Saturday, January 12, 2008

Precision vs Proportionality: The Future Direction of Political Philosophy

I believe that contemporary political philosophy is at an important crossroads, and this makes it a very interesting and exciting time to be working in the field. In this post I will elaborate a bit on why I believe this to be the case.

In many respects this post brings together some disparate thoughts I have posted before. It is really Part 2 to my earlier entry “What Justice Requires “Many-Things-Considered”". And this post was also partly motivated by the interesting exchange that took place over at Crooked Timber a while back. Here I offer some more specific thoughts on the methodological issues that arise when we aspire to develop, and assess, theories of distributive justice.

What does justice demand of us, as both individuals and societies? One could attempt to answer this question by developing normative analyses at varying levels of abstraction, with varying degrees of precision and detail. I’ll return to this issue shortly, but first there are some preliminaries that need to be addressed.

When contemporary philosophers approach the issue of distributive justice they begin from *somewhere* (no one’s ideas exist in a vacuum), whether it be a particular liberal, egalitarian, communitarian, feminist or multicultural framework. One begins with certain theoretical commitments- like equality, freedom, inclusion, etc.- and perhaps an alliance to a particular philosophical theory (e.g. consequentialism, Rawlsian liberalism, equality of welfare, etc.)

With so many interesting and varied theories of justice on offer, who wants to spend their career trying to re-invent the wheel by developing a new theory or approach?! (note: of course the greatest scholars of the past 3 or 4 decades are, at least in my opinion, the ones who tried to do precisely this!) It's so much easier to simply begin with one of the theories already out there (whichever one takes your fancy) and then build on it, refining the theory in new and interesting ways. This is, I believe, what has mostly occurred over the past few decades in debates in political philosophy.

But suppose for a moment that we did not have the barrage of theories on offer that we actually do have. Suppose we really were starting from scratch. I know this might be a bit hard to envision but lets just see where this goes. Sometimes it is helpful to try to get some distance from the projects that preoccupy most of our thoughts and energies.

So, now that we have wiped the slate clean, suppose someone comes along and says they have what they consider to be a pretty good theory of justice. And they think that, once you hear the details of their theory, you too will be convinced that it is a good theory.

Now if we stop things there, before you hear any of the details of the potential theory on offer, lets consider first the initial expectations you have concerning what a theory is suppose to deliver. What do we want from a theory of justice?
Philosophers will have different answers to this question. And I believe the expectations we have are deeply influenced by what we think of our actual societies (e.g. their virtues and vices) and the kind of “ideal” society that we could achieve. So liberals will want a theory of justice that takes liberty seriously. Egalitarians want a theory that takes equality seriously. Feminists want a theory that takes gender seriously... You get the picture.

Now some of these convictions will reflect ideological differences. But they also reflect different perceptions of the empirical realities facing one’s society. For example, that more could be done to reduce economic inequality and improve the life prospects of the poor. Or that the government could do more to ensure that the family is not an institution that entrenches patriarchy (and that it could do this without being oppressive). Thus our expectations concerning what we want from a theory of justice will be deeply influenced by a mixture of normative and empirical considerations.

Enormous assumptions are frequently made concerning what the state can and cannot successfully do. But these empirical assumptions are seldom made explicit. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems with the state of contemporary political philosophy. We have yet to take seriously what Adrian Vermeule calls “the institutional turn”. I’ll link this point to the general question raised earlier towards the end of this post.

But lets return now to my general methodological question: what do we want from a theory of justice? How would we know if the theory someone is offering us is real gold or just fool’s gold? Two of the richest and most influential (and I think probably among the greatest works in political philosophy in the 20th Century) theories of justice shed light on these methodological issues- Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) and Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement (1986).

For Rawls, the main criterion for success is reflective equilibrium. And for Gauthier, the criterion is that a theory must be premised on rational self-interest.

So the Rawlsian believes you have a good account of justice when it coheres with your considered judgments and the Hobbesian contractarian believes you have a good account of morality/justice when you can convince the moral skeptic that they too should be just.

