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Sunday, July 26, 2015


A reader who identifies him or herself as One Philosopher's Musings has this to say about my critical reading of Rawls:  "Hi Robert: It simply isn't true that Rawls ever purported to derive his principles of justice from rationality alone. Throughout 'A Theory of Justice', Rawls states that although (1) the parties in the original position are to be understood as rational (in a game-theoretic sense) behind the veil of ignorance, (2) the veil of ignorance is supposed to model the sense of *justice* that people have in modern democratic societies, and that it is supposed to model a common conception of (moral) constraints that people in modern democracies can commonly recognize as reasonable constraints.
Now, you may think this is a bad philosophical move (and I might even be willing to agree with you). But, it's important to be clear on what he did and did not argue. He never purported to derive justice from rationality alone. The notion that we share a *conception* and sense of justice, and that this conception is embodied by the veil ignorance, is crucial. The argument asks (1) what is rational, given (and constrained by) (2) a particular conception of what is reasonable (i.e. fairness)."

I think this is an example of exactly the wrong way to read a philosopher.  Let me explain why.  I begin with the observation, commonplace in the field of Literary Criticism, that authors are often the worst sources of information about what they have written.  Since I began my career as a philosopher more than half a century ago extracting a reading of Kant's First Critique from the text that was in many ways at odds with what Kant said he was doing, I am comfortable with this style of interpretation.

But if not the author's own words, what then can we appeal to?  The simple answer is logic.  If my reading can answer some fundamental questions about the text in a way that makes the text internally coherent and interesting philosophically, then I take that as evidence that I am right.  Notice the qualification ”and interesting philosophically."  That is obviously a judgment call, not capable of being definitively settled by any amount of textual citation.  But that is what makes the effort philosophy, not scholarship.

Now, here are some questions to which I can give good, clear logically and mathematically coherent answers, which my musing philosophical commentator cannot answer in a plausible and interesting way:

1.  In the original journal article, "Justice as Fairness," there was no mention of the Veil of Ignorance.  Why did Rawls introduce it in the second article, "Distributive Justice" and then in his later writings?

2.  In the original article, Rawls claimed that he was sketching the proof of a theorem.  What made him give up that claim while retaining all of the elaborate architecture on which that claim was based?

3.  In the original article, the bargainers were assumed to be rationally self-interested.  There is no assumption that they share a notion of fairness by which they will be bound.  What made Rawls change?

4.  In the original article, Rawls appeals transparently to the logic of bargaining games.  There is no mention of Reflective Equilibrium.  Why the change?

5.  Why did Rawls change the "interpretation" of the Difference Principle between the original article and the book?  I put the word "interpretation" in quotes because the principle, being his invention, does not have alternative "interpretations."  It is whatever he says it is.  His problem is to prove that it would be the outcome of the bargaining game, not to provide a plausible interpretation of a principle handed to him from somewhere else.  It is not for nothing that Rawls' first publication was a review of a multi-volume translation of the works of the Church Fathers!

6. Why did Rawls introduce and keep the seemingly arbitrary and implausible assumption that the participants in the bargaining are "not envious"?

7.  Why did Rawls feel called upon to introduce the assumptions of Life Plans and an Index of Primary Goods [this latter, strictly speaking, mathematically incoherent, although Rawls seems not to have been troubled by that obvious fact]?

I repeat, I can answer every one of these questions by an appeal to logic and mathematics.  It has nothing to do at all with Rawls maturing or thinking more deeply or changing his mind.  It has everything to do with the fact that the theorem as originally formulated was invalid, and required heroic revisions to salvage.  It also has to do with the fact that Rawls obviously became so deeply invested in his increasingly baroque elaborations, qualifications, and petitio principii that he lost all ability to face the fact that he actually had no good argument for his Two Principles, at least no good argument of the sort he originally set out to find.

That is why I say what I do.


Each weekday, I go down to the back door of the condominium building in which I live to get the mail.  These days, no one ever actually writes letters anymore, so the mail consists mostly of catalogues, political appeals for money, and the occasional bill.  Yesterday, when I was sifting through the junk, I came upon a plastic wrapped magazine called Freedom, which I knew I had not subscribed to.  At first I thought it was a Libertarian journal sent to me by someone who assumed that the author of In Defense of Anarchism would be a sympathizer, but a full page adulatory photograph of L. Ron Hubbard told me that what I had in my hands was a Scientology product.  Scientology is, of course, a total crock, but oddly enough it occupies a warm place in my heart because of its association with my teenage years.  Let me explain.

