Rawlsekianism Reloaded: Normative justification

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35 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Dude, for the record, I loved this.

    I hope to have a substantive comment later. In the short term, this comment will have to do.Report

  2. Avatar Simon K says:

    This is excellent. I’m looking forward to the HayekReport

  3. Avatar Murali says:

    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.

    I just want to add to the above section:

    Justice entails taking into consideration people’s legitimate interests. This is analytic really. All theories of justice claim to do this, only they have different notions as to which interests are legitimate.

    However since one of the points of the whole setup is to discover which interests are legitimate and which are not, we cannot pre-suppose in the outset that some interests have lower priority. However that would be precisely what we were doing if we supposed that the parties were merely satisficers.Report

  4. Mr. Murali, I look forward to and hold my tongue until Part Deux: The principles of justice. What are they?

    I roared at this part:

    i.e. something which treats people equally but still shittily cannot be just. So justice entails anti-shittiness.

    Now, that piece of plain language rescues philosophy from the clouds, and from jargon as well!

    I also look forward to more on “satisficers.” I hadda look it up, and there’s a lot there…

    http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2006/06/are_you_a_satis.htmlReport

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Mr. Murali, I look forward to and hold my tongue until Part Deux:

      Mr Van Dyke: Thanks, but please dont hold back. Part 2 is relatively straightforward (so much so that it is almost trivial).

      Once you accept the framework of agreement from the original position, there is no choice but to go ahead with Rawls’s 2 principles of justice. That’s why I broke it up (apart from the posts getting really long) If we cannot agree on this then it is no point going on to the next part only to look back and say: actually I had problems with your initial premises.Report

      • Mr. Murali, I’d rather hear more from your own cyberpen. I have found Hayek is not a Hayekian and Rawls is not a Rawlsian. Locke was not a Lockean, Strauss was not a Straussian! Etc.

        And WTF a Rawlsekian is, well, I’ve run across the self-appellation, but it conceals more than it reveals, IMO. Pls, do keep the floor. I’ve been through many of these pseudo-scholarly debates, and whenever somebody asserts Prof. X says Y, it just becomes a Tower of Babel, charges of ignorance, ad hom, descending into rhetorical violence and utter nonsense.

        Unless you got something out of this clusterfish:

        http://www.slate.com/id/2297590/

        …in which case, your efforts would be better expended on it and not this. I thought Mark Thompson came out with his skin, but the rest of ’em just did the mutually assured destruction thing, and on the whole, good riddance to all and sundry.

        Better you start from scratch with an affirmative argument. I liked two of yr points as tagged above. I’m unsympathetic at this point, but intrigued enough to STFU. Rock on, brother, and I’ll get your back if you’re unduly douchebagged.Report

  5. The main problem with the veil of ignorance, or at least with discourse surrounding it, is that people can’t agree on what exactly it means.

    For example, is inequality resulting from returns to cognitive ability problematic? What about returns to conscientiousness? Some people seem to be endowed with much greater conscientiousness than others, and in a sense this is problematic, but the returns to conscientiousness are mediated through hard work, which it does not seem problematic to reward.

    As a result, two people imagining themselves to be behind a veil of ignorance may be imagining two radically different probability distributions. One person may decide that the veil of ignorance means that he’s going to be the same sort of person he is in reality, but with a different body and different parents. This person is sure that he’s not going to be a good-for-nothing layabout, and thus proposes a society in which the returns to being a good-for-nothing layabouts are very low.

    A second person decides that the veil of ignorance means that he might in fact turn out to be the kind of person who becomes a good-for-nothing layabout and thus proposes a society in which the returns to being a good-for-nothing layabout are somewhat higher.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      We go with the latter one. At this point, we dont want to assume any specific notion of the good. So, we don’t decide as of yet whether or not inequality due to returns to conscientiousness is any more or less problematic than those based on returns to cognitive ability.

      That’s why the veil of ignorance is kept fairly thick. I’m trying to see how far we can go before we have to sort out all these other things.

