Behavioural Sciences
July 19, 2022

Justice and community: The rationality of learning by doing

Professor Robson addresses fundamental questions of social progress and how societies can experiment with different political and social systems without unduly disregarding tradition. This experimentation enables individuals and groups to learn how to better secure justice and improve society more generally. However, it also requires overcoming constraints associated with rationality, which prevent people and communities from taking the necessary risks to forge better ways of doing and living. Incentivising innovation through entrepreneurism is one way of rationally establishing risk-acceptable pathways toward improvements in justice.

The year is 2022. A time of great turmoil and change. Members of countless societies face special challenges. Securing justice into the future will be no easy task. Professor Robson investigates how members of societies can better secure justice, offering a fresh approach to this perennial social problem.


Experiments in living

Why and when should societies change their structures? How easy is it to do so? Which pathways of change, if any, should citizens pursue? How can societies try different ways of organising themselves, without creating harm from the risk associated with social experimentation? Should people try, say, living off-the-grid, en masse, to avoid the potential harms of technological over-reliance? Should communities move toward more collective ownership or more individual ownership? What inhibits individuals and societies from making improvements, if and when improvements ought to be made?

These are the sorts of questions that Professor Robson addresses. He expands on the work of theorists, such as John Stuart Mill and Robert Nozick, who argued for experimenting with different ways of living to morally improve lives and social institutions. Taking this proposal beyond theoretical reflection, Professor Robson evaluates the value, risk, and rationality of such experimentation, and considers how social and political innovation is achievable within the basic constraints of functional political traditions.

Only a small number of intrepid individuals are required to take the measured risks needed to improve societies.

Rational constraints

Professor Robson explains that trying different social and political systems enables people to identify and implement social and legal arrangements that are improvements by the lights of justice. These kinds of ‘experiments’ can help to show whether a particular kind of political system improves people’s lives and societies. Quite importantly, members of other communities can observe and learn from the experiments and experiences of others. Professor Robson examines the potential for an approach to trying new ways of living that rationally balances potential risks and rewards. He points out that there are often weighty risks that can be prohibitive – at times quite rightly – when implementing social experiments on a wide scale without first understanding the benefits and harms that could accompany such experimentation.


For this reason, many individuals are likely to be unwilling to try new ways of living in community and new social institutions. What Professor Robson calls the ‘Prudential Rationality Constraint’ (PRC) inhibits people (for better or worse) from trying new social arrangements. The PRC arises because people want to protect their own interests in the short term and overall, even if experimentation is better for most or all in the long term; so the PRC is a powerful constraint on people’s willingness to experiment. Essentially, this means that people are only likely to do so when there is an incentive or motive to try new social and political systems. People are likely to weigh the costs and benefits of new approaches and will want to consider the usefulness of an experiment.

Investigating how to better secure justice and social progress
Professor Robson investigates how members of societies can better secure justice. MIND AND I/

Professor Robson explains that, in addition to prudential rationality, which impedes experimentation (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not), there are other principles that influence and deter people from engaging in social experiments that might benefit them. These principles include, for instance, risk aversion and loss aversion. Many people are fundamentally reluctant to engage in activities that could cause them to incur losses, and this is a significant barrier to experimenting with new ways of doing things. Additionally, the challenges inherent in successfully implementing collective action may also deter experimentation. While some individuals might be willing to take a risk to try a new social process or arrangement, many will prefer to stand back and observe the risk-takers, and learn from their mistakes, before taking any risk themselves and incurring potential costs associated with it. So even if new forms of communal living would predictably benefit a group, individuals’ particular incentives can make them unmotivated to try them.

Experimenting with social justice can lead to progress
Experimentation can enable societies to progress. T.Dallas/

Professor Robson argues that some radical political experiments, such as democracy from 1648 onwards, have indeed been fairly successful. But, generally, it makes more sense for citizens to pursue experiments that are less risky. The reason for this is that radical political experimentation carries high risks of harm for the various participants and can be difficult to implement and revise. Citizens are better off, in general, performing moderate experiments in living: experiments within, rather than with, a tradition. An example of a moderate experiment could be instituting a new school curriculum across a city or region. Professor Robson explains that examples abound in society of moderately risky experiments, which people try, and learn from, all the time. These more moderate experiments usually still operate within the fundamental rules of a society, and so need not challenge those rules. Moderate experimentation thus can enable societies to progress without being exposed to the potential large downsides of radical experiments that may cause social instability and wide-scale social harm. While many may be reluctant to experiment with new processes, experimentation is fundamental for progress and learning about new ways of living and doing that better secure justice. So a key question is how to encourage and incentivise moderate experimentation.

