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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Time to perform reflective equilibrium on Rawls’ Theory of Justice

Interesting to see a blog discussion circling around John Rawls’s great mistake: his claim that nobody deserves anything. Understanding this mistake is the key to getting Rawls right.

Will Wilkinson started the recent flare-up by posting a piece at Tech Central Station critiquing the Rawlsian “nobody deserves anything” type of thinking. Wilkinson argues that denial of desert does not fit with people’s considered moral convictions, as Rawls says that a successful theory of justice should.

In reply, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber writes:

There are no doubt one or two sentences in A Theory of Justice that encourage such an interpretation. But, as Wilkinson surely knows, the argument in which Rawls asserts that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society” (which Wilkinson cites, selectively, from the first edition of ToJ) concerns the choice of a co-operative scheme for a whole society.(1) In the passage in question Rawls is not addressing the question of whether those who are better-endowed with natural assets or who have “superior character” ought to get more within a co-operative scheme, he’s writing about whether their better endowment ought to be reflected in the choice of scheme under which they co-operate with others.(2) And his answer is, that no, the more talented have no special right to have their interests given greater weight than those others. [See Bertram’s post for citations.]

Bertram is half right. When Rawls makes his claims that people do not deserve the rewards that redound to their talents or even their efforts, he is doing it in order to build a abstract choice position (decision-making behind a veil of ignorance about one’s place in society) that does not allow people to tailor the rules of society to fit their special circumstances. This can be seen in the way that Rawls arrives at his "original position" of choice behind the veil of ignorance. Rawls arrives at ignorance by stripping away "morally irrelevant" information. The idea is that, once the morally irrelevant is stripped away, the resulting choice point should be moral. (Sounds sensible, right?)

Using this methodology, Rawls' claim that no one deserves ANYTHING leads to a situation of ignorance about ALL the particulars of one's situation, and this is indeed a moral choice point. By forcing people to pick rules without knowing their place in society, the veil of ignorance forces people to consider consequences for all members of society. Decision-makers are forced to "Love thy neighbor as thyself." The veil of ignorance is the Christian "law of love" in abstract form. Not bad. No wonder Rawls has a lot of followers. It really seems like he must be making sense.

Bertram is very wrong, however, to suggest that Rawls’ denial of desert is limited (or pretty much limited) to his construction of the veil of ignorance. The ordinary language interpretation that Wilkinson gives, the nobody-deserves-anything interpretation, is very much a part of Rawls’ theory. People are DUE the income and positions that they can attain by playing within the rules that are established behind the veil of ignorance, but no one DESERVES their income or position. That is the whole premise that leads to the veil of ignorance. If anyone were to deserve anything, the veil of ignorance would never come into existence.

But wait a minute. That doesn’t make sense does it? As soon as anyone deserves anything, the entire mechanism for arriving at principles of justice disappears? Something is very very wrong here. Why does there have to be a world where no one deserves anything before people can contemplate not knowing their place in society? If people can be made hypothetically ignorant of their talents, why can’t they be made hypothetically ignorant of their deserts?

Rawls used an errant mechanism to arrive at his veil of ignorance. The idea of stripping away morally irrelevant information seemed to him to fit what he was doing, but if it only works when ALL information is morally irrelevant then it HAS to be wrong. Look what happens in Rawls' scheme if someone deserves something. That means he gets to know about it when choosing rules for society, which means that he gets to bias the rules in favor of his particular kind of desert. What sense does that make? That doesn't capture fairness (Rawls' original idea). The way to capture fairness is to have people decide principles for answering claims of desert from behind a veil of ignorance about one’s particular claims of desert. In other words, all of that business about stripping away the morally irrelevant information is a wrong turn. That isn't what leads to the veil of ignorance. Fairness is.

Rawls had a realpolitik account of why people will want to be fair (so that they can cooperate, and not kill each other) but he did not have a good moral account of why people should be fair. That is why he added the scheme of stripping away "morally irrelevant" information: to give his theory a moral foundation. But the upshot is, while the veil of ignorance is right, the moral-relevance scheme for arriving at it is wrong. There is, however, a correct way to arrive at the veil of ignorance (hint: figure out why moral people want to be fair, even when they could get away with cheating.) Once the veil is arrived at properly, claims of need and claims of desert can both be accounted from behind the veil, leading to rules of justice that reflect both need and desert. As Rawls’ theory stands now, only claims of need are accounted behind the veil of ignorance. And yes, adding claims of desert DOES changes the principles arrived at.

Rawls is easy to forgive. He knew that the veil of ignorance was right, and he thought (because it seemed to work) that he had to annihilate desert in order to get there. He also knew that he was reaching beyond himself to try to pull such an ambitious theory together and he knew that this reach would involve mistakes. That is why a core part of his theory is about how to advance the project through a process of “reflective equilibrium." After the first iteration, check the principles that emerge from the theory against considered convictions. See where they go wrong. Trace the errors to their sources. Try to figure out by that process how to reframe the theory. Figure out how to take the progress that has been made, and flip it into the right position.

