Why I am not a Rawlsian

The Difference Principle is not so much excessively risk-averse as excessively jerry-rigged.  OK, we can’t aggregate as utilitarians but then we resort to some notion of primary goods with intersubjective validity.  OK, the size of the worst-off group is itself endogenous to the contractarian process.  But just how big is that group supposed to be?  Can it be 99 percent of society?  OK, people behind the veil don’t know their particular identities, but just how "thin" is their knowledge supposed to be?  And must their choices be purely self-interested?  All these criticisms are well-known.  You might try to shore up Rawls on any one of these points but the entire apparatus is simply too wobbly. 

The bottom line is that you can’t get lexical orderings out of a moral theory unless you build them in upfront.  And without lexical orderings, well, Rawls, like many illustrious minds before him, does not succeed in
sidestepping the dirty mess of aggregation.  The critical moral question is how we should compare the interests of some people to others in a real world setting; don’t expect to find an easy way out of that one. 

Rawls’s Principle of Equal Liberty is if anything on weaker ground than the Difference Principle.  Equal Liberty?  Who says?  At what margin?  At what cost?  Lexicality can’t plug all the leaks in this shaky boat, and no it can’t save Robert Nozick either.

The biggest problem is simply why the imaginary agreement behind the veil of ignorance should have moral force.  Now I like preferences as much as the next guy, but imaginary preferences take me only so far.  That is just one piece of information in a much broader comparison of plural values.  I’m not even sure that imaginary preferences should override the very real preferences of very real people in very particular situations.  Why should they?  "Fairness" is just one value of many.

I read Rawls as a very very smart and intellectually honest guy, determined to resurrect Kant, avoid the aggregative problems of consequentialism, and move at least one step beyond Sidgwick.  He knew how hard it was to even attempt such a success and he makes all the requisite moves to get us there, albeit without, in the final analysis, squaring the circle. 

Matt Yglesias adds commentary; he notes, correctly, that for the current Left Rawls doesn’t offer such an inspiring vision.  I’ll put it this way: if you have to work that hard to establish "Sweden is great," you should be spending more money on plane tickets.

Just to clarify, there are at least three Rawls doctrines: "Justice as Fairness," TJ, and Political Liberalism.  I like the first one best, but won’t cast my lot with any of the three.  At the end of the day I come away thinking that it is Sidgwick (and
maybe Kierkegaard?) who is the central moral theorist of the last two


Tyler, you really should refrain from blogging before your morning coffee and rely solely on caffeine to wake up, not contrarian wacky ideas.

The sense of "unfairness" has been behind the worst happenings in 20th century history, from marxism ("We were/are/will be exploited as a class") to nazism ("We were betrayed in 1918 and before that denied a nation of our own. Id iz nod fair.")and WWII, via local genocides ("Them Tutsis and Belgians exploited us", etc) and to tens if not hundreds of millions of premature deaths, as well as to broken lives too numerous to mention. So, really, I am not even prepared to look at the argument whether "fairness" is an adequate concept. I just know that the price of widespread perceived unfairness is far too high and I want never to have to face the consequences of it again.

Rawls made one very valuable contribution: the veil of ignorance. This is
more than just metaphor. It is a clearer way of understanding Kantian uni-
versalizability. If everyone had to choose institutions "position blind,"
rational people should make the same choices.

However, behind the veil of ignorance, there should be no such thing as
risk averseness. If you are position blind, you have no idea what your
risk prefrerence will be once you enter the real world (on the otgher side
of the veil). So the Difference Principle is not legitimate.

To the contrary, the veil of ignorance reasoning justifies pure rule util-
itarianism. Rational people should all choose to live in a world with
Pareto optimal institutions.

Please read Parfit's newest book, Climbing the Mountain. Parfit is as left in political philosophy you can get. However, he writes the following in Climbing the Mountain:

Rawls’s Formula: Everyone ought to follow the principles that it
would be rational in self-interested terms for everyone to choose,
if everyone had to make this choice without knowing any
particular facts about themselves or their circumstances.

This version of contractualism, Rawls claims, provides an argument
against all forms of utilitarianism. That is not true. Nor does
Rawlsian Contractualism support acceptable non-utilitarian principles.

"For all those who claim Nozick's arguments are worthless, largely because they're supported by poorly justified assumptions, then Rawls's arguments suffer from just the same problem."

I think there's a difference. Rawls was popular because he seemed to have made a compelling case that he'd come up with a new way of thinking about justice that did better at capturing our intuitions than those before him. Nozick's project was premeditated (an attack on Rawls) and its premises were so obviously false that the whole thing was a waste of time. Neither philosopher helped us discover distributive justice but Rawls was the better philosopher by far.

