A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Problems with Rawls

The last two weeks of our "Freedom and Equality: Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy" course have focused upon John Rawls' theory of Justice as Fairness. I have found it unconvincing on numerous accounts, and undoubtedly some of these will be due to not understanding his theory well enough. However, I think it is a good idea to write out all of my objections here, so that I have a clear idea of what my objections are; then it will perhaps a) be easier to find responses to my objections, b) clarify my own ideas, and c) help convince people that Rawls was wrong, as I believe he was.

It is difficult to provide a brief summary of a theory as complex as Rawls'; very roughly speaking, he believes that justice should be determined behind a "veil of ignorance" in which we are deprived of knowledge about certain contingent facts of our existence, most importantly where in society we find ourselves. He argues that in this situation, reasonable and rational people would adopt three rules, in decreasing order of importance:

  1. A set of basic liberties, as extensive as is possible without infringing upon the liberties of others.
  2. Fair Equality of Opportunity
  3. A "minimax" principle, in which we seek above all to maximise the welfare of the worst off in society.

The Scope of Rawls' Argument

Objection One: the definition of "Society"
Rawls sees society or social cooperation as a project for the common good, and his theory concerns the distribution of the benefits resulting from this. But if Alex has regular trade with Bob, and Caleb lives in the same area but has no trade with either of them, then it does not seem that he is part of society in a way that it is meaningfully related to the trade. Hence I see no reason why he should be entitled to any share of the benefits from the trade. Generalising this, our economy as a whole is a set of trades between individuals and/or firms. Hence, it seems to me that what we have is less a single society, whose benefits are to be distributed between all people, but rather a large number of interlinking societies.

Alternatively, one could argue that Caleb, while not directly involved in the trade, is indirectly involved in that he takes part in the social institutions which make the trade possible. (Rawls takes the word "institutions" to refer to rules or to behavioural norms). But this seems highly counter-intuitive:  an American lives and does business under a fairly similar set of rules to myself, especially as compared to the full space of possible sets of rules rather than merely those which have been realised in actual human societies. Yet he is surely of a different society to me, or else it is difficult to avoid extending the definition of "my society" to almost the entire world.

Objection Two: starting-points and end-points
In the introduction to A Theory of Justice, Rawls describes justice as having two components: just behaviour, for which he cites the Aristotelian idea of "not taking that to which you are not entitled", and a just starting-point. His theory deals with the latter; we are not at the starting-point, so it is difficult to see how his theory justifies redistribution. Even if there was an unjust starting point, we are so far removed from it and the world is so much richer that it was at the starting-point, that this injustice - if it is indeed an injustice (see below) - is surely a trifling issue. Note also the potentially vast difference between a just starting-point and a just end-point, following on from Nozick in How Liberty upsets Patterns.

Rawlsian "Justice"

Objection Three: Rational choice does not equal justice
Compare two potential societies, A and B. Both are perfectly equal, but Society A is slightly richer - each person there receives 200 utils per month, compared to 190 utils per month in Society B. Given a choice between the two societies, one would obviously choose A; however, actually ending up with Society A does not seem like "justice" in any way.

Objection Four: Distributive vs. Procedural justice
I advocate a purely procedural view of justice - that is, I see justice as lying in the absence of certain moral rules being broken, rather than in a particular outcome. If Aeris works hard all year, then Bob the slob comes along and steals the fruits of Aeris' labour, becoming richer than Aeris in the process, then the injustice lies not in the fact of Bob being better off than Aeris - had Bob earned his income there would be no injustice - but in the way he obtained his wealth. The very fact that an idea such as "justice be done, though the heavens fall!" is even conceivable indicates that justice is to a large extent detached from its consequences.

The Veil of Ignorance

Objection Five: Rawls fails to demonstrate that the minimax principle is superior to (for example) the Principle of Utility
So far as I am aware, Rawls offers three arguments that minimax is better than the principle of maximising the sum of happiness experienced. He asserts that, behind the veil of ignorance, we do not know our risk aversion or the probability of various outcomes. Both of these seem highly suspicious (see below) but let's allow those assumptions for now.