Wilkinson is engaging the first step of that methodology, pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Rawls’ annihilation of desert does NOT square with the moral intuitions, and he is right. OF COURSE people deserve a share of what they create. Was Rawls so eloquent as to blind his followers to the most obvious of all moral intuitions for thirty years? Is that a tribute? Wake up! This isn’t what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to SEE the mistakes, not help Rawls hide them. If the theory needs to be flipped, you don’t just keep tarring the twisted parts over in hopes that they will look smooth.

The definitive rejection of the no-one-deserves-anything position is David Kelley’s great little book A Life of One’s Own. Neither Kelly nor Rawls can figure out how to square claims of need with claims of desert. Rawls’ answer is to only account claims of need. Kelly’s answer is to only account claims of desert (which he frames in terms of self-ownership). The right answer is to account both. What is truly shocking is that claims of desert and claims of need CAN be reconciled, meaning that the right answer will fully satisfy BOTH sides. Honest people will not have anything to fight about any more. (Why does that not make me confident that the fighting will stop?)

Defenders of the no-one-deserves-anything view think they are defending Rawls. That is a grave mistake. So long as they are fixated on what Rawls got wrong, they can't correctly understand what he got right.

A “no prize” for the first person who can explain how to reconcile claims of need and claims of desert. Hint: one word, four letters.

Okay, I guess I have to supply the puzzle answers myself. Puzzle #2, the four letter answer to how to answer claims of need without violating claims of desert? It's called a L-O-A-N. Bill all aid to the account of the recipient, to be paid back, with full interest, according to an ability-to-pay formula, over the life of the recipient.

To the extent that society does engage in the answering of claims of need, it should ALL be done this way. Billing aid to the account of the recipient achieves more bang per buck than other methods of rendering aid, making it the BEST way to render aid. Not only does it leave incentives to responsible behavior mostly intact, but it has the great advantage of keeping the books straight.

When aid is given away, the message to aid recipients is that society owes them. When society takes responsibility for paying to have their claims of need answered, the message is that society must be to blame for their needy condition. In contrast, billing aid to the account of the recipient tells them in the most matter of fact way that it is they who owe society, not society who owes them, and the tally of how much they owe society is recorded right there in the account that they are required to pay off to the extent that they are able.

Blogger limits comment size, so I'll put puzzle answer 1 in another comment (or two).
Puzzle 1: what is the correct moral foundation for arriving at the original position where principles of justice, or fair rules, are decided from behind a veil of ignorance about one's place in society? The answer is a bit more complicated than LOAN, but it is still pretty simple.

Rawls' original insight was that choice behind the veil of ignorance offers a way to capture the concept of fair rules: rules that have not been tailored by rule writers to favor the rule writers' particular circumstances, but are chosen with everyone's welfare equally in mind. Thus the question of why choose principles from behind the veil can be reduced to the question of why people would want to be fair. Why would they rather not cheat, even if they could get away with it, even if they could rig the game?

Of course some people do cheat. A substantial portion of mankind is criminal. There are people who will commit murder in order to steal. But the question of moral foundations doesn't depend on what just any old person will do. It is interested in the person who makes progress in discovering what there is to value in the world around.

Recall the instruction of Linnaeus: "know thyself" (homo sapiens). What distinguishes the human being is our open-ended faculties of intelligence, are able to comprehend all kinds of things beyond the forces that guided our evolution. Written language, for instance, is only a couple of thousand years old. It played no significant role in our evolution. Yet it is a huge part of what we are today.

Once you have open ended faculties of intelligence, natural selection cannot determine what these faculties are going to comprehend. They are going to comprehend whatever is out there in the world to be discovered comprehended, and part of what there is to discover and comprehend is the moral reality of the world around. Our open ended faculties of intelligence can see value in things, value that has nothing to do with our evolution, because there is value out there in the world, to be comprehended on its own terms.

Sociobiologists have long argued that as evolved creatures, we are not going to act against our reproductive interests, but they aren't looking at a big enough picture. If open ended faculties of intelligence make us value things and act for things that do not serve our reproductive interests, the only way to get rid of that reproductively dysfunctional (or non-maximizing) altruistic behavior is to get rid of the open ended faculties of intelligence which, once they exist, will value what the moral reality of the world around revels to value, and getting rid of open ended faculties of intelligence has all kinds of other benefits for reproduction, so that on the whole, those who have them reproduce better, even if they are liable to do all kinds of things that are not oriented towards reproduction.

