John Rawls

An Answer to "Questions for Free-Market Moralists"

Mark D. White

I read with great interest Amia Srinivasan's contribution to the New York Times' philosophy column "The Stone" titled "Questions for Free-Market Moralists." After introducing the political philosophies of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, she states that "on the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian." Then she presents four statements that she claims describe Nozick's minimal state -- and are representative of what she terms "free-market moralism" -- with which she assumes most people will not be comfortable. (Certainly not readers of The New York Times, by any rate.) But I'm not so sure, especially once we clarily what the four statements are talking about.

The four statements are:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

For each statement, Ms. Srinivasan provides an example of what such a world would look like: for instance, after statement #2, she suggests the following. (Note that this example also invokes statement #3 about inherited wealth.)

Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.

This example points out my problem with Ms. Srinivasan's argument: she conflates political philosophy with moral philosophy. It is perfectly consistent to maintain, as in statement #2, that free exchanges are morally permissible while also believing that that is something morally problematic with the situation described above -- as long as you don't subscribe to a perfectionist system of morality that fails to distinguish between forbidden and merely "problematic" actions.

But there's more. Statement #2 really isn't speaking to morality -- instead, it's talking about legality that's simply based on a certain morality. How statement #2 should be read (based on my understanding of Nozick, at any rate) is as saying that the state has no moral basis to question free exchanges. Of course, the situation above is distasteful to most, but does this mean should it be forbidden by law? This is a different issue than the one Ms. Srinivasan addresses in her example -- and I suspect many would answer "no, it shouldn't be illegal" even if they regard the landowner's behavior as despicable. This doesn't imply a moral free-for-all, but simply a state that stops short of legislating all moral (or immoral) behavior.

Consider also Ms. Srinivasan's example for statement #4 regarding forced obligation:

Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

The problem of duties of beneficence is an old and well-worn one in moral philosophy: while most would say we do have a general obligation to help those in need when it would come at little cost to ourselves, not as many would be willing to make that a strict requirement, much less a legal one (though some jurisdictions have). Ms. Srinivasan seems to draw a extreme and false dichotomy between coerced beneficence and rapacious self-interest -- I would like to think that no matter what kind of state we live in, people would still extend a hand to those in need when they can. (Furthermore, I see no reason to believe this would be any more likely to occur in a Rawlsian system where the state, not the individual, is the party understood to do most of the helping.)

As I understand him, Nozick was describing a state that enables people to make choices when they don't wrongfully harm others, and the market was but one framework in which they could do that. (For that reason, I disagree with the term "free-market moralist," but that's of little concern.) He did not, as Ms. Srinivasan writes, maintain that "the market can take care of morality for us," nor did Rawls hold that morality was the sole responsibility of the state. Fundamentally, Rawls and Nozick differed on the degree to which the state should exercise individuals' collective responsibility to each other on their behalf. Neither Rawls nor Nozick denies a role for private morality outside of the state. But Nozick and the "free-market moralists" believe that individuals, as parts of families and communities, bear the bulk of the responsibility to take care of one another, a responsibility borne voluntarily and, yes, imperfectly (unlike how perfectly the state conducts it, of course).

Ms. Srinivasan also holds Nozick's system to an incredibly high standard, arguing that to concede any weakness in any of the four statements "is to concede that the entire Nozickian edifice is structurally unsound. The proponent of free market morality has lost his foundations." But she neglects to mention the problems with Rawls' system, especially the very particular psychological assumptions that ground the "results" of the veil-of-ignorance exercise -- a brilliant metaphor also found in the work of other philosophers and with various predictions regarding the terms of the social contract.

Ms. Srinivasan states clearly that she believes that Western societies should be tilting back towards Rawls (I would say "further" rather than "back," but that's a difference of interpretation) and away from Nozick. Fair enough -- we disagree on that. But she makes Nozick's system an all-or-nothing proposition while ignoring problems with Rawls, and further misinterprets Nozick's work as describing the whole of morality rather than the operation of the state alone. In the end, her article shows a troubling lack of faith in people to care for each other outside the confines of the state -- and an overly optimistic belief in the power of the state to do the same.


How Much Inequality Do We Want? This is the Wrong Question.