      Specifically, the party inside the veil of ignorance does not know what type of person he will turn out to be.

      The key thing is that the principles of justice apply to you whether or not you are a layabout. So, I don’t see why people’s personalities have to be carried over into the original position. Since such information is irrelevant to what the principles of justice are, let it be masked by the veil of ignorance.

      As you will note, this applies similarly to the particular historical contingencies etc.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I wonder which “discourse surrounding” the veil of ignorance you mean. That found in blog comments? I wonder because it seems strange to criticize the veil of ignorance because people use a version of it that has nothing to do with the one put forward by Rawls. I mean, behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, one wouldn’t know one’s natural abilities, so the sorts of questions you raise are precisely the ones that are supposed to be raised. Perhaps you need to hang out with people who’ve actually read Rawls.Report

  6. Avatar James K says:

    Nice post Murali, I look forward to part 2.Report

  7. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Really good stuff. I look forward to Part 2.

    Rawls’ original Gedankenexperiment was a crucial first step to demonstrate how fairness might work, but the whole Veil of Ignorance reeks of Redistributive Fairness and a naive view of politics. I’m a religious man: I don’t believe in Fairness. It’s not possible in the real world. I had a classic parlour trick when my kids were just little beasties: I’d ask “What’s Rule Number One?” They would shout “Life is not fair!”

    Both Nozick and Rawls were a bit naïve. Do you really want to know why Wilt Chamberlain made so much money? Two words: Sy Goldberg, his agent. Do you really want justice? Hire a good attorney.

    The most cursory study of ethics reveals there is no justice in the world and there is no hope for any. There is law and there are judges and juries, which is about as close as we’ll ever get to disinterested parties, but I’d really like that aforementioned good attorney to do his job at voir dire if my life were on the line. Justice entails anti-shittiness, all right, but a good attorney costs good money.

    When it comes to Life Plans and Goals and the like, if we are to really integrate Hayek into Rawlsian thought, allow me to propose Murphy’s Ringside Seat. Contra the Veil of Ignorance, he who sits in Murphy’s Ringside Seat sees life’s rich pageant and thinks he understands it. He cannot see the CEO pulling up into his driveway and opening the door to find his distraught wife trying to calm his autistic son who has just killed the family dog. He cannot see the janitor is really just holding down a two-bit job while he finishes the next great American novel. The homeless man in his cardboard box in the alley quit taking his medication last week and his brother is looking for him but can’t file a missing person’s report for another 24 hours. In the Ringside Seat, money and power are the only yardsticks of success. The rest of life’s intangibles are, well, intangible and cannot possibly enter into how we might effect a just and fair society. Faith is the evidence of things not seen and the worst witness is the eyewitness.

    Hayek heaped scorn on anyone who thought Man was a Rational Animal, deeming them Constructivists. But Hayek was an ethical flopper, forever on the move from one uncomfortable chair to another, never quite clarifying his distinctions between the Constructivist and Critical Rationalist. In truth he exhibited aspects of both. Hayek reached some astonishingly obtuse conclusions about the various philosophers he deemed Constructivists.

    This business of Justice can take odd turns: Law evolves in surprisingly counterintuitive directions. Consider bankruptcy law or medical malpractice law or patent law: there’s nothing especially obvious about letting a debtor off the hook for debts he cannot pay or allowing some patent troll to bring his case to the Eastern District of Texas where the plaintiff is always right and the troll always wins. More ethics and less economics for those who would invoke the word Justice: if all around the world seems shitty, dark and stinky, my advice is to pull your head out of your ass. The world may be a shitty place and if people are not always bastards, it is because they understand how we can transcend that shittiness at a personal level. They do not resort to justice or fairness but to mercy and loving kindness, the sort of love which understands the beloved and goes on loving them anyway.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      but the whole Veil of Ignorance reeks of Redistributive Fairness and a naive view of politics

      Only under a naive reading of Rawls. The purpose of the veil of ignorance is to methodolgically simulate the basic premise that the most basic moral principles are fact invariant.

