Aug 26, 2008

a brief introduction to Rawls

Anyone interested in the work of John Rawls--and I direct this mostly to high school debaters who have yet to memorize the Difference Principle--would be well-served by David Gordon's concise and thoughtful introduction to his work, including a biographical tidbit that may explain his reliance on moral luck as the foundation of his contractual thinking.
Rawls argues that people do not deserve to reap the rewards of [their] talents. Tiger Woods earns millions of dollars because he is superlatively good at golf. Yet his abilities do not stem from any special virtue on his part. He was just lucky that, by some combination of heredity and environment, he ended up with superior skills. He is lucky in another respect: market demand for golf enables his talent to achieve vast returns. Because market demand for checkers players is much less, the late Marion Tinsley, whose skill at checkers was comparable to that of Woods in golf, did not earn comparable returns on his talent.

One might object that luck is not the full story. However talented he may be, Woods had to practice countless hours from his early youth to get where he is today. Does he not deserve to benefit from his hard work? Rawls has an answer that I suspect readers will find surprising. He thinks that if you have the personality trait of working hard, this too is a matter of luck. Even though Woods practiced strenuously, he does not deserve to benefit from this trait.

As Thomas Pogge has noted in his recent biography John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, Rawls was especially sensitive to issues of luck because of a sad occurrence in his own life. Two of his brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. Pogge calls the loss of the brothers the “most important events in Jack’s childhood.” In 1928, the 7-year-old Rawls contracted diphtheria. His brother Bobby, younger by 20 months, visited him in his room and was fatally infected. The next winter, Rawls contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died.
Gordon also explains the appropriation of Rawls' techniques and premises by libertarians he calls "Rawlsekians," fusing the work of Rawls and Hayek.

An interesting critique of Rawls may come from moral psychology, which has found that people have strange and sometimes contrary intuitions about moral dilemmas, reaching answers that aren't always amenable to classical conceptions of reason. Rawls's scheme depends on a set of unbiased thinkers behind a veil of ignorance, but perhaps innate biases and irrational quirks rule out any truly ideal foundation for a social contract.


Anonymous said...

It's a pretty good summary but it has a pretty random starting point. It skips the original position and veil of ignorance (though it has an honorable mention at the end) which is crucial to understanding the arbitrary placement of natural assets, etc. I think it could of explained the two principles of justice as well since it seems to be the crux of Rawl's theory.

The information about Rawl's childhood was interesting though(no I am not sadistic) I suppose it could make for the perfect Ad Hominem attack on Rawls.

What do you think about using the veil of ignorance on the current topic? It's pretty one-sided but under absolute ignorance, I think we would prefer the affirmative because it gives at least a 66% chance of living (if not more).

Jim Anderson said...

Funny you should mention that. I said almost the exact same thing here.

I'm not sure if it's fair to use the Veil of Ignorance in isolation. Rawls saw it as a project of society-making; that the rules derived from the Original Position would arise organically and logically through deliberation. As such, it may be that people would reject the mathematical argument--"I have a 66% chance of living, which is better than a 34% chance of dying"--when they consider all the other effects that utilitarian reasoning would have if adopted societally.

I'll dig around for any professional analysis in the literature, though, before I dismiss it. A couple resolutions, I prematurely dismissed Rawls and had to take it back.