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What We Owe to John Rawls

On November 24, 2002, John Rawls died at the age of 81. For the three preceding decades, Rawls had been the leading political philosopher in anglophone academia. A Princeton Ph.D. (1950) and Harvard professor, Rawls made his reputation in 1971 with A Theory of Justice (1971; rev. ed. 1999). He followed this up with a series of further refinements and extensions of that theory -- now available in his Collected Papers (1999) -- and then with a burst of books at century's end: Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (2000), and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), the last two based on his lecture courses.

I took Rawls' massive lecture course on the history of political philosophy in the early 80s. Though charming and gracious, he was -- in delivery, not in content -- the second most boring speaker I've ever heard (the first is alive, so I won't name him), and I regularly fell asleep in his class; fortunately, it didn't matter, since he always handed out to us the verbatim texts of his lectures. (I still have them -- luckily, since those lectures haven't made it to book form yet.) Years later I heard him speak at a conference -- and once again I fell asleep!

The title of this posting is "What We Owe to John Rawls." By the slippery word "we," in this context, I mean, roughly, those -- call them "Austro-Athenians" -- who agree with the capsule credo on my home page:

The libertarians are right about economics and politics.
The Greek philosophers are right about everything else.
So what do Austro-Athenians owe Rawls? One might expect the answer to be: nothing. No one sympathetic with the Hellenic tradition of virtue ethics can be gratified at Rawls' offhand declaration (Theory, rev. ed., p. 21) that the "two main concepts of ethics are those of the right and the good" while "the concept of a morally worthy person is ... derived from them." (Aristotle, by contrast, writes: "Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do." -- NE II. 4) And no libertarian can be expected to feel much enthusiasm at Rawls' policy proposals, which are the usual dreary apologia for the authoritarian state.

Above all, from an Austro-Athenian standpoint, Rawls' total theory must be judged a failure at three crucial points:

The developments in Rawls' post-Theory writings are equally problematic. In what may be called Rawls' "political turn," his theory gets demoted from a general account of justice to a "political solution" to a problem specific to Western pluralist democracies, in a way that seems to threaten a collapse into relativism. Rawls also commits himself to the hopeless task of constructing a conception of reasonableness broad enough to allow reasonable disagreements about the good life, but narrow enough to rule out the possibility of reasonable disagreements about justice. The first principle gets eviscerated to forestall its potentially libertarian implications; and the revised edition of A Theory of Justice responds to Nozick's criticisms of the first edition by putting forward the same collectivist positions but wording them more obscurely.

So what, exactly, do Austro-Athenians owe Rawls? Four things, I think:

First: At the time Rawls published A Theory of Justice, academic philosophy was still under the spell of the positivist conviction that the inevitable subjectivity of normative judgments makes constructive work in moral and political philosophy impossible. Rawls showed how the method of reflective equilibrium makes objective normative theorising possible, and thus cleared the way to the flourishing industry in moral and political philosophy that now exists in academia.

Second: When you think morality is just a matter of subjective preferences, satisfying as many of those preferences as possible begins to look like as close to objectivity as moral theory can ever hope to get it. Hence it's no surprise that utilitarianism was the ruling ethical approach during the positivist period. Rawls dealt a crippling blow to utilitarianism's dominance by arguing that utilitarian tradeoffs treat separate individuals as though they were a single collective entity. Libertarians had been making this criticism for some time, of course; but it was through Rawls that the criticism was able to get the hearing it deserved in academia.

Third: Libertarians tend to think of Rawls as a socioeconomic egalitarian. But Rawls mounts a powerful argument *against* socioeconomic egalitarianism: on assumptions that egalitarians themselves accept, any departure from equality that makes everyone better off than they would be under equality turns out to be preferable. Conjoined with libertarian economic theory, this idea provides the basis for a socioeconomic-egalitarian argument for libertarianism.

