Different models of justice

I recently listened to a podcast featuring Amartya Sen, a Nobel prize winning economist and philosopher. (If you want to hear it, here it is.) He has a new book about justice, in which he argues that a universal or idealized concept of justice should not be our goal: rather, we should focus on the obvious injustices and eliminate them.

The interviewer mentioned a parable Sen uses in his book that I found intriguing. I will paraphrase:

Imagine a flute. Three children each have a claim on the flute.

The first child should have the flute because she can play it well, and the others cannot.

The second child should have the flute because he has no other toys with which to play, and the others do have toys.

The third child should have the flute because she made it.

Of course, the purpose of the parable is to show the competing definitions of justice. But I wonder: according to contemporary Mormon Christianity, who should get the flute? Extra points for textual support.


  1. Imagine an economy with just one brick…

  2. “in which he argues that a universal or idealized concept of justice should not be our goal: rather, we should focus on the obvious injustices and eliminate them.”

    I agree. I read a book, on justice too (small world), that made a similar argument. Basically the argument was different people and cultures will never agree on what the perfect world should look like so there is no use trying to create an ideal society.

    However, there are universal injustices that all cultures agree on so that should be forbidden.

  3. I don’t have any textual support, but I think in contemporary Mormonism, the child who can play the flute would get it. We really emphasize the talents parable in the Church, and the first option also reflects our Mormon tendency to judge each other (and, to be fair, ourselves) pretty harshly (the two other children in the first scenario are basically being punished for not learning to play the flute well). The other two options are just a little too pinko for modern Mormon sensibilities.

  4. The one who is going to hand the flute to one child or another needs to go outside the parameters of the parable. He should work with the third child to help her to make other flutes, to accept fair compensation for this one, or to willingly donate the flute for the good of all. He should work with the second child to find toys that are more suitable to his needs — who says he will be happy with a toy he cannot use well, or that justice can’t supply others? And if the first child can and will make the best use of the flute for the pleasure of everyone, herself included, then everybody benefits by her having it.

  5. My initial inkling is that the child who made the flute should get it, but then I ask myself “With whose capital did she make it?”. If she made it with her own capital, then it should be hers. But if she made it with someone else’s tools, then she has no more claim on it than the person who owns the tools to make the flute. (Take that Karl Marx!!)

  6. In Solomon tradition: slice the flute in thirds and share it equally. Isn’t that, after all, the goal of socialized health care or anything else?

  7. Independent of who claims the flute, the Church will take 10% of the flute, sell it, and use the proceeds to pay for BYU football helmets. Right?

  8. Some group or party would argue that the flute is causing too much controversy/contention and should be destroyed.

    Then again, one of the children made the flute – perhaps an arrangement could be made for the other children?

    Also, a child who creates a flute might be some kind of prodigy – perhaps the child should get some extra training and support in the making of flutes.

  9. Rather, I meant to say – perhaps it could be arranged that the child who made the flute could make two more for the other kids …

  10. It’s pretty obvious that the kid with the greatest brawn, biggest brain, and fewest hang-ups about violence and treachery should get it. As I always say, we fare “according to the management of the creature.”

  11. I would start with the observation that we are dealing with children. And children don’t have well developed judgment. So if a solution is chosen (with its trade-offs) there will be anger, hurt feelings, and disagreement.

    If we choose to give them autonomy to work it out themselves then there will have to be consequences (“lessons” if you will) to accompany the particular type of bad judgment displayed by each. (e.g. ego? selfishness? lack of care about others feelings? emotion clouding judgment?)

    The truth is, there are many situations without good solutions. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t aspire to create better people to handle such situations. Sometimes, we have to learn to choose among poor choices. I may wish that weren’t so, but my opinion doesn’t seem to matter.

  12. Korihor, if you ask for a sign your commenting privileges will be revoked.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    From chapter XV of Roughing It, Brigham Young addresses the issue:

    Sir, you probably did not know it, but all the time you were
    present with my children your every movement was watched by vigilant servitors of mine. If you had offered to give a child a dime, or a stick of candy, or any trifle of the kind, you would have been snatched out of the house instantly, provided it could be done before your gift left your hand. Otherwise it would be absolutely necessary for you to make an exactly similar gift to all my children–and knowing by experience the importance of the thing, I would have stood by and seen to it myself that you did it, and did it thoroughly. Once a gentleman gave one of my children a tin whistle–a veritable invention of Satan, sir, and one which I have an unspeakable horror of, and so would you if you had eighty or ninety children in your house. But the deed was done–the man escaped. I knew what the result was going to be, and I thirsted for vengeance. I ordered out a flock of Destroying Angels, and they hunted the man far into the fastnesses of the Nevada mountains. But they never caught him. I am not cruel, sir–I am not vindictive except when sorely outraged–but if I had caught him, sir, so help me Joseph Smith, I would have locked him into the nursery till the brats whistled him to death. By the slaughtered body of St. Parley Pratt (whom God assail!) there was never anything on this earth like it! I knew who gave the whistle to the child, but I could, not make those jealous mothers believe me. They believed I did it, and the result was just what any man of reflection could have foreseen: I had to order a hundred and ten whistles–I think we had a hundred and ten children in the house then, but some of them are off at college now–I had to order a hundred and ten of those shrieking things, and I wish I may never speak another word if we didn’t have to talk on our fingers entirely, from that time forth until the children got tired of the whistles. And if ever another man gives a whistle to a child of mine and I get my hands on him, I will hang him higher than Haman! That is the word with the bark on it! Shade of Nephi! You don’t know anything about married life.

