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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
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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
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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
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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
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