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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




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Thursday, September 28, 2017

I WAS THINKING

I should like to take a few moments to respond to several comments and also to explain my approach to Rawls’ work. I talk a good deal about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice for four reasons:  First, because he is by common agreement the most influential social and political theorist in the Anglo-American philosophical world during the last one hundred years and as a political philosopher, I feel a certain obligation to engage with his theories in whatever way I think is appropriate; Second, because Rawls’ theoretical efforts bear an interesting relationship to Kant’s moral theory, which I have of course been very engaged with for sixty years, and I find it rewarding to think through the structure of his argument in that regard;  Third, because Rawls claims, and really never deep down gives up the claim, that he is proving a theorem in Bargaining Theory, a subject about which I know a good deal, and I enjoyed writing a book showing that the theorem was invalid [this, pace Jerry Fresia’s comment about puzzles];  and Finally because I am secretly envious of Rawls for achieving the reputation that I never did in the field of political philosophy [O.K., so now it is not so secret.]

I am actually not at all taken by Rawls’ interminable, endlessly revised elaborations of the fretwork and detail of his bloated theory.  A Theory of Justice is, as I have several times remarked, a slender monograph in Game Theory wearing the philosophical equivalent of a cinematic fat suit.  Since I am not particularly sympathetic to Rawls’ view of modern society, his opinions about all manner of things do not arouse my interest.  But his original idea, to overcome the standoff between utilitarianism and intuitionism by invoking the social contract tradition modernized by Game Theory, was brilliant, in my judgment, and that is worth discussing.

So, whether Rawls did or did not endorse the Welfare State or Democratic Socialism at some point in his career is of no importance to me.  If I seek inspiration of a socio-political sort, I read Marx rather than Rawls, or even Mannheim and Weber [neither of whom Rawls gives any evidence of having read seriously.]

With regard to my little thought experiment about what U. S. Gross Domestic Income would amount to if divided equally among all 330 million Americans, the point was not to suggest that as a realistic political platform, but to raise doubts about the unquestioned assumption that big league inequality in income is somehow required to get the right people into the right jobs.  My point was that because America is so phenomenally productive [as is every other modern post-industrial national economy], relatively small variations in wage levels could probably do the job rather well.  Certainly nothing remotely resembling the present income pyramid is required

27 comments:

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Interestingly, income inequality (well, Frankfurt's book on inequality) is being discussed on another blog I read, https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/book-club-on-inequality-1-economic-equality-as-a-moral-ideal/ but, based on the post, I don't think the book discussed deals with it in anything like a satisfactory manor.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff,

I wonder if you have anything to say on David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement. It makes heavier use of game theory and bargaining theory, claiming to derive something similar to Nozick's libertarian principles of justice from them.

I find his book significant for three reasons. It is more upfront than Rawls in seeking to derive moral principles from rational choice and bargaining theory. It is also helpful in indicating the limitations of rational choice and bargaining theory, and what revisions need to be made to it (from "straightforward maximization" to "constrained maximization"). And it is an attempt to derive principles of justice or morality from non-moral grounds, which seems to me an interesting project, since it would provide an answer to Hobbes' Foole or Plato's Thrasymachus.

Boram Lee

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It does sound interesting [although implausible] but I have not seen the book. My apologies.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff, have you by any chance read any of John Mikhail's work on Rawls' linguistic analogy?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, I have not. What does "linguistic analogy" mean here?

F Lengyel said...

Prof Wolff, if you are secretly envious of Rawls's reputation in political philosophy [this is in the strictest confidence], would you, having chosen your principles of justice out of self interest (in the original position or otherwise), approve of his compensation (assuming he were more highly compensated)?

s. wallerstein said...

Rawls tells the U.S. political consensus more or less what they want to hear.

You, Professor Wolff, tell them things that they don't want to hear.

Do you really expect them to reward you for your subversiveness with a "good reputation"?

F Lengyel said...

If we're going to discuss the use of non-cooperative game theory to solve collective action problems (assuming this has something to do with justice) I might be persuaded, with some misgivings (no one bothered to read my blog) to resuscitate my own blog to give the argument that cooperation can be obtained from self-interest in one shot in certain non-cooperative n-player games in normal form, but the payoff functions are preposterous.

F Lengyel said...

