Rawls: some initial quibbles

1623945332945-e78214c8-45eb-4a5e-ae14-ae34dfc1a9cb_ I'm re-reading1 Rawls' A Theory of Justice, because John Gray was interested in him. I may - but probably won't - do a full review; for the meantime, here are some quibbles. Some of these may amount to what Rawls calls Intuitionism; but I'm only on chapter 1.

[See-also: Rawls, continued and terminated.]

Laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust

Rawls asserts that Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. With respect to theories I agree. With respect to laws, I am dubious. We shall try a thought experiment, but first we need to understand "just" a little3: I think that in this context Rawls would regard laws that arbitrarily discriminate as unjust (notice I haven't had to tell you what is just). So, imagine: you have a choice of laws A or B. Laws A provide a mediocre standard of living, but treat all equally. Laws B strongly favour the blue-eyed (perhaps they can strike the grey-eyed; or take their property; or somesuch) and so Rawls regards them as unjust; but - by some bizarre quirk of dynamics - provide a significantly higher standard of living.

Are we obliged to reject laws B? Which is to say, are we obliged to prefer Justice to Prosperity? I don't think we are. Reasonable people can disagree2. Later ("The Priority Problem") Rawls "solves" this problem by ranking the principle of equal liberty prior to the principle regulating economic and social inequalities. This means, in effect, that the basic structure of society is to arrange the inequalities of wealth and authority in ways consistent with the equal liberties required by the preceding principle. This is course "solves" the problem, by fiat; if he wants people to chose it behind the veil, he'll need to justify this fiat.

I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good

He's discussing the Veil of Ignorance stuff. But what does "the good" mean here? Later on, he says "it hardly seems likely that persons... would agree to a principle which may require lesser life prospects for some" so I think that "life prospects", which I will equate with prosperity, can be considered as a good that they do know. I think by "the good" that they don't know he is meaning things-admitted-to-be-opinion, such as choice of music or favourite colour.

The fundamental agreements reached in it are fair

We're trying to decide on principles of justice under the VoI: Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain. For given the circumstances of the original position, the symmetry of everyone's relations to each other, this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair. This explains the propriety of the name "justice as fairness": it conveys the idea that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair. (my bold).

Sub-quibble: his calling his theory justice-as-fairness is rhetoric-in-the-bad-sense: attaching a "good" label to your theory in order to make your theory more attractive.

But now notice that Rawls has assumed that people will agree. Is this likely? Actually, no. In his highly-abstracted version, they would, but only because secretly he thinks of all these people as like him, and his friends. But the VoI doesn't get you uniformity behind the veil. The people behind the veil will be shuffled, when they enter society, but behind the veil they have the same distribution of intelligence as present society. This will range all the way down to people too stupid to understand the VoI, and who are very unlikely to agree with the intellectual elite. Rawls needs to add more heavyweight assumptions in here. I think what he really means is that the discussion should only occur amongst the intellectual elite; at this stage, there is no reason to include the stupid or the average. Although, since the Utilitarians whom he opposes were undoubtedly amongst the Elite, even this is unlikely to be enough.

Update: having read further, I think I underestimated how incoherent and ill-described the VoI is. It is a handwavy thing that can get you into the right frame of mind, but it is hard to be more specific than that. Since it is also Rawls' major contribution, that's bad news for him. On p 139 we have it is clear that since the differences among the parties are unknown to them, and everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, each is convinced by the same arguments but this isn't true, unless the "parties" have been rigourously uniformised to the point of no longer being people. In the unlikely even that you want even more words, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will supply some. But they won't help.


Rawls is not keen on inequality, but he would like to make this seem something other than a personal preference: Offhand it hardly seems likely that persons who view themselves as equals, entitled to press their claims upon one another, would agree to a principle which may require lesser life prospects for some simply for the sake of a greater sum of advantages enjoyed by others. Since each desires to protect his interests, his capacity to advance his conception of the good, no one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for himself in order to bring about a greater net balance of satisfaction.

Note: in saying no one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for himself Rawls has forgotten his VoI: of course, no-one knows what their place will be; Rawls means to say "risk of an enduring loss".

Consider two societies: in A, income is $1 per day, fixed for life. In B, you are assigned at birth an income chosen from a uniform distribution of [$0.5, $10] per day. Rawls is asserting that reasonable people would reject B in favour of A. But I don't think they would.

Rawls is here, I think, attempting to counter utilitarianism. I think utilitarianism is wrong; but that doesn't make Rawls right.


* M offers Justice by Michael "Tyranny of Merit" Sandel, which has a chapter on Rawls. You might read it if you want a quick intro to VoI and related; but (like so many books reviewing so many other philosophers) it isn't a critical analysis; it is too timid.


1. Many years ago I had a copy, but I grew disenchanted about 1/3 of the way through and recycled it. This from 2008 (see the comments) provides some discussion, but clearly I hadn't read it by then. Thx Mfd+J for loan of their copy.

2. Lest this example be thought utterly implausible, proponents of colonialism could argue for B.

3. I, of course, subscribe to Hobbes' defn of Just. We may also wish to consider Hayek on the matter: "The test of the justice of any particular rule is thus whether its universal application is possible because it proves to be consistent with all the other accepted rules" (see here; Essays on Liberalism and the Economy, Volume 18).


Tom said...

Oh, all these posts flung up in five minutes after so long with nothing... However will we be able to offer pithy observations on your essays?

William M. Connolley said...

The thing about going away is that I actually read and think instead of just browsing the wub. But doubtless the errors in my deathless prose are not hard to find.

Tom said...

Reading and... thinking? My, what a misguided use of vacation time. That's what you do when you're pretending to be working.