The first is that, due to the risk involved, maximising utility is irrational. The risk of a bad outcome is too high to accept it. This seems to me to simply be a misapplication of decision theory. For example, our lecturer attempted to motivate this with a thought experiment in which you are offered a choice between two gambles, each of which we may assume to rely on a fifty-fifty chance. The first gamble will pay off either £1 or £2, the second will pay off either £0.10 or £1,000,000. Under normal circumstances, expected utility maximisation obviously implies taking the latter gamble. But under a situation of desperation, such as if you are stranded in the middle of nowhere with no other money, your child in need of urgent medical care to avoid a painful death, and a nearby telephone box requiring £1 to call for an air ambulance, it clearly makes sense to take the first gamble, in which you are guaranteed £1, instead of taking the chance of your child dying. This was supposed to be an example of expected utility maximisation giving the wrong answer, but that is OBVIOUSLY nonsense. The marginal utility of £1 in that situation is very large, and the marginal utility of £1,000,000 is nowhere near 1,000,000 times as large. I took this up with the lecturer during a break, and he didn't even try to defend it, instead immediately moving on to the next argument.

Secondly, Rawls argues that there can be "strains of commitment" - that it is necessary that people who would endorse a system behind the veil will continue to endorse it after the veil has been lifted, regardless of where in society they find themselves. Rawls had in mind the poorest in society, arguing that maximising utility could require an underclass who could not stand the conditions they were in, even for all the good it did everyone else. We'll ignore any doubts about the likelihood or plausibility of this situation and consider - why should this apply only to the poor? Suppose a hard-working and talented person (call him Harry) produces a great value of goods and services, and then, due to the prevailing social institutions, has to give them away at great personal loss and very little corresponding gain to the worst off. Would it not be perfectly possible for Harry to be annoyed at the system, and demand that he be allowed to keep his wealth, even at the expense of the poorest? The lecturer argued that the fact that Harry is better-off rather than worse-off is pure luck, and that this is an unjust complaint for him to have of the worse off, to which I reply: Fine. I have no problem with your claim that it is pure luck that he turned out to be hard-working and intelligent. But let's not pretend that this is in any way compatible will free will or moral responsibility. Then your argument for "justice" is self-defeating.

Finally, Rawls argues that a society designed around the principle of utility would be "unstable". He claims that a well-ordered society satisfies a "publicity condition", that all within the society know the principles upon which the society is built. Therefore, under a society based around the principle of utility, people's knowledge of this would lead to both resentment of others: "Their well-being depends upon my suffering!" and a lack of self-respect: "I only get what I do because it creates happiness. I don't meaningfully earn any of it!" Self-respect is seen as an important primary social good; combined with resentment of the better off, it is seen leading to instability.

The obvious utilitarian response is that instability is in itself a negative consequence, factored into the calculations of utility. A utilitarian would see no inherent point to Rawls' injunction that all should know the founding principle of their society, and so could deny his whole argument. They could argue that a society based upon the minimax principle would suffer from the same problems - "I'm paying my hard-earned wage to look after that lowlife!" "He has so much spare time, he can't really be worse off than me, why must I subsidise him?" "I have no personal value; my only value is the extent to which I improve the lot of the worst off." This argument, like the other two purporting to provide evidence for minimax over maximising the sum of utility, is solid 24-carat bunk.

I'm heading off to sleep now, but I wouldn't want you to think I've run out of objections. Here are some more upon which I intend to expand, and I'm pretty confident there are more than these to come.

Can we be truly represented behind the veil of ignorance? (We are the sum of our experiences; we don't know personal things which would not allow identification, e.g. risk-aversion...)
Treatment of people in classes violates Rawl's own "Separation of persons"
Not knowing probabilities of different strata of society is a contradiction
Assertion that all societies must follow the same principle, no choice to move to societies based upon different principles
Overstating the case/ assuming away counterexamples, even where we can be confident they exist - "only justified if improving the lot of the worst off" vs. "unjustified if making the worst off worse off"
Basic freedoms - complete Lockean/Nozickian natural rights perfectly consistent with first and most important principle
Idea that economic growth can be ignored if necessary to help the very poorest in existing society - classes considered at fixed point in time or dynamically?

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