Rawls’s approach captures both motivational and guiding requirements. His contractarian account of justice (like the original position) is premised upon moral sentiments he believes no reasonable person could reject (e.g. impartiality, the equality of all persons). And he also believes that the conclusions yielded by his theory are a good guide for liberal democracies (or at least they are a better guide than its main rival utilitarianism).

Although Gauthier presents his approach as primarily being concerned with providing a rational foundation for morality, he also brings in moral premises that make his conclusions more palatable (e.g. the Lockean proviso), thus permitting him to offer some guiding prescriptions.

What would the ideal Rawlsian and Gauthierian society look like? Well, for Rawls it is a society that satisfies his three serially ordered principles of justice. See my post “Are You a Fully Fledged Rawlsian?” to see if you agree with Rawls’s basic prescriptions. With respect to Gauthier’s theory, well, that’s even harder to determine. While his principle of minimax relative concession might make some sense in two-person examples, how one goes about applying it to the real world has always puzzled me. And other parts of Gauthier’s theory, like his commitment to the rough equality clause, leads his theory to some very counterintuitive results (e.g. what Allen Buchanan calls the “reciprocity thesis”).

OK, so let’s return to the motivation and guiding requirements. These two requirements remind us of what a theory of justice is primarily for: it’s for us! I don’t mean just you and me. I mean for us as a society. Those of us living in the “here and now”- in the societies we find ourselves, with the pressing moral and practical dilemmas that face us. It is a theory for the biological, temporal, social beings we are. We don’t want a theory of justice for people who might live on Mars in 10 000 years. Or a theory for beings that have a very different biology than ours (e.g. beings that do not need to eat to be nourished, that are not susceptible to disease and disability). We are not interested in what a theory might look like for beings that did not progress through the different life cycles that real, temporal, finite beings progress through. (For an account of what we do want, rather than what we don’t want, see “Taking People For What They Really Are”)

As the example of Rawls and Gauthier illustrate, the motivation/guiding requirements of justice could be (and have been) spun in a number of different ways. Keeping things a level of generality then, we can ask: how adequate are these criteria for a philosophical account of justice? Of course much depends on what one takes the *philosophical* part to mean. It can be cut two different ways, depending on what one takes “philosophy” to mean.

The first way is to view the philosopher as what I will call a “conceptual surgeon”. This means the philosopher is someone who views concepts (like equality) as something they need to dissect, analyze, then refine and polish before churning out a pristine and comprehensive account of what justice requires.

The second way is to view the political philosopher as someone who longs for *wisdom* (see this post) concerning how we ought to live collectively. Can the conceptual surgeon help impart wisdom? To some degree I think the answer is “yes”. Take Isaiah Berlin’s masterful “Two Concepts of Liberty”. If one wants to create a free polity then it is imperative that one gets clear on what freedom actually means. Pursuing negative or positive freedom will take one in different directions. And so achieving some conceptual clarity will help one on their journey towards creating a free society.

But while it is important to recognize that some conceptual clarify is necessary and useful, it is also important to realize that conceptual surgery has its limits. If we invest most of our intellectual energies into conceptual surgery then we risk missing the boat.

To push the surgeon analogy further- while some minor conceptual surgery can be therapeutic, if one goes too far they run the risk of doing more harm than good. Like a skilled surgeon, the political philosopher should not subject her patient to unnecessary surgery. I believe that a good deal of what currently passes for political philosophy is in fact unnecessary surgery; procedures that will not increase the health prospects of the patient. In fact, such conceptual surgery can actually be harmful to the patient as we end up spending all our time and energies on the intricacies of our conceptual surgery and thus miss other obvious things that could be beneficial to the patient (like sterilizing our utensils, checking the patient’s blood pressure, etc.). OK, I don’t want to take the medical analogy too far. But hopefully you get my point!

So if conceptual surgery is part, but *only* part, of what is involved in being a good political philosopher, what else do we need if we hope to create and impart wisdom? (at least the kind of wisdom that a political philosopher could hope to achieve and impart). This takes me to the second theme in my title: proportionality. What the philosopher should really strive for, if they hope to convey some wisdom, is a sense of what the “big picture” perspective of the moral and political landscape looks like. And to do this we must take seriously the issue of proportions. And this is something that conceptual surgery cannot provide. Let me give you two examples, from different ends of the political spectrum, concerning how conceptual rigor can stifle proportionality (and thus wisdom).

