Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Why I Study Philosophy

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An op-ed article in the New York Times was brought to my attention last week. The article is “Where Is the Love?” by Nicholas Kristof, and was written in response to feedback he has received from readers regarding his earlier writings:

When I’ve written recently about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates, I’ve had plenty of pushback from readers.

Kristof apparently doesn’t appreciate the pushback, describing the comments he receives as “scorn” and a “coruscating chorus,” which last I can only interpret as a sarcasm. He links the commenters to “modern social Darwinists,” categorizing them in with believers who tout le monde, any person of the faith, knows to be discredited.

Kristof considers the viewpoints of the readers who respond negatively to his writing to “reflect a profound lack of empathy.” Here again, we observe the attitude that those who don’t agree with the author just don’t get it and are defective in some way, lacking in some necessary mental faculty. If you only had a proper amount of empathy, you would see the correctness of my viewpoint. Off to the re-education camp with you!

And what should the content of the re-education be? Fortunately, Kristof provides us with insights as to where he got his beliefs:

John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” — meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?

So let’s take a closer look at this “brilliant 20th-century philosopher.”

The Philosophy of John Rawls

The work for which Rawls is most known is his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, in which he set out what he believed to be a just foundation for a politically legitimate society.

[Rawls] only wrote this book, basically. He wrote some articles which lead up to the book and then some things that follow out of the book, but basically his book A Theory of Justice is it. And so he’s not a great in that sense of the greats of the tradition, but he certainly has more intellectual staying power than any contemporary, in the broad sense of the word, that you’ve read in this course or will read in this course. People will still be reading Rawls long after people like me have been forgotten about.

So in that sense he’s a really important figure, and he’s a really important figure also in the sense that even if you don’t like his arguments, even if you are completely un-persuaded by all of his arguments you have to come to grips with him. I’m not in sympathy with any of his major arguments, but you cannot work in this field and not deal with John Rawls. That’s how important he is, and he’s going to be for a long time. So that’s just by way of background and letting you know what you’re dealing with.
— Ian Shapiro, “Moral Foundations of Politics”, Session 16

The above is from a Yale course given in 2010 by Dr. Shapiro that was recorded and made available online at and that I will reference again in this article. It discusses the various theories that would make a government morally legitimate and is worth taking a look at.

As Dr. Shapiro says, John Rawls is an unavoidable presence in contemporary normative political theory — the study of how society ought to work, as contrasted with how it actually does work. So we need to examine what he had to say and what the merits and defects of his position are.

Justice as Fairness

When Rawls talks about justice, he is really basing it on fairness. His point of view is really a logical destination once you secularize the concept of a universe where life outcomes are just.

If you are a Christian, you have the final judgment of God to make everything come out right. God can see into each person’s soul and know what she was capable of. He can evaluate her actions against her capabilities and make a just decision about how she lived her life. Maybe the person didn’t have any advantages on Earth, but tried her best. It’s just a vale of tears, anyway; you’ll get your reward in heaven (unless you believe in predestination, which is beyond the scope of this discussion).

Once you remove the judgment of God, there is no reward to be had in heaven. So if you are a caring person, you look at disadvantaged people and you think, “how can this be right?” Starting here, it is understandable to want to have society make it right. This is where Rawls is coming from. In his view, a just society would make it right for the disadvantaged.

This viewpoint is understandable, but it doesn’t work. As Thomas Sowell explains in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice, this concept of justice is unrealizable and has profoundly immoral side effects. From a summary written by Dr. Sowell:

John Rawls perhaps best summarized the differences when he distinguished “fair” equality of opportunity from merely “formal” equality of opportunity. Traditional justice, fairness, or equality of opportunity are merely formal in Professor Rawls’ view and in the view of his many followers and comrades.  For those with this view, “genuine equality of opportunity” cannot be achieved by the application of the same rules and standards to all, but requires specific interventions to equalize either prospects or results.  As Rawls puts it, “undeserved inequalities call for redress.”
— Thomas Sowell,

God is omnipotent and all-seeing. God can see into the souls of persons and determine whether or not the inequalities between two persons are undeserved, and God will make that judgment in divine terms, not human terms. What human or human institution has this godlike capability? There is none.

