Spheres of Society

December 21, 2003 (updated January 2, 2004, & November 20, 2004)

I read something in some endnotes in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards that gave me an important new way to look at something I'd thought about a lot. Amusingly, it was the opposite effect from what Kohn had intended with his presentation. (Chapter 2, notes 3–6, referring to the work of Morton Deutsch and Melvin J. Lerner. I haven't read either of them, but I've got Deutsch's Distributive Justice on reserve at the library.)

Kohn was discussing different kinds of "distributive justice", different principles for deciding who gets what. Presumably the most common, which Kohn was criticizing, is the principle of equity, which I roughly understand as "to each according to their contribution". This is the foundational principle of capitalism, and sometimes it seems that capitalist philosophers such as Ayn Rand proclaim it as the only rational principle of distribution. That is the attitude that Kohn was arguing against, and it was one that I had already rejected myself.

The other two kinds of distributive justice are based on equality and on need, respectively. I understand the former as "to each equally", and the latter as "to each according to their need". The latter is recognizable as the foundational principle of communism, and again it seems that communist philosophers proclaim it as the only acceptable principle of distribution. Rejecting the extreme capitalist attitude, this extreme communist attitude had seemed to me to be the remaining alternative.

Kohn's goal was to convince anyone holding the extreme capitalist view that there are at least other valid principles of distribution besides that of equity; but his presentation coupled with these inconspicuous endnotes had a somewhat opposite effect on me. For while his presentation was not very balanced, and was hoping to promote the principle of need in particular, the studies mentioned in the endnotes were balanced, and the effect on me was to help me understand and accept all three principles.

The studies described involved various surveys and experiments that led to the realization that the different principles of distribution tend to be applied consistently in different kinds of relationships. Since I don't have the original book and articles, I don't have the original wording, but I have come to call these different kinds of relationships the "spheres" of society.

So the "sphere of equity", it turns out, is the sphere of strangers. People who don't know each other naturally tend toward the principle of equity in dealing with each other.

The "sphere of equality" is the sphere of friends. Friends are likely to pitch in what they can and share equally in the outcome of whatever they are engaging in as friends.

Finally, the "sphere of need" is the sphere of family. Family members typically give to each other whatever they need to be healthy and happy.

As an example, one of the experiments mentioned took pairs of college students and put each pair in a room in turn. They were to tackle some kind of puzzle together and would be rewarded if they succeeded. When the pair were already friends before the experiment, they treated it as a common endeavor and split the reward equally, regardless of who had contributed the most to the actual solution of the puzzle. However, when the pair were strangers, they tended to recognize one or the other as having contributed more to the solution and ended up splitting the rewards proportionally.

I still consider myself a socialist because I want to see more emphasis on the spheres of equality and need where they are appropriate. And I consider myself a libertarian because I want to make sure the sphere of equity is preserved where it is appropriate. In all spheres, no person has the right to compel another to give in a certain way, and equity is a rational default. But I want to see more people choosing equality and need in their respective spheres of society.

Consider the relationship between workers and the business that employs them. Employment can be considered to be an impersonal transaction and treated according to the principle of equity, as in a typical corporation; or employment can be considered to be a common endeavor engaged in by colleagues and treated according to the principle of equality, as in a cooperative. I am strongly inclined toward the latter view.

On the other hand, it is unreasonable for a person to insist on being treated according to any other than the principle of equity when actually engaging in a business transaction with a friend, such as being a customer in the friend's store, though some proprietors do choose to favor their friends even then.

The case of the family is particularly important. A healthy family does, I believe, live communally, emphasizing the principle of need and deemphasizing the principle of equity. It almost seems silly to have to say it, but there are plenty of families who don't live this way. They maintain separate accounts for each family member, even husband and wife, and pay "allowances" to each other. They do respond to emergencies as a family, but you may notice that even strangers will do that in extreme situations.

Our communities are similarly broken. A healthy community is treated as a common endeavor by all who are part of it, which implies being friendly and organizing cooperatively. Too often we react to problems in our communities by complaining about the government, as if we are all separate from it and from each other. I would love to see more intentional communities, such as cohousing, and generally more community activism for its own sake.

I've heard a condescending remark about socialists, that they are like spoiled children who are used to their family giving them everything and now want society-at-large to do the same. There's an important realization in that remark that the family is the sphere of need, but the negativity of the remark is off-target. The person who craves communal living is more likely either to have missed it in their own family, or to have lost it as an adult.

I used to dream of moving to a commune myself, to have that close familial community—not as a childish impulse, but as an adult calling. Now I live in communion with my wife and I dream less of the rural commune. I think that we both still crave an extended communal family, and that almost everyone does these days, which is the alienation that the communists talk about. While it is not appropriate for an entire country to live as one big communal family, we need to recapture the communal spirit in all of our families, and the friendly spirit in all of our communities. §

Sampson Synergetics

Copyright 2003 & 2004 by Justin T. Sampson