Friday, January 01, 2010

A Final Note On Rawls

One final item which has been nagging at me w.r.t. A Theory of Justice is Rawls' take on human psychology. His citizens strike me as fragile and undeveloped creatures; they crave the approval of their peers and seem unable to progress past a certain level of moral development. These inherent limitations seem to wag his theory of morality fairly heavily and he makes a lot of statements in support thereof which don't stand up to close scrutiny.

Let's start with self-respect. It's so critical, in Rawls' opinion, that he marks it the most important primary good1 (Pp. 440 - 446). But self-respect is a product of critical reflection; it's an internal mental state. That makes it significantly different than the other primary goods which Rawls has identified. A government can directly ensure various liberties and a minimum standard of living, but it can't reach into peoples' heads and make them like themselves. I'd argue that Rawls has made a category error in this regard; self-respect it not in government's power to give.

Moreover, he seems to treat self-respect as purely exogenous i.e. we gain self-respect only as a result of the positive regard of others. Specifically:

For while it is true that unless our endeavors are appreciated by our associates it is impossible for us to maintain the conviction that they are worthwhile, it is also true that others tend to value them only if what we do elicits their admiration or pleasure. (p. 441)

There seem to me to be several interpretations of this statement. One is that Rawls may simply have overlooked the existence of solitary pleasures/activities, but this would be a big omission on his part. It seems obvious to me, for example, that I can garden, take pleasure therein, and regard it as a worthwhile activity without requiring anybody's approbation. A more plausible explanation is that Rawls means exactly what he says and believes that self-respect can only be obtained throught the admiration of our peers. This would explain his insistence that its the government's job to ensure that everyone has a sphere of association in which they can be valued and admired. Such a contention arises naturally from Rawls' premises but strikes me as faintly ridiculous. I neither need nor want the government finding friends for me nor doubt that I'm alone in this regard. This suggests to me that his charaterization of self-respect is flawed to some degree.

There's a single thread that wends its way through Rawls' discussions of self-respect, moral development, what he terms the "natural attitudes", and related phenomena. Rawls' citizens are unable to transcend/control certain tendencies which are innate to humanity, though this seems to run counter to various other concepts in which Rawls places great stock.

Rawls' three-stage theory of moral development2 centers on the ability of the individual to form social attachments ("fellow feeling" in his terminology) which gradually increase in scope until they encompass the entire society. But it seems to me that fellow feeling, since it has a major physiological component3, is to a large degree an irrational phenomena. This, in turn, would seem to run afoul of Rawls' characterization of the Kantian interpretation of morality e.g. the pinnacle of moral development is the ability to act as a "free and equal rational being"4.

Consider also his example regarding persons A, B, C5; it's instructive to ask what happens when a fourth person D, whom A does not love, is introduced into the mix. How does A's reaction differ if, say, ey finds out that C plans to treat D unjustly? Presumably Rawls believes that ey will behave in a different, less noble manner, else there'd be no reason to discuss the effects of love in the first place. But such behavior is just a form of egosim; A treats B differently due to A's emotional attachment to B. Justice as fairness seems to require that A treat both B and D equally (in this case at least) without regard for personal bonds of affection.

Essentially it looks like Rawls' citizens' behavior is forever conditioned on emotional bonds; they never get to the point where their behavior is guided purely by abstract moral reasoning (something akin to Kohlberg levels 5/6). Indeed, in discussing the natural attitudes Rawls seems to explicitly dismiss this possibility despite the fact that such considerations may be totally irrational, saying that to eliminate such emotional considerations would do unacceptable violence to the fundamental notion of what it means to be human6.

Perhaps, but I believe this to be a case where Rawls is unwilling to follow his own reasoning to its logical conclusion. As I noted in my previous post Rawls, despite various statements to the contrary, seems to be vested in a particular vision of a just society where everyone has "meaningful work" to do and rubs along with eir fellows in mutual bonhomie. Individuals guided purely by abstract reasoning, though they might be the epitomy of a free and equal rational beings, would be unlikely to form the type of society which Rawls prefers. I tend to agree with Rawls that they'd barely be recognizeable as human, but I don't know that's necessarily a bad thing.

1 I find his reasoning in this regard to be suspect. The other primary goods which he calls out (various liberties and material resources) all enable the pursuit of a particular life plan. Self-respect as described by Rawls doesn't serve an enabling function but rather provides people with their raison d'être; they pursue life plans so that they might gain self-respect. It looks to be Rawls' answer to the question "Why bother?" which he lumps in with other primary goods for lack of a better place to put it.
2 Pp. 490 - 491
4 P. 252
5 P. 487. Briefly, for those playing along at home who don't have a copy: A loves B and thus experiences anger/grief when B comes to harm (either independently or through the actions of C), guilt when having done an injustice to B, joy at being with B, and so on.
6 Pp. 488 - 489


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