Sunday, August 17, 2008

David Gordon, Going off Rawls

Going off Rawls

He offers an ingenious substitute for utilitarianism. Instead of directly advancing a theory of his own, Rawls asks what we can do when faced with the fact that people do not agree on a common conception of the good. He answers that even if people do not agree on the good, they can accept a fair procedure for settling what the principles of justice should be. This is key to Rawls’s theory: whatever arises from a fair procedure is just.

But what is a fair procedure? Rawls again has an ingenious approach, his famous veil of ignorance. Suppose five children have to divide a cake among themselves. One child cuts the cake, but he does not know who will get the shares. He is likely to divide the cake into equal shares, an arrangement that the children, no doubt grudgingly, will admit to be fair. By denying the child information that would bias the result, a fair outcome can be achieved.

Rawls’s veil of ignorance generalizes the point of this example. He asks that we imagine a situation, which he calls the original position, in which people do not know their own abilities, tastes, and conceptions of the good. Under this limit, individuals motivated by self-interest endeavor to arrive at principles of justice. People behind the veil of ignorance are self-interested but in crucial respects ignorant.

Rawls thinks that everyone, regardless of his plan of life or conception of the good, will want certain “primary goods.” These include rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, and self-respect. Without these primary goods, no one can accomplish his goals, whatever they may be. Hence, individuals in the original position will agree that everyone should get at least a minimum amount of these primary goods. This is an inherently redistributionist idea, since the primary goods are not natural properties of human beings. If someone lacks these primary goods, they must be provided for him, if necessary at the expense of others.

Concretely, Rawls thinks that people will agree to two principles of justice. The first calls for the greatest liberty for each person, consistent with equal liberty for all. Surely, he suggests, even if you lack information about your actual goals, as the veil prescribes, you will want to be free to pursue whatever these goals turn out to be. Not only will people want liberty, Rawls thinks, they will give this principle priority over the other one, the principle of difference, which in part deals with distribution of economic goods. The two principles cannot be “traded off” against each other: economic equality, for example, cannot be achieved at the expense of liberty