Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Theory of Justice: Part 1 of N

I've started working my way through the first edition of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice; dude's all over the map. It's a tremendously ambitious work and I hardly know where to start engaging it.

Maybe the best place to begin is with his method. I have to applaud the way he's built his case so far (I'm on Chapter 25 or thereabouts); he's stating his principles clearly and deriving his results therefrom in a transparent manner. I certainly don't agree with the self-evidence of all of his premises, but at least it's easy to follow where he's going with them.

That said, I immediately see something which strikes me as a glaring flaw. He acknowledges that he pulls in various concepts freely, reasoning that its barely possible to formulate an argument without them, and on first glance this practice seems unobjectionable. In doing so, however, he runs the risk of importing all sorts of assumptions via the back door; this runs counter to his stated desire to build a theory based on a limited number of weak premises.

I'm a little concerned that I'm going to find the punchline somewhat disappointing. I still have the majority of the book ahead of me, but it seems to me that it's setting itself up to be an elaborate existence proof. For those of you who didn't do a lot of math in college an existence proof demonstrates that some particular creature must exist but doesn't necessarily tell you anything practical like what that creature might look like or how you go about finding one. They're the Snackwells of theorems, demonstrating a truth which is ultimately unsatisfying. A lot of the groundwork which Rawls is laying looks to be heading in that direction: "Here's how you'd construct a system of pure procedural justice, but I can't tell you what it'd actually look like in practice".

For example, the veil of ignorance serves as a useful tool1 in the context of constructing an ideal system of justice, but it seems to have tremendously limited utility in practice. Any attempt to perform the thought experiment and put ourselves behind such a veil for the purposes of examining a particular conception of justice is immediately tainted by our personal biases. In order for the veil to be useful there must first be some sort of minimum agreement akin to Rawls' two fundamental principles. But the disagreements among people often go all the way down to first principles; if we could settle on those the rest would be easy.

Rawls' two principles seem to suffer from the same problem; I'm reserving judgement, but right now it looks to me like they're going nowhere fast. Rawls goes out of his way to declare an absolute and inviolate ordering of these principles; Liberty always trumps Equality of Opportunity. However, under the "Democratic Equality" interpretation of the Principle of Equality of Opportunity it is

[N]ecessary to impose further basic structural conditions on the social system. Free market arrangements must be set within a framework of political and legal institutions which regulates the overall trends of economic events and preserves the social conditions necessary for fair equality of opportunity. (p.73)
This sort of a system seems destined to run afoul of the Principle of Liberty from the start; how can it be made compatible with "freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property" and "freedom arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law"2. It seems to me that efforts to preserve a particular set of social conditions must necessarily run afoul of basic liberties such as the ability to move or switch jobs3. Maybe Rawls will pull a rabbit out of the hat on this one, but this is yet another reason why I think he's heading towards a formal system which might not be realizeable.

One explanation for the above is that Rawls appears to have a somewhat idiosyncratic view on the subject of free will. He advocates a fairly strong form of social determinism, stating at one point

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their development possible. Because he is more worthy in this sense, he deserves the greater advantages that he could achieve with them. This view, however, is surely incorrect. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgements that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's ionitial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. (Pp. 103 - 104).

That's just bullshit, pure and simple. One scion of a wealthy house might choose to be an upstanding member of society while another might be a wastrel; people have known that since day one4. Though it does explain a lot of Rawls' attitude towards property and the redistribution thereof. If a person's success is due primarily to extrinsic, historically contingent factors then their claims to the fruits of that success are much weaker. If no one really deserves (in the sense of having earned it) what they have in the first place then redistrbuting those fruits to maintain Equality of Opportunity causes fewer conflicts with the Principle of Liberty.

Though a belief in social determinism causes a lot of problems for moral theory in general. Morality implies choice, but if we're all automatons responding to our environment there's not much choice to be found. My character is a result of my upbringing; just as I'm not justified in enjoying whatever good fortune it might bring to me I'm equally blameless for any ill that I might do.

Anyhow, that's it for now. More to come, perhaps, as I work my way through the book.


1 As a side note I was exposed to the concept of the veil of ignorance in an entry-level college philsophy course and the professor made a bloody hash of it. Rawls ultimately describes it as a set of formal conditions constraining the initial agreement, which seems much more straightforward to me that some of his other characterizations. Had my professor just said that up front I would have been saved hours of pseudo-philosphical masturbation on the part of my classmates.
2 p. 61
3 Hayek has a good exposition of this position, see The Road To Serfdom, Pp. 110 - 111.
4 See, for example, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Note also that the son who wasn't a wastrel gets pretty pissed off, with some justification, about the whole "fatted calf" incident.

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