Sunday, June 11, 2006

Four Fundamental Convictions

As I mentioned in a few previous posts, I am in the final stages of completing my book Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement. This book has been in the works for a long time and represents a real transformation in my thoughts on distributive justice. The initial plan for the book was that it would be a defence of John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness”, building on the research from my PhD dissertation. My dissertation was a defence of Rawls and a number of my first publications were defences of Rawls against critics like Michael Sandel and Phillipe Van Parijs. But over time I slowly became dissatisfied with the number of “qualifications” (e.g. assuming full compliance, normal functioning, society is closed, etc.) I found myself making when defending contemporary accounts of liberal egalitarianism. I still consider myself a liberal egalitarian, but I no longer align myself with the prominent advocates of that position (e.g. Rawls and Dworkin).

This new book is an attempt to explain why I no longer support their theories and a plea for other liberal egalitarians to also jump ship. This is not to suggest that I think the contributions made by Rawls and Dworkin are unimportant. Of course they have made very important contributions to contemoprary liberal thought. But I think their theories have also limited contemporary liberalism in a variety of ways. One limitation is that abstract theoretical discussions of distributive justice are often detached from real politics and the dilemmas which real societies and citizens face. And when theory is detached from practice I think one is justified in questioning the value of political theory. Recall my previous post on “What is political theory?”. That post sums up the spirit of this new book.

In the book I advance a theory called “civic liberalism”. Civic liberalism is a non-ideal theory of distributive justice. It starts from where we are, in the “here and now”. So it is more fact-sensitive than ideal theories which assume a situation of full compliance, limited disadvantage or that societies are “closed”. In order to develop a viable non-ideal theory I propose we abandon the principled paradigm of ideal theory in favour of a non-perfectionist “virtue-oriented” theory of justice. I will say more about the details of the theory over the course of the summer months. But for now, I wish to highlight what I take to be the four fundamental moral/political convictions upon which civic liberalism is premised.

Principle-oriented theories of justice typically limit their appeal to one or two core moral/political convictions (e.g. self-ownership, democracy, equality, etc.). This can often be linked to the idealizing assumptions of justice-theorists. If we ignore the fact that most citizens have a deluge of obligations thrust upon them (e.g. parental obligations, spousal obligations, self-regarding obligations, etc.) we might believe it is reasonable to impose, for example, stringent democratic or egalitarian obligations on citizens. The ideal theorist might argue- "Citizens should care about politics/equality, what could be so important that they do not take their obligations of citizenship/egalitarianism seriously? Surely citizens who are uninformed about politics are simply lazy and indifferent/ The well-off are just greedy capitalists!".

In response to such charges we can point out that in the real non-ideal world, good democrats/egalitarians are also expected to be good parents, good spouses, etc. A whole range of considerations must be balanced against the obligations the ideals of democracy or equality might impose upon us. This is not to say that we should never question the legitimacy of our existing commitments, as they may stem from considerations that are not defensible (e.g. our consumption habits, attitudes towards work, etc.). We do not want a theory of justice to simply legitimize current injustices. Justice, argues Ronald Dworkin, is our critic not our mirror (Dworkin, 1985, p. 219). I agree with Dworkin on this. But I also believe that a defensible theory of justice will do justice to a diverse a range of considered judgements. And by doing so a theory of justice will be better equipped to function as a motive for our individual and collective action.
Civic liberalism seeks to take seriously four central moral and political convictions:

1. Limited Government: individual rights are important and the government and society should be constrained from violating those rights. Justice requires that we respect citizens as autonomous persons who are capable of determining for themselves how they wish to live their lives. (liberalism)

2. Self-Government: the authorization to exercise the use of state power should arise from a collective decision-making process that includes all those who are affected by the use of such power. (democracy)

3. Prioritarianism: benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are. (priority)

4. Ethical Particularism: relations between persons are part of the basic subject-matter of ethics, so that fundamental principles may be attached directly to these relations. (Miller, 1995, p. 50) (partiality)

I believe that most citizens in contemporary liberal democracies also share these convictions. These convictions inform some of our most important institutions and practices, ranging from the constitution and democracy to the welfare state and the family. But these convictions are often in tension with each other. I will blog a few posts about these convictions, how they conflict with each other, and how we could attempt to reconcile them, over the course of the summer months.

For those of us who believe, as I do, that each of these four moral and political convictions- liberalism, democracy, prioritarianism and partiality- are important, the real difficult and challenging project is to explore what the implications are for a public philosophy that seeks to give due consideration to each of them. Concerns for the priority we ought to place on toleration and rights, for example, leads many liberals to constitutionalism. Constitutionalism means ‘a system that establishes individual legal rights that the dominant legislature does not have the power to override or compromise’ (Dworkin, 1995, p. 2). But constitutionalism is often thought to be contrary to, or at least in tension with, our democratic aspirations. When we appeal to unelected and unaccountable officials (i.e. judges) to resolve contentious and important issues we violate the norm of inclusion entailed by our commitment to democracy.

It might also appear that prioritarianism and partiality are similarly conflicting commitments. The former requires us to be impartial, and to aid those who are in need (regardless of their nationality). Yet the latter commitment claims that relations between persons is part of morality, so that features like one’s familial connection or nationality are relevant considerations when determining how much weight to place on someone’s interests. Thus it seems that impartiality and partiality are, by definition, incompatible commitments.

Rather than dismiss the quagmire of convictions I have as being incompatible and inconsistent with each other, I felt that I had to search for a public philosophy that recognised both the appeal and the limits of each of the four convictions that I hold so dearly. This book represents my search for this public philosophy. Once one attempts to reconcile these convictions one soon realises that much of the alleged contradiction between constitutionalism and democracy, and prioritarianism and partiality, stems largely from the fact that these convictions are expressed in the form of principles or rules. If we modify the conceptual underpinnings of these convictions we shall see that much of the conflict between them dissipates.