      Rawls’s theory does seem to hold a naive view of politics, but that is at least partially due to the fact that Rawls, for fairly sound methodological reasons, assumes full compliance. At least some of Rawls’s naivity can be mitigated with a strong dose of Buchanan’s public choice theory.

      The key thing is: are my arguments for the veil of ignorance convincing. If not, why not?

      The most cursory study of ethics reveals there is no justice in the world and there is no hope for any

      I don’t know, I believe that what we have in Singapore approaches justice more closely and more often (except in a few instances e.g. treatment of gays) than in most other places in the world.

      More importantly, whether or not there is justice anywhere else in the world, we ought to do justice because it is the right thing to do.

      The rest of life’s intangibles are, well, intangible and cannot possibly enter into how we might effect a just and fair society.

      Close enough. The rest of life’s intangibles, being intangible are not the kinds of things that are directly threatened when I try to harm you. They may be the ultimate carriers of value or the ultimate things at stake, but that would be too disputable a premise to take on. There are dozens of things like pleasure, happiness, love etc which may be deeply valuable. The theory just is agnostic about any of this. How far can we go without presupposing any substantive notion of the good?

      Faith is the evidence of things not seen and the worst witness is the eyewitness.

      And the things we have faith in are not the things that others have faith in. And the sheer disputability of the things we have faith in make them unsuitable for constructing a free-standing theory of justice.

      More ethics and less economics for those who would invoke the word Justice

      Which is why this post is about the normative framework.

      if all around the world seems shitty, dark and stinky, my advice is to pull your head out of your ass. The world may be a shitty place and if people are not always bastards, it is because they understand how we can transcend that shittiness at a personal level.

      Maybe that’s all we can do and political agitation may very well be pointless. But we can certainly try to act with justice towards everyone.

      They do not resort to justice or fairness but to mercy and loving kindness, the sort of love which understands the beloved and goes on loving them anyway.

      Sounds nice, until you realise that that involves people being unjust to one another: i.e. they are failing in one of the major moral requirements.

      Another thing is that we are flawed and cannot love everyone completely and equally. We may love our siblings and children equally and completely and unconditionally, and even God may love all of us that way. But requiring that may treatment of my fellow men, casual strangers be based on a feeling that is just impossible for me to feel for them (for I cannot understand them when I have just passed them on the street).Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Thanks for the extended response.

        Are moral principles invariant? Rawls’ view of politics is more naïve than mere method: politics like economics is seldom guided by rational behavior. The Public Choice suffers from many of the same simplistic ills of Rawls.

        May I make a longish discursion on how this sort of thing works out in reality? I’ve known a few lobbyists in Washington. Let us posit a small but reasonably well-funded group, G, with an agenda contrary to what might be considered the public good. Let’s say it’s a defense contract. Their lobbyist sits down with a marketing communications writer and reduces G’s point to a three second summary. He then memorizes that summary, goes to the Capitol Building, buttonholes various congresscritters and shills G’s agenda.

        Let us posit another group, P, a group which represents homeless families. The needs of the poor are difficult to summarize and there’s no payoff in terms of political support or campaign contributions for the Congresscritter. They don’t have a lobbyist or a celebrity to shill their agenda.

        Why will G’s agenda get through and P’s fail? G’s agenda is simpler. The Congresscritter is not a heartless beast. His powers extend only as far as writing up a bill and sending it on its way through the bowels of Congress. If he pushes hard and gains some support from his fellow critters, he can shepherd that bill through some committees. He will back G and only give lip service to P, not because P is not a deserving cause but because G did a better job of marketing and P’s agenda is too nebulous.

        There is no Veil of Ignorance. There is only power.

        Of old, the Emperors did not speak to their subjects or tolerate speech directed at them. They spoke only through the courtiers and became isolated, the gullible prisoner of astrologers and quacks, gobbling up elixirs and having sacred sexual encounters to bolster their personal powers. But the emperors understood they were subject to the vagaries of the Tienxia, the All-Under-Heaven. We might translate Tienxia as Mandate, but the Tienxia was a world view in which the Emperor governed all with the mandate of Heaven. Should the Emperor lose the Tienxia, he would lose his grip on the Empire. Like a child sliding out to the perimeter of a whirling merry-go-round, centrifugal force would propel him off the stage and into oblivion.