Fourth: What I personally find most valuable in Rawls is the Wittgensteinian moment in his methodology. According to Rawls (at least prior to his "political turn"), moral theory is "the attempt to describe our moral capacity," i.e., a normally socialised human being's "extraordinarily complex ... skill in judging things to be just and unjust, and in supporting these judgments by reasons" -- which, following a lead from Wittgenstein (or, really, from Protagoras), Rawls compares to the "sense of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language." (Theory, rev. ed., p. 41) Rawls follows Adam Smith in regarding the task of ethics as "a theory of moral sentiments ... setting out the principles governing our moral powers." (p. 44) But unlike Smith and his fellow Sentimentalists, Rawls accepts Wittgenstein's critique of psychologism (p. 489), and so seeks to understand our moral sentiments conceptually rather than psychologically; indeed, he describes himself as "applying to the concept of the moral feelings the kind of inquiry carried out by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations" (p. 420n.), i.e., an investigation of their logical grammar. Just as explicating the rules implicitly governing our "ability to recognize well-formed sentences" requires "theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge," so explicating the rules implicitly governing our capacity to make a "potentially infinite number and variety" of moral judgments may well turn out to involve "principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life," and we "do not understand our sense of justice until we know in some systematic way what these principles are." (pp. 41-42) I think this is the right method in moral philosophy, and that it represents both a recovery of the dialectical method pioneered by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and a parallel to the aprioristic economic methodology of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. Rawls' application of this method must be judged a disastrous failure (how can a project aiming to capture and account for our everyday moral intuitions end with an argument that, if it worked, would entail that the concept of moral desert is incoherent?), but hey, Plato's attempt to pull a theory of justice out of his dialectical hat was pretty bad too.

The work of John Rawls created an intellectual climate in which both libertarianism and Hellenic eudaimonism could make greater headway in academia. We owe him a debt. Thank you, John Rawls.

My other obituaries:

Murray Rothbard

Robert Nozick

Posted December 25th, 2002



The Reason for the Season

Around this time of year one hears a lot of complaints that Christ is being left out of Christmas. It's worth remembering that what we now call Christmas -- together with its attendant rituals, like gift-giving and decorated trees -- began life as a pagan holiday, a celebration of the solstice, known as Yule in northern Europe and Saturnalia in the Roman world.

Indeed, as with other originally pagan holidays such as Hallowe'en and Easter, the Catholic church spent several centuries trying to stamp out the festival -- before finally deciding to co-opt it by moving the celebration of Jesus' birth (actual date unknown) to solstice tide. Since the Reformation, anti-Christmas crusades have periodically erupted among Protestants who rightly sense the festival's pagan heritage.

For those of us who identify strongly with our civilisation's pagan heritage, it can be tempting to want to wrest Christmas back from Christianity. But Christianity itself is in many ways an offshoot of Greco-Roman paganism; there's no reason those who take their paganism straight can't share Christmas with those who take their paganism on the rocks.

Still, if you're going to celebrate Christmas as a traditional Christian holiday, it's worth doing it right. Most Christians seem to have forgotten (except when they sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas") that Christmas is not one day but a twelve-day festival, and that it does not begin until the evening of December 25th (First Night). It then runs through the day and evening of December 26th (First Day and Second Night, respectively) and so on through the evening of January 5th (Twelfth Night) and the day of January 6th (Twelfth Day, or Epiphany).

Anyone who takes their Christmas decorations down before January 6th is being, well, just plain blasphemous. Zeus wouldn't like it.

Merry Solstice!

Posted December 25th, 2002



Let's Blog Again Like We Did Last Month

Not much of a blogger, am I? If this were a real blog I suppose I'd have to come up with something to say about the Trent Lott flap. But it's soooo boooring. (Within libertariandom, bloggers have divided along predictable lines: one side writes as though Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign was about nothing but evil statist racism; the other side writes as though his campaign was about nothing but noble and virtuous decentralisation. [See, e.g., Jacob Levy in blue, Lew Rockwell in grey, and Harry Browne in, um, light grey.] Of course it was about both. That's why neither side of this debate is worth a libertarian's time. Which is why the issue is boring.)

Less boring is Donald "what, me worry?" Rumsfeld's latest cheery announcement that, hey, we can fight Iraq and North Korea at the same time. (Goody, I can hardly wait.) But I have nothing to say about that, besides the obvious.

My Nozick article for FEE is now online.

I saw my nerd-quota of movies last week: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Star Trek: Nemesis.