  14. Since The Flute is an appropriate instrument for Sacrament Meeting musical interludes, the child who can play the flute should get it. A musical interlude should be scheduled for the following Sunday, to include at least one of the following: O My Father, If You Could Hie To Kolob, or anything by Kurt Bestor.

    The child who made the flute should immediately be given a calling as Flute Manufacture Specialist. He/she/it will then manufacture flutes as a Church assignment. You can get your flute by filling out the Tithing form, and where it says “Other/Scout Camp”, cross out “Other/Scout Camp”, write in “Flutes”, and enter $240 for each one. Permission slips need to be SIGNED and IN to ME no LATER than 5:01 PM Today.

    The child who plays the flute should then give talks and lessons about how playing the flute is a talent that should be developed. The bishop should get up and bear testimony about what a “tray-zhur” it is to have such music in the ward, and issue a challenge to the ward to learn to play the flute. A system for reporting monthly flute-playing practice time should instituted through the Priesthood, because only the Priesthood can organize and bring the Spirit into things. The EQ teachers will then teach lessons on how if you don’t report your flute practice time, you don’t love Jesus. There should be no lesson that doesn’t at least mention how YOU NEED to get your flute practice done, and get it reported because the EQ secretary is going down to Lake Powell on Tuesday, and the report needs to be in to the Stake President before then. Members not practicing in any three-month period should get a personal visit from the Bishopric to ask if anything “needs to be taken off your plate” so you can get your flute practice done.

    The child with no toys should go swipe some from the nursery while nobody is looking.

  15. John Mansfield FTW.

  16. Perhaps we can build a flute factory and employ all three children in making flutes. Since Zoramites have no problem in making a buck off the backs of the poor, we can ensure that none of the children are discriminated against, by making sure they all work so long and hard that none would have time to do anything with the flute – if they ever cared to touch a flute again….

  17. Sterling Fluharty says:

    What about using a time-sharing plan? Similarly, I have wondered why every member of an Elders Quorum has to purchase their own tools when they could instead be jointly purchased and shared by priesthood brethren.

  18. From a private property perspective, the obvious choice is #3 unless she decides to voluntarily give it away.

    From the perspective of the Law of Consecration, #3 would be requested to give it to #1 since she is the only one who could best use it out of necessity if she wanted to be a musician. If not, it would still belong to #3.

  19. The third child should make two more flutes and give them to the other two children. The first child should then teach the other two how to play the instrument and the third child should be moral support to the other two since they are doing all the work. Maybe he/she could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them for lunch. :)

  20. In a modern mormon context I think it goes something like this…

    The child who made the flute retains the flute. Like it or lump it, in Mormon culture industry and ownership are high signs of righteousness and stewardship. The child keeps the flute to do with it as they please but twinges with guilt every time she hears a skilled musician perform. If only she had magnified her talents.

    The child who plays flute well has boot straps and can make a flute out of them if they like. This child should be perfectly happy to use the barely functional flute provided by the public school… assuming that anxiously engaged fiscal conservatives haven’t entirely stripped arts education from schools in the area.

    The child who has no toys and does not play flute well may have access to the same school instrument. Either way, this child should help his LDS community look beyond his obvious lack of talent and prosperity by showing up every week in a blisteringly white shirt!

  21. Sorry. That was an overly sardonic response of what would probably happen. Here is what should happen.

    Youth leaders encourage the flute maker child and the no toys no flute child to work together to build a flute for the talented child. This helps educate the least privileged and provides a service opportunity for the skilled. If they choose to donate a flute to the talented child it is an act of act of charity. Christian service done and new opportunity for the flute playing child to choose a means of gratitude.

  22. There is only one clear scriptural account of relevance. Clearly, the king should state he will cut the flute into three pieces of equal size and give each child one piece. Two of the children will agree, while the third will say, “No, don’t cut the flute! Give it to one of the others.” Then the flute goes to the third child.

    Norbert, How many extra points do I get for this? And what can I use them for?

  23. I agree with Sterling Flu(te)harty, the flute is the property of the United Order and each child shoul be able to take turns with it.

  24. It depends on the predominant system:

    – In the US ownership society it’s obvious, the girl that make the flute owns it. She can choose/be persuaded to give it up, but that’s her right to choose. The first girl may trade her something of value for this, and she may therefore decide to make more flutes. She may even feel charitable and decide to make a flute for the second girl.

    – In the United Order, everything becomes common and is given according to “needs” as determined by the bishop. Since the second girl with no toys has the biggest “need”, she gets the flute. The third girl may decide to keep making flutes to contribute to the “storehouse”, but perhaps she won’t, especially if she spends all her time “working” (making flutes) and the first girl spends all her time “playing” (making music).

