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"This approach is unhelpful and only serves to further the disembodiment of theory from the actual functioning of society."

I have not read everything that Rawls wrote, but from what I read this is an unfair comment.

Rawls does not want to start everything from scratch. He wants to see what can be considered ethical (and bear in mind that when he wrote, there was a significant chunk of the population arguing that ANY inequality would always be unethical).
He posited that to determine that, we should free ourselves from knowing where we would be in society. This is a very fair request. Otherwise, knowing that I'll be a slave owner, I could find reasons to make slavery ethical...

Neither did he reckon that he would find societies completely meeting his criterion. But with this yardstick, we could at least attempt to differentiate between unethical outcomes that we should be trying to curb, and ones that could be considered not only a feature of our society, but a desirable one.

We keep reading the tautology that the ultra-rich wealth is theirs to keep because, well, they deserve it since it is a market outcome. Then the ultra-rich make sure (with money) that this particular market (there are many other ways to organise markets) is maintained, and that "market outcome" continue to be equated with fairness in the media.

Well, if one wants to keep the "actual functioning of society", then that situation will be considered ethical. In Rawls' view, it would not. I know where I stand on that particular matter ;-)

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 04:58:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is more about getting the Rawlsian view accepted as correct than about whether or not it's a valid ethical system.

The issue is that it does nothing to solve inequality unless it's a narrative that everyone grows up with and which is somehow built into policy.

How likely is it that it could be installed in that way?

Without political guns and butter it's just an interesting idea. I can understand the appeal because it has a certain neatness to it, but I think it makes one significant mistake, which is to assume that given a rational choice, everyone will decide that inequality is bad.

I don't think this is true. The reality seems to be more that a small minority of the population believe that inequality is a good and excellent thing, and can't get enough of it - without limit. If they were the ones owning 99% of the resources and everyone else was starving they not only wouldn't care, they'd celebrate. And they'd want even more.

Without those people collective decisions would be far more intelligent. So any useful ethical system has to be able to deal with them firmly and realistically.

So I think you can use Rawls in debates with reasonable people, but not as a tool to persuade the unreasonable ones.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 05:31:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A lot of people will always feel that inequality is good. This is a natural part of humanity, just as are rape, murder and theft.

The problem, in terms of public policy, comes when inequality becomes acceptable as a political discourse. This is paradoxical, in that it only ever benefits a small minority. The political audience for inequality is composed of two groups : those who are  instinctively obedient to their betters, and the wannabes.

As long as democracy is public and transparent, the inegalitarian discourse should really never gain the upper hand, because collectively, peçople are generally egalitarian. If it becçomes legitimate and normal to vote in one's individual best interests, then the inegalitarian thesis will triumph.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 03:57:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is that once inequality creates political advantage, you have a political system which is inherently unstable. There's a feedback loop which promotes the influence of selfish sociopaths and narcissists at the expense of everyone else. Any system that does this will fall over, for the same reason that you can't balance a pencil on its tip.

You can't solve this with Rawlsian argumentation. You can only solve it by building policy around some other set of feedback loops - ones which promote stability and collective rather than individual progress.

If you want to see how democratic a system is, don't waste time on rhetoric about votes, democracy or ethics. Look at the feedback loops. Use them to see which behaviours and attitudes are promoted and rewarded, and which are punished.

You can then see that (e.g.) NCE is inherently disastrous because although it's surrounded by a fog of rhetoric about freedom, choice, democracy, and the rest, and although it pretends to promote stability, it's based on feedback loops which explicitly reward greed and selfishness.

Soviet Communism was disastrous for different reasons. After Stalin created a monster, the feedback loops promoted conformity, dull political cunning, and lack of imagination.

And so on.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:50:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
While offentlighetsprincipen is a cornerstone in Swedish public bureaucracy, making everything that is not secret public. The mere knowledge that anyone can walk in and demand your records makes the bureaucrats much more honest. Thus creating trust, which gives pride, which gives more honesty. Feedback loop.

