Thursday, November 22, 2007

The "Are You a Fully-Fledged Rawlsian?" Test

Over at Crooked Timber I have been participating in an interesting post on ideal/non-ideal theory. Lots of interesting issues were raised concerning what it is that political philosophers do when constructing normative theories. Towards the end of the comments some detailed points pertaining to Rawls’s theory are raised. And I admit there are different parts of Rawls’s theory that one could emphasize (e.g. the original position, his principles, public reason, reflective equilibrium etc.) and that my criticisms of Rawls might not apply to *all* elements of his theory. Fair enough. But I think that is because there is a deep tension in Rawls’s position. The Rawls who defends public reason and the liberal principle of legitimacy is hard to square with the Rawls who invokes the hypothetical original position to derive his two serially ordered principles of justice.

So let me construct what I call the “Are you a Fully Fledged Rawlsian?” Test. If you answer “Yes” to at least 3 of the following 5 questions then I think it is fair to say you are a fully fledged Rawlsian. If you answer “No” to most of these questions, or object to my questions by protesting that other important questions could be asked, then I think it is fair to say you are not a fully fledged Rawlsian (perhaps you are a partially fledged Rawlsian, or just sympathetic to Rawls’s project- which I of course am to some degree). And finally, if you firmly answer “No” to all 5 questions I think you are justified in wondering why so many political philosophers align themselves with Rawls.

Test: Are you a full-fledged Rawlsian?

(1) Do you believe that liberty should have absolute priority over everything else? In other words, are you in agreement with Rawls’s claim that justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. Or his stance that a basic liberty can be limited or denied solely for the sake of one or more other basic liberties.

As a liberal I certainly believe liberty is important, and that we should not interfere or restrict liberty for arbitrary or ill-conceived reasons. But I do not give liberty the privileged position Rawls gives. Much of course depends on what is included in the basic liberties, but I see no reason why we shouldn’t keep an open mind about the possibility that other things (e.g. equality) could justify limiting freedom. For example, in the case of freedom of expression I would support reasonable measures that sought to protect the equality of women or visible minorities at the expense of the liberty of racists and pornographers.

UPDATE: Another major concern with privileging liberty like this is that it has enormous budgetary implications. It leads us to take a "spare no expense when it comes to protecting liberty!" mentality. And this is can be unreasonable when there are both (1) other pressing concerns (like health care) that must be balanced and (2) scarcity.

(2) Do you believe that justice requires institutions to be arranged so that any two persons with the same native talent and the same ambition should have the same prospects of success in the competition for positions of advantage that distribute primary social goods? Furthermore, do you think this aspiration should be given priority over the aspiration to improve the situation of the least advantaged?

My answer is again a “No”. Richard Arneson does a great job of showing the counter intuitive consequences of this principle in “Against Rawlsian Equality of Opportunity” (Philosophical Studies,1999). Let me elaborate on Arneson’s concerns.

Suppose two identically talented individuals are born into privileged households- one is born into an affluent upper middle class household and the second into the very richest household. Rawls’s second principle dictates that these individuals should have the same prospects of success in the competition for jobs.

But suppose this is not the case. The child born into the richest household has a slight advantage over the equally talented child born into the upper middle class household. According to Rawlsian equal opportunity, we must redress this inequality. Furthermore, because this principle is serially ordered over the difference principle, we are to redress such an inequality independently of any concerns we might have about how such actions might deplete the amount of public funds available to help those with less skills. So, for example, if redressing the inequality between the affluent (yet unequal) talented individuals depletes the funds available for benefiting the truly disadvantaged in society this should not stop us from redressing this inequality. The principle of equal opportunity is serially ordered over the difference principle, so prioritarian concerns cannot trump considerations of equal opportunity. We cannot ask if we should trade some amount of inequality of opportunity among the well-off for a more significant benefit to the least advantaged. Such a proposal would violate the priority rules Rawls imposes on the social primary goods. And I think this is wrong.

(3) Do you believe that justice requires socio-economic inequalities to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged?

I have italicized “greatest” here because that is the thing that bothers me about the difference principle. I do consider myself a prioritarian, but I am a pluralistic prioritarian. So the magnitude of the benefit is important, as well as the magnitude of the sacrifice we expect others to make. I think Rawls’s priority principle is both too stringent (when taken on its own) and too weak (when it is placed 3rd on his list of serially ordered principles).

(4) Do you think the least advantaged members of your society are:

..."persons whose family and class origins are more disadvantaged than others, whose natural endowments (as realized) permit them to fare less well, and whose fortune and luck in the course of life turn out to be less happy, all within the normal range and with the relevant measures based on social primary goods". ?

Again, I’m afraid I answer "no". Some people in this category are the least advantaged. But by focusing only on the *social primary goods* Rawls misses a big category of individuals whose expected life-time acquisition of the natural primary goods are below half the median. For example, victims of early onset diseases. So Rawls’s neglect of the natural primary goods (like health) really skews things in a way that I think distorts our prioritarian sensibilities.

(5) Do you think invoking the hypothetical original position helps enhance your deliberations concerning which principles should regulate the basic structure of your society? (and if so, how does this square with your answers to 1, 2, and 3?)

I already had my say on this issue here.

So how did you do on the test? Are you a “fully-fledged Rawlsian”?