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Wednesday, March 20, 2013


T. Gent has posted a long and interesting question about Rawls, the answer to which is going to take me a bit more than can fit comfortably into a comment, so I will take a few moments to reply in a post.  Here is the central part of his [? her?] question -- I urge you to read the whole comment, which is attached to the guest post by my son, Patrick:

"I was reading Rawls and an old post of yours came to my mind, where you said that once his project of providing a theorem in game theory failed, Rawls's attachment to his two principles was only comparable to faith in the Biblical word. My question is: doesn't the Difference Principle have a strong 'intuitive force'? I don't mean it in the sense in which the first principle might have intuitive force. The latter could simply be due to the 'success' of liberalism in the last few hundred years. What I mean is that if you think inequality is bad, it's prima facie a brilliant solution to allow inequality only if it benefits those that are worse off."

First let me explain the reference to the Bible.  If you read the several different texts in which Rawls developed his theory [first "Justice as Fairness," then "The Difference Principle," finally A THEORY OF JUSTICE], you find something really weird about the way in which he refers to his Two Principles [the so-called Difference Principle is the second.]   He first states the two principles in "Justice as Fairness" as the solution to a bargaining game -- it is a theorem in bargaining theory, he says, that these two principles would be unanimously chosen by parties engaged in negotiating with one another about the fundamental binding rules to guide their social interactions.  Notice that Rawls invented these principles -- neither of them, and especially the Difference Principle, had ever been stated in anything like that form in philosophical literature before.

Then Rawls realized that he was wrong -- the two principles as he had stated them are not the solution to the bargaining game he sketches.  [If you are interested in why, you can look at my 1966 Journal of Philosophy article, "A Refutation of Professor Rawls' Theorem on Justice."  I think, by the way, that he realized his original argument wouldn't work before he saw my article.]

Now, you would think that the natural thing for Rawls to do at this point would be to revise the Difference Principle, that being the principal locus of the difficulty.  But he does not do that!  Instead, he keeps identically the same wording of the principle, and says, in effect, "Now, you might think that the natural interpretation of this principle is -- [and then he gives the interpretation of the original article.]  But that cannot be so, because [and he then offers the objections that I, and we may suppose he, saw.]  So the correct interpretation of these words must be [and then he offers what is actually a new Difference Principle.]"

He talks as though he did not invent the Difference Principle in the first place, but is merely tasked with finding an appropriate interpretation of a set of words handed to us from on high.  This is exactly the mode of textual interpretation adopted by biblical commentators.  Since the Bible is the Revealed Word of God, we cannot go about re-writing it.  But since our natural reason tells us that the obvious interpretation of some Biblical passages makes them out to be utter nonsense, we must, as faithful believers, find some interpretation of the texts that is acceptable to reason while not denying the Word of God itself.  Rawls really does talk about his own theory this way all the time, and it is, if I may say so, a little creepy.  It is perhaps not surprising to learn that his very first publication, as a Princeton undergraduate, was a review for the Princeton Literary Journal of a multi-volume translation of the works of the Church Fathers.

Now let me turn to the heart of T. Gent's question, which concerns the intuitive appeal of the Difference Principle as it makes its appearance in A THEORY OF JUSTICE.  I think the Difference Principle does have a good deal of intuitive appeal.  I also think that if we take it really seriously, it pretty clearly implies some form of egalitarian socialism, for all that Rawls does not appear to have thought so himself.  But we need to keep very clearly before us just exactly what Rawls conceived himself to be doing.  Rawls comes on the scene at a time when Anglo-American ethical theory was locked in what Kant would have called an Antinomy between Intuitionism and Utilitarianism, the first descending from Kant and the second from Bentham.  Each school had devastating objections to the theses of the other school while having no plausible defense against the attacks from its opponent.  Rawls had the really brilliant idea of moving past this impossible stand-off by resurrecting the old tradition of social contract theory and wedding it to the brand-new field of Game Theory and Bargaining Theory.  The two principles were put forward as the solution to a bargaining game in which self-interested agents were conceived as being willing to take one single step beyond pure self-interest by agreeing to bind themselves to principles unanimously endorsed on the basis of rational self-interest.  I think, although I have absolutely no evidence for this, that Rawls saw himself as offering a theorem as powerful in its way as the astonishingly powerful Impossibility Theorem that Kenneth Arrow had proved in his doctoral dissertation, for which he later received the Nobel prize in Economics.  Rawls was very definitely not simply suggesting that his principles had "intuitive appeal," because in the context in which he was writing, that would simply have him on one side of the Intuitionism/Utilitarianism divide.

Now, having said all of that, how plausible is the Difference Principle simply as a rule for deciding who gets what?  That is a very large question, so I will just offer a very quick response.  The Difference Principle is, I think, not at all plausible as a rule that would appeal to rationally self-interested agents -- economic agents, as that phrase is usually interpreted in Economics and Political Theory.  However, if a society embraces the Credo that I have several times posted on this blog, then something like the Difference Principle might well be attractive to the members of such a society. 

Of course, rather than struggle through A THEORY OF JUSTICE, which is a really boring book, the members of that society might simply inscribe on their banners the slogan From All According To Their Abilities.  To All According to Their Needs.

About Nozick, by the way.  I liked Bob, and when he published ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA, he had not yet become the darling of the right wing.  So I guess I have always cut him some slack, even though I eviscerated the book in my 1978 Arizona Law Review article.

1 comment:

T Gent said...

Dear Wolff, thanks for your answer! I guess I had misinterpreted or misremembered your reference to biblical interpretation. The problem here is that the failure of his attempt to prove it doesn't lead Rawls to actually rethink his principle.
And of course it's not good enough for him that his principle is only intuitively attractive (I wasn't suggesting that in my comment, but I thought that you yourself rejected the principle since it couldn't be proved through a bargaining theory model). But I still think it's a 'great' principle. I actually think it's more rational, more 'fundamental' for an egalitarian society, than Marx's principle, although it sounds much worse, and although I agree with you that really enforcing would probably mean realising socialism (but again, I think maybe the biggest problem here is that economics is nothing like what it would have to be to make it possbile to understand what we have to do in order to create a Rawlsian society (sorry about the syntax)).
As for Nozick, the problem is precisely what he says and what his way of thinking represents, not who liked his work. So you have every right to cut him some slack, but I won't.