We are very pleased to have Jonathan Quong commenting on Simon May’s “Why Strict Compliance?” A reminder you can find Simon’s paper open access here. Here now is Jonathan:
I learned a lot from Simon’s excellent paper, and I hope it will become a focal point for discussion of ideal theory. I’m very sympathetic to the main idea, even if I’m not entirely sure how all the details work.
Simon aims to answer the strict compliance puzzle: “why should moral norms for responding to the widespread injustice of the actual world depend on an account of a hypothetical world in which every agent complies with the requirements of justice?”. His answer is complicated, but it goes roughly as follows. A just society is a grand scheme of social cooperation for reciprocal advantage amongst free and equal persons. An essential feature of genuine schemes of cooperation is that the participants are mutually accountable to one another. Mutually accountability involves the standing to demand that others comply with the rules, and failures to comply trigger a suspension of the default duties of normal cooperation. And default rules of normal cooperation must assume strict compliance—they are the rules that obtain when there has been no violations that would trigger a suspension of the default rules. Thus, genuine schemes of social cooperation begin with a strict compliance assumption.
I want to raise two questions about Simon’s account. First, how much of this is stipulative and how much is substantive? Simon says that genuinely cooperative schemes have various features (e.g. they are fair, there is mutual accountability). These features are crucial in getting to the strict compliance assumption. But is this a purely stipulative or technical notion of a genuinely cooperative scheme? If so, this would undermine the importance of the article. The article would amount to a demonstration that, given a certain stipulative definition, such schemes depend on a strict compliance assumption.
So I assume Simon intends his picture to be a non-stipulative analysis or account of the concept of genuinely cooperative schemes. But I’m a bit skeptical that genuinely cooperative schemes must have all the features Simon identifies. Football teams, for example, seem like they can be genuinely cooperative schemes amongst the players and staff. But they don’t have to be fair, nor need they involve the kind of mutual accountability Simon describes. The aim of at least some of these teams (though clearly not Arsenal) is to win matches. It may be that the best route to building a winning team is to let some players get away with things (e.g. the super star player may be most effective if he is not sanctioned when he fails to do his share of the unglamourous defensive work, or fails to conform to the off-field rules of conduct). I think teams like this can be genuinely cooperative schemes in a colloquial sense, but they aren’t necessarily structured around fairness, and they lack a consistent version of mutual accountability in Simon’s sense. But if the features that generate the strict compliance assumption aren’t part of the fabric of genuinely cooperative schemes—if they’re only part of some sub-set of such schemes—then we need moral or normative arguments for their inclusion. Simon’s paper doesn’t offer such arguments, but maybe he would agree that this is part of the larger project.
Second, I have a question about how to understand the strict compliance assumption. As Simon emphasizes later in the paper, the strict compliance assumption is consistent with non-utopian theorizing. He says we might set up cooperative schemes (which assume strict compliance) to deal with past injustice (he provides an example of democratic transition away from dictatorship). The principles governing such a transitional scheme won’t be utopian—they don’t represent an ideal objective.
But if we can have fair cooperative schemes set up to respond to past non-compliance, why can’t we have fair cooperative schemes set up to handle ongoing non-compliance? Suppose we notice that some people in the neighborhood are leaving trash in the local park, but we lack the resources to identify the culprits. This creates a burden, and we decide to set up a new cooperative scheme where the burdens of clean up are distributed fairly. The new clean up scheme takes for granted the existence of a cost, and is designed to fairly allocate this cost. But the cost arises from regular acts of non-compliance. We also know (given the isolated location of our neighborhood) that the people creating the cost are part of our neighborhood. Can we have fair cooperative scheme to handle this fixed cost, even though it presupposes non-compliance?
There are at least two responses available:
Option 1: The scheme is a genuinely fair system of cooperation and consistent with the strict compliance assumption. The non-compliance costs that the scheme seeks to fairly allocate are external to the scheme, and thus taking them as given is not a violation of the strict compliance assumption.
Option 2: The scheme is only part of non-ideal theory—how we respond to non-compliance. But the clean-up scheme is a downstream component of the much larger cooperative political project, and that project has a set of default rules where perfect compliance is assumed.
Option 1 is unappealing. It holds that the strict compliance assumption is satisfied even when we assume lots of ongoing wrongdoing so long as that wrongdoing is deemed “external” to the scheme. This seems inconsistent with the spirit of the strict compliance assumption.
Option 2 is, I think, the more promising response. But it raises the question of where we draw the line. Why do we say the park cleanup is a downstream response to a failure to comply with a more general scheme, but we don’t say the same of the transitional government rules?
Another problem is that Option 2 does not seem to help when we consider cooperative schemes designed to take into account people’s propensity to engage in non-compliance. Perhaps, ideally, it would be best if everyone participated in a cooperative scheme with rules R1. But we know the demandingness of those rules, in conjunction with human frailty, mean that a scheme structured around R1 will have lots of non-compliance, the consequences of which will be very bad. We can instead opt for a different cooperative scheme structured around R2, which is less demanding and as a result there will be near-perfect compliance. The overall consequences will be much better under R2, so we create our cooperative scheme with R2 as the rules. In one sense, R2 appears consistent with the strict compliance assumption, since it has a set of default rules that assume strict compliance. But in another sense, we only opt for R2 because we correctly anticipate a lot of non-compliance if we tried to implement a very different, and more demanding, scheme.
I’m not clear whether Simon believes this justification for the R2 scheme is consistent with the strict compliance assumption. If he thinks that it is consistent, I worry that Simon and some strict compliance skeptics are talking past each other. Simon is insisting that genuinely cooperative schemes begin with a set of default rules with which we assume everyone complies. But I suspect some skeptics of the strict compliance assumption aren’t denying this. What they’re insisting upon is that which schemes we decide to set up in the first place must be guided by our non-ideal or realistic assessments of the population’s likely levels of non-compliance with different possible schemes.