Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Parody of the Original Position

My new book Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement is now available in the UK (and should be out in North American soon). I have posted a couple of posts about this book before. The book represents about 10 years of work, reflecting my aspiration to reconcile my fundamental moral and political convictions, as well as my disillusionment with ideal theory. So I hope it will have broad appeal to political philosophers.

In the book I criticise a range of contemporary theories of distributive justice. One main target is John Rawls. Don't get me wrong, I think Rawls is an extremely important political philosopher. Indeed, the book began as a defence of Rawls. But over the years I have come to realise how limited the kind of abstract thinking that the Rawlsian project has inspired is, and thus I no longer consider myself a proponent of that tradition. Indeed, now I am a critic. And this book explains why I have abandoned the principled paradigm of ideal theory and where I think we (i.e. normative theorists) should turn our attention to- namely, non-ideal theory and a virtue-oriented public ethic.

Below I reproduce a small section from Ch. 3 of the book to help give a sense of some of the concerns that motivate the book. The section is entitled "A Parody of the Original Position".

I recall vividly how the idea for this part of the book came to me. It was August 2004 and I was waiting in Heathrow airport for a connecting flight from Oslo back to Toronto. Surprise, surprise, my flight was delayed so I was sitting around writing down a couple of thoughts. The conference I had come from was on genetics and justice and the presentation I gave was based on this paper. By this stage I had begun to distance myself from the Rawlsian project because I felt that the principles Rawls derived for the social primary goods simply could not be applied to the natural primary goods. Furthermore, I realized that ignoring the distribution of the natural primary goods severely limited our thinking about what the demands of justice are. Anyways, as I was sitting around waiting for an update on when my flight would be departing I starting thinking "Why does this always happen, why are my flights always delayed? What would the ideal airport be like?" Well, such an airport would still have to deal with problems like security, bad weather, sick cabin crew, lost luggage, etc, etc. No "realistic utopian" airport could transcend these realities. But why then are political philosophers so ready to transcend the constraints of real life when articulating what constitutes a just society, something that is even more complex and intricate than an airport? Here is an excerpt from Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement:

Consider the following hypothetical scenario. Given the growing strains on the existing airports in London, British policymakers decide that a new airport should be created. They have grand ambitions for this airport and want it to be better than either Heathrow or Gatwick. These policymakers commission Dave, an aviation expert, to come up with a list of the ‘fundamental principles’ that should guide the planning and construction of this new and improved airport.

In order to clarify what the ideal airport would look like, Dave invokes a number of simplifying assumptions in order to derive his normative guidelines concerning how the airport should be designed. He begins by making the following assumptions which he believes are necessary to ensure that he functions at the level of ideal theory:

1. Assume that concerns of airplane safety, noise and pollution do not arise. So no airplane ever has a malfunction and no citizens will complain about the inconvenience of having an airport in their neighbourhood.

2. Assume that society is a closed society and thus all flights will be domestic flights.

3. Assume that all passengers who will use the airport will be ‘normal functioning’ passengers. That is, no passengers will have physical disabilities that will limit their mobility while getting around the airport or boarding and leaving airplanes.

4. Assume that issues of domestic security do not arise. So there are no terrorists or criminals and thus the airport does not need to worry about the costs associated with extensive check-in procedures.

5. Assume that there will always be good weather so that flights will not be delayed or cancelled due to weather.

Having invoked these simplifying assumptions, Dave begins to reflect on what he thinks the ideal airport should achieve. He rejects the utilitarian ethic of company directors who only care about maximizing profits. Dave adopts an impartial, contractual approach to his project. He images what the representative passenger would want from the airport if they were all equal and placed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. This veil denies them knowledge about things like their preference for the kinds of restaurants and shops available in the airport, whether they will be travelling with or without children, the distance they will be flying and so on. From behind this veil of ignorance passengers only know that they seek to maximize their airport primary goods. These goods include safety, leaving on time and having their baggage arrive safely and promptly at the correct destination.

Dave further surmises that priority rules govern these primary goods and thus he concludes that the following three, serially ordered, principles should govern the design and construction of the new airport:

Principle 1: All persons (both passengers and flight crew) have the same indefeasible claim to safety (equal basic safety principle).

Principle 2: Equal opportunity for boarding your flight promptly and departing on time (principle of fair equality of opportunity).

Principle 3: We should maximize the promptness of getting the last pieces of baggage unloaded from an airplane to the baggage reclaim area (maximin baggage reclaim principle).

Imagine now how the policy experts who solicited Dave’s advice will react to the normative conclusions of Dave’s ideal theorizing. Will Dave’s armchair theorizing be of any use for planning and designing a real airport? An airport that will be subject to a variety of concerns that arise in the non-ideal world. These concerns range from safety and pollution to congestion and accessibility. Our policymakers will no doubt dismiss Dave’s normative conclusions as being unrealistic and naïve as
policymakers will have to struggle with a vast array of issues which Dave’s ideal theorizing ignores. It is easy to support Dave’s three principles if, for example, airport and airplane security are not real concerns or if the congestion created by international flights did not arise. But of course in the real world these things do happen. Air traffic controllers can make mistakes, poor weather affects visibility and causes delays, the volume of international flights increases congestion, security measures delay boarding procedures and may delay flights, and the varying physical abilities of passengers impact the accessibility of an airport. All of these concerns would still arise even in a realistically utopian airport. There are countless complications that arise in the real world that must be taken into consideration when deciding what would constitute the best possible airport we can make. Trade-offs must be made between safety and concerns of efficiency (e.g. costs) and feasibility (e.g. given that humans are fallible and that many things, like the weather, are indeterminate). To bracket or ignore the constraints of the real world is to obstruct, rather than clarify, how we should theorize about what the ideal airport would be.

If it is wrong to invoke Dave’s method of ideal theorizing about airports, is it not also inappropriate to invoke similar ideal theorizing about questions of distributive justice? I believe that it is. Like Dave, John Rawls makes a number of simplifying assumptions (e.g. society is a closed system and consists of normal, fully cooperating members)that severely limit the viability of ‘justice as fairness’ as a theory of distributive justice. The publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 sparked a renewed interest in political philosophy and Rawls’s theory remains the most influential theory of distributive justice in contemporary debates. ‘Justice as fairness’ has been the subject of intense debate, and criticism of Rawls’s theory has come from theorists of almost every stripe. From egalitarians and libertarians to feminists, communitarians, cosmopolitans and multiculturalists, it seems that everyone has an axe to grind with Rawls and grinding that axe often helps his opponents gain support for their alternative theoretical position. The most compelling of these criticisms of Rawls’s theory stem, I believe, from deficiencies which follow from the fact that Rawls functions at the level of ideal theory.