My questions may be presumptuous and impertinent, but if they aren't answered, we'll never get this philosophical ostrich of a critique to take off.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein,

I don't think it is accurate to say that Rawls tells the US political consensus more or less what they want to hear. He told a slice of, but by no means the majority nor, I would guess, even a sizeable minority. He appeals to leftist liberals like me, but not to socialists and not to anyone on the right. He's far, far too egalitarian for anyone on the right. Whether his argument holds up or not, on the theoretical level, it does not fly with what I believe is the majority view in the US. Consider who that consensus has put in Congress and the White House.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

The Theory of Justice first appeared in 1971. That probably means that Rawls began to write it during the LBJ era, that of the Great Society or even during the JFK's New Frontier. It reflects the welfare state mentality that was consensus back then, as you well know. Since then, U.S. political life has moved towards the right. Don't people joke that Nixon was the last liberal president? Chomsky points out that nothing that Bernie Sanders proposes would upset Eisenhower.

Anonymous said...

(My apologies, it won't let me respond directly to your comment)

The linguistic analogy refers to Rawls' use of generative models of grammar in linguistics (e.g. Chomsky's transformational grammar, whom he cites in Section 9) to analogize between them and a generative model of moral judgment. Mikhail argues that one of Rawls' early attempts with reflective equilibrium was to use this model of moral judgment (i.e. innate moral principles exist within human beings, and are imposed onto the external world) as a way of matching our intuitions (considered judgments) with the principles of justice. If they match, the principles are just, thereby resulting in a "decision procedure for ethics" (title of his 1951 paper). This is all very interesting to me, and I'm only giving a superficial account of it here, but Mikhail goes into detail with his book "Elements of Moral Cognition" as well as multiple journal articles available on his blog. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this, Professor.

Thank you

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Anonymous, that is rather interesting. I confess I have not read any of that. I am not sure I am sufficiently motivated to read any of that, but perhaps I ought to.

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein

You are correct that Rawls began writing much earlier than 1971. I've read somewhere that he began with a series of papers as far back as the 50's. But even then, I don't think you'd find many in the center or the right who would have accepted his difference principle. Rawls also was critical of the welfare state, arguing that it promoted an unhealthy relation of patron and supplicant. He argued that society should provide each individual with the means to participate fully as a citizen.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

To go back to my original point above, I do not claim that Rawls does not have merits as a political philosopher, simply that Professor Wolff may have equal merits, but that his Marxism makes it more difficult, if not almost impossible, for his merits to be recognized in the U.S. academic community.

I am not a philosopher myself nor did I study to be one, and so perhaps I should not presume to judge philosophical merits. Thus, I will accept that Rawls is an important political philosopher, important enough to be an article dedicated to his work in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

When I was in college back in the 1960's, Marx was not taught in the philosophy department of the university I attended. I read some Marx in a course on political thought in the political science department. Anyway, it seems clear that a philosopher in the U.S. who dedicates their life work to the study of Marx is not likely to receive the recognition that one who begins with social contract theory (Rawls) may receive.

I'm not claiming that there's a conspiracy against Marxists or that all U.S. philosophy departments are in the pay of the CIA, only that most people in most places don't make waves and that in the U.S. to be a Marxist philosopher is to make waves. Generally, unless your waves grow into a tidal wave that carries you to success, if you make waves, you'll not be rewarded for that, by those who don't make waves.

LFC said...

Paragraph 6 of sec. 26 of A Theory of Justice (1st ed.), to which Prof. Wolff referred in an earlier post, begins this way (p.152):

"It seems clear from these remarks [i.e., the remarks immediately preceding] that the two principles are at least a plausible conception of justice. The question, though, is how one is to argue for them more systematically. Now there are several things to do. One can work out their consequences for institutions and note their implications for fundamental social policy. In this way they are tested by a comparison with our considered judgments of justice. Part II is devoted to this. But one can also try to find arguments in their favor that are decisive from the standpoint of the original position. [italics added]"

This passage suggests that if the 'bargaining game' argumentative path doesn't convince -- i.e., if one thinks Rawls's arguments for the principles from the standpoint of the original position don't work -- one might still find the principles attractive in view of their "implications for fundamental social policy."