The Veil of Ignorance

According to Rawls, a society is fair if you would choose to live under it without knowing beforehand whether you would be a prince or a pauper. Rawls calls this restriction on foreknowledge the veil of ignorance. A person acting from behind this restriction would be in the original position and would, according to Rawls, be most likely to enter into a social contract with others that would minimize the disadvantage he would encounter if his initial circumstances in life turn out to be unfavorable. He believes that persons who were in the original position would only chose to be governed by principles that could be universalized to all. Consider how you would feel if you were in the least advantaged position governed by the principle in question; would you still want to follow it?

Not that you genuinely have a choice, mind you; this is all a thought experiment to establish the existence of a social contract. Because the social contract is a political justification for power, everyone has to be subject to it or it is meaningless; you can’t say, “I am bound by all terms except these two that I really don’t like.” The idea of a social contract is one theory among many attempting to explain the moral legitimacy of governance, and has valid criticisms. First and foremost hangs on the concept of consent. You can’t be a citizen and not consent to it. For citizens to be valid and effective political actors, they must consent to their relationships, yet the social contract would unravel if those unfavorably affected by it could opt out.

Locke and Hobbes attempted to show the existence of a social contract by asserting that the reasonable person would consent to it when confronted with the alternatives of tyranny or anarchy. Even for Locke, there were limits to what the state could do before anarchy became a palatable alternative to the social contract, which is why Locke is in the roots of American political philosophy. Locke’s rights to life, liberty and property became Jefferson’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The social contract of Rawls grants the state control over all resources to distribute in the name of fairness. The needs of the disadvantaged trump trivial concerns of ownership. While Rawls wrote that he was agnostic between capitalism and socialism, there does not seem to be much room for a coherent capitalist system with rewards that relate to risk. It would be more accurate to say that Rawls is indifferent between corporatism and socialism.

Rawls also makes unwarranted assumptions about preferences. He believes that a fair society would arrange social and economic relationships so that they are both to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. However, history shows that people who are at a disadvantage often do not want all advantage to be leveled, but to exchange places with those who are in a position of advantage. There is no room for this in Rawls’ world, but others, notably including John Harsanyi in 1976, have challenged Rawls’ assertion that the rational course of action for a person in the original position would be to ensure the best conditions for the least well-off.

Moral Luck

An even more radical departure in Rawls is his concept of what it means to deserve something. In his idealized society, there is just a scale running from disadvantaged to advantaged. It really doesn’t matter why. Those who are disadvantaged don’t deserve to be, and therefore it follows that those who are advantaged don’t deserve to be either. As Kristof explains:

Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.

But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.

The transmission mechanism of intergenerational poverty is through failure to develop success behaviors in children. Rawls and his followers take this further, to say that the person who has the advantages of proper parenting and examples of hard work being rewarded is just advantaged and morally lucky. He doesn’t have a moral claim to more goodies than the next person. In the Yale lecture, Shapiro followed where this line of thinking leads, challenging the students directly:

Isn’t it just true that the differences between us nature or nurture are morally arbitrary? It is moral luck whether it’s genetics or upbringing.  Nothing you did, nothing you chose, nothing you have, therefore, any particular right to. So you guys think you all worked so hard to get into Yale and all this and you deserve to be here. It’s a load of bunk. None of you deserve to be here more than anybody else. That’s what [Rawls is] saying. It might be a nice fiction you tell yourself.
— Ian Shapiro, “Moral Foundations of Politics”, Session 17

According to Shapiro, Rawls himself was not entirely comfortable where this line of thought is going, seeing that it threatened personal responsibility in any form. He attempted to draw a distinction between the differences in capabilities between people, which he saw as arbitrary, and the uses people make of their capabilities, which he claimed was not. Therefore a person who just can’t do better doesn’t deserve to be disadvantaged, while a person who can do better but doesn’t would deserve to be. This is a paper-thin distinction that is easily brushed aside: the ability to use one’s capabilities effectively is itself a capability, subject to the same genetic and/or environmental influences as any other capability.

Production and Distribution

The starting point for Rawls, the original position, also says something very different about the world than did the starting point for Hobbes and Locke, which was the state of nature. For Hobbes, in his classic expression from Leviathan, life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

By contrast, Rawls presupposes an existing civilization with wealth production going on. How it happens doesn’t really seem to matter. Production is inevitable, just like the weather. This is a species of the fallacy of material abundance.