Not perfect or anything, we have a scandal unfolding in Gothenburg right now regarding embezzlement of public funds. But no single feedback loop should be trusted, rather an intricate web of loops should be woven.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 07:29:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ThatBritGuy:
but I think it makes one significant mistake, which is to assume that given a rational choice, everyone will decide that inequality is bad.

If I understand correctly, Rawls gets around this by postulating an uncertainty with regard to an individual's status in the society in question. That seems to me to transform the problem into a version of ultimatum game, which makes a certain level of fairness (in this context "equality") advantageous.

I'm not at all sure how useful Rawl's proposition would be as a tool of argumentation, but it does pose the question as to how would one organize a society so as to promote decisions in favor or greater fairness.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt t gmail dotcom) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 03:50:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the criticism still applies. The Rawlsian argument works for rational people. It won't work on aggressive narcissists because they simply ignore anything that gets in their way.

I'm reminded of stories about industrial owners who literally didn't care when employees were injured or killed in accidents. A normal reaction would be to tend to the injured, but these people were more likely to rage about lost profits.

You can't argue rationally with people like that. You can only try to keep them away from any kind of power and influence.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:53:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
TBG
I'm not at all sure how useful Rawl's proposition would be as a tool of argumentation, but it does pose the question as to how would one organize a society so as to promote decisions in favor or greater fairness.

The one mechanism that physical and/or social evolution seems to have provided us for such purposes is compassion, which is uncertain, at best, even within immediate families. The further one moves from the family the less certain one can be that compassion will be forthcoming.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 10:15:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but I do think we have great potential for compassion.

Note the often demonstrated need to dehumanize the other, before violence can be used as means to resolve a conflict. Note also that for a long time a big problem in training soldiers was to get them to actually shoot an enemy soldier they could see (the US army seems to have largely solved this by now). And thirdly note that our compassion often crosses art-boundaries, demanding that we use the proper rituals when killing animals.

If compassion can be suppressed, then it should also be possible to nurture it.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 04:36:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rawlsian consensus from Nonpartisan's diary.

According to Rawls, a large majority of people with different views are able to form what he called an "overlapping consensus" -- a core set of policies and governing principles that are contained within all their comprehensive doctrines.  So long as those people are "reasonable" -- that is, so long as they are rational and willing to work with other reasonable people -- there's no need for them to share the same comprehensive doctrine or agree on fundamental principles.  They can govern just fine without any such philosophical agreement, just by passing laws that all or most of them can agree on for their own different reasons.

This is, of course, exactly how our government works: a bunch of people who disagree on ideas come together and agree on policies.  But Rawls was the first to elevate this practical political solution to the level of a philosophy.  Rawls' great insight was that our political system works precisely because of, not in spite of, the fact that we lack universal philosophical standards of right and wrong.  The reason all previous liberal theories had run afoul of pluralism was that they had divided the world into right (those who agreed with the theory) and wrong (those who disagreed with it).  Rawls replaced this dichotomy with another one: he divided the world into the reasonable (those who were willing to work within the overlapping consensus) and the unreasonable (those who weren't).  Rawls' overlapping consensus was much more inclusive than previous theories, since only people with extreme positions would be unwilling to work with others in the overlapping consensus -- and it also meant that people could only be excluded from the consensus by choice, not for any other reason (deep-seated religious belief for Locke, incorrect beliefs for Kant, ethnic/racial/national origin for Mill).  Anyone was welcome within the overlapping consensus unless they voluntarily absented themselves from it.  And anyone who worked within the overlapping consensus had a voice in shaping what that consensus turned out to be.

I see two problems with the above:

  1. A significant group can frustrate the whole process by rejecting everything the somewhat larger group proposes. Sound familiar? It doesn't matter that they might be labeled "unreasonable". It is about power and not reason, with the purpose of power being to feel powerful.

  2. Any solution that would be adequate to the situation could be outside the (manipulated) consensus -- such as is the case just now.

