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Saturday, August 27, 2016


LFC offered a long and very interesting comment in response to my post about the old Rawls letter.  Since I have written a book about this subject, my natural response would be simply to suggest that anyone wishing to pursue the subject simply read the book.  But the comment raises an issue that lies at the heart of my interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason, about which I shall start lecturing on Monday.  So mas a kind of preparation for those lectures, I have decided to write a rather lengthy response to LFC.  Let me ask that you first read the comment, which I reproduce here.  Then I will begin my extended response.

LFC said...
“It seems to me that one way to think of the argument in A Theory of Justice might be as follows:

1) Most people want to act justly: they have a 'sense of justice' and at least some
desire to act in accordance w/ it.

2) But most people are too busy in their daily lives to have thought in a systematic way about what their largely intuitive sense of justice actually leads to or means for the way in which society should be set up.

3) The hypothetical contract situation of the original position, although presented in parts of the book as an exercise in bargaining theory, is actually a mechanism or a means for getting the reader to think more carefully about what his/her intuitions about justice (and desert) require or lead to.

4) So the argument assumes the reader starts w/ certain intuitions and that those intuitions can be clarified and systematized w/ the help of the thought experiment that is the original position. There is a passage toward the beginning (p.50, '71 edition) where Rawls says that "everyone has in himself the whole form of a moral conception." The suggestion perhaps is that, to put it metaphorically, there is a moral philosophy in embryo in everyone waiting to emerge w the help of the author-as-guide. Here's a bit more of the passage:

"...if we can describe one person's sense of grammar we shall surely know many things about the general structure of language. Similarly, if we should be able to characterize one (educated) person's sense of justice, we would have a good beginning toward a theory of justice. We may suppose that everyone has in himself the whole form of a moral conception. So for the purposes of this book, the views of the reader and the author are the only ones that count. The opinions of others are used only to clear our own heads."

One might wonder why, if R. were concerned to establish this direct, sort of intimate exchange with the reader, he proceeded to write 600 often dense pages. But perhaps this is one reason why he felt the need, much later, to publish the much shorter Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (which I haven't read).”

OK, got that?  Now, here we go.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Anglo-American moral philosophy was locked in a seemingly endless and fruitless debate between Utilitarianism and Intuitionism.  Each side was adept at mounting telling criticisms of the other, but was unsuccessful in responding to its opponent’s critique.  The principal defensive theoretical innovation of the Utilitarians was the distinction between Act and Rule Utilitarianism.  The principal defensive theoretical innovation of the Intuitionists was the concept of prima facie duties.

Into this stalemate stepped John Rawls with an idea for resolving the standoff.  Rawls’ idea, which was really quite brilliant, was to reach back in the history of modern philosophy to a tradition that antedated both modern Utilitarianism and Intuitionism, namely Social Contract Theory, and marry it to a hyper-modern branch of Economics then making a stir, Game Theory.  Social Contract Theory was the foundation of all the varieties of modern Democratic Theory, and dated from the seventeenth century writings of Thomas Hobbes and others.  Game Theory was the brainchild of the great Hungarian-American mathematician John Von Neumann [who was also one of the creators of the modern computer.]

Rawls’ idea was to prove a theorem in Bargaining Theory to the effect that a group of rationally self-interested individuals like those posited by Social Contract Theory would, in a bargaining session, coordinate unanimously on a pair of principles for the regulation of their social life that captured what was best in both Utilitarianism and Intuitionism.  Rawls announced his idea in a journal article, “Justice as Fairness,” published in 1958 when he was only thirty-seven.  In that article, Rawls sketched his theorem [explicitly labeled as such], and enunciated a first version of what would in subsequent iterations become his famous Two Principles of Justice.  Rawls acknowledged that the proof needed some more detail and development before it was nailed down, but any reader would have concluded that it was only a matter of time before the full theorem would be on view.  [I have always believed, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Rawls dreamed of producing a monograph as powerful as Kenneth Arrow’s brilliant Social Choice and Individual Values, a 1951 version of Arrow’s doctoral dissertation.]

The theorem as stated in the 1958 article was invalid, a fact that I demonstrated eight years later in a Journal of Philosophy article titled “A Refutation of Rawls’ Theorem on Justice.”  The next year [but not, I have reason to believe, in response to my refutation], Rawls published an essay called “Distributive Justice” in which he made major changes both to the bargaining game and to the Two Principles.  It was in this article that there appeared for the first time the Veil of Ignorance, Life Plans, the Index of Primary Goods, and the stipulation that social and economic inequalities were to work to the benefit not of all persons but only to the benefit of the Least Advantaged Representative Man [there are no women in Rawls’ theory, but then there are no women in In Defense of Anarchism either – we all had some consciousness raising to do in those days.]  The theorem implied in Rawls’ mature theory isn’t valid either, as I demonstrated at some length in Understanding Rawls.