My two examples come from two of the most influential philosophers from the past 30 years- Robert Nozick and G.A. Cohen. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice contains three principles- the principle of transfer, the principle of just initial acquisition and the principle of rectification. The bulk of Anarchy, State and Utopia concerns the first two principles. So Nozick introduces examples like the “eye lottery” and his famous Wilt Chamberlain example to illustrate his point that “taxation is on a moral par with forced labour”. But once one gets to the principle of rectification, and one reflects on how wealth and income have, over human history, been acquired and transferred, one realizes that they must qualify Nozick’s motto so that it reads “taxation is on a moral par with forced labour…if and only if no considerations of injustice could apply to justify such taxation”.

Given the actual history of the world it is puzzling why Nozick did not spend the bulk of his book on rectification, and then just have a small chapter entitled “Why Libertarianism is Required After You Rectify All Past Injustice”. So Nozick’s account of justice gets the proportions wrong. The principles of transfer and just initial acquisition are not vital components of a theory of justice for the world as it actually is. And once he gets the proportions wrong, Nozick is unable to generate any sage prescriptions concerning what constitutes a just government.

The “big picture” story of justice is, according to Nozickians, “get your hands off my income!”. It is not “Hey, let’s rectify past injustices!”. Clarifying what the requirements of self-ownership are in the ideal scenario did not help right libertarians figure out what justice required in the real world. Thus Nozick’s theory was wisdom-impairing rather than wisdom-enhancing.

OK, now an example from the other end of the spectrum- G.A. Cohen’s egalitarianism. I’ve posted my objections to luck egalitarianism before, so I’ll keep this brief. My discontents with luck egalitarianism were reaffirmed after hearing Cohen’s recent interview here. At one stage in the interview the discussion focuses on the central insight of luck egalitarianism- that inequalities we are not responsible for should be mitigated, but those we are responsible for should be tolerated. When the presenter asks Cohen to elaborate on the latter, Cohen says “nothing is ever merely the result human responsible action”. This empirical fact is, in my view, more than a sufficient reason to reject luck egalitarianism. For it shows that the theory has nothing interesting to say about the real world. Given that no inequalities satisfy the Cohenian account of “chosen inequalities”, then one does not need to be a luck egalitarian.

Now of course one might say that there could be a counterfactual society where such inequalities could arise. And thus it is imperative that we clarify precisely what we mean by “egalitarian”. But why should we want to do that? The fervor that many egalitarians get themselves worked up into in this respect reminds me of the medieval theological disputes concerning how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. I can’t see what the point of resolving such a dispute is, especially considering that Cohen himself admits that the second component of luck egalitarianism does not apply in the real world. So I think this is another example of how conceptual surgery can distort proportions and thus impair wisdom. In the “big picture” of things, justice does not require us to ensure we do not compensate chosen inequalities as such inequalities cannot be said to exist in the first place! The real action to be had is not on the site of precision, it is on the site proportions. And luck egalitarianism is of no real help on that front.

What does all this tell us? Lets return now to my initial question: What does justice demand of us, as both individuals and societies? The conceptual surgeons would have us believe that we could capture the requirements of justice in a nifty slogan like “Liberty upsets Patterns!”. But such mottos do not convey wisdom. If forced to come up with a slogan I suppose mine would be “Justice is about proportionality”. This is not a novel suggestion, as it goes all the way back to insights made by Aristotle. And I guess I long for a return to seeing philosophy as an activity primarily concerned with phronesis. Of course I believe precision does have a role to play here. For there is lots of work to be done in terms of clarifying what the stakes are that are in need of balancing. And so I would like to see the conceptual surgeons investing more of their time tackling the notion of proportionality. Doing this will shift us away from trying to win a “first best conceptualism” debate and propel us towards seriously engaging with the empirical and the “institutional turn”.

So the title of this post- “Precision Vs Proportionality”-is, at the end of the day, a false dichotomy. We need both. But given how much time political philosophers have spent on precision, it is not surprising that we have messed up on the proportions!