I would suggest that Rawls's views, whether in A Theory of Justice or his later work, about the principles' implications for social policy and the design of institutions are not simply "opinions" completely divorced from the theory, but rather are at least part of the basis on which the theory's strength should be judged. Accordingly, while whether Rawls endorsed democratic socialism or something else, or whether he thought the U.S. welfare state encouraged the creation of an underclass unable to participate meaningfully in political life, are matters of "no importance" to Prof. Wolff, they might well be matters of importance to people who are trying to decide whether they think Rawls's principles are (for lack of a better word) attractive.

I can't find the passage right now, but somewhere, if I recall correctly, R. says roughly that reflective equilibrium involves going back and forth between considered judgments and formally stated principles (and their implications), now tweaking or adjusting the former, now tweaking or adjusting the latter. One can't do that unless one knows something about the what the real-world implications of the principles might be. Hence if R. argued at some point that the principles required or implied a form of democratic socialism (or alternatively a 'property-owning democracy'), that is not merely an opinion of someone with (in Prof. Wolff's view) a narrow, stunted, shallow, uninteresting, and/or repellent view of 'modern society', but rather part of the basis on which R's theory should be evaluated.

One could of course still conclude that it's all bunk. But in reaching that conclusion I think R.'s political "opinions" should be taken into account inasmuch as those opinions were almost certainly viewed, at least by himself, as having some kind of close connection with his theoretical views.

p.s. By the way, there are these sentences in sec. 26 of ToJ: "While nothing guarantees that inequalities will not be significant, there is a persistent tendency for them to be leveled down by the increasing availability of educated talent and ever widening opportunities. The conditions established by the other principles [i.e., other than the difference principle] insure that the disparities likely to result will be much less than the differences that men [sic] have often tolerated in the past." (p.158)

LFC said...

from the OP
I talk a good deal about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice for four reasons: First, because he is by common agreement the most influential social and political theorist in the Anglo-American philosophical world during the last one hundred years and as a political philosopher, I feel a certain obligation to engage with his theories in whatever way I think is appropriate

The way in which Prof. Wolff thinks it is appropriate to engage with R's theories is: (1) ignore everything R. wrote after A Theory of Justice, and (2) treat Theory as a short monograph in game theory surrounded by a hundreds of pages of bloviating irrelevancy. Approach (2) may be defensible, though I wd tend to doubt it, but (1) would not seem v. defensible in the case of someone so influential. If R. modified his views in certain respects, which he did, then ignoring everything he published after 1971 seems hard to justify. (At least for a philosopher. Since I'm not a philosopher, none of these strictures necessarily apply to me ;))

Jerry Fresia said...

I apologize for my puzzle remark and with regard to the rest of it, it is evident that i could not have been more wrong.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Well-put! I prefer to hear/read uncomfortable truths to anesthetizing lies.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein,

When I was in college in the 50s, Marx wasn't taught either so far as I know. I didn't think much of it at the time--everyone "knew" that Marx was a bad guy and totally wrong, so why bother? Looking back at those times of HUAC, blacklists and all the rest, I suspect it was pure intimidation. The university, I suspect, did not want to be accused of teaching Godless, Atheistic Communism. My reading and knowledge of Marx are very scattered; that's why I'm looking forward to Prof. Wolff's Marx lectures.

Certainly the fact that Rawls was not a Marxist made his life easier than it otherwise would have been. But, to repeat myself, he was far, far to the left of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon. He was a critic of the militarism and racism of the society as well as its economic and social inequalities. The latter made him less than popular with undergraduates at Harvard during the Viet Nam war. He opposed the war, but he also opposed draft deferments for college students on the ground that they were a form of class privilege.

LFC said...

@ D Palmeter

Rawls might have opposed draft deferments as a form of class privilege, but he thought resistance to the draft -- refusing induction and taking the consequences (prison or voluntary exile or etc) -- was entirely justified, according to this piece:


https://s-usih.org/2014/07/roundtable-u-s-foreign-policy-and-the-left-chapter-6/

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Why was Rawls opposed to the war in Viet Nam?

Chomsky divides critics of the Viet Nam War into those opposed to the war because it was a well-intentioned mistake and those opposed to the war because it was morally wrong in the first place.

