Thursday, November 08, 2007

The problem with Rawls

I think it is hard to overestimate just how influential Rawls is on the modern Left. He both provides a systematic intellectual justification for their long held inclination that their opponents are essentially selfish and gave them a way to answer intuitive outrage at things like this.

For all that I think there are huge weaknesses in Rawls' theory. Essentially, his method is based upon taking two methodological assumptions and stretching them far beyond breaking point. His theory also doesn't answer the question of how we should help the poor and doesn't answer Nietzsche's great challenge to any theory of justice.

Assumption 1: Determinism

Just as science has roled back the number of everyday phenomena that religion is called upon to explain it has also rolled back the domain of free-will. If people make their choices because of their upbriningings, genes, vitamin deficiencies or brain chemistry what right do we have to punish them for their bad luck? Murderers tend to have similar differences in their brain chemistry. Why would we punish them for having a malfunctioning brain?

The problem is that there are huge gaps in our understanding of how the mind, and the physical world, works. Much that appears to be causing certain behaviours could actually be a response to it, or correlated with it but not a cause. There is plenty of room for free will yet. Once free will comes back into the picture Rawls' thought starts to seriously weaken. If someone chooses a less moral path they can deserve less favourable treatment.

Of course, that isn't true of many of the poor. Many of them did have an awful start and little chance to prove their quality. However, allowing some roll for free will both implies a more nuanced and discriminating policy than blanket redistribution and makes the proper question for any policy aimed at helping the worst off "how can we give people the chance to show their moral quality?"

Assumption 2: Risk aversion

People will usually, ceteris paribus, prefer to take less risk. I can believe that if, in an original position, they were offered a choice where most would be poor but a few would escape to relative riches they'd choose to make the poor better off at the rich's expense. However, your actual chances in society today aren't like that. Most people will be middle class and, while hardly raking it in, basically pretty alright. There is a core of 1/6 to 1/4 of the population who are in a pretty wretched state. There is then a small but significant portion of the population who do very well for themselves.

If faced by that choice I'm not convinced that most people would really want to pay that much to insure themselves against the possibility of poverty. They'd want to ensure that they are kept alive and in reasonable comfort against the elements but wouldn't want to hurt their fortunes if they drew the most likely result (somewhere in the broad swathe of the middle class). I'm not quite sure why I think this but it seems intuitively sensible to me and, here's the real beef, I know just as much about how people would feel in the hypothetical world of the original position as John Rawls or anyone else does.

How should you help

While I disagree with Rawls that doesn't mean that I don't see helping the poor as a broadly good thing. However, that doesn't necessarily imply a case for redistribution. The Citizens Basic Income can't do a lot of redistribution without becoming cripplingly expensive. It is more plausible as a safety net. Other forms of redistribution can hurt people's incentives to leave the unpleasant situation that is welfare dependency. In that way it can make them worse off.

Chris Dillow argues that the difficulty of using improved educational standards to create opportunity for unfortunate children shows that we should give up on educational opportunity. I'd argue that even if this is true (and I think that reform can make a significant difference) it doesn't imply that we should discard attempts to give people an opportunity to better themselves. Instead, it implies that other measures besides improving the education system have to be tried as a part of any coherent attempt to give people real opportunity. That's where the work of thinkers like Theodore Dalrymple and labrador conservatism comes in.


Art is cruelty. The quest for excellence and beauty for its own sake and in an attempt to understand the nature of humanity and the good life is expensive and impossible to justify under the Rawlsian system of justice. A Rawlsian may justify high culture on the grounds that it does some nebulous good for the economy or on some other spurious rationale but they are not being true to their principles. While a liberal Rawlsian might tolerate art they cannot really value it without admitting the bankruptcy of Rawls' ideology.

Nietzsche saw that art meant cruelty but chose art nonetheless. Any culture that is to be truly worthwhile has to make this choice, at least occassionally. Otherwise it denies what is best and most praiseworthy in humanity.

"Without art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality itself."


Anonymous said...

The truth is Rawls suffers the problmeso of morality and certianly political morality based on results rather than actions.

2. is indeed just made up

I think "cruely" is a bit unfair to the point your borrow9ing from Nietzche. It's just about saying not all good is refleced in human comfort!

Also Rawls seems to assume that humans are worth something (not their actions) them as an entitlment why?

Anonymous said...

Well, there are definitely big problems with Rawls, but I don't think these criticisms hold up.

(1) Determinism and free will is totally irrelevant (to anything). It's obvious that even in a society without free will you can still punish people for doing wrong as a deterrent to others. A deterrent doesn't have to act on a free will, it can act in a purely deterministic way and function just as well. A deterministic human without free will can still want to not go to prison.

