Sat Oct 2nd, 2010 at 09:17:02 AM EST
Recently, in a diary called Paris by Sven Triloqvist, poemless made the point that some people come to ET and struggle to understand what It is about. Why I find that this patchwork tendency also has an endearing feel to it, I must admit that I have struggled to get people to read ET regularly. And we may sometimes not even explicitly mention some points that we take for granted within our community -but which may be lost on a new reader.
So, I thought I would try to find and word some major tendencies that shape ET. I realize that the "we" in the title can seem presumptuous -after all, it is only I who write. But there are two reasons for it. First, I endeavour to identify common lines of thought -ones that, while we can find an individual frequent contributor who disagrees about any one of them, would probably be each be shared by the great majority of us, and a majority of them should be shared by any one of us. Second, I hope that ensuing discussions will make it that eventually it will be "we" writing.
I was initially going to have all topics into one diary, but quickly saw that it would be way too long -besides, I probably am not settled on the list yet.
So here goes with a first instalment: Quasi-Rawlsian ethics
for your weekend reading - Nomad
It may be odd to start with ethics as it is not something discussed here with any frequency, yet the infrequent discussions may precisely come from there being very limited disagreements about it, because we tend to take it for granted. It is, anyway, a meta-subject, one that permeates our views of many an area of public life and world affairs.
I chose to describe our ethics as quasi-Rawlsian. For those who did not read Rawls, or for those who read more than me and wonder what in his writings I refer to, here is a brief explanation:
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to reach justice as fairness, based on simple principles. He first proposes that our definition of justice must be the one that we would chose were we to know nothing of our position in society. This is of course impossible to achieve, but Rawls suggests that we force ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance" before discussing ethics -not ignorance of the ways of the world, but of our position in it.
Rawls reckons that, behind that veil, we would choose the system maximising the condition of the worst-off, and from there that inequalities can be considered ethical provided that they are consistent with the best possible situation for the worst-off in the society (not the worst-off as an individual. Improving his situation by making another's even worse than his was is not an ethical change by this definition).
This should be nothing new "one should judge a society by how it treats its most miserly" -nor should the concept of veil of ignorance, which to me seems like a tautological requirement for discussing ethics. Yet both seem to be, in practice at least, quite controversial.
Rawls' intuition that we would choose that very set of ethics should be more debatable. Certainly it would be the choice of a group of people who are infinitely risk-averse. Humans tend to be risk-averse, but probably not infinitely so. More likely, we would go for something that gives a great weight to the situation of the less fortunate, while maybe not completely ignoring that of all the others. In practical purpose, though, it would probably differ very little and it is of course far simpler to think in terms of maximising one outcome.
Interestingly, utilitarians considered Rawls one of them (to which he disagreed). One reason was that Rawls did use the idea of "utility" in his views of Justice -as opposed, for example, of asking ethics to meet certain axiomatic principles. We are probably quite akin to both in that, as ET is very liberal in its values, and usually holds little for sacred.
Utilitarians also argued that their outcome (maximising the aggregate utility) would always be the same as Rawls', reaching it from the target of maximising that of the worst-off, except in artificial constructs that bore no resemblance to the real life. This is where I think we differ, in two ways.
First, while it may be true that the Rawlsian outcome is also the utilitarian optimum, this is not the argument made in most media. There is quite a significant body of data indicating that a more equal society (more than most of the ones we see in the West - we don't really have any data on how a fully equal society would behave, but I guess that it probably would not quite be optimal) tends to have a bigger growth, yet many articles in the Economic media justify the strong inequality of societies as making them more dynamic and creating bigger growth. Let's leave aside for a moment the glaring imperfection of GDP as an indicator of a society's success - in essence, they are justifying a departure from the Rawlsian target on utilitarian grounds. As a group, I believe ET is on the other side of such arguments, and that we refute the claims that the maximum aggregate outcome will be the best for the least fortunate necessarily.
Second, in ethics the process matters at least as much as the conclusion. Even assuming that Rawls and utilitarians would lead to a similar optimal society, Rawls would get there with the aggregate outcome only considered as a tie-breaker, whereas utilitarians would not take the level of equality into consideration at all. As is probably clear to you, I strongly think that our process is the former rather than the later. Were a billionaire to come across a hobo, we reckon that the shame, if any, should be the billionaire's. This is far from a default position in today's world.
So, why did I call us quasi-Rawlsian? Well, we do have some minor departures, which is only to be expected when real life is matched to an intellectual construction.
To start with, I suggested before that maximising the condition of the least favoured only may not be the exact chosen target, and I think this applies to us. Much as we strive for more equality, we are not solely focused on the destitute.
A more complex departure from the Rawlsian ideal is one where the intellectual construct could not really answer anyway: the world is more than one society after all.
I believe that most of us trend towards wanting a more Rawlsian society in our countries. But most of us probably would not support invading a country, even if we could be quite certain that its worst off inhabitants would be better off afterwards (which would be an extraordinarily difficult claim to make of course. To start with, you'd have to save more lives than the invasion would cost). I am not claiming that Rawls would support the invasion, of course (though utilitarists claim for invasions are often made, even when the benefits, such as they are, would be shared by very few). But an unbounded quest for maximising the condition of the worst-off in the world would have extraordinary implications, some of which most ETers would not support.
Similarly, while most of us would welcome more international aid and support, I have never seen anyone advocate that 75% of the most developed countries' production be redirected to the poorer ones.
There is also the question of uncertainty of outcome. The argument has been made that the current generation should feel free to consume whatever they want, disregarding the environmental impact in the distant futures because the then generations will have such a higher standard of living that even a huge reduction of it would still leave them better off than we are. ET, as a group, would strongly disagree. Hurting future generations on the basis of current claims (even leaving aside how dubious such claims are) about what their lives will be like would be considered here as selfish pseudo-justification.
While we cannot describe the whole dynamics of our views on ethics with the word "Rawls", I reckon that having that framework in mind would approach it fairly well. And it seems to me to be worthy of identification as a distinctive trait because, as far as I can gather, it is not a majority view (certainly not a consensual one anyway) in today's world.