Below are some responses to my November 16th postings, along with my belated replies. Thanks to Messrs. Sturman, Eatman, and Morrison for their comments.

Reply to Henry Sturman

Continuing my ongoing debate with Henry Sturman over the legitimacy of collateral damage: I had laid down four requirements for the legitimacy of collateral damage: (1) the amount of the damage must be small; (2) the certainty of taking out the intended target must be great; (3) the removal of the target must make a substantial contribution to ending the threat; (4) the collateral damage must be clearly necessary to the removal of the threat. I had described a case that I thought satisfied these conditions (shooting in self-defense an assailant, Eric, who has strapped a baby to his chest), while maintaining that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the proposed U.S. invasion of Iraq, do not satisfy these conditions. Mr. Sturman had maintained in response that the Afghanistan invasion did satisfy requirement (1), since "[t]he killing of say 1000 innocent Afghans to defend 25 million is like killing one baby to protect 25.000." To this I replied:

I can't agree with Mr. Sturman's accounting. First of all, my condition (1) is concerned with smallness of extent, not smallness of ratio. Not being a utilitarian, I don't think extent of badness can be ascertained by dividing lives lost by lives saved. But even if I accepted the ratio approach, Mr. Sturman's numbers don't add up. Unless the Taliban were planning to kill 25 million people, it's not a ratio of lives lost to lives saved, it's a ratio of lives lost to lives improved, which is hardly the same thing. (And recent events show the improvement is not quite as much as the hawks had led us to expect.) We'd also have to throw on the other side of the balance the other costs of the war; few would argue that the world is a safer place as the result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. (Note also that the "tremendous financial cost" consists almost entirely of stolen money.)

Second, I don't see how my conditions (2) and (3) are met in the case of the Afghan war.
Mr. Sturman reply, interrupted by my comments, follows:

You say your condition (1) is concerned with smallness of extent, not smallness of ratio. But that would be an incoherent rule. You say you're justified in shooting Eric and the baby to save your life. But what if there are 100 people each being threatened by a person with a baby strapped to their chest? Taken each individually they are each justified in killing the attacker and the baby, for the situation is exactly the same as with Eric and the baby. But taken as a bundle the extent would be much larger. Now the question becomes: may all 100 attackers plus babies be killed to save the 100 innocents? Depending on one's cutoff point, according to your rule the extent of innocent victims (100 babies) might now be so large as to make this line of defense illegitimate. This is inconsistent with your rule applied to each individual. So it seems to follow that any consistent rule must be based on ratio rather than on smallness of extent.
What I want to challenge here is the assumption that one person's decision to kill 100 innocents is morally equivalent to 100 people's separate decisions to kill one innocent each. On my view, the function of moral rules is to guide the actions of individuals, and the standard is "what kind of person does this show me to be?" rather than "what results does this achieve?" (The Vorlon rather than the Shadow question.) Since moral character is not a collective attribute, we cannot simply say "this many killed -- evaluate!" as though there were a unitary action to evaluate.

Further, ascertaining extent of badness by dividing lives lost by lives saved is indeed a form of utilitarianism with regard to the amount of aggression. First, I want to note it is not the same as full utilitarianism. My rule would seek to minimize aggression, by taking from one to prevent an even larger crime to another, but it would not seek to take from one to give to another to increase total happiness while no crime is prevented.
This is what Nozick calls "utilitarianism of rights"; I find persuasive his arguments that this is open to the same sorts of objections as straight utilitarianism.

Second, despite your denial, in the example of Eric and the baby you do use a similar form of aggression utilitarianism as I do. Surely the amount of damage done is relevant for the case, as in your condition (1), so you are using some form of utility calculations as well. If 100 babies had to be killed to save you, perhaps you would not think it justified. And if the baby had to be killed just to save you from getting a slap in the face, I would assume you would no longer view killing the baby as justified. So amount of damage done and amount of damage prevented, i.e. utility, have to be factors involved in ascertaining extent of badness for you too.
I certainly agree that evaluating results is relevant to moral assessment. What I deny is that results are all that is relevant.

