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Essay on John Rawls


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on John Rawls
Date: 19th May 2010 12:29

Dear Sachiko,

A lot of work has gone into writing your essay for the University of London Political Philosophy module and I think you will be well prepared to answer questions on Rawls in the exam.

I will just pick on passages where I scribbled wavy lines or question marks. I won't comment on the bits I liked.

My first question concern's Nagel's criticism, 'The suppression of knowledge required to achieve unanimity is not equally fair to all parties because the primary goods are not equally valuable in pursuit of all conceptions of the good.' A lot more can be said here.

Although you later go on to criticize Mill's utilitarianism, contrasting it with Rawls' maxi-min principle, it could be argued that Rawls and Mill are really very close in their liberal conception of justice, and that it wouldn't take much to persuade Mill to abandon his maximizing principle for a maxi-min principle. (After all, Mill concedes to our pre-philosophical intuitions that some pleasures are 'higher' or more worthy of being pursued by human beings than others.) For Mill, the crucial question is whether a derivation of the laws of ethics and principles of justice requires an illicit appeal to the theory of 'moral intuitionism'. The only argument worth listening to is one based purely on rational considerations concerning our natural desire to achieve pleasure/ happiness and avoid pain/ unhappiness.

So by insisting that parties in the original position are ignorant of any 'conception of the good' it can indeed be argued that Rawls has introduced a liberal bias from the start. Anyone with strong traditionalist religious convictions, for example, who believed that society should be run under the rule of God's law would feel marginalised. Well, you might argue, so much the worse for theocracy. But the point is that Rawls is merely articulating the consequences of a particular social/ political ideal, worthy though it may be. He cannot claim to have provided that view with an unassailable philosophical foundation, as the argument from the Original Position claims to do.

Your comment, 'I find it intriguing that Rawls says that we cannot decide the worth of the life choices of others but considers it expedient to decide on principles of justice for all to live by', in effect points a finger at the essential problem. For those who make certain 'live choices', based on personal conviction, it is intolerable that they should be subjected to some conception of justice as based purely on what is 'reasonable' in the absence of any particular ideals or beliefs about the good.

I didn't get what you said in the next paragraph, 'Another criticism we may make...'. What exactly is your point about the death penalty and the person suffering memory loss? I can see how following on from Nagel's point, a Rawlsian argument for or against the death penalty would be unacceptable to anyone who does not embrace his liberal presuppositions. Was that it?

In the same paragraph you go on to ask, 'how do we know that what we do really benefits the poor if we do not even have an understanding of what it is really is to be poor?'. This is different point. Arguably, Rawls has a response here which is that an understanding of what it is like to be poor can be derived from the parties' permitted general knowledge of items 1-5. Nagel, of course, famously argued in 'What is it like to be a bat?' that there are kinds of subjective knowledge which cannot be accessed if you have not enjoyed the experience in question. I'm not convinced, however, that this applies to poverty. If you fully know the circumstances of the poor, even if you have never been poor yourself, surely you have all that is necessary to 'put yourself in their shoes' and imagine what it would be like if this happened to you.

Continuing to the next paragraph, yes, obviously, it would be a very strong argument for Rawls' principles of justice that people would agree to them even if they had ALL information available. But this deliberately misses the point of Rawls' exercise. We are not relying on some other factor (like Humean sympathy). The Original Position must contain everything required for the derivation of principles of justice.

As to the point about 'Rawls' principles of justice closely, perhaps too closely, fit the conditions of justice imposed on the original position' Rawls would argue that this illustrates his important concept of 'reflective equilibrium'. Our starting intuitions, and our theory, ought to be both capable of undergoing change as a result of the attempt to render our thinking rational and consistent.

I would have liked to have seen Sidgwick's point expanded. 'A purer account of liberty might entail an absence of the right to private property.' Whew! Well, it is certainly worthy of investigation whether you could do a version of Rawls Original Position argument and derive Marxism (with suitable tweaks, bearing in mind the requirements of reflective equilibrium). That would be a pretty strong case against the whole enterprise, wouldn't it? One would conclude that you can justify any theory by that method.

I got a bit lost in the paragraph where you quote Nozick's point, 'Who gains at whose expense?' If we accept that redistribution is a necessity according to Rawls, then of course how this is carried out will still matter. That is an argument in favour of transparency, e.g. a tax system where it is absolutely clear 'where your money goes' and which can be seen to be fully justified by economic necessity and the requirements of justice. In that case, Rawls would say, there is no place for disillusion or resentment.

On p. 10 I have a long wavy line starting at the point where you say, 'John Harsanyi takes issue with the use of the maxi-min rule...'. The key point here is how we reason about probabilities. Rawls never 'seriously' considers that we should rule out worst outcomes which have a relatively minuscule probability of being realized. It is true that in the Original Position we don't know how 'risk averse' we are going to be. However, a reasonable assumption, Rawls would argue, is that the exact level of one's risk aversion falls within a range of 'normality', i.e. we are not considering principles of justice which people who were neurotic or had serious psychological problems would agree to.

Good luck with the exam!

All the best,