Praesidium

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rawls Test

After sounding off (again) about ideal theory, over on a previously mentioned Crooked Timber post, Colin Farrelly now offers a 'are you a fully fledged Rawlsian?' test.

I think there's some ambiguity - even equivocation - about what it means to be a Rawlsian. In one sense, for example, Jerry Cohen is a Rawlsian - he works closely on Rawls and similar substantive concerns, though he disagrees very much with Rawls' conclusions.

Taking each question in turn:

(1) Do you believe that liberty should have absolute priority over everything else?
This seems to equivocate the distinction between priority of liberty (in general) and the priority of enumerated basic liberties. The idea that we may sacrifice liberty for material gain ignores the fact that circumstances of justice are those where we're not so badly off, and so liberty becoems more important than material gain. Finally Colin's example of restricting pornographers and racists to protect women and minorities is something Rawls could accept because he'd interpret it as limiting liberty to protect lbierty.

(2) Do you believe that justice requires institutions to be arranged so that any two persons with the same native talent and the same ambition should have the same prospects of success in the competition for positions of advantage that distribute primary social goods? Furthermore, do you think this aspiration should be given priority over the aspiration to improve the situation of the least advantaged?
I'm not sure how Rawls would respond to this. One point I think he would make is that his priority rules are not in fact absolutely lexical - he's clear that's a simplifying approximation. Further I might say that equal opportunity should be preferred as a matter of justice, though all things considered we might not worry too much about these cases.

(3) Do you believe that justice requires socio-economic inequalities to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged?
Again, Rawls' priority rules are not absolute and, moreover, since the difference principle only comes into play after equal basic liberties and equal opportunity it doesn't require such great sacrifices.

(4) Do you think the least advantaged members of your society are:
..."persons whose family and class origins are more disadvantaged than others, whose natural endowments (as realized) permit them to fare less well, and whose fortune and luck in the course of life turn out to be less happy, all within the normal range and with the relevant measures based on social primary goods"?

Rawls is ignoring the sick or disabled in assuming that all are full participants in a fair scheme of co-operation for mutual benefit. Perhaps this is one area where he can be criticized for unrealistic abstractions from reality, but I'm not convinced he can't say his basic principles still hold where his assumptions are good, and those lacking natural primary goods (such as health) can be tackled by adding in something else, like a Dworkinian hypothetical insurance market.

(5) Do you think invoking the hypothetical original position helps enhance your deliberations concerning which principles should regulate the basic structure of your society?
As stated, noting that it refers to rules of regulation, this is something even Jerry Cohen could accept. Maybe that's deliberate, as he's also the kind of ideal theorist that Farrelly's attacking. I do, however, think that the original position is a useful heuristic device when trying to think of reasonable principles. Perhaps Farrelly's attack on it depends more on the original understanding of rational choice behind the veil of ignorance, that Rawls increasingly seemed to distance himself from in his later work.

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