As a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction.  In those days [the late '40s], the two leading sci fi magazines were Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction.  They were both instances of what was then called pulp fiction because they were printed not on the slick, smooth, glossy  paper used by Life, Time, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, and Fortune, but on rough, nubby cheap paper that betrayed its origin as wood pulp.  I subscribed to Astounding [for reasons long lost in the fog of time, I considered Galaxy the enemy], in whose pages I found the stories of Isaac Asimov, A. E. Van Vogt, and the other sci fi greats.

[Side comment:  In 1960, when I was a resident tutor in Winthrop House at Harvard, one of the co-authors of the Ellery Queen detective novels -- either Frederick Dannay or Manfred Lee, I don't recall which -- spoke at the annual senior dinner since his son was graduating from Winthrop House.  He said something that stuck with me because it so perfectly described me.  "No one," he observed, "is ever a science fiction fan and a mystery fan simultaneously."  And so it was!  Soon after I got to Harvard, I stopped reading sci fi and started reading mysteries.  Some sainted Harvard grad had endowed a collection of mystery fiction to be housed in Widener Library, and in the days when one could still gain access to the stacks, I wandered happily up and down the rows of books, checking out two or three mysteries at a time.  Over the years, I read my way through the complete works of Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Carter Dickson -- the same person, of course -- Josephine Tey, Ngaio March, Agatha Christie, and all the other greats.  I never did return to reading science fiction, although in the television era I became a Trekkie.]

Anyway, in May, 1950, my copy of Astounding arrived, and in it I found a lengthy essay by one of their lesser authors, someone named L. Ron Hubbard.  When I read the essay, I immediately recognized it for what it obviously was, a brilliantly funny send up of Freudian psychoanalysis and the then quite new science of Cybernetics.  I had a good laugh, which however died when the next issue showed up with Part Two of what now was clearly a serious exposition of a revolutionary new discipline -- Dianetics.

For a while, Dianetics flourished as a therapy scam, flourishing especially in California, the home of crackpot frauds.  But Hubbard got in trouble with the Feds for practicing medicine without a license, so in a move of great brilliance, he transformed the medically suspect Dianetics into a First Amendment protected religion, Scientology.  And the rest of that story is Tom Cruise.

Astounding Science Fiction, by the way, was the locus of my very first publication, a Letter to the Editor defending "Aristotelian logic" -- a.k.a. the Law of Contradiction -- against the animadversions of another reader entranced with The World of Null-A, a famous Van Vogt novel that appeared first in serial form in an earlier incarnation of Astounding Science Fiction.  Van Vogt was inspired by the semantic theories of Count Alfred Korzybski, but that is another story from my youth that can wait for a more propitious moment.

Needless to say, I threw out the magazine.



When I was a young teenager, I was afflicted with obsessive and terrifying fears of death, fears so great that my parents sent me into psychoanalytic therapy [something that was then quite experimental in the orthodox Freudian world.]  The therapy seems to have worked, because the fears subsided.  The odd thing about them was that when I was lying frozen in bed at night, I would comfort myself with the thought "Maybe I will die before it happens," which, it will occur to you, was irrational, unless the fears were a cover for something else, more fearful than death.  I never did find out what that something was, although I have always thought it had to do with my father [either that or my mother, right?]  The therapy kept me from following my sister to Swarthmore, which was my first choice in colleges.  In those days, therapy was a no-no, and Swarthmore told me that they would not admit me unless Harvard, the only other school to which I had applied, turned me down.  Well, getting into Harvard was not hard in those days -- my year, about 2200 applied and 1600 were admitted, of whom 1250 enrolled.  So I went off to Harvard at  the age of sixteen, and the very first course I took was Willard Van Orman Quine's Symbolic Logic.  The rest, as they say, is philosophy.

Last night, at about 2 a.m., I suddenly felt the old half-forgotten fears.  I jumped up out of bed [causing something of a fright for Susie] and distracted myself with FreeCell games until the fear went away.  What caused the fears to reappear?  My best guess is the prospect of an impending colonoscopy, which tells you everything you need to know about what a wimp I am.

