A thought experiment

Imagine there was a new drug that could indefinitely increase a person’s physical strength — the more they have, the stronger they are. In the aggregate, the increased use of this drug would increase the total physical strength of the human race.

Now imagine two regimes for distributing this drug. In the first, access to the drug is limited to a relatively small portion of the population, who are able to get as much as they want. Human physical strength overall would be growing under this regime, but the vast majority of the population would be effectively weaker with all these Incredible Hulks walking around — in fact, even if their own strength remained constant throughout the process, most people would be in greater physical danger by virtue of the very existence of the Hulks.

In the second, access to the drug is widespread across the population. Everyone is able to do one-armed push-ups and free-standing hand-stands, but no one is able to gain a significant edge over anyone else. Here I think it would be more meaningful to talk about a general increase in human strength, even if the aggregate effects of the drug were less overall.

If the first distribution regime were the only possible one, I think we’d all agree that it would be better not to have the drug at all than to allow, say, 1% of the population to become Incredible Hulks and walk around among us — even if the Incredible Hulks were able to “create jobs” by forcing the weaklings to slave for them.

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9 Responses to “A thought experiment”

  1. Plasm Says:

    I don’t think you really believe that everyone would agree, right? This is more of a case of picking out an audience by means of their answer to a question. “We” are not all egalitarians yet, not even all of “us” moderns.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think a rational person would rather give up their chance of being an Incredible Hulk if the alternative was to be enslaved by one.

  3. gerrycanavan Says:

    Rawls has an argument like this (which he calls the difference principle) where he says he’d take the deal not knowing which he’d be, provided the non-Hulks were sufficiently enriched by the new aggregate wealth of mankind as to offset the new risk of squishing. I think if you then modify the scenario to a third one, where the drug turns the 1% into benevolent gods who never harm the rest, the argument Adam’s comes into focus even more strongly — that inequality itself is a kind of harm, which can’t just be bracketed or aggregated away.

  4. Charles R Says:

    gerrycanavan’s modification presents a response to Adam’s response: don’t rational people give up their chance at being their own religious movements and instead enslave themselves to certain gods’ regimes quite often? Or is submission to church authority an irrational activity otherwise rational people do?

  5. Stephen Keating Says:

    Yeah, but Adam, what if there was a lottery system whereby a tiny number of the non-hulks get to become hulks by pure chance (with the illusion that it’s because they worked harder than all the other non-hulks)? Obviously THAT would be a desirable system.

  6. mathmos Says:

    What if it had happened in the distant past and that the choice made effected us mainly through institutional arrangements and mental habituation?

  7. Yunes Says:

    In fact it’s not even a question which one do we rationally choose, if you think about the whole picture:
    We have 2 systems here: In one, Hulks have enslaved other people and made them to produce this drug for them, days and night. There you have workers earning less than 1$ a day, child labor and… you know the rest. And with every single shot of this drug they make, they increase the power of their masters.
    In the possible second form everybody works almost as hard as the others and everybody is entitled to have this drug.
    I don’t think you can find anybody who can rationally even consider the choice here.
    If Marx was alive, he would probably tell you: Don’t forget the production process my friend!

  8. Wednesday Links! | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] * Adam Kotsko vs. the difference principle. […]

  9. Elliott Grieco (@egrieco) Says:

    I think you are doing something more subtle here than asking “do you prefer distribution 1 or 2?” You pose the two possibilities, but then afterwards retract a path to the second. But then MAYBE the only path to the second could be the end of the drug in the first place? In which case, we all become incredible hulks even without the drug! But as Marx would ask (and Yunes points to): what is it about the drug, its immanent logic, that makes the first distribution the only possible one in the first place?

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