Experimentation enables individuals and groups to learn how to better secure justice and improve society more generally. pathdoc/

Entrepreneurship and innovation

Professor Robson says that to overcome the constraints of the PRC, societies have long used public and private strategies for incentivising experiments in living. Diverse strategies will appeal to different groups depending on their prior views on questions of political morality. For example, laws can be and have been modified to encourage experiments in living by introducing limited liability for entrepreneurs designing new products, which can benefit people while reducing the risk associated with product development. Limiting liability can encourage innovators to take the necessary risks to safely test ideas that can add value to society. In addition, Professor Robson argues that there are many examples of entrepreneurial success stories involving social experiments that have much improved people’s lives. For example, medical tourism leverages innovative entrepreneurial health schemes to help people access better medical care than what is ordinarily available to them. And an example of an innovative civic experiment is the proposal for a state-provided minimum income, which would give citizens funding to meet their basic needs. This and other proposals are rightly controversial though, and a full analysis of their value would need to consider more than their potential positive impacts in incentivising social experimentation.

Only a small number of intrepid individuals are required to take the measured risks needed to improve societies.

Ultimately, societies are diverse and there are always individuals within a society who tend to be more open to risk and experimentation, and less constrained by established processes. Highly creative people and entrepreneurs may be more inclined to experiment with new ways of living. Professor Robson argues that only a small number of intrepid individuals are required to take the measured risks needed to improve societies and better secure justice. The existence of such individuals implies that, despite the PRC, there will always be people willing to take the risks necessary for positive changes in social living. Even those citizens or societies who are personally less bold about experimenting benefit from living in a society with others who are more intrepid, as those observing have the opportunity to learn from others without the risks of trying new ways of doing things. This seems especially true under federalist systems in which social and political experiments can originate at local levels and be replicated elsewhere or higher up if successful.

Why and when should societies change their structures? How easy is it to do so? Which pathways of change, if any, should citizens pursue? tostphoto/

Personal Response

What kinds of values are necessary in a society to encourage experimentation?
Crucial here is not only a willingness to learn from experience but also a careful consideration of which experiments in living are worth pursuing. Many bad sociopolitical experiments have been tried, some at the highest levels of government, leading to major social problems. Even so, a society that embraces freedom of association and a willingness to try new ways of living together is likely to better secure justice and improve society more generally – if, that is, they experiment wisely and carefully.

What are some of the most important social and political experiments needed for social justice?
To improve the justice of a society, people need to respect others’ rights and liberties. In this regard, experiments should be noncoercive and nondeceptive. Within these and other applicable moral constraints, people might engage in different institutional schemes and empirically test the results. For example, public schools can implement different curricula and pedagogical techniques and then carefully examine and compare the outcomes. If student performance improves far more with one curriculum than with another, then the schools will have gained a valuable insight. They will have learned that they have a weighty reason, all else equal, to use the first curriculum over the second. This insight from social experimentation can improve many students’ lives.

This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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One thought on “Justice and community: The rationality of learning by doing

