Tag Archives: John Rawls

Moral Philosophy as Rationalization

Tyler Cowen links to a very insightful article on the theology of the young John Rawls.  It seems Rawls’s disciples are looking under the couches, beds, and rugs for anything written by the hierophant of social democracy.  I am reminded of a story the Harvard philosopher Warren Goldfarb once told a friend of mine about his own career. He said (or is said to have said) that he was downtrodden, worried about continuing on for his PhD, regretting a woefully written term paper he had just handed in to Rawls.  Apparently–I, without a doubt, have no way of verifying this–Goldfarb expressed his concerns to Rawls and Rawls told him not to worry about it. Well, fast forward a few decades, after Rawls has passed away, and the philosophy department is cleaning out Rawls’s office in Emerson Hall. Once they moved his couch…surprise!….that woeful paper Goldfarb wrote was moldering away underneath the furniture. It turns out Rawls never read it.  The paper was left ungraded.

Apocryphal, yes. But two things I know for sure: after Rawls died, many of the books from his office were left up for grabs in the copier room on the third floor of Emerson.  There wasn’t much left when I got there, but I happily snatched Rawls’s copy of Charles Peirce. (Unfortunately there are no passages underlined in it.) The other thing is that one of the offices on the third floor became known as the death office because a string of philosophers died while occupying it.  That couldn’t have been Rawls’s office, but I’m fairly certain that Quine used it, followed by Nozick.  Runaway! 

Thomas Pogge has a book out on Rawls which has a chapter or two devoted to biography.  Along with this paper on religion, it offers some insight into the moral education of the young man as philosopher.  The book mentions an episode during Rawls’s WWII stint.  He and some other officer were approached about driving a jeep into hostile territory.  Since it was dangerous, the commander told the two young men that they could flip a coin to see who’d have to take the mission.  They flipped, Rawls won, and he stayed behind.  His friend’s bad luck didn’t end there, however. He died on the mission. Perhaps this explains why Rawls rejected the equal chance of being any one in society once the veil of ignorance is lifted?

My friend also told me Rawls’s daughter didn’t like the way he dressed.  She said he dressed behind a veil of ignorance.


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Applied Nozick: Finessing The Entitlement Theory

Richard Epstein uses Robert Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice to interpret the ideology behind the financial meltdown. From Epstein’s latest Forbes column

Behind this lending fiasco lay the strong collective preference for the “patterned principles” of justice that Robert Nozick attacked so powerfully in his 1974 masterpiece, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Believers in patterned principles hold that there is some preordained social order that is more just than others. Accordingly, the function of the state is to use the levers of power to manipulate behavior to achieve the desired outcomes. These patterned principles stand in opposition to historical principles of justice, which are content to establish the rules of the game and then let the legal moves by individual players determine the social outcomes. For Nozick, the key rules were rules of justice in acquisition (to set up the initial property rights) and justice in transfer, whereby those rights (and others derived from them) could be exchanged or combined through voluntary transactions.

What were the patterns of justice our time-serving congressmen wished to impose on our society? Apparently one that says the US economy should have 12% of all mortgages issued to low-income borrowers in 1996, 20% in 2000, 22% in 2005 and 28% by 2008. I can’t think of any coherent political philosophy that would specifically set these goals with clear justifications. Time-serving bureaucrats must have simply thought 30% was a good number. It sounds like a fair share of the housing market pie, but then again, why not just say 50%? Hell, let’s say 80%! (Bonus question in applied political philosophy: try to justify any pattern in home-ownership according to Rawls’s Difference Principle.)

On the entitlement theory things would have been different. Channeling Nozick, Epstein makes a plea:

Let people rent or buy in unsubsidized markets and then watch with supreme indifference what residential patterns emerge. That distribution would have been a lot less toxic than the brew generated by our fevered political leaders. So says our frustrated libertarian. 

And so I say, too. When Nozick introduced his entitlement theory back in 1974, he thought he was providing a rights-based argument against competing theories of justice, one powerful enough to outshine the others without having to appeal to the consequences of acting on the theory. Utilitarianism was the bugbear. Nozick had hoped his principles of transfer and acquisition would have greater intuitive moral appeal, enabling the entitlement theory to rise above any type of anything goes consequentialism. Let justice be done tho the heavens may fall–that was the thing. But, intrinsic moral value aside, Epstein’s right here. Applied Nozick turns out to yield the best consequences. Ironically it also satisfies Rawls’s Difference Principle along the way, too.

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