    – In Communism, the first girl would have been identified at an early age as a prodigy, and sent to a “music camp”. The state would have made the second girl make flutes. The third girl, who’s good at making flutes, would end up peeling potatoes and eventually start drinking too much “vodka” and live off the state.

  25. StillConfused says:

    The one who made it should get to keep it. If she chooses to share it with others, it should be based on her free agency and not have that transfer forced upon her by others who seek to have the glory unto themselves (government or whomever).

  26. Mike M: You get twelve points. You may either give them to those who can use them best, give them to someone who has no points, or keep them for yourself because they are yours.

  27. My answer: while in reality private property trumps everything for most modern Mormons, reading the Bible can get us to the other two answers pretty easily as well.

    As Ardis said, we need to ‘go outside the parameters of the parable.’ There are two people suffering from a form of injustice, however mild. The most immediate means of resolving that injustice would create more injustice. Pragmatically, there isn’t a way to have more people receiving justice than not. So the system needs to be redefined so the claims are not pitted against each other.

  28. Clearly, the father, mindful of Joseph’s fate, should seize and destroy the instrument of jealousy before two of the children think of something more creative to do with it.

  29. In the United Order, everything becomes common and is given according to “needs” as determined by the bishop.

    That is not even close to accurate, I hesitate to say. Personal property does not become common until it is consecrated by the owner. If it did, Soviet Communism would look like heaven by comparison.

  30. I mean, do you really want to share your tooth brush?

  31. Property rights have always been what separated the United Order from socialism/communism. Even under the Law of Consecration we still have our agency and ability to do what we wish with what is ours.

  32. I assume that no one would fear the possibility of undo coercion here, where everyone is “encouraged” to consecrate everything they have (or their neighbors claim they have), especially given that you later dare not fail to honor this spontaneous act of induced generosity?

  33. This is obviously a straw man argument. That they should be children? Clearly to evoke an emotional response. How about casting this clearly as people, a flute maker, a flute player and a deprived individual. This is, truly, as I stated up front, an economic argument. Place this in a greater economic sphere, as has been done, and talk about the theory of economics.

    We, as a society, have an obligation to the deprived. Flute makers, alone, should not have to bear the burden alone to give away flutes to all of the deprived people.

    The flute player, if economically viable, should compensate the maker. That is the fair market value of the flute.

    If we were an Inuit or Kalahari aboriginal society, we share everything. I am not sure how a modern economy can operate under these conditions. This is the basis for the United Order, isn’t it? So I make a flute and you play it when you want to.

    In the United Order does the Church own the capital, the means of production? Are there boards of directors chosen by bishops? Not that I am a champion of the totally free market, but I find the idea of operation of a complex economy by the Church to be absolutely frightening, making decisions on who owns what and where the resources are allocated.

  34. Perhaps the flute could be neglected for a time, and later sold at an auction where a masterful player steps up and shows its worth, thus providing fodder for thousands of sacrament meeting talks. All three children are equally shafted, and tens of thousands of listeners are enriched. Sort of.

  35. I don’t know about Mormons, but for Catholics the road is clear:

    The flute should be given to the first child, leaving the third with a life-long grudge against both Mom and sibling. The first should be forced to practice endlessly until he can no longer stand the sound of a flute and smashes it in frustration. The middle child is used to being neglected, so we need not concern ourselves with her Jan Brady low self-esteem. Anyway, one day she will write a Mommy Dearest book about everyone that makes a lot of money. In contrition, she shares it with everybody in the family. Luckily, Dad has to work late to support everyone, so he doesn’t deal with the trauma.

    Actually, Catholics don’t like flutes. Now I know why.

  36. Dan, remove the flute, shove a piano into the situation instead, and Presto! You’ve got Mormons.

  37. Mike M #22 should NOT get any points, because he stole my idea. See #6. Instead, for plagiarizing, he should be cast into the pit with the lions or at least be elected to Congress….

  38. Johnny Utah says:

    what if the kid who built the flute was forced to make it in a sweat shop and really want’s nothing to do with it because it reminds him of the incessent threats, he endured well, of replacing his conveir belt seat with the BOCK (a midieval torture device. basicaly a piramide on a stick for a seat equiped with foot tugs, i.e. wieghts, for added comfort) for crying cause he could only work so hard for his capitalist benifactors? Also lets say the one who knows how to play can only do so as a result of his never ending practice session brought on by the relentless coersion of his parents who really would have prefered satans plan in the pre-existance on top of which are sadisticly living thier dreams of glote through his talent? Then you got the poor fool with no toys. He has already been geronteed faithfulness over many things in the next life because in this one he has proved faithful over no things and throwing a few things into the mix would just mess up a good thing going??? (pheeeeewwww “Thoreau” long sentances)

    answer: I get the flute! suckers…

  39. Johnny Utah says:

    da-it, i tried…but #34 #35 are hard acts to follow. bravo brothern. bravo.
    by comparison my nonsese sucks. at least i got a flute out of it.

  40. Johnny, don’t be modest. Thanks to you, I can’t get that visual with the BOCK out of my mind. Reminds me of my work station, actually. :)

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