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Monday, July 13, 2015


My remarks about Rawls have elicited a good many lengthy comments, and I should like to spend some time responding. 

First of all, when Rawls introduced his theory in the 1958 journal article he claimed to be sketching a theorem -- not a vision of the good society, not a systematization of the attitudes of himself and others like him, not an historical or sociological or economic or even moral commentary on the world in which we live, but a theorem.  Specifically, he claimed to be presenting a theorem in Bargaining Theory [although he did not use that phrase.]  I have chosen to take him at his word.  Why?  Because the theorem he presented is a powerful and interesting theorem which, if valid [i.e., following logically from its premises] would be in my judgment important.  What is more, I find Rawls an uninteresting commentator on the passing scene.  I look for my moral and political inspiration elsewhere.  However, it is of course open to all to read any book in any way they choose, and there is no disputing about tastes, as the Latin tag has it.

Now, the thing about theorems is that they are either valid or invalid, and if valid, are so for all time.  It would be absurd to object  to the Pythagorean theorem on the grounds that Pythagoras lived a long time ago and times have changed.  [Please, no silly comments about non-Euclidean geometries.  The Pythagorean theorem is a theorem in Euclidean Geometry.  The fact that later mathematicians were unaware of the possibility of non-Euclidean spaces for several millennia is irrelevant.]

Rawls offers two versions of his theorem.  I demonstrated the invalidity of the first version in a journal article and the invalidity of the mature version of the theorem [the version that includes the so-called veil of ignorance and the revised Difference Principle] in my book, Understanding Rawls, published almost forty years ago.  I do not wish to rehash those refutations.  They are correct.

Second, with regard to Mayans and the Veil of Ignorance -- Chris is quite right.  The Veil of Ignorance is an imaginative literary device designed to illustrate Rawls' premise that the individuals in the bargaining game abstract from or ignore every fact about themselves as particular individuals -- whether they are young or old, rich or poor, male or female, extra smart or only smart enough to engage in rationally self-interested calculations, even which country they live in or which historical era they live in.  Another way to think about the same set of constraints is to imagine a judge who is charged with handing down decisions disinterestedly [which means something different from uninterestedly, by the way.]

One of the things Rawls does not actually realize is that by imposing the Veil of Ignorance he has changed the problem from one in Bargaining Theory to one in the theory of Rational Choice.  Since under the Veil of Ignorance individuals know nothing about themselves that differentiates them from others in the Game, no coherent sense can be given to the idea that they are bargaining with one another.  Any argument that is a good argument for one of them will be a good argument for all of them, and therefore all that is involved is a matter of individual rational choice.  Rawls seems genuinely not to have understood this.  Thus, a Mayan and a twenty -first century American will, behind the Veil of Ignorance, reason in exactly the same fashion.

Third, now let me come to the most interesting point raised in the comments, one with which I [but not Rawls] would agree completely.  Indeed, the point of my post was to drive this idea home dramatically by imagining little stories [always my preferred way of making formal logical points.]  To put it simply, if we take the Difference Principle seriously, and actually bring to bear what we know about people, the result would be the elimination of almost all the inequalities of income and wealth that characterize modern capitalist society.  Look, does anyone really think that if we started reducing the salaries and bonuses of corporate executives, they would pretty soon say, "That's it!  I quit!  If I can't get at least $100,000 a year, I am going to take a job on the loading dock for $40,000 for the rest of my life [a bit above the median wage for full-time workers]"?  Let's not exaggerate the painfulness of having to write memoranda and attend meetings.  One day on the loading dock and that executive would be begging for his old job even if it paid only as much as he was getting loading washer-dryers onto trucks.

Is this true of everyone?  Of course not.  There are north of three hundred million people in this country.  Every proposition that is not logically impossible is true of somebody!  But what  would the typical corporate executive do?

Rawls' Difference Principle is, if taken seriously [which is, I emphasize, not the way he takes it], the most radical proposal for revolutionary change ever advanced.  It implies not advanced Scandinavian style Welfare State liberalism, but something like a communitarian Kibbutz writ large.

By the way, none of that has anything at all to do with the validity or invalidity of the theorem he advances.  The theorem is invalid -- that is a matter of logic and mathematics.




TheDudeDiogenes said...

That Rawls was publishing a theorem is something completely new to me. I can't say as I'm surprised that none of my professors mentioned it, since neither has any of the secondary literature I've read on Rawls (since I have yet to read your book, Prof. Wolff.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good grief! Read what he wrote!!!! Sometimes I wonder ...

Ridiculousicculus said...