  1. In the Windrush era people came to the UK and found racism and injustice in many areas. The were invited to fill in on roles the then population could not through loss of life during WWII. They met hostility in even trying to do what was asked of them, namely fill the job market that was empty. They lived in atrocious accommodation and paid over the odds for the so called benefit. Then the Pakistani immigration began but unlike the Jamaicans they had a different outlook. Whole families from grand parents to children lived in one room of a three bedroom house. they dressed differently too and their cuisine with garlic was a culture shock to the British. Unlike the Caribbean settlers who dressed, spoke and behaved as Brits did they were viewed as unclean and alien. The Indian people being a mixture of British manner and speech were classed better than the Pakistanis. When you have 5 families living in one house, even on meagre wages the income exponentially increases. Soon Pakistani’s soon bought a house which was habited like council housing was with multiple families. Soon whole street converted from a neighbourhood to a ghetto as people did not want to live next to the smelly dirty occupants. Then the new generation Windrush began their like for weed. This became more than a cigarette behind the bike shed as its addictive nature grew a hold on the new generation of Brits. We began having areas where criminal gangs saw a quick buck which after time created the rave scene. Meanwhile granny could not and did not want to speak English and small shops sprung up with their own foodstuffs which Brits used for their own cultural tastes but were financed by the increasing local Pakistani families. The UK had demonstrations and groups began to form but over time there spread across an area and became the new norm. Now the youngsters began to go to school and so learnt to speak English and even picked up regional accents. Britain had always been a haven for the oppressed going back centuries. However, the customs and cultures would once more clash with what was considered British values. The West African idea of female genital mutilation as being normal and desirable. British politicians did what they always do and try to ban it. Like trying to abolish the back street abortionists of the 50’s and 60’s they had little sway. Finally, the law was changed and eventually even stopping children being sent “home” or on “holiday” to stamp it out. This amalgam of peoples was also challenged with the postmodernist neo marxist dogma coming from educationalists. You must not smack a child, no on can come first or last, we must tolerate anything as a person has human rights. This fundamentally changed society as we saw the dawn of human rights but this was the thin edge of the wedge. Communities that grew brought their religion, culture and customs and sought to have all accept them. Laws were changed to accommodate this which brought utter disbelief. Since 1956 parliament had tried to bring in a law so all motorcyclists had to wear a helmet. In 1973 the law was changed under health and safety law saying it was to protect motorcyclist yet was amended to allow Sikhs not to as they wore a turban. It was argued that a turban did not protect the rider but under their religion they could not wear a helmet. So instead of having a blanket ban that all had to wear a helmet Sikhs were exempt. This also included wear a sword in public as part of traditional dress, however, anyone else would be arrested for carrying an offensive weapon. Yes the human rights bill did a great deal of good but opened up society to a lot of questionable disagreements. Society has ridden over these differences although they bubble under the surface still. Then we had Muslims bringing their warped ideology by so called Islamic Scholars. Changing a religion through misogynistic ideals and indoctrinating the young into this warped ideology. The refusal to integrate and using the human rights law to entrench their ideology into the society they live in. Where councils have to create exclusion zones around schools to protect children and parents from their ideology. Where a teacher and his family have to go into hiding and have death threats (which the police shy away from even though it is obvious a reality) because he asked religious questions and put forward under the national curriculum about sex education, faiths and social science. This grew into a national scandal when gangs began sexually exploiting girls and the police fearful of stepping for fear of being labelled racist allowed it to continue and turned a blind eye to it. We disregarded the law about abattoirs allowing halal butchery to take place. So, these refuse our society and even practice, with no opposition, their own laws and counsellors. perhaps they fear our justice system would smash their ideology like the teacher. Whilst society is try to come to terms with this we imported a neo marxist lobby from the USA called BLM. It appeared everyone agreed with their doctrine of discrimination and any white Brit was a colonial racist and supremacist. We even had statues ripped down in protest forgetting the great good and only focusing on the bad. Coulson was a slave trader but he was also the reason Bristol is the size it is and prosperous as it is today. We even had a university undergraduates wanting to tear down a statue which when told that the students themselves were benefactors and if it went so did they, that it quietened down. The postmodernist neo marxist ideology brought with it woke and cancel culture. In the 1970s a group of educationalist saw this as a way to change society into this ideology. The BLM movement used it successfully as did the sexually different section of people. The gay community used their plan to promote their cause. Firstly you had to get a thing widely publicised. Then make society feel guilty that people had no rights. The next stage was to seek a societies acceptance it was wrong people could be excluded. Finally make it a law that they would not be persecuted or harassed. The BLM movement nearly succeeded until it was shown as a society as a neo marxist movement. I agree a person can have a private life which no one else can challenge if it does not break the law. But, we now have under these same conditions children saying they are not the gender they want to be and demand society accept this. The dangers they poo poo as they demand their human rights to be what they want to be. One small voice in the Olympic Committee stopping this is far to late and far to small to have any effect. So, our broken society burdened under the postmodernist neo marxist movement, unfettered human rights legislation, fear of being labelled an ism, cancel culture and wokedom has made out society impotent to do anything. The main stream media can highlight their agenda, like “party gate” seeing their own agenda being challenged and deflecting it to another subject. The people were fed up with the bureaucratic EU so Brexit was attempted. Politicians of all colours sought to remain and even after the people had spoken still tried to thwart it. The remainer May made such a hash of it Johnson was elected to sort it. The almost still in treaty was the best he could get and so accepted it and now tries to rectify it. Yet remainer politicians still attempt to thwart it. Illegal immigration backed by UN and EU charters are being slowly unpicked but people wonder when it will happen. Even when Northern Ireland is not subject to EU laws for goods between England and them or vice versa, when we can deport illegal immigration without resistance and a society stops its decline into the farse that is multiculturalism (which really means ghettos of disparate groups) can we face the world once more. With the Russian war and Chinese aggression I wonder when WWIII will begin and when it does what the British people will do. We have people going to university for no reason and complaining they have to pay tuition fees back if they earn over a certain amount. The universities have turned into cash cows putting on courses of no real importance like nurses who in the past managed their profession more than adequately without even A levels. We have unions harking back to the coalminers strikes trying to impose their form of socialism on society. We have pensioners on half the national minimum wage and so called professionals (they always uses nurses as it is seen as must have, yet fail to mention they get an annual increase without doing anything) saying they need to use food banks. Their heating is to much in one of the countries biggest heatwaves. I wonder what will happen when Russians war and Chinese aggression results in WWIII?
    So is there justice in society? NO! Everyone is looking after number one if they have a platform to use. They wonder why Blair is hated not just for his illegal war but those who know how he changed the law on house purchase to feather his own pocket. Why the UN is seen with suspicion when they employed him as a peace envoy! Why the red wall turned blue is about wanting change. But society needs to change not to a nostalgic past but a resemblance of what Britain was with personal responsibility and integrity. Dispelling the whole woke agenda without fear or favour and stamping it with authority.

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