Rawlsekianism Reloaded: Normative justification
~ by Murali
Recent comments by jfxgillis and Jason regarding libertarianism and Nozick have prompted a number of replies by myself and I have been promising for some time a guest post on how to justify my Rawlsian approach to libertarianism.
The key thing about any Rawlsekian project is that it combines Rawls’s normative framework with Hayek’s understanding of economics. Combined with James Buchanan’s public choice theory of institutions and we have a powerful conceptual framework which provides, I think, the best justification for libertarianism.
My purpose here, then, is to lay out Rawls’s normative framework and justify it as best I can.
Rawls’s normative framework contains two parts. The first part is this:
- The principles of justice are those principles that would be agreed to by mutually disinterested and rational (in the purely means ends kind of way) representatives from behind the veil of ignorance
- The veil of ignorance prevents the parties from knowing who they are representing as well as specific facts about the society like particular historical contingencies, specific makeup of society etc. All they know are general facts and the kinds of interests people have etc. This means that they have no way of even estimating the probability of what position in society they will occupy etc.
- They will decide on principles regarding the distribution of primary goods, i.e. the all purpose means to achieving your ends. These are things like wealth, income, rights, liberties and (arguably) the social bases of self respect.
- By principles regarding the distribution, rather I simply mean the principles that are to govern how we handle such goods.
- Primary goods as opposed to things like utility or pleasure
- There is complete compliance with the principles of justice.
- The principles of justice are those that regulate the basic structure of society. The basic structure of society being the ground rules according to which we cooperate as well as the ground rules which place constraints on the pursuit of our goals.
Irrelevant to the topic today are the other three stages aside from the original position that involve a step by step lifting of the veil of ignorance, the stability requirement as well as anything I could have forgotten.
The second part is this:
Rawls outlines the two principles that would be chosen
- Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all
- Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions
- first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity
- Second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
The second part follows from the setup in the first part. Whether or not we accept the two principles as stated depends firstly on whether or not accept the framework outlined in the first part, and secondly whether or not we think the conclusions of rational decision theory support the conclusions. Today, the issue on the second part will not concern us, neither will the policy implications of the two principles of justice be discussed here today.
My job here is to justify the framework as set up in the first part. i.e. 1-4. Now, Rawls has his own set of justifications, which in some ways are fully adequate, but are also problematic.
First, what is problematic:
7. Rawls sets up the problem as one that is faced by democratic societies and between equal citizens in a democratic polity. This is rather narrow and says nothing about whether democracy, let alone governments are justified. A theory of justice which is unable to critique or defend democracy is incomplete in many ways. It fails to even set up a goal or ideal to which non-democracies can work towards.
8. The background situation Rawls perceives is that of reasonable pluralism. Reasonable pluralism defers from mere pluralism in the following way. Reasonable pluralism consists of a number of doctrines, comprehensive or otherwise which differ from each other on a number of points, yet have an overlapping consensus regarding the principles of justice. Mere pluralism lacks even that consensus and therefore some of the doctrines are regarded as unreasonable. There is a strong suspicion of circularity involved in this.
What is good:
9. Granted, that the democratic assumption makes the theory very narrow, but in the context of US and most OECD countries, this isn’t a problem. All or most of them are democratic. They all have fairly robust democratic institutions, so at least given the current policy dilemmas of the US, Rawls’s theory is still applicable in giving a normative framework within which decisions can be made.
10. Most people in OECD countries again believe at least in the ideal of religious freedom and in human rights regardless of what religious beliefs they hold etc. (Yet I think the circularity of the argument is inescapable and really bad)
Rawls’s aim is to produce a free-standing political theory which:
a) does not rely on any particular conception of the good. i.e. whichever conception of the good may be true, what can we say about the principles of justice?
b) Does not rely on any particular special metaphysical theory. i.e. it tries to minimize metaphysical assumptions.
The goal is to get both to 0. Why? In the case where we have no metaphysical assumptions and no particular conception of the good, the theory has to be true, whatever else may be true. Therefore such a theory of justice would have to be true and could not be critiqued by appealing to some conception of the good. As such, in my derivation below, I am dropping the democratic assumption as well as the reasonable pluralism. In their place, all I’m going to note is the fact of pluralism. i.e. the problem of political justice is most urgent when there is not only a conflict over resources, but there are different philosophies, religions and viewpoints which place various social demands on people.
Now, let’s get cracking.
A good place to start is this: What is politics? As Harold Lasswell said, politics deals with who gets what, when and how. In that vein, normative political theory is about who ought to get what when and how. i.e. when two or more people’s interests conflict, what are the principles according to which they ought to conduct themselves? When people co-operate to produce stuff, how ought they to interact and according to which principles?
One key idea at work here is this. When we think about principles of justice, we think of them as moral principles, and moral principles are principles valid for everyone. A principle which said that in situation P, Jason should get x and Jack should get y should, if Jason’s and Jack’s positions were reversed would say that Jason should get y and Jack should get x.
It is here that the notion of mutually disinterested actors behind the veil of ignorance becomes relevant. Because the veil of ignorance obscures who the actor is representing, it removes one possible source of bias when choosing principles. Mutual disinterested-ness is justified for a number of reasons.
Firstly, they cannot have a prior adherence to a moral principle because they do not know which people they are representing and they do not know what the principles are (because they have not agreed to it yet)
Secondly, they are self-interested in the sense that they want to achieve as many of their goals and advance their life-plans as much as they can whatever those goals and life-plans may turn out to be. This relates to the fact that when we think about justice, we think that justice should care about people. i.e. something which treats people equally but still shittily cannot be just. So justice entails anti-shittiness.
Thirdly, particular concerns for the other representatives (for e.g. in the situation of Jack and Jason), doesn’t make sense because the representatives won’t know which of them are representing Jack or Jason.
Fourthly, particular concerns for one of the clients (Jack or Jason for example) violate at least one of three possible things. Logically the representative represents the interests of their own client and not possibly some other representative’s client (because they’re representatives). Particular concern for one of the clients would pre-suppose the very moral principles we were trying to justify or may otherwise be insane.
We talk about primary goods because it is the primary goods which are the things that are immediately under conflict. All other conflicts are mediated through primary goods. This allows us to get around having to specify some concrete notion of the good, or if there is any such thing in the first place. All we need to note is that whatever else people fight over, it is mediated through the primary goods.
We pre-suppose full compliance because it is analytic that the results of non-compliance do not provide and indictment of the principles that were violated. i.e. if the world is a shitty place because people fail to comply with the principles of justice, it doesn’t mean that the principles of justice are wrong, just that people are bastards. (This is of course given that the principles can themselves in principle be complied with. Ought presupposes can)
Finally, we say agreement by parties in the original position rather than choice to underscore that we are looking for what principles necessarily follow from the above specified considerations. Or to put it another way, what principles are the above considerations sufficient to justify?
One thing we should note is that the principles so chosen guide us in telling which basic structure is more just.
Now that we have set up the original position, coming soon in the next episode, Rawlsekianism reloaded 2: The principles of justice. What are they?