Then, about my numbers not adding up. Yes, you are right about that, my apologies for being too quick. Let me do them over again. My number of 1 in 25,000 is, as you point out, the ratio of number of lives lost to number of lives improved. In order to compare it to the situation of Eric and the baby, where there is a ratio of 1 of number of lives lost to number of lives improved, my ratio has to be transformed. This is subjective, but let's make a guess that the average Afghan would have accepted a chance of 1 in 100 of dying in exchange for the improved freedom they have now. 100 lives improved is then equal to 1 life lost. So in my estimate the situation is now that 1000 people were killed to improve the lives of 25 million which is equal to saving the lives of 250,000 people. So the ratio of number of lives lost to number of lives saved is about 1 in 250. That's still 250 times better than the example with the baby.
Here I have to balk. First: I don't see how the preferences of the "average Afghan" are relevant. Surely what matters is the preferences of the particular Afghans who were actually killed. Second: appeal to what Afghans "would have accepted" (would have, if what?) sounds suspiciously like hypothetical consent, a notion I think has very limited applicability. Third: even if U.S. forces had the Afghans' actual consent, that doesn't settle the question of legitimacy. Not all of my obligations to you are obligations you can relieve me of by giving your consent. And fourth: even waiving all these objections, I do not see how it follows that "100 lives improved is then equal to 1 life lost." This moral-arithmetic approach to the issue is precisely what stands in need of justification.

About your question of how your conditions (2) and (3) are met in the case of the Afghan war, I don't see how they are relevant. I maintain that what is relevant is the final result and the main thing is whether if you add it all up the total amount of aggression or innocent victims has become larger or smaller because of the intervention.
This brings us back once more to the core of our disagreement: whether consequences are all that matter in moral evaluation. For my case against any sort of consequentialism, see my article Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?.

Lastly, you say few would argue that the world is a safer place as the result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Apart from the fact that the U.S. did not invade Afghanistan, I would indeed argue that the world is a safer place because of it, but's that's another topic I won't go into now.
Since Mr. Sturman hasn't yet provided his argument that the world is now a safer place, I needn't try to answer it. But I confess I'm baffled at the claim that the U.S. did not invade Afghanistan. ("Invasion" isn't a moralized term, as far as I know; i.e., calling something an invasion does not imply any particular moral evaluation of it.)

Reply to Art Eatman

Art Eatman and I have been arguing about what role, if any, the desire to control the Iraqi oilfields plays in U.S. plans for war. In response to his claim that President Bush's pals in the oil business are not the companies most likely to end up in control of Iraq's oil, I had written:

I don't know which particular companies will benefit, and I don't see that it matters. All my argument requires is that the U.S.government would prefer to see Iraqi oil in the hands of a regime it can control. Does Mr. Eatman deny this?
Mr. Eatman replies:

I'm not sure I'd deny it so much as be a bit dubious. We buy oil and other items, now, from regimes which we cannot control. A near as I can tell, the preference is for regimes with which we can generally be somewhere near amicable. As for oil, as long as the price is somewhere around $20 to $25 per barrel, no control is necessary.
I'm not sure this is a substantial disagreement with what I said. The U.S. is willing to buy oil from regimes it can't control so long as the regime is friendly and prices are low. In other words, they won't invade Iraq so long as Iraq does pretty much what they want. Sounds a lot like "control" to me. In response to Mr. Eatman's remark that the "yowling and howling against Dubya" sounds "more like the whining and yelping of a bunch of whipped cur dogs, than it does rational thought," I had written:

Mr. Eatman seems to be arguing as follows: "Those who defend Position P sound like abused canines; therefore there must be something wrong with Position P." This sort of argument is usually called the ad hominem fallacy, though in this case perhaps ad canem would be more important. At any rate, it's still a fallacy.
Mr. Eatman replies:

It's less the defense of a position than it is attribution of motivations to which I object. And, there is a lot of noise reminiscent of Sour Grapes, over Dubya's election. (Not particularly at this website; more generally "at large".) I wonder whether the same complaints would ensue from identical actions by a Gore presidency. ... I don't object to defending Position P. I object to the way it is defended.
Fair enough; and I share his suspicion that Gore could have gotten away with military action more easily than Bush (just as Bush is getting away with economic regulation more easily than Gore could have). Still, in his original comment Mr. Eatman had gone on to say:

Frankly, the more I read the overblown pejoratives against Bush, et al, the more I'm prone to say, "To Hell with it!" and just go on and ignore the whole brouhaha ....
That sounded to me as though he was taking the tone of the critics as a reason to dismiss the content of the criticism.