Mark D. White

InequalityToday on The Atlantic's website, Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted with Mike Norton in which they survey people about both the current distribution of wealth in the U.S. and what they thought the ideal distribution of wealth is. Not surprisingly, they find that most everybody underestimates the level of inequality of wealth, and that most everybody would prefer a more equal distribution of wealth--and, most interestingly that the "desired" distribution is extremely stable regardless of political party or nation of origin.*

In fact, he writes, "most likely, if you participated in one of our tests, your response too would have fallen in line with these findings." Uh, no, it wouldn't--I would have refused to answer the question because I don't accept its premise, which is that the final distribution of wealth is more important than the processes which led to it. In Robert Nozick's terms, Ariely implicitly uses a patterned theory of justice, whereas I prefer a historical theory of justice. When I see a skewed distribution of income or wealth, my first thought is not, "let's correct that," but rather "let's see what caused the skewed distribution and see if they're anything unjust about that."

Ariely illustrates this distinction with his two proposals for lessening inequality: education and taxation. Education improves the process while taxation improves the results after the fact. This is comparable to making sure a football game is officiated fairly, but then adjusting the score after the game is finished. If the outcomes of a football game--or of the economy--result from just and fair processes, then it is difficult to find a justification for questioning the results (outside simple utilitarianism).

Ariely describes his methodology as inspired by John Rawls' "veil of ignorance," in which people are asked what kind of world they'd like to live in if they had no idea where they'd fall in socio-economic terms (or, more broadly, in terms of race, gender, and so on). Ironically, however, Rawls was opposed to redistribution after the fact, and meant for his veil of ignorance metaphor to be used when designing institutions that would benefit the worst-off in society so wealth would not have to redistributed after the fact. (Ronald Dworkin's resource-egalitarianism takes the same approach: equalize resources at the beginning of persons' lives, and let them make of their lives what they will.)

My point does not lean only to the left or the right; people on both sides of the political spectrum (and especially libertarians) will happily point out injustices in the system that lead to unjust outcomes. This is one thing that the Occupy movement and the Tea Party have in common: there is corruption throghout the system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. But it does little good to say what we want the world to look at any point in time. Instead, we should focus on how we want to world to work over time--all the time--so everyone has a fair chance at leading the life they want to live.

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* They also neglect to ask what means people are willing to accept to reach their desired level of inequality--I imagine that's where differences in political affiliation would show up the most. Ariely admits to this shortcoming, but casts it in terms of what sacrifices people would be willing to make themselves to lower inequality, not what structural changes in our institutions they would recommend:

Our study also doesn't deal with how to bring what people say they want under the veil of ignorance into line with what they're willing to do when it's their money and resources that are about to be distributed. It is one thing to get people to tell us what kind of society the would want to join, and another to get them part with their money in order to create that society.


New issue of Social Philosophy and Policy: New Essays in Political and Social Philosophy

Mark D. White

Spp29-1Always an essential read, the latest issue of Social Philosophy and Policy (29/1, January 2012) has the theme of "New Essays in Political and Social Philosophy," and features essays by some of biggest names in those fields (not to mention legal philosophy):

POLITICAL LIBERTY: WHO NEEDS IT?, Jason Brennan

STATE COERCION AND FORCE, Christopher W. Morris

DEMOCRATIC LEGITIMACY AND ECONOMIC LIBERTY, John Tomasi

WHO OWNS WHAT? SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE FOUNDATION OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, Lloyd P. Gerson

HUMAN REPRODUCTIVE INTERESTS: PUZZLES AT THE PERIPHERY OF THE PROPERTY PARADIGM, Donald C. Hubin

WHY FREE TRADE IS REQUIRED BY JUSTICE, Fernando R. Tesón

STRUCTURAL EXPLOITATION, Matt Zwolinski

RESCUING JUSTICE FROM EQUALITY, Steven Wall

REINTERPRETING RAWLS'S THE LAW OF PEOPLES, Christopher Heath Wellman

RESPONSIBLE CHOICES, DESERT-BASED LEGAL INSTITUTIONS, AND THE CHALLENGES OF CONTEMPORARY NEUROSCIENCE, Michael S. Moore

GENOCIDE AND CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: DISPELLING THE CONCEPTUAL FOG, Andrew Altman

HARM AND THE VOLENTI PRINCIPLE, Gerald Dworkin

EDUCATION AND THE MODERN STATE, Anthony O'Hear


Utilitarians aren't psychopaths--are they?

Mark D. White

The Economist published a short note recently summarizing the results of a forthcoming paper in Cognition that reports that experiment participants "who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness" (from the paper abstract). The experimenters presented subjects with variants of trolley dilemmas--either watch five passengers in a runaway trolley car die, or push one bystander onto the tracks to his death to stop the car--and also asked questions to track their psychological dispositions, finding a strong link between the antisocial tendencies and willingness to kill the bystander to save the trolley passengers.

