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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.


marktheknife said...

Thanks for a great series on Rawls, Robert. I think your reading of Rawls is persuasive. I am stuck on one last thing in order to agree with your conclusion his reasoning is invalid. I know you're burned out on discussing Rawls, but hopefully the following question is interesting enough to be worth answering (and if not, no worries!):

Your argument against Rawls makes sense to me when choosing between jobs, but not when choosing between jobs and leisure. That is to say, if you told someone they could be a manager or dock worker for the same pay, they'd clearly choose to be a manager. But if you told someone they could be a manager or not work for the same pay, clearly they'd choose the latter. This is relevant in that choices between many jobs ultimately indirectly involve a choice between more and less leisure.

Inequality provides strong incentive to overcome the strong pull of leisure. This causes people to do socially beneficial work they would otherwise ignore to pursue leisure. Hence, the difference principle has some degree of worth.

My question is: does this help salvage Rawls' difference principle?

(Apologies if it's been asked and answered. I swear I looked to find an answer. I could do email if better.)

One Philosopher's Musings said...

Hi Robert: 'One Philosopher's Musings' here. By the way, I didn't intend to post anonymously. I didn't even recall that I had a google account under that handle! Anyway, I'm Marcus Arvan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tampa.

I think the answers to your questions are straightforward. Rawls likely saw, at some point between the first "Justice as Fairness" article and A Theory of Justice that he could *not* defend his principles on purely rational grounds. So, he looked for another alternative: a sense of fairness which he thinks people in democratic societies share--which he then argues in Theory are embodied by the veil of ignorance, which he then uses to defend his principles. Then, as time went on, I think he saw his attempt to derive the difference principle as flawed (for reasons many critics have aptly pointed out), and so he revised it repeatedly.

In any case, as my earlier comment indicates (the one this post takes as its starting-point), I'm willing to agree with you that these are bad philosophical moves. I actually have book forthcoming in which, among other things, I argue precisely that. So, to that extent, you and I are on the same page. Still, I cannot quite agree with your approach to interpretation, nor your suggestion that Rawls' work is uninteresting if he makes the moves I allude to (which, again, I think he clearly does).

First, I want to suggest that one should interpret all of a person's work in terms of the very first thing they published. Authors change their minds and revise their views (heaven knows I have!), and one should respect that in interpretation. Since, at every point after "Justice as Fairness", in all of his subsequent work, he uses the veil, appeals to a sense of justice, etc., he should be interpreted as such. It's only fair to interpret authors according to their considered views, not their earliest ones that they have come to refine or reject.

Second, although (like you) I too think Rawls' appeal to a sense of justice, etc., is deeply mistaken, that does not suffice to render a piece of work completely uninteresting. Something can be deeply flawed but still have much to offer. I believe this is the case with Rawls, and, while I do not have room to argue it here, I would be happy to send you a copy of my book when it comes out (in brief: I develop a new theory of rationality, argue that Rawls improperly begged a lot of the questions you are concerned about, but nevertheless argue that something not unlike the original position--dropping a number of Rawls' assumptions--is justified on purely decision-theoretic grounds).