"What bugs me about Rawlsians"

Know many Rawlsians do you? Most true Rawlsians (and there are very few) don't get that involved in policy debates.

There have been several experiments attempting to create a "behind the veil" situation to see what people actually would choose. If I recall correctly, they do not choose "socialism", e.g. strong redistribution. I don't know how rigorous those studies were, though.

Matt, the consensus is that the TJ project failed; even Rawls himself moved away from it. TJ of course still has had a major influence, most of all legitimizing justice-based thinking. All the points I cite are very familiar ones. But there is not some secret defense of TJ lurking around out there, known only to the true experts. It's well known that you can only get out of a contractarian process what you put into it. The real problem is that TJ has so many things wrong with it -- from an "is this actually correct" perspective -- that it is hard to know where to start.

Tyler- As I said, these points are all debated and there is no consensus on them. I assume (as I said) that you know these are over-simplified- that's fine for a blog. It would be unreasonable for you to write a long series of academic papers here. But many people who read this blog are not familiar with Rawls and shouldn't come away thinking the project is as week as you make it look here- it isn't. Some of the ways you present the criticisms, as well, are unfair. Take your last one here. Of course you get out of the contractarian position what's built in to it (in some sense) but that's true for all positions. The question is whether there's a defense for what's built in to it. They way you present the issue it looks as if there is not. But that's not right- there's arguments for all the parts and they _are not_ just that otherwise you get utilitarianism. Now, those arguments don't convince everyone. That's clear. But it's not just question-begging as you make it look here.

Even the question of how TJ "failed" is a complicated one. Rawls consistently thought it gave _the correct_ account of the _content_ of justice. The move to Political Liberalism is not about the content of justice at all but about stability almost entirely.

You'll notice that I didn't say that the points you cite are not familiar ones- I'm quite familiar with them myself- my point was only that they are not at all generally taken to be decisive (anyone who says otherwise is deluded or lying- there's great contention on all of them) and that people should not assume from the quick post here that these points are not contentious. (Many of them are addressed at great length in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls and Samuel Freeman's excellent book _Rawls_, from Routledge, both of which I recommend highly.)

As a legal scholar, my problem with 'justice as fairness' is that it is a completely empty and meaningless vessell just waiting to hold whatever ex ante moral values you already happen to have; it does no real heavy lifting by itself
another problem with rawls is that the 'veil of ignorance' is totally impossible to implement in practice, so rawls's project is just another in a long line of ideas that can be filed unde the title, intellectal masterbation

Actually, I think you can be a true Rawlsian in a consistent fashion, if you're willing to reject contemporary liberalism in favor of Catholicism.

After all, why don't all the potential babies that would be born in the absence of contraception an abortion count as part of the social contract behind the veil of ignorance?

"Fir example, there was a mighty" should be

"For example, there was a mighty fine paper"

Rue- of course intuitions play a role in Rawls's view- no one in their right might says otherwise, since they are an essential part of reflective equalibrium. Because such things cannot be settled in blog comments I'll simply retort that I've read my Parfit and don't find him at all convincing, that his account depends on swallowing a lot more controversial metaphysics than seems wise, and that his view, while influential, is hardly widely accepted. If anything he seems to me like David Lewis, a person who would have been a better philosopher if he were a bit less clever- both are so clever that they are constantly able to add more and more epicycles to their theories, defending them from attack, but making them all the more less plausible. So, an appeal to Parfit carries no weight with me since I think he's certainly wrong.

What bugs me about Rawlsians is that say they care about the least-well-off, but neglect, even oppose, the many simple policy reforms that would do so much help them, such as school vouchers, abolishing occupational licensing, abolishing the FDA, freer trade, freer immigration. Rawlsians fall flat in their understanding of how the world works.

What nonsense. So what bugs you about Rawlsians is that their policy preferences tend to be different than yours? Do you ever, ever, think that your ideas just might possibly not be as perfect and flawless as you imagine; that maybe your understanding of the world might be - like that of most fierce libertarians - a bit lacking itself?

"It should be noted that Rawls was neither a socialist nor a welfare state theorist, as virtually all the comments here claim. He explicitly rejects both positions, in fact"

did you read this
"John Rawls, anti-capitalist

This is from his correspondence:

The large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly. If they speak about distribution, it is most always in terms of trickle down. The long-term result of this — which we already have in the United States — is a civil society awash in a meaningless consumerism of some kind. I can’t believe that is what you want.