This morning, quite by happenstance, I read Oliver Sacks' hauntingly beautiful NY TIMES column about his own fast approaching death from cancer.  Sacks is one year older than I and he very much doubts he will see his eighty-third birthday.  He exhibits that calm, stoic gravitas that the ancient Romans so admired.  Not in my wildest dreams do I imagine that I could ever achieve the sad, peaceful acceptance of death and celebration of life that Sacks achieves in that essay.  His death at what is now so early an age is yet one more proof, if indeed we needed it, that there is no God.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Just when I thought I was done with Rawls, at least for a time, my older son, Patrick, sent me the following message:


I really do think you should read "Justice as Fairness, a Restatement" before teaching the class. To be fair to him, he was constantly working away at his philosophy, and this book constitutes his final view of it.
I would also point out footnote 2 of paragraph 23.3, which is in part three, devoted to the original position. That footnote reads, "Here I correct a remark in Theory ... where it is said that the theory of justice is a part of the theory of rational choice. From what we have just said, this is simply a mistake, and would imply that justice as fairness is at bottom Hobbesian (as Hobbes is often interpreted) rather than Kantian. What should have been said is that the account of the parties, and of their reasoning, uses the theory of rational choice (decision), but that this theory is itself part of a political conception of justice, one that tries to give an account of reasonable principles of justice. There is no thought of deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept."


Needless to say, I right away ordered the Rawls book from Amazon [it will be here today or tomorrow, even without drones doing the delivery.]  But Patrick's message raises for me a very interesting question about how one ought to read  a philosophy book.  With Patrick's permission, I am replying to him here rather than in a private e-mail message.  To give the punch line first, Rawls' statement does not alter in the slightest how I interpret A Theory of Justice.  Since that seems just pig-headed of me, let me explain.

I shall begin by talking about how to interpret the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, about which I know a very great deal.  Early in his career, in 1772, Kant encountered the devastating criticism mounted by David Hume against  the causal inferences on which the knowledge claims of classical science rested.  At roughly the same time, Kant was struggling with the problem often referred to as "free will and determinism," the apparently irresoluble conflict between the determinism of Newtonian physics and the freedom of the will that underlies all moral responsibility.  In a daring move that is the central theme of his entire philosophy, Kant chose to "limit knowledge to make place for faith."  He argued in the Critique of Pure Reason that what we all understand as the spatio-temporal world of objects in causal interaction with one another is actually a structure of judgments concerning things as they appear to us, not as they are in themselves.  [Yes, that is not a grammatical error.  The world is a structure of judgments, not of things.  You must read my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity if you want details.]  One of the immediate implications of Kant's account in the First Critique is that everything I do in the spatio-temporal physical world is determined by causal laws quite as rigorous and universal as those that determine the behavior of physical particles in space and time.

When Kant comes to write the first of his several great works of moral philosophy, the Groundwork  of the Metaphysics of Morals, he retreats from the insights of the deepest portions of the First Critique to his pre-philosophical Pietist understanding of the moral condition as a constant struggle within the realm of appearances between duty and inclination.  Indeed, this conception of the moral condition informs his account of the most famous single element of his Moral Philosophy, the Categorical Imperative.  We humans, he says, experience the Highest Moral Law as a Categorical Imperative, a command, because we are creatures of both the Phenomenal and the Noumenal worlds, torn between duty [the Moral Law] and inclination [desire.]  Were we angels, we would experience the Moral Law in the way that mathematicians experience the Law of Contradiction -- as a principle of reason, not as a bulwark against sinful temptation.

There is no question that Kant saw things in this way.  He says so in countless passages.  There is also not doubt that this way of looking at things completely contradicts the central doctrines of the First Critique.  What is a student of Kant's philosophy to do?  We [I, when I was writing books about Kant's philosophy] have two options.  The first option is to repeat what Kant says, with copious footnote citations, ignoring the contradictions.  This produces commentary that is completely faithful to Kant's expressed beliefs and intentions, but is utterly uninteresting.  The second option is to make a philosophical choice -- to embrace one part of what Kant says and reject what contradicts it.  This, I believe, produces what Harold Bloom in the field of literary criticism called a strong reading of a poem.  It is an inherently controversial reading of Kant, because it manifestly flies in the face of what he said on the page.  But it makes [and this is necessarily a judgment call] for a philosophically interesting reading of the text, a reading that might even command our assent.