Well, to be fair, Rawls abandoned the claim to have developed a "theorem" by the time he published the Revised Version of A Theory of Justice and Justice As Fairness: A Restatement. He didn't abandon it by explicitly stating "I used to claim this is a proof/theorem, but now I don't anymore", but Rawls does stop referring to it as a "theorem" or a "proof".

Wallace Stevens said...

Two comments:

1. Prof. Wolff: “Any argument that is a good argument for one of them will be a good argument for all of them, and therefore all that is involved is a matter of individual rational choice.” Although I haven’t read your article or book on Rawls, and it’s been years since I have read Rawls, the idea that this was a matter of individual rational choice was always my understanding of what Rawls intended. So it is not a shock or surprise for me, although, from what you are saying, (and your points are convincing) it should be.

But if we accept the rational choice idea, then I don’t see how it follows that “a Mayan and a twenty-first century American will, behind the Veil of Ignorance, reason in exactly the same fashion.” I could imagine a Mayan concluding that inequality would be justified where it does NOT make the least well-off better off—quite the contrary. For example, it might be quite acceptable for some members of society, including the Mayan making the choice behind the veil of ignorance, to serve as slaves to the priest class—one classes’ loss being the other’s gain--and for this to be, as far as the Mayan is concerned, quite in the nature of things, as part of a patently good, divine plan that only a fool would tamper with. Some economists would no doubt find underneath all of this some kind of ultimate self-interest at work (the Mayan might live as a slave but preserve the harmonious universe that gives him a beautiful afterlife, etc.) But the Difference Rule, it seems to me, is far more likely to emerge from behind the veil when the choosers are the sober, disabused men and women that I referred to in my earlier comment. These are the modern people that emerge at the other end of the capitalist transformation. I always took for granted that this is who was in question with Rawls, although your comments have me rethinking this.

1. On Rawls’ (unconscious?) radicalism, yes, I was always struck by this, because even the purest merit, arising from years of hard work and study, in Rawls’ world, counts for nothing. All that counts is that (i) job X will make the least well off in society better off; and (ii) job X won’t get done unless we pay someone more than the average. What is so delicious about this is that it is so radically egalitarian and yet at the same time perfectly consistent with the notion of incentives. No one can dismiss this as a utopian idea that requires everyone to be saints. I quite enjoy engaging free-market types on this: it is the kind of "check mate" argument for equality over which they can only sputter! To counter it, you need to build an argument for the absolute sanctity of property--one that in fact few people of any political persuasion share.

Wallace Stevens said...

Sorry, "sanctity of property" in my last line is likely to be misleading. I meant "sanctity of the rights to ownership of the fruits of one's labour." Those fruits then becoming property of various kinds. Under Rawls, all such fruits can be taxed away and redistributed without the slightest qualm, unless doing so makes the least well off, worse off. To counter this, you need to make a compelling case that people are entitled to the fruits of their labours. As Jerry Cohen pointed out, this is not just a problem for the Robert Nozicks of the world.

marktheknife said...
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marktheknife said...

I think Rawls's theory makes much more sense this way:

At the veil of ignorance, we are not directly deciding the distribution of resources. Rather, we are choosing our society's values, mindful of any limits imposed on this choice by biology. Our society's values will indirectly determine our distribution of resources, as those more naturally virtuous (from the society's perspective) will earn more social approval, and naturally will get more resources as such. Of course, certain resources correspond to certain virtues--being a nice guy might not get you girls nor money, but it can get you friends.

Under this understanding, the rich are rich because they are able to manipulate our values to support themselves. Which I think is well supported by many Marxist thinkers.

You might object that I'm playing loose with Rawls' language--after all, he seems to be talking about inequalities in a more material way. But I'd argue that actually, the only way Rawls's theory makes sense is if those at the veil of ignorance were deciding a society's values--otherwise, it seems likely that the ideal society they decide on would quickly collapse or change form pretty dramatically. In other words, we cannot just be setting Rawlsian laws; we must be persuading citizens they are right, or they'll just be politically/violently changed.

I think seeing Rawls this way prevents your objection. You can try arguing, e.g., that you would choose to be a philosopher rather than a secretary even if the two would pay the same. But would you choose to be a philosopher in a society that really valued the kind of work secretaries do? Would you even have the same values that led you to be a philosopher in the first place, or is it impossible to tell whether your pro-philosophy values come from yourself internally or are externally learned? I'd be skeptical of the answers in your favor.

In this way, setting values inherently leads to inequality (by unequally favoring those who are born virtuous); but setting values such that those who help the disadvantaged are revered would ultimately meet the difference principle.