Similarly, incentives (e.g. financial incentives or deterrents such as imprisonment) can work just as well on someone who does have free will as someone who doesn't, because people tend to freely choose what's in their (determinate) interests, but are not free to choose the precise conditions in which they live.

Rawls doesn't (to my knowledge) talk about free will and determinism, and it's not relevant to understanding what he said.

(2) Here you've misunderstood Rawls' argument. That's not a big problem because it's a very subtle point (I'm not sure most people who cite Rawls understand it, quite possibly including Chris Dillow in the entry you linked to) and anyway IMO his argument is unconvincing (although still interesting nonetheless). Rawls doesn't put an individual in the original position, and allow them to pick a risk averse or risk loving position. In fact, he explicitly rules out probabilistic reasoning (for somewhat opaque and complicated reasons). Rather, in the original position you have representatives of groups of people, where the representative doesn't know what the talents or preferences of the people he's representing are - and indeed, he can't know that. That's the whole point. That includes him not knowing what their preferences are with respect to how risk averse they are. The top result on googling "rawls original position" explains it quite well.

His argument from there on is still not quite convincing, because he works by considering various options that people might argue for, and ruling out all but his favoured one. It leaves the possibility that there's an option that he hasn't addressed (a point he freely admits). But, he does deal with the common objections and in particular your points about risk.

I'm not sure that Rawls is really that influential on the left. A position that is gaining ground on the left though is the idea that society and our social and economic system shouldn't favour those who have won the 'genetic lottery' (incidentally, a term due to Milton Friedman I believe). The argument goes: just because you had the good luck to be born smarter/stronger than me, doesn't mean you should get a more luxurious life. This is kind of similar to Rawls' original position, but it's not a precise doctrine, more an indication of a moral disposition (and one I very much agree with).

Matthew Sinclair said...


Thanks for your comments. I disagree but am very grateful for the detailed comment.

1) Determinism vs. free will would seem massively important. Rawls' work is based on the concept of moral luck (that people haven't morally earned their earnings in the economy). That works if, for example, a predisposition for hard work is something you are "lucky" to possess. It doesn't work if free will really exists and it is something you choose.

If you choose to work hard then you can be morally deserving of reward for the products of your, moral, choice. That means the rejection of Nozick is insufficient. If that rejection is not complete then people could decide - in an original position - that rewarding moral choice is the just thing to do.

2) I'm not sure you're right on risk aversion either. This seems crucial, from a quick googling:

"What restricts their egoism is their ignorance: they are not allowed to know what arrangement favours them over others. So they play safe - they are not only egoistical, and in some respects ignorant, but also super-cautious. The best a super-cautious person can do to safeguard his own self-interest behind the veil of ignorance is to adopt the Difference Principle."

Obviously you need to replace "super-cautious" with "risk-averse" but the two terms seem interchangeable to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,

It's good for me to talk about this a bit because I'm reading Rawls' "Justice and Fairness" at the moment (almost finished). So when I saw your entry on Rawls on Chris' "Top Blogging" I rushed straight over!


I see what you're getting at, but I don't think the issue is really free will and determinism as such. I think what you're saying is that with free will, people deserve (some part of) the consequences of their actions. So if they work hard and succeed, they deserved that. If they laze about and so do badly, they deserve that. Rawls actually makes explicit that his is not a moral theory but only a political one. He won't talk about whether or not people deserve what they get, because he doesn't need to. Incidentally, Rawls actually allows that there will be inequality (due to different talents, dispositions and, yes, free choices) in a society ordered by the original position and the difference principle. The question is: how do you design the rules of society? His answer is the difference principle: you design them so as to maximise the utility of the least well off, rather than designing them to maximise (for example) the average utility. That's a goal that's not inconsistent with rewarding people for their choices, or even for their talents, but it's a commitment to allow inequality only insofar as it promotes the well being of the least well off in society.


I think the person writing the page you linked to either also didn't understand the subtlety of the original position, or (more likely) was simplifying it for his students. Here's a quote from "Justice and Fairness" (which I just typed out):

"25.3. ... to certain special psychologies. These include ... a peculiarly high aversion to risk and uncertainty... The parties [the representatives who take part in the original position] (in contrast to persons in society) are not moved by such desires and inclinations... So we stipulate that the parties are not influenced by these psychologies as they try to secure the good of those they represent.

"25.4. Since the veil of ignorance prevents the parties from knowing the (comprehensive) doctrines and conceptions of the good of the persons they represent, they must have some other grounds for deciding which principles to select in the original position."

Anyway, you can even kind of see from the quote you gave me that the point is that they play safe as a consequence of the circumstances of the original position, rather than because they are risk averse themselves.

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