Enter Rawls.  I believe that when Rawls began the work that eventually became A Theory of Justice, he had a really brilliant idea.  [All of this is gone into in detail in my book, Understanding Rawls.]  In an attempt to move past the deadlocked controversy between Utilitarianism and Intuitionism, he would reach back to the older Social Contract tradition and combine it with insights and methods from the then new mathematical field of Game Theory.  He would demonstrate, as a theorem in Bargaining Theory, that rationally self-interested individuals circumstanced as the parties to the Social Contract are circumstanced, would agree unanimously to adopt two concrete substantive principles to regulate their social and economic interactions.  All that it was necessary to assume, beyond bare rational self-interest, were two further premises:  The first was that once they came to agreement, appealing in their reasoning to nothing but self-interest, the individuals would henceforward abide by the principles they had agreed to [even if, on particular occasions, pure rational self-interest might lead them to violate the agreement];  the second premise, introduced for mathematical reasons that Rawls neglected to explain, was that the parties engaged in the bargaining would not be motivated by envy [this odd assumption makes Pareto partial unanimity orderings possible.]

This was a really lovely idea, a beautiful idea, as mathematicians like to say.  It is the idea that makes Rawls' work interesting, I believe.  Without it, all one has is an enormous, baroque, bloated elaboration of whatever Rawls happened to believe, tricked out in fancy language but floating in air like Swift's Island of Laputa.

Now, the fact is that the argument for the theorem does not work.  As time passed, Rawls not only tricked out the original theory with enormously baroque elaborations;  he also moved to "the Kantian interpretation" and all manner of other irrelevant things.  The statement quoted by Patrick is, it seems to me, the final straw.  " There is no thought of deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept."  I can just hear Miss Piggy saying, in faux outrage, "Moi?"  Considering that deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept was the whole idea of Rawls' theory, the idea with which he started and that shaped everything in its development, including the Veil of Ignorance, the Index of Primary Goods, and all the rest of that stuff, I find this statement a bit rich.

Now, as I once wrote to Jack in response to a letter he sent to me complaining about my review of Thomas Pogge's book on him, "You are the world's leading expert on what you think, so if you say that you have not moved in a more conservative direction, I must accept that."

Therefore, I take it as definitive that as he approached the end of his life, Rawls forswore everything that made his philosophical views interesting in the first place.  But just as I decline simply to repeat whatever Kant said about his philosophical views, however uninteresting that makes them, so I decline to take Rawls at his word.  I prefer to give A Theory of Justice a strong reading.  The alternative, for me, is not to bother to read it at all.



Thursday, July 23, 2015


The Trump circus has been wildly entertaining, but the election is fifteen months away, and the American public is fickle, with the attention span of a May fly, so I worry.  What will keep us amused during the long Autumn and Winter, the tedious Spring, and yet another Summer, before the votes are finally cast and counted?    I have been brooding over this problem, and believe I have hit upon a solution.

I have, in the past, observed that Hillary Clinton is the smartest, most knowledgeable, most deeply experienced Republican currently running for the Presidency.  I think she needs to announce her candidacy for the Republican nomination.  She can explain that she has been deeply distressed by the partisan feuding between the Congress and the President that has brought the normal political processes to a standstill, and that she hopes, by offering herself as a Unity candidate on both party tickets, finally to bring the nation together again.  Since she has already satisfied whatever legal requirements there are for formal candidacy for the presidency, she would be good to go for the Republican nomination immediately.

In light of her sky-high name recognition and the general ignorance and stupidity of the Republican base, she would almost certainly garner enough votes in the polling to qualify for the Republican debates.  What is more, her policies are, or were at one time, mainstream Republican.  Her domestic policies are a trifle to the right of those of Eisenhower and Nixon, and she is easily as Hawkish in foreign policy as Dole or Romney.  Her dual candidacy would be a gift of great value to the bloviating Television commentariat, which is running out of faux astonishment and comic one-liners about Trump.

To be sure, the Republican National Committee could rule Clinton unfit to bear their standard, and on those grounds ban her from the debates, but then they would have to explain why Trump meets their minimal standards of acceptability when Clinton does not.

