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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.




Chris said...

Please come us updated on your experience reading the Restatement. I own that book but haven't bothered to read it (yet).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I suppose I really will have to read it. Ugh. Oh well, honor demands, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I think that the penny has finally dropped. (My fault, not yours.) I couldn’t understand why someone with your views seemed so vehemently opposed to what looks like such a cool, egalitarian principle. But now I get it: your objection is that the Difference Principle does not flow logically from Rawls’ premises--the decision-making of rational, self-interested individuals from behind a veil of ignorance. Fine. But let’s not judge the DP by its bastard birth. Let’s consider it in its own right. And let’s ask ourselves, from what starting premises WOULD the DP flow?

Increasingly we live in a society in which formal distinctions between individuals, based on tradition, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on, have been dissolved in the powerful, rationalising solvent of Capitalism--just like the handloom and the idiocy of rural life. Everyone is equal before the law. Everyone has a right to vote, to free speech, to develop themselves as they see fit, provided that they do not harm others in doing so. While there remains a strong social conservative movement, they are fighting a rearguard action, often because the logic of these principles, a logic that they for the most part accept, undermines so many of the things they hold dear. There is very little dispute around these core principles of legal and political equality. (In the controversies over voter suppression, for example, it is the FACTS—Is voter fraud really so much of problem that it needs to be “fixed”? Will measures to combat it result in infringing the right to vote?--and not the PRINCIPLES of every citizen having the right to vote, that are in dispute.)

But of course we know that this kind of formal, political equality only goes so far. So what principle would people who are concerned about FULL, EFFECTIVE equality--including equal access to a material standard of living that is the pre-condition for human flourishing—choose, when, and this last point is important, they are starting from the position of an advanced, market-based Capitalist society, with its technology, specialisation and radical division of labour? The DP, no? The neoclassical economist asks: “Equality, but what about incentives?” The DP replies, “We’ve got ‘em if we need ‘em!” Someone else, not an economist, asks “What about merit? What about the fruits of my labour?” And the DP says “Show me, give me one good reason, why that should justify inequality. It’s like demanding that people who work hard get four votes instead of one!”

In trying, and failing, to turn lead into gold, Rawls may have stumbled on a marvelous compound, the DP, with truly wonderful solvent properties.

One Philosopher's Musings said...

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).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think those are defensive maneuvres on his part, but if you are right [and that view simply makes no sense at all of the article Justice as Fairness], then so far as I am concerned, Rawls' work would have no philosophical interest at all. I don't think he can have it both ways, and I really do think he wanted to.