Once we have open ended faculties of intelligence, capable of discovering value in the world around, our genes can no more determine WHAT these open ended faculties will find to value than they can determine what mathematics will be discovered by our open ended faculties of intelligence. Of course we also have more primitive mental faculties, predecessors to our open ended faculties of intelligence, which CAN direct us to particular ends. But our big brains are going to value what they discover to value, and the only way to stop it is to stop having big brains.

Once we understand what the human being is--that we have this open ended ability to uncover and appreciate value in its myriad forms--then the question is what do we discover to value. If we are surrounded by this moral landscape and we have eyes to see it, what do we see? What is the lay of the land? How do we love thee, world? Let us count the ways.
There are fun things: games, and sports, and humor. There are beautiful things: arts and music and literature. There are fascinating things: science and mathematics. There are useful arts, figuring out how to put our scientific discoveries to use both for securing the basic necessities of life, and for powering our pursuit of the many other worthwhile purposes that we discover. But MOST of all, there is each other.

Why most of all? Because we all have this same basic nature: these open ended capacities to comprehend value and act for it. Along with that commonality there are great differences. Some people's powers of comprehension extend further in different directions than other people's. Some are more controlled by their animal natures, less by their open ended faculties of intelligence, and some have animal natures that are geared more towards cheating than others. Combine a rapacious animal nature with weak or defective moral comprehension, and you can get some real vermin, an animal predator armed with big brained powers of deception and manipulation.

But most people have full moral IQ. Their open ended faculties of intelligence process evidence and discoveries of value the same as any other datum. Just as most people can hear the merits in a piece of music. Some might hear more than others, but a large majority of people get most of it. Same with the ability to comprehend value, and this itself, this broadly common nature, is what makes us value each other most of all. We are all doing the same thing: discovering worthwhile things in the world and acting for them. We are agents of moral progress, and we are the only such agents. If value is to be discovered for and acted for on planet earth, it will have be by us (unless there really is a God in whose image we are created).

You might be completely wrong in your thinking about how to act for value. You might be one of these total dupes who has fallen for the biggest hoax in scientific history: the unfounded alarm about the anthropogenic component of atmospheric CO2, which is 100% known to be perfectly benign. You might be out to unplug the modern world on the basis of a flat out lie, but you are still trying. Your moral faculties are engaged and are doing their best. They have just been misled by a cadre of very clever criminals. That's always the battle: to outsmart the criminals, and it's not a given that we win. But we have to try to win. We have to try to contribute to moral progress, to be a force for good.

And that is why people who make individual moral progress in the discovery and pursuit of value want to be fair. They want to contribute to the world around. Otherwise they become a force for bad in the world, and people whose nature is to comprehend the moral landscape of the world around don't want that, not for any personal pay off. What pay off they receive--say they get rich--they want to devote that accumulated power to doing good. If you say to them, you can have all this money, but only if you spend it on the destruction of everything you see to value in the world, they will say no thanks. That's not what they are here for. Given a choice to live by producing value and getting paid for it, or by cheating and destroying value (the choice everyone has to make as to whether to be a criminal or a productive citizen) and anyone who has made progress in discovering what there is to value in the world will choose to be fair.
That's all that is needed to provide a proper moral foundation for Rawls' "original position" of choice behind a veil of ignorance about one's place in society. People who have made moral progress want to be fair, and the veil of ignorance provides a fair way to choose principles of justice. But this altered foundation for the original position changes everything. Rawls had gotten to the original position by annihilating all claims of desert. When choice behind the veil is reached by this alternative method of understanding why morally rational people will want to be fair (people who husband and follow their evidence of value so that they make progress in the discovery of value) then individuals behind the veil are no longer to see themselves as not deserving anything. On the contrary, they should see themselves as having claims of desert to the value they produce. In Rawls's theory, the only claims that are considered behind the veil are claims of need. When properly formulated, people behind the veil are to figure out what principles of justice will best answer both claims of need AND claims of desert.

Suddenly market mechanisms become much more important, because they DO answer claims of desert. People have a moral claim to be paid according to their marginal productivity (the competitive price for their labor).Of course this has been said for a very long time. Rawls just improperly excised it from his theory of justice. Once his theory is put on the correct foundation, this errant omission is corrected. Claims of desert take pride of place, and the rules arrived at can actually be fair rules.

Now notice how puzzle 1 and puzzle 2 fit together. Billing aid to the account of the recipient provides a way to answer claims of need without violating claims of desert, because there is no (or minimal) transfer of ownership. The people who are aided are not getting ownership of productivity that belongs to other people as a matter of desert. They are being allowed to BORROW it. Sweet. So billing aid to account is not called for only because it is the most efficient way to give aid (the most bang for buck), but for deep philosophical reasons. It is the only way to fully answer both claims of need and claims of desert at the same time, which is exactly what people behind the properly grounded veil of ignorance are looking for.
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