During the General Election, she could hold televised debates with herself.  I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Susie and I will drive today to Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina for a brief three-day visit.  I shall be back blogging on Friday.  The world will just have to manage.

Monday, July 20, 2015


Max Weber [1864-1920] is, arguably, the greatest sociologist who has ever lived [yes, I include Marx in that ranking.]  He was one of the last of the great Gelehrten, scholars [usually German for some reason] who seemed to know everything there was to be known.  He made major contributions across the entire spectrum of the Sozialwissenschaften -- what today we call the Social Sciences -- but the centerpiece of his work was a deep analysis of the structure and logic of bureaucracy, which during his lifetime was coming to define and dominate social organization worldwide. 

One of Weber's most provocative [and pessimistic] ideas is the inevitable transformation of the personal authority possessed by unusually pious or strong or brilliant or courageous or daring individuals into the routine, rule-governed, quotidian authority of hereditary rulers or uniformed functionaries or caparisoned priests or elected representatives, a process that Weber called the routinization of charisma.  Men and women [and even children] follow Ghenghis Khan or Gandhi or Joan of Arc or Roland or Martin Luther King or King Arthur [assuming that he existed] because of their personal qualities, what Weber, following a long tradition, called their charisma.  These personal qualities bestow on the person, in the eyes of the followers, an immediate authority that binds them to the leader and will elicit from them heroic acts even unto death.

Usually, when the charismatic leader dies, the followers are loath simply to call it quits and drift away.   A sizeable empire may have been assembled, or lands and wealth may have been accumulated by the band of followers personally bound to the leader by his or her charisma.  A struggle breaks out over who will inherit leadership.  As time passes, and the generation of the original followers gives way to their successors, and then to theirs, customs, even laws, regulating the succession take the place of the immediate ecstatic personal appeal that elicited the loyalty of the original band of followers.  The charisma has been routinized.

Today I shall make a stab at bringing this insight of Weber to bear on the question that has been discussed or alluded to repeatedly on this blog, viz. What may we expect from a socialist society?  Bear with me.  It will take me a little time to connect it up, as trial lawyers are wont to say.

First things first.  What defines capitalism is private ownership or control of the means of production, ownership or control that excludes the vast majority of men and women from any substantive role in the decisions about what to do with those means of production and from an adequate share of what is produced.  In the earliest stages of capitalism, control derives directly from legal ownership, and the two are so intimately intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable.  But eventually, companies are transformed into limited liability joint stock corporations, ownership of shares in which may become very widely distributed, without however a concomitant distribution of effective control.  In very few large modern corporations is legal ownership of the shares of stock concentrated in a few hands, and few major corporations are in any sense owned by those who run them. 

Collective ownership of the means of production is indeed the necessary condition for the existence of socialism, but by itself, it does not guarantee the elimination of the exploitation that is the raison d'ȇtre of capitalism.  Not even formally democratic control of the collectively owned means of production guarantees that desirable result, for -- and it is here that Weber's insight proves so valuable -- once the original revolutionary fervor has subsided and ordinary day-to-day oversight of the collectively owned means of production replaces the spontaneous, exciting creativity of those early days, the management of the people's patrimony will ineluctably become bureaucratic.  Individuals selected to occupy management positions, even at wages no better than those of ordinary workers, will find ways to feather their nests, to line their pockets, to appropriate to themselves privileges and perquisites, and to ensure that they continue in those positions.

This is not to say that nothing will have changed, not at all!  The income pyramid will have been substantially flattened, and great inherited wealth will be a thing of the past.  But that eternal vigilance which, we were told, is the price of liberty, will now be the price of socialist justice.  The struggle to penetrate the mystifications of power and wealth, to combat the routinization of effective control, will be endless.  And we shall even have to struggle to overcome the routinization and consequent emasculation of the very notion of demystification!  As now there are distinguished Professors of Economics whose considerable intelligence is devoted to concealing the truth that capitalism rests upon exploitation, then there will be distinguished Professors of Demystification Studies whose equally considerable intelligence is devoted to obfuscating the real nature of the privileges appropriated by the few in the name of socialism.

There are deep reasons why this is so, some of which I explored in my 2010 tutorial "How to Study Society."  But that it is so, I am sure.