Monday, November 30, 2009

A Theory of Justice: Part 2 of N

I finally made it through Part I of A Theory of Justice1 and feel that it ends stronger than it began. It seems to me that the whole of the first part should be seen as an extended preamble for discussion which really begins in earnest in the following section, so I'm willing to cut him a little more slack now than I was in my initial post. That said, there are still a number of unresolved questions which I hope he's going to take up eventually, not the least of which is to meaningfully reconcile the first and second principles in some non-trivial fashion. Various observations on Part I follow.

I remain somewhat skeptical of Rawls' method, specifically with respect to his reliance on "considered judgement". He builds his case for the two principles, in part, by examining the likely outcomes of the application thereof and demonstrating that these outcomes correspond closely with widely-shared intuitions about what is "just". I would find this convincing evidence if we knew, a priori, that these shared intuitions were "correct" or "right" in some fashion. Alas, we have no such assurance, and Rawls provides no means (as of yet) by which these assumptions might be validated. As such there's no procedural guard against myopia and/or provincialism. It strikes me that, if we base a theory on how well it conforms with existing practice, we're just going to repeat what we already know. There's a real risk that we'll prematurely close off alternative social configurations which seem strange to us but that might ultimately achieve whatever it is we want to achieve in a more efficient manner. Much better, in my view, to start with axioms and principles and follow them wherever they lead.

Another big question in my mind is whether any choice from the original position is capable of meeting the requirements which Rawls lays out. One of the themes that Rawls returns to on several occasions is that a just society should be self-sustaining; under normal circumstances it should engender support for itself among its citizens. But Rawls' proposed procedure reduces the original contract to the rational choice of a single individual in reflective equilibrium given certain stipulations (veil of ignorance and so on), completely ignoring the fact that such an individual is a poor model for a real-world population. Rawls' rational individual:

  • Favors fact and careful deliberation over emotion.
  • Has a background in diverse subjects such as moral psychology and political economy necessary to making an informed judgement.
  • Is capable of intellectually engaging in a complex thought experiment.

I think Rawls is right in principle: the specification of the contract is best done under conditions of dispassionate, informed reflection. The "original position", however, is a bloodless construct which might work for a constituency of political philosophers but is doomed to fail in practice because some fraction of any society will:

  • Favor emotion over reason.
  • Lack the appropriate subject matter background.
  • Be incapable of following the reasoning of the contract all the way through to the end.

If any of the above hold true (an almost metaphysical certainty in my estimation) then a just society constructed following the principles which Rawls has outlined may find very little support in practice. And that, in turn, would tend to severely undermine its legitimacy.


1 Got distracted by Imajica... good book.

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