        At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
        Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
        But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
        Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
        Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
        There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

        If the Emperor governed in accordance with the Tienxia, all was well with the world, literally the whole world, for the Tienxia was literally a map of the world. The pseudo-science of Feng Shui and the silliness of astrology continue to bedevil the thinking of those who subscribe to the Confucian ethical system, for they never really evicted Taoism from their thinking. India, too, suffers from it.

        Ultimately, Rawls and Hayek come down to us today corrupted by the terminal conceit of the Tienxia, Hayek especially. Poor Hayek! He was such a brilliant man. But look at his credulous acolytes, as stupidly doctrinaire, predicting the past with all the certainty of every old Feng Shui quack with his bony finger on the Wheel. Here is Yin and Fire, there is Yang and Metal.

        No. There is no Spontaneous Order and there is no Tienxia. There is only Entropy and the Consent of the Governed.

        Rawls, dear old man, a noble fool who believed mankind might arrive at some conception of fairness if only we didn’t know our own place in the hierarchy before we set up the rules. This is not fairness or even justice. This is Instant Karmic Redistribution by Political Means. The rules are made by those with the Mandate of Heaven: the fig leaf hierarchical societies have always used to hide the wrinkly bits of those with the power to enforce their will on others. The simple truth is this, and Hayek understood it if his followers did not: we do not operate with perfect information about the past or present, for all information is interpreted through the frameworks of our preconceptions. Rawls merely turns that sock inside out, saying we’d be nicer to each other if we didn’t know where we’d fit in the overall scheme of things.

        Yet law-abiding scholars write:
        Law is neither wrong nor right,
        Law is only crimes
        Punished by places and by times,
        Law is the clothes men wear
        Anytime, anywhere,
        Law is Good morning and Good night.

        Others say, Law is our Fate;
        Others say, Law is our State;
        Others say, others say
        Law is no more,
        Law has gone away.

        And always the loud angry crowd,
        Very angry and very loud,
        Law is We,
        And always the soft idiot softly Me.
        Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          There’s a whole thread on Rawls here without a single mention of Kant. That’s kind of impressive. Of course for Rawls moral principles are invariant: he’s a Kantian. In a sense he sees his work in ToJ as a reworking or the categorical imperative, or at least a new method for discovering and justifying Kantian moral principles. The idea has little to do with whether people act rationally out in the world. I’m sure Rawls was well aware that they do not. Instead, Rawls is trying to force them to be rational by putting them behind the veil of ignorance. Here, he assumes, people will behave as rational, self-interested actors. Whether they will or not is of course an open question, but it has little to do with whether they’ll behave rationally on this side of the veil of ignorance (if they did, there’d be no need for the veil of ignorance, eh?).

          You know, Rawlsekian sounds like a Polish guy in Chicago. “Yo, Rawlsekian, how ’bout them Bears?” Kantekian is the country way of referring to someone from Kentucky.Report

  8. Is it safe to assume that when Rawls said the least advantaged people in society, he meant poor people, and not, say, murder victims and people with severe congenital illnesses? Taken at face value, the difference principle would seem to imply that we should pour huge amounts of resources into cracking down on violent crime and research on diseases that afflict the young.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Is it safe to assume that when Rawls said the least advantaged people in society, he meant poor people, and not, say, murder victims and people with severe congenital illnesses?

      Yup. The issue of murder is taken care of by the first principle. The second principle deals with income and wealth etc.

      Also, rememember, we are talking ideal theory here. since there is 100% compliance no-one gets murdered. What we do afterwards is a lot more difficult to say.

      Rawls does leave aside extreme cases for the moment. (and I concurr) The case of severe congenital illnesses is not something that can easily be remedied and the fruitfulness of such research is sufficiently uncertain that we leave aside such issues for the moment.Report

  9. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Excellent post. I liked this part especially, even if I can’t figure out the numbering:

    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.

