The Politics of Masochism
Author: Reiff M.R.
Source: Inquiry, Volume 46, Number 1, March 2003 , pp. 29-63(35)
Abstract:This essay explores why people sometimes act against their economic interests, and, more particularly, why people sometimes knowingly and intentionally support economic inequality even though they are disadvantaged by it, a phenomenon I call masochistic inegalitarianism. The essay argues that such behavior is an inherent and widespread feature of human nature, and that this has important though previously overlooked practical and theoretical implications for any conception of distributive justice. On the practical side, masochistic inegalitarianism suggests that any theory of distributive justice with more than the most modest egalitarian aspirations is inherently self-defeating (or at least self-limiting) because it will naturally produce the background conditions necessary to trigger masochistic behavior among the very people it is designed to assist. On the theoretical side, masochistic inegalitarianism suggests that there are serious problems with any theory of distributive justice based on the idea of hypothetical consent. This is because people with masochistic tendencies would be unlikely to consent to the distributive arrangements these theories have presumed, and the arrangements to which they would be likely to consent would allow a far greater degree of economic inequality than we are prepared to acknowledge as intuitively just. Either we must rethink our intuitions, or, as I contend, there is something about masochistic inegalitarianism that robs hypothetical consent of its moral force.
Document Type: Research article
Publication date: 2003-03-01