 PM

It is my fervent hope that this form of moral philosophy will some day simply disappear. This is a horrifyingly bad paper. She does in fact assume almost everything that she needs to show, and seems blithely unconcerned with widespread and deep contrary inuitions about risk, dependence, self-responsibility, reciprocity, desert, need, and so on. Here's a strong intution of mine: people don't need to be guaranteed what they need. In fact, they often need to NOT be guaranteed what what they need.

So now what? We duel?

There's really no argument in the paper, just a sequence of assertations about what we think our reasons are. Perhaps more disconcerting, there seems to be nary a glimmer of awareness about the economic or institutional dimensions of guaranteeing entire generations of people benefits in their posterity. The is an implicit assumption that somehow or other a massive scheme of transfers (what else could she really be talking about?) can just happen without wildly distorting people's productive incentives or the structure and function of our political institutions. But herein lies most of the substantive moral issues about what obligations people have vis a vis public institutions.

Most moral & political philosophy more or less asks: What would we be obligated to do if we lived in a world where we all voluntarily met all our obligations once a philosopher explained them to us? Or: What would we be obligated to do if we lived in a world where we all voluntarily meet our obligations to the state and the agents of the state perfectly (wasting not a dime) adminster social programs that never fail to satisfy our intention to meet our obligations. Answers to such questions are almost totally useless, even by philosophical standards.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson on February 4, 2004 3:09 AM

I also agree completely with Friedrich on the moral claims asserted in the paper.

But, on the topic of antipodes, I find that they can be not only fascinating, but useful too.

Years ago, I remember relying heavily on the movie reviews of Rex Reed because he would unfailingly hate the movies that I would like, and love the movies that I would hate.

Posted by: Gil on February 4, 2004 3:40 AM

Darth Blowhard:

Ah, come on, if we can't count on you for a foodfight, who can we count on?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 4, 2004 11:54 AM

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