Bush II's background in Texas politics showed none of the behavior patterns or motivations ascribed to the various decisions made in this present tenure. He didn't act imperial; his administration wasn't venal -- or, at least, less venal than we Texans have previously endured. :-)

While I disagree with various policy decisions, my opinion is that the man is generally following a course he sees as doing good for the country as a whole. I think he would be surprised to be told of the various motivations ascribed to his decisions. I'd say he thinks that an assured supply of oil for the country is a Good Thing, but I really don't think he worries which company buys/delivers/sells.
Could be. I have no particular view as to how much of Bush's action is knavery and how much is foolery. Still, Bush doesn't set U.S. policy all by himself.

Reply to Foster Morrison

Foster Morrison writes:

The USA is worse than Iraq because in this country the power elite is betraying its own ethnic group rather than suppressing or expelling others.
I can't think of any interesting sense in which the U.S. power elite is "betraying its own ethnic group"; but even if it were, I don't see how doing bad stuff to members of one's own group is worse than doing bad stuff to members of a different ethnic group. Sounds like collectivism to me.

The legalistic nature of the USA is a farce; it's a facade that covers a snakepit of conspiracy, intrigue, and degeneracy. Iraq is just a run-of-the mill Third World dictatorship.
And the difference between a run-of-the mill Third World dictatorship and a snakepit of conspiracy, intrigue, and degeneracy is ...?

I read a bit of the stuff on Ayn Rand and Aristotle. I recall the A or not A (~A, symbolically) business in what, the front of Atlas Shrugged? That kind of logic is not acceptable to the strictest experts in mathematical logic. The negation of a negation does not imply the proposition. This has led to the dropping of reductio ad absurdum proofs in constructive analysis.
I'm not sure who the "strictest experts in mathematical logic" are supposed to be, but A or not-A is still the majority view among the professional logicians I know about. Certainly it's possible to construct formal systems in which the expression neither A nor not-A is permissible and even useful, but the question is whether any coherent interpretation can be given to that form of words that doesn't involve changing its meaning in such a way as to make it no counterexample to what traditional logic meant by A or non-A. (Sometimes neither A nor not-A is an attempt to say in material mode what can only be said in formal mode: that A is meaningless in the context in question.)

Was Ayn Rand more rational than other people or even other writers?
Well ... in some ways, definitely; in other ways, definitely not. In any case, I'm more interested in evaluating the rationality of ideas than of people.

Well, maybe than Norman Mailer. I have doubts that her objectivism would optimize either personal wealth or biological survival. Would it optimize individual rights? Perhaps for one generation. Or however long it would take groups optimizing ethnic (or some other) self-interest to take over.
What Mr. Morrison says here suggests he may think of Rand's ethic of "rational selfishness" as a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. But Rand's conception of self-interest is Aristotelean rather than Hobbesian; there is no conflict between one person's self-interest, properly understood, and that of another. I've argued elsewhere that Rand was right about this (see, e.g., Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?) though for the wrong reasons (see Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand).

The Founding Fathers gave it as good a shot as is likely to happen in the real world and it fell apart as fast as Ben Franklin predicted, about 50 years. (I think it was Franklin.) The human species has yet to come up with a society that can endure in the historical time frame, let alone the geological one. If the Hittites hadn't been mentioned in the Bible, no modern scholar would have known to dig for them. America's enduring monument will not be pyramids or a Great Wall, but immense mountains of trash.
What was pragmatically possible for the Founders would have seemed wildly utopian a few centuries earlier. So I'm not ready to give up on the hope that we can establish a system much better than theirs.

Posted December 24th, 2002



Solstice News Update

My good news: As of this month, I now have tenure!

This has been a hectic few weeks; I hope to get caught up on my blogging soon.

For anyone who's planning to go to the American Philosophical Association meetings in Philadelphia this week, please stop by Auburn's table at the reception to say hi.

Posted December 22, 2002



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