    Where I run into trouble with the veil of ignorance is that it’s completely unclear to me what counts as a “basic fact” about human nature — the kind I’m allowed to remember.

    On the one hand, whole centuries have come and gone in which hierarchy was taken as a “basic fact” of human nature, in the form of in-born social class and ultimately divine right monarchy. Do we banish this view from the original position? On what grounds?

    On the other hand, if we only let modestly redistributionist social democrats into the box, it’s a trivial result when they emerge from the box advocating a modestly redistributionist social democracy.

    So Rawls is either arbitrary or trivial. (Any help here would be appreciated!)Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      it’s completely unclear to me what counts as a “basic fact” about human nature — the kind I’m allowed to remember.

      The basic facts of human nature are all the stuff about physics, chemistry and biology and all the non-controversial stuff about economics, psychology and social theory. Non-controversial in the sense that experts in the field have a storng consensus on the issue. For example the effects of price controls on the supply and demand of a good. General facts about the way the world works and how our minds work.

      Facts about whether a particular society has been racist, socialist, libertarian whatever don’t matter and are irrelevant to the principles of justice.

      Do we banish this view from the original position? On what grounds?

      Its not that we banish views. If something is a factual claim that is now known to be un-true, go ahead, banish it. But normative principles are to be included. The whole purpose of the original position is to choose between normative principles.

      The whole point of keeping general facts, but discarding specific facts is so that we know what the principles are to be concerned about.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        I don’t think the result would be anything like a consensus, then, which is what Rawls wants to claim.Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          Which is what part 2 is about. Admittedly I’m having to do a lot of research as it is….Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          I suspect that this is where the “overlapping consensus” of PL is doing much of the work. That is, the facts that make it in would probably have to be part of the latent principles that are shared by all of the world views within the population. Admittedly, it’s a lot of work to do, but this has always been the first criticism of the original position, even before it was refined in PL. It’s why much of the Western left may be comprised of loose Rawlsians, but very few of them get there through any consideration of the original position as Rawls envisions it, but instead use it, or a naïve version of it, as a loose heuristic.Report

  10. Avatar NoPublic says:

    On the one hand, I’m thrilled to have this sort of thing appear here.
    On the other, you’re just laying bare the ludicrous ontological underpinnings of the libertarian philosophy.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Remember, Murali, if he’s on your team, you have to cheer for him, right or wrong!

      (Since when was Rawls a libertarian? Eh, nevermind.)Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      What ontological underpinnings? I haven’t made any ontological assumptions. All my arguments are methodological.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        To be fair, it’s possible he intended this comment for my post on Nozick, not your post on Rawls. Even so, “ontology” is a bit of a stretch, and I stand by at least the first sentence of my comment just previous. Redirected at myself — so I’d better start clapping.Report

  11. Avatar jfxgillis says:

    Murali:

    Oh whoa. Thanks for the shout out.

    I’ve been over on Newsvine embroiled in Gay Marriage, civilian control of the military and debt-limit threads and let LoOG go for a couple of days.

    Lemme page-down and -up a little and I’ll reply later, okay?Report

  12. Avatar J. says:

    And what’s the chance–granting that the Original position could be implemented, somehow– the rational agent will actually live in the society that he chooses ??? There’s the rub. Rawls does make use of the prisoners’ dilemma for that issue, but … most people –even glibertarian sorts–would probably choose to gamble, and not cooperate..unless they odds were good for the old Win-win (can they even be known?). At times, ok, some might cooperate. Perhaps on a commune they might–in a big city, nyet. Without any binding force it’s more or less a grand dream, not unlike Kant’s imperative. He might have stuck a bit closer to Hobbes rather than Kant ( in ways ToJ is Hobbesian, but of a rather milquetoast sort).Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Talk about missing the point. The question is not they will actually abide by the rules. Basically what people would do in particular hypotheticals like this what people ought to do. The reason being that hypotheticals like this model the conditions of justice.Report

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