So you see that I am not happy about globalization as the banks and business class are pushing it. I accept Mill’s idea of the stationary state as described by him in Bk. IV, Ch. 6 of his Principles of Political Economy (1848). (I am adding a footnote in §15 to say this, in case the reader hadn’t noticed it). I am under no illusion that its time will ever come – certainly not soon – but it is possible, and hence it has a place in what I call the idea of realistic utopia. "

For more see CrookedTimber. The real question is how much this should cause us to downgrade his moral philosophy. I say "a lot." I used to think there was some deep argument of consilience behind "maximin," but now I am ready to classify it as a simple mistake, akin to a person who doesn't understand what drove the flow of traffic across the Berlin Wall in one direction and not the other. "

Posted by Tyler Cowen on March 18, 2006 at 07:25 AM in



Have you read the Mill that Rawls is referencing? Rawls isn't saying that economic production and growth it bad at all. He's just saying that average growth for growth's sake doesn't guarantee any kind of happy outcome for anyone. Namely, if it's all going to just a few people, then it doesn't do any good. Rawls is not against inequality as such, but approaches inequality as something that has to be justified to the person with the short end of the stick. Part of the Mill that he's talking about tries to distinguish between the method of economic allocation of resources to promote growth, and the method of distribution of the products of that growth. The claim that Rawls is arguing against is that they cannot be separated out to some extent. So let the capitalists efficiently allocate capital, but then it is another question on how to distribute the gains. Rawls isn't a laissez-faire capitalist, but he isn't a welfare theorist or a socialist either. He's interested in a property-owning democracy. And he's interested in people as citizens who can exercise their two moral powers, and is much less interested in them as consumers. In no way, however, does he have a "leveling down" sort of theory. I agree he may give up some economic growth for the sake of more political freedoms for more people, but that's not a position that says that economic growth doesn't matter.

My reading of Rawls is that he wanted to establish some justification for the state refusing to tolerate rampant inequality. There really shouldn't be any problems with accepting the 'justice as fairness' line. The key problem that many of the left have with him (although my gut feeling agrees with him), is the presumption that a liberal democratic state premised on market lines is the most natural and effective way to achieve this.

Has anyone other than (the other) Matt actually read Rawls? To echo comments made by (the other) Matt, much of the criticism of Rawls here reflects a complete misunderstanding of the details of his views and of his aims in developing justice as fairness.

To wit:

A. Rue writes: "[1] Matt, please give a coherent defense as to how Rawls's argument in TJ does not lead to choosing a principle calling for maximizing the highest average expected utility ... Rawls's own defense of this problem is weak and all those papers by Joshua Cohen and Samuel Freeman will not help you. [2] By appealing to self-respect, they're grasping at straws. [3] If you're a liberal egalitarian or prioritarian then you have to appeal to your intuitions and not this contractual apparatus Rawls adduces."

What's the argument for 2? Is it meant to be 3? 3 is confused. This is because our intuitions -- what Rawls calls our "considered judgments" -- are not separate from the "contractual apparatus" embodied in the Original Position. Rawls was explicit about the fact that what he was doing was providing a theory that would account for the considered judgments of justice endemic to "the public political culture of a democratic society." This is why one cannot fault Rawls for constructing the OP so that its results reflect certain intuitions about justice. One misreads Rawls is one foists on him the aim of providing arguments against utilitarianism (or libertarianism). Rawls said he was articulating an alternative to utilitarianism that was superior in its ability to capture our considered judgments, not one that was superior tout court. This is the light in which we charitably read Rawls's own answer to 1. Seen in this light, Rawls's response certainly isn't, pace Rue's implication, incoherent.

Now, one can certainly argue against Rawls's method of developing a theory of justice, one influenced by his reflective-equilibrium view of moral epistemology. The sorts of criticisms raised above would have to follow in the wake of such arguments, in order to be fair arguments against Rawls.

B. Daniel writes: "What bugs me about Rawlsians is that say they care about the least-well-off, but neglect, even oppose, the many simple policy reforms that would do so much help them, such as school vouchers, abolishing occupational licensing, abolishing the FDA, freer trade, freer immigration. Rawlsians fall flat in their understanding of how the world works."

This reflects a serious misunderstanding of Rawls's work. Rawls's theory of justice is aimed at the basic structure of society, and, therefore, at a level way above that at which considerations of the kinds of policies Daniel mentions would even arise. Seriously, Daniel, with all due respect, have you read Rawls very carefully?

C. Remarkably, Tyler evinces a misunderstanding of the same magnitude when he writes: "the consensus is that the TJ project failed; even Rawls himself moved away from it."

Again, as (the other) Matt mentioned, the kinds of criticisms Tyler raises have nothing whatsoever to do with Rawls's later appraisal of the success of TJ. Rawls's dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that accepting justice as fairness as articulated in TJ required committing to a particular "comprehensive doctrine," namely, Kant's autonomy-centered view of persons.

I think all people like"Justice as Fairness " ,because "behind the veil"

"The biggest problem is simply why the imaginary agreement behind the veil of ignorance should have moral force."

I agree.

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