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The parable of the flute

How do we decide what is morally right and wrong? Professor Adrian Martin discusses this question using Amartya Sen's parable of the flute.
We are considering environmental justice as an analytical approach to thinking about contested environmental problems. We began by setting out a simple
analytical framework based on three dimensions of justice: distribution, procedure and recognition. This framework helps us to scope out the range of environmental justice issues and claims. But it says nothing about how we decide whether something is morally right or wrong. This is what we turn to now, and as you might expect, there are no easy answers. In fact, the main message arising from the parable of the flute is that there is no single solution to the question of - what is the just thing to do? Or to put it another way, ideas about justice are intractably plural.
The scenario is based on a Amartya Sen’s, Parable of the Flute, which is found in his 2009 book called ‘The idea of justice’. The starting point of the story is that a wooden flute has been found in a village. Different children come forward, each with a claim that the flute should be given to them. Your job is to consider each child’s case and decide what the most just solution is. Should the flute be given to Anne, to Bob or to Carla? Note that this is purely an experiment in thinking about distributional principles; you’re not, initially at least, asked to consider what would be a fair procedure for making this decision, or a way of avoiding failures of recognition.
So let’s hear the claims of the three children. Firstly, Anne claims the flute should be given to her on the basis that she is a very good flute player. Secondly, Bob claims the flute should be given to him because he is the poorest and has no other toys to play with. And thirdly, Carla claims the flute on the basis that she is the one who actually made it. So who has the best case? What would constitute a just distribution of this flute?
If you’re veering towards child one, Anne, perhaps you’re thinking in terms that merit should be rewarded; that Anne deserves the flute on the basis of the practice that she has put in or, because of her natural ability but you could also be thinking about this in another way. You might be thinking of the greater good that would come of placing the flute in the hands of an expert player. Think of all the pleasure Anne would provide for the many music lovers in the village. If you selected child two, Bob, perhaps you’re thinking more about a pro-poor ethic.
For example: you might believe that just distribution should serve to reduce the gap between the wealthier and the poorer. Or perhaps you think that giving the flute to somebody very poor will create more additional pleasure than giving it to somebody who already has lots of personal goods. If you’ve selected child three, Carla, perhaps you place high value on the right to private property and the responsibility of decision-makers to protect this. Just as a farmer should not have her crop taken away from her so Carla should not be dispossessed of the product of her own labour.
I’ve deliberately avoided the use of technical terms in my retelling of this story, however, you might have recognised some well-known justice principles such as utilitarianism, the greater good, egalitarianism - reducing wealth gaps, and libertarianism - protecting property. Sen’s point is not that any of these is best. In fact, his point is that all of them can be pretty convincing in the right context, and extending that point he argues, we will never all agree about a single set of principles of justice. Even individuals might vary in the kind of principles that they use to determine just outcomes depending on the particular context.
You can reflect on whether you personally use a range of principles you might think that votes should be allocated according to egalitarian principles - one vote for one person, but you might think that jobs should be allocated according to merit - to the best qualified candidates, and perhaps that food and drink should be distributed according to need. Sen is not arguing for moral relativism - the belief that right and wrong is entirely context-specific. That is an abyss best avoided but he is arguing that we have to be pragmatic and recognise that we will not identify a universally agreed blueprint for determining what is just.
In practice, this means that justice has to be determined democratically through inclusive ways of debating and agreeing what is the right thing to do, in particular circumstances.

How do we decide whether something is morally right or wrong?

As you might expect, there are no easy answers to the question of ‘what is the just thing to do?’

In this video, Adrian walks us through a scenario to make us think a bit deeper on this subject. The scenario is based on Amartya Sen’s parable of the flute which is found in his 2009 book called ‘The Idea of Justice’.

In the comments section, share your initial thoughts on the Parable of the Flute. We will return to thinking about this parable at the end of this week’s teaching.

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