As a simple example of fairness, Shapiro uses the problem of dividing a pie among two people. The solution is to have one person cut, then the other person select the first piece. This is fine if we are at a potluck dinner. But what about a situation in which you have paid for the pie and are offering me a slice? Is it fair, let alone appropriate, for me to split it down the middle with you? At what point do I take what I am given and consider myself lucky to get anything?

In the state of nature, there are no pies sitting around waiting to be divided. You don’t get any presents you didn’t bring. The original position is very different: the pies are there, and the big moral question is how to equitably share them.

Most contemporary intellectuals assume that the table is piled high with pies waiting to be divided, with plenty more where that came from. The issues of production do not interest them; they assume that the pies will come from somewhere. Their attention is focused on distribution; they want to make sure that everyone gets some pie. But if production matters, then people who produce are not just “advantaged”, they are productive. This puts the distribution issue in an entirely new light, because productive people deserve some reward for being productive. Even if you believe that productive people are productive because they won the “ovarian lottery,” society is up the creek without them.

Defending the Indefensible

The followers of John Rawls present his theory as if it were the unchallenged and authoritative standard in political philosophy. Consider this example from the series The Left W-er, The West Wing:

WILL: The answer to your question about why the MD should accept a greater tax burden in spite of the fact that his success is well earned is called the veil of ignorance. Imagine before you’re born you don’t know anything about who you’ll be, your abilities, or your position. Now design a tax system.
LAUREN ROMANO: Veil of ignorance?
WILL: John Rawls.
The West Wing Season 4, Episode 84, “Red Haven’s on Fire”,

Similarly, Kristof is appalled at the pushback he gets. What kind of knuckle-draggers dare challenge the theories of John Rawls?

However, pushback is what I am all about here at Clause 61. From Kristof’s op-ed piece:

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.

Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?”

The readers who are writing these comments are looking for personal responsibility. They won’t find it in the works of John Rawls. They know that what they are reading is wrong, even if they are not able to adequately articulate what is wrong about it. Perhaps the people writing these comments do not fully understand the issues involved, but they do understand, at least at an intuitive level, that the moral positions they are reading are not acceptable and you cannot build a functioning society on these bases. I thank God that we have people in this country who are not willing to swallow the repugnant moral theories of John Rawls and his acolyte Nicholas Kristof whole, even if they can’t fully explain what is wrong with these ideas.

Kristof could use a dose of empathy as well. The people paying the freight are becoming the disadvantaged in our society, with all of the duties and none of the rights. How about some empathy for us? Kristof would like to paint his commentors as people with indefensible viewpoints, but examination of the theories that informs his writing reveals that it is Kristof who is defending the indefensible.

Moral Self-Defense

I never found philosophy intrinsically compelling to study. I never took a college course in the subject. I wanted to study practical applications of economics, politics, technology and cognitive science. I also have a day job, and keeping up with developments in my field is a second job unto itself. But when I was in my twenties, I kept on confronting the fact that all normative positions, all statements of what things ought to be, are informed by ethics, which are in turn founded on beliefs of what kind of world we live in — metaphysics — and how we know that — epistemology.

… the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
— John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

I found that I had to understand philosophy and its theories so that I could distinguish right from wrong and refute the wrong. I learned that I couldn’t trust those who were supposed to specialize in philosophy to fully disclose what was still open to discussion and what their agendas were. I encountered a lot of intellectual bullying (“Everybody knows Kant said …”).

The students will believe that the professors know the proof of the book’s theory, the professors will believe the commentators know it, the commentators will believe that the author knows it — and the author will be alone to know that no proof exists and none was offered. Within a generation, the number of commentaries will have grown to such proportions that the original book will be accepted as a subject of philosophical specialization, requiring a lifetime of study — and any refutation of the book’s theory will be ignored or rejected, if unaccompanied by a full discussion of the theories of all the commentators, a task which no one will be able to undertake.
— Ayn Rand, “An Untitled Letter” (1973), Philosophy: Who Needs It

The book upon which Rand was commenting was: A Theory of Justice.

It is too easy to be led down the primrose path by high-sounding ideas and generally accepted sentiments. Then, when the path leads you to a place you never intended to go, you are left wondering what went wrong. This happened to many people in Russia after 1917 and Germany after 1933.

I don’t want to be in that situation. I don’t want to be sitting there hearing ideas such as those of John Rawls and thinking, “I know that this is wrong, but I can’t say why.” I studied up so that I can say why.

Philosophy is just too important to be left to the academics and journalists.


Written by srojak

December 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm

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