By accepting that the solution has to come from within the consensus, as Obama has done, instead of attempting to move the consensus via leadership to include viable solutions, the consensus approach tends to a Panglossian reducto ad absurdum of "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

But I will grant Rawls that the problems posed since the deconstruction of positivism, starting in the '60s and '70s is acute. Worse, the fundamental conclusion that social reality is a social construct is much more easily exploited by sociopaths than by those who actually care about anything broader than their own interests. Developing a sense of universal compassion was the response to rampant egoism in settled communities was the response in many cultures starting around 500BC, but it has proved insufficient to the problem.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 10:42:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I may have mischaracterized Rawls, but I remain very leery of an excessive reliance on reason or reasonableness, especially as a guide to radical changes in social organization. To me much of the problem with Obama could be said to be due to him employing a Rawlsian approach.

Again from Nonpartisan's diary:

Looking at the second case, (feeling that one should not have to work with certain kinds of people), we can quickly see that populism is not permitted in the Rawlsian world.  "Throw the bums out," as Ross Perot put it, is a distinctly un-Rawlsian sentiment.  You can't throw the bums out, because the bums want to be there and are willing to work with you.  The only way to get rid of political figures you don't like -- not just to remove them from office, but to prevent them from exercising substantive political influence -- is to wait for them to retire.  Rawls' overlapping consensus is so welcoming, so all-encompassing, that it denies the voting public the right to choose who influences their government.  This is particularly problematic when it comes to powerful corporations and special interests.  Corporate fat cats always want influence and are willing to work with anyone in power, so they can't be removed from a Rawlsian government, even though they usually don't represent the best interests of the people.  Sure, you can vote the party in power out of office, but the corporations will just cosy up to the new party in power, and nothing will change.  There's something profoundly undemocratic about a system where the people have to play Whack-A-Mole with nefarious characters who refuse to stay out of power no matter how many times they're sent packing.

This becomes particularly serious when the people you don't feel you should have to work with are the very ones that have massively disproportionate influence -- as at present with the banksters.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 06:31:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are touching a different subject than the one I had in mind.
Rawlsian consensus is the other main chapter of his body of work -I was writing about ethics and in particular the idea that one's position in society should no be taken into account, and that improving the situation of the least favoured should be a major yardstick.

And yes you have a point with your reserves about the Rawlsian consensus, although in that case I think the main problem is something else: Republicans have thrown out of the debate those who argued that government was not always the problem through 50 years of propaganda. They were not thrown out because they did not want to take part in a reasonable discussion. They certainly did not exclude themselves.

It's more an Overton window problem, with Obama not willing to try to move it. Actually, Republicans are out of the Rawlsian consensus (they will block ANYTHING so they probably are the antithesis of the Rawlsian consensus), but they occupy most of the Overton window.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:03:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's more an Overton window problem, with Obama not willing to try to move it.

If I take Nonpartisan's intent correctly, that may be because Obama sees the banksters as part of the consensus. They are certainly more than willing to work with him, even if that really involves him working for them, in practice.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 03:19:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was writing about ethics...

But ethics are specific to the society. The first three search results for the word "ethics" via google bring up the statement that ethics are synonomous with morality or mores. Mores is, ultimately, the customary behavior of a people.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 08:21:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But that is a mistake.

Just like legality and legitimacy are not the same thing, ethics and morality are not the same thing.

By laying out pros and cons we risk inducing people to join the debate, and losing control of a process that only we fully understand. - Alan Greenspan

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 09:29:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But like legitimacy, ethics depend on the society you are in and, particularly, the constraints it faces. It is clearly unethical to leave malformed newborns to die of exposure in a modern industrial state - or even in a premodern state with relatively strong social safety nets. But if you're a subsistence farmer in a premodern state with no support for handling handicapped children, and you're only barely surviving as it is, then it's a lot more of a grey area.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 06:01:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps I should have elaborated. Just because ethics and morality are often taken as being synonymous does not mean that they are. My point was that, like mores, ethics is specific to the culture, however much some ethicists might want to make them universal.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 at 11:42:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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