As LFC demonstrates in his lengthy quotation from A Theory of Justice, Rawls markedly backs away from claims about theorems and proofs.  So why do I go on about them?  Why do I stubbornly, and seemingly ungenerously, refuse to take Rawls at his word regarding what he is doing in his philosophy?  That is indeed the question.  It brings me to the connection between Rawls and my upcoming lectures on Kant, which is the real point of this post.

The simple but actually very profound answer is that if we take Rawls at his original word and read his corpus of writings as an extended but ultimately unsuccessful effort to prove a very powerful theorem, then what he has to say is interesting, whereas if we take him at his mature word and read his interminable book as a characterization of  “one (educated) person's sense of justice,” then what he has to say is boring and not really worth bothering about.

Now that is a thoroughly subjective judgment, but it is, I think, the judgment each of us must make in deciding which pieces of philosophy to spend time reading, puzzling over, and thinking about.  Let me state flat out the conclusion I have come to after a lifetime spent with the writings of such immortal geniuses as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant.  Great philosophers think deeply and powerfully about important questions, seizing on an insight and refusing to let it  go, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of Lord, unless it bless them.  These thinkers are not overly concerned with surface consistency or neatness, concerning themselves instead with the ideas they can see lying beneath the surface, concealed from our eyes but not from theirs.  When we make the decision to commit our time and intelligence with their texts, we make a gamble that the struggle will be worthwhile.  And because the surface of the text is so often puzzling or ambiguous, we must make a decision which leads to follow, which ideas to take as central and which to set aside as distractions.  This choice is always subjective, interested, personal, and ultimately idiosyncratic.  That is why, even after two and a half millennia, modern scholars still find new threads to lead them into the depths of a Platonic or Aristotelian text.

This is a description of what I did, sixty years ago, when I grappled with the Transcendental Deduction of the Critique in my doctoral dissertation, and then, several years later, in my book Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity.  It is what I shall do in the lectures that begin on Monday.  And it is, in a lesser way, to be sure, what I do when I consider Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  It is for this reason that I persist in construing Rawls as searching unsuccessfully for a theorem rather than articulating “one (educated) person's sense of justice.”

Thus my response to LFC.


J. W. F. said...

But one could just as easily say that the powerful idea driving Rawls' work was not, in fact, an attempt to solve a problem in bargaining theory, but rather to articulate a method to justify principles. That is the central aim of his first article, "Outline for Decision Procedure in Ethics," published in 1951, which gives a concise restatement of ideas he developed in his doctoral dissertation. This method shows up in A Theory of Justice in terms of reflective equilibrium and the construction of the original position. It is this problem about method that animates Political Liberalism. And although Rawls' early acclaim may be the result of the 1958 "Justice as Fairness" article, his reputation is built on A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

s. wallerstein said...

Couldn't you say that Plato's Republic is one educated Greek's sense of justice?
Does that make it any less worth reading?

If that is the case, why does the fact that Rawl's Theory of Justice is one educated person's sense of justice make it any less worth reading?

Now there may be other factors which make Plato more worth reading than Rawls. Plato is a genius, Rawls is not, for example and a genius's sense of justice may well be more interesting than that of a simple educated person.

LFC said...

Thank you for the reply.

The passage from A Theory of Justice that I quoted in my comment was not one I'd particularly noticed before, but in writing my comment last night, and looking briefly at parts of the book in connection with that, it jumped out at me as noteworthy -- and even perhaps a little surprising or un-Rawls-like in its tone, that sort of informal, rather personal address to the reader.

I don't know -- though I'm sure some people reading this blog (including maybe J.W.F., above) do know -- where the scholarly consensus has settled on how Rawls conceived of what he was doing in terms of the bargaining/rational-choice aspect vs. the other aspects. Or even if there is a consensus on that.

p.s. I recently read two-thirds or so of Daniel Rodgers's Age of Fracture (2011), which is an intellectual history of the years c.1970 to c.2000 in the U.S. At the beginning of one of the chapters, Rodgers discusses A Theory of Justice for a few pages and emphasizes pretty heavily the game-theory/rat.-choice angle, but that's doubtless partly because Rodgers' basic argument, as his title suggests, is that political and social thought in the period, at least in the U.S., turned toward a more 'disaggregative', methodological-individualist style than it had had at mid-century. That overall thesis is probably right or at least very defensible, but I didn't think his treatment of Rawls was especially balanced. Granted, the Rodgers book is intellectual history (not philosophy), and almost no writer he discusses gets more than two or three pages, and with that kind of compression no one is going to be happy with every summary.