Three Kids and a Flute: Utilitarianism Defended

Eric Falkenstein blogs on the following thought experiment from Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice:
Take three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because she made it.
I've never read the book, so I'm going to take Falkenstein's depiction of Sen's take on it at face value. It is as follows:
Sen argues that who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian will argue for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. Sen states there are no institutional arrangements that can help us resolve this dispute in a universally accepted just manner.
Falkenstein comments:
Instead of asking how to allocate the flute between the three children, why not ask first under which rules would the flute have come into existence? If Carla knew she would not get the flute, she would not have made it. Therefore, just add a time dimension to the puzzle, and there's no puzzle at all: only a libertarian form of justice is consistent with the flute existing.
You see the mistake he made there? Once we add a time dimension, our appreciation of the libertarian solution does indeed change, as Falkenstein points out. But so does our appreciation of the utilitarian solution. Under reasonable assumptions, and weighting everyone's utility equally, the utilitarian solution is exactly the same as the libertarian solution, and for the same reason: Carla should have the right to keep the flute, because otherwise she would not make it, in which case overall utility would be less. In fact, if I understand Falkenstein correctly, the reason he gives for preferring the libertarian solution is, implicitly, a utilitarian one.

Things only get interesting once we make the example more akin to real life and ask what happens if Carla can make a hundred flutes: how many of those should she have the right to keep?


John Althouse Cohen said...

I have been reading The Idea of Justice (it's excellent, by the way), and Falkenstein is misstating what Sen says about the utilitarian. Sen says (correctly) that you could make a strong utilitarian argument for any of the three children getting the flute.

John Althouse Cohen said...

In fact, Sen himself makes the same points made by you and Falkenstein.

Sen writes: "Carla's 'right' to get what she has made may not resonate immediately with the utilitarian, but deeper utilitarian reflection would nevertheless tend to take some note of the requirements of work incentives in creating a society in which utility-generation is sustained and encouraged through letting people keep what they have produced with their own efforts" (pg. 12).

Falkenstein's "surprise" at what Sen "didn't address" would only make sense if Sen had instead written: "Carla's 'right to get what she has made will not resonate at all with the utilitarian." Of course, that's the opposite of what Sen actually wrote.

LemmusLemmus said...

I've just read through the section in question on Google books (pp. 12-15) and, indeed, you're absolutely right - Falkenstein's depiction is very misleading at best (he seems to be hedging his bets when he refers to Sen's "initial thought example"). Good catch!