I'm not going to address the secondhand claims by the authors regarding the "characterization of non-utilitarian moral decisions as errors of judgment," which are inevitably and necessarily made from a utilitarian point-of-view; it's the same problem as with Kaplow and Shavell's Fairness versus Welfare, which dismissed nonwelfarist policymaking as insufficiently welfarist. (I happily note that the paper's authors do criticize these statements in the discussion section of the paper.) But I do want to discuss briefly the results reported in the Cognition study, and explain why I have mixed feelings about it.

First, the trolley problem is too nuanced to make a quick-and-easy judgment regarding deontology and utilitarianism (as the authors acknowledge in the discussion section of the paper, albeit for different reasons). True, simple utilitarianism would demand that, all else aside, you kill the one person to save the five. But a deontological outlook--which is much less well-defined--would not necessarily forbid this, as deontology is not categorically opposed to consequentialist considerations. Rather than simply comparing one to five and making a decision based on the equally valid interests of all the person involved (as a utilitarian would), a deontologist would more likely think about the moral status of the individuals in the case, considering any factors related to responsibility or desert in that particular situation. After ruling out such concerns, a deontologist--even a Kantian--may very well kill the one to save the five (for instance, by judging the duty to save five people to have a "stronger ground of obligation" than the duty not to kill the one, according to Kant's only guidance in such cases of conflicting obligations). The brute utilitarian would regard the decision as the implication of a simple comparison (1<5), while the deontologist would more likely use judgment based on the rights of the persons involved--even if they both come to the same result.

Furthermore, the trolley dilemma also wraps up in it the relative moral status of acts and omissions (itself tied into the deontology vs. utilitarianism debate), as well as issues of identity and virtue (am I the kind of person who can take a life, even to save others?), which themselves have greater implications if taking the one life leads to a change of attitudes toward future moral dilemmas. In other words, the trolley problem should not be used as a moral barometer distinguishing between utilitarianism and deontology. This becomes particularly clear when one considers the different reactions people have to the surgeon problem, in which a surgeon considers harvesting organs from his healthy colleague to save five patients who will die without them--very few endorse this action, even those who would push the bystander in front of the trolley, but it can be difficult to parse out the salient differences in the two situations. (Several variants of these problems, including both the trolley and surgeon dilemmas, were used in the study, apparently with no distinctions made.)

As any regular readers of my work (either on this blog or in print) know, I'm no fan of utilitarianism. But I would never go as far as to say its adherents and practitioners are psychopaths. Utilitarians obviously do care about the well-being of people--my problem is that they are concerned with aggregate well-being that ignores the distinctions between persons (as Rawls said so well) and the inherent dignity and rights of each (as Kant wrote). And that is problematic: regarding persons as nothing but contributors to the collective good implies that each person has no independent, distinct value. And if so, why care about people's interests at all? To my mind, the utilitarian's disregard for the dignity of the individual is self-defeating, since it eliminates any imperative to consider persons' well-being at all (much less to consider it equally with all others').

Of course, the popular press coverage leaves out all of the nuance and qualification present in the academic article, but that is par for the course. The study's authors recognize, of course, that all the "psychopathic" respondents who chose the "utilitarian solution" are not necessarily well-read in Bentham or Mill, nor did they necessarily use utilitarian thinking at all. Nonetheless, the results are suggestive, and if it leads us to look at the differences between utilitarians and deontologists in a different way, it's all good--and right!


Martha Nussbaum on John Rawls's Political Liberalism

Mark D. White

In the latest issue of Ratio Juris (24/1, March 2011), Martha Nussbaum reconsiders several aspects of John Rawls's Political Liberalism:

"Rawls' Political Liberalism. A Reassessment"

Since Rawls's Political Liberalism is by now the subject of a wide and deep philosophical literature, much of it excellent in quality, it would be foolhardy to attempt to say something about each of the major issues of the work, or to sort through debates that can easily be located elsewhere. I have therefore decided to focus on a small number of issues where there is at least some chance that a fresh approach may yield some new understanding of the text: Rawls's distinction between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” comprehensive doctrines; the psychological underpinnings of political liberalism; and the possibility that political liberalism might be extended beyond the small group of modern Western societies that Rawls's historical remarks suggest as its primary focus. I also include a discussion of the much-debated issue of civility and public reason, which could hardly be avoided given its prominence in the book's reception. This paper should therefore be read not as a comprehensive account of the work but as one person's attempt to grapple, very incompletely and imperfectly, with a book that is as great as any philosophy has seen on this topic of great human urgency.