If the latter, I accept your characterization of Rawls.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

I don't know why he opposed it. I suspect it was on moral grounds, but that's without any direct evidence--which may or may not exist. However, he was driven by a strong sense of morality. For example, he served as an enlisted man in the army in the Pacific during World War II. His unit was one of the first to enter Japan after the surrender, and his troop train went through what was left Nagasaki which had been all but destroyed by the atomic bomb only days before. What he saw--and films that were shown to the troops about the Holocaust--led him to abandon the idea of being a clergyman and become a philosopher instead. The problem of evil caught up with him in a big way. If the Japanese had not surrendered when they did, Rawls's unit would have been one of those involved in the invasion of Japan. Nonetheless, Rawls argued that the atomic bombing of Japan was an immoral act, whether "necessary" or not.

LFC said...

There's rarely a perfect match-up between reputation (or 'success') and pure merit, whatever the field. Extraneous considerations are bound to have some impact.
One could expend one's energies debating why Rawls achieved the academic reputation he did, or one could just read his work. (Ditto for R.P. Wolff, ditto for anyone else.)

One aspect that does go to the issue of reputation is that ToJ came to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the book that revived the field of Anglo-American political/moral philosophy after a period during the 50s and 60s when it had been viewed as moribund in the academy. A well-known essay from the period opened with the assertion that political theory was "dead." ToJ was seen as having changed that. That partly, along w other factors, helps account for R's reputation.

R., as has already been noted, had a somewhat ponderous prose style and made no concerted effort to be a public intellectual and reach a wide audience. That his name eventually became known to a certain (and not all that large) extent outside the academy is not a result that he seems to have aimed at in any particular way, at least not for most of his career.

LFC said...

From the link I gave earlier, re Rawls & Vietnam:


"In 1968 Rawls spoke to students at Harvard about his sentiments on the conflict. At an anti-war rally among speakers such as his friend and former MIT colleague, Noam Chomsky, and fellow Harvard philosopher, Rogers Albritton, Rawls detailed the reasons why the young listeners standing before him had a right to resist the draft. They boiled down to the fact that the war itself was unjust and that claims otherwise were wrong. Rawls recited two grounds for this charge: first, there was no just cause for the U.S.’s initiated entry into Vietnam; and second, that 'our armed forces engage in actions which violate the limits on the appropriate means of waging war.' Rawls coupled these grounds with historical facts he deemed essential to evaluating the situation. The Republic of Vietnam had established itself under Ho Chi Minh through, Rawls noted, an 'exclusively indigenous political process' that was self-sustaining for half a year; when the French later attempted to re-establish colonial control, the Vietnamese 'liberated themselves' under Communist leadership; and the 'resistance to the regime in South Vietnam has been very importantly, if not largely, in the south.' Rhetoric casting the war as just—as a defense of democracy against the expansion of communism—was simply morally illegitimate, denying the ability of one people to establish a decent society by another. Thus students not only had a right to resist service in Vietnam; it was their duty to do so. [5]"

The footnote goes to a transcript of the talk in the Rawls papers.

If you want the exact cite, follow the link:

https://s-usih.org/2014/07/roundtable-u-s-foreign-policy-and-the-left-chapter-6/


Btw, I think the relevant history is a bit more complicated than R. suggests here, but in any case this was apparently R's view in 1968 -- and of course this was, it appears, an informal talk, not a paper at an academic conference.

s. wallerstein said...

LFC and David Palmeter,

I was wrong above. Rawls went farther than the U.S. political consensus in his opposition to the war in Viet Nam.

One last point: it is very easy to be heroic after the battle. I wonder whether Rawls would have had the same position regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima if before the bombing, he had been given the alternative between his unit being in the front line of the invasion of Japan and bombing Hiroshima with atomic weapons. I have no idea what my response would have been, especially because the answer involves not only my life, but also those of my friends in my military unit. My father, who was in the U.S. army during World War 2 and who feared that his unit would be sent to invade Japan, always justified the bombing of Hiroshima on the grounds of preserving the lives of his friends as well as of his own. However, as you probably know, there are those who say that no invasion of Japan was necessary, that Japan would have surrendered after a short naval blockade and that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a message to Stalin about "our"
military power.

David Palmeter said...

I don't know how Rawls would have reacted to the question you pose. My own sympathies align with your father's. I think had I been personally involved in that way, I would have had no qualms about using any weapon that would save my life. We do know that what Rawls saw in Nagasaki was instrumental in his giving up a life in religion; I suspect as well that most of the GIs who were his and your father's position would have defended the use of the bomb for the rest of their lives. I think Rawls is unusual in criticizing it even years later.