« On Rawls | Main | Once Upon A Time... »

June 28, 2006


what he calls the 'Original Position'. (Trust me: all the off-color jokes involving this phrase have already been made.)

but isn't that the point of the Veil of Ignorance, that we don't know that all these jokes have been made?

"Here again, the reasoning is pretty clear. The people in the Original Position do not know who they will be. For this reason, they cannot think: well, I am pretty sure that I will be reasonably well off, or: that I will be poor. They do know that money will generally help them to live the sort of life they think is best. Moreover, in general, a given amount of money makes a bigger difference to your capacity to live the kind of life you want the less money you have. ($100 extra dollars a year may make a big difference to you if you make $500/month; it's likely to make a lot less of a difference if you are Bill Gates, in terms of your ability to realize your conception of the life you want to lead.) If you're concerned to secure your ability to live the kind of life you want to lead, I think, contra Sebastian, that you'll prefer a system in which your worst case scenario is less bad."

Right, this is the crux of our disagreement. I think it is very possible that this decision is sensitive to the absolute level of the worst-off, not just the relative level.

I'm also glad you focused on the 'lexically ordered' concept. I suspect much of my frustration with latter political philosophers and those who invoke Rawls for their political ends involves a lack of attention to the lexical order of the principles.

I never heard of him before (I feel I should blush now :) ) but if I get it right shorter Rawl is "what would a just society be if everybody believed in reincarnation"?

he social primary goods that Rawls identifies are: rights and liberties, opportunities and powers, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect.

Are those supposed to be a lexically ordered too?

The problem a lot of people have with the Original Position is that it requires a level of neutrality many people reject at some fundamental level.

Alternatively, they may take the Adam Smith opt-out and say that the invisible hand of the market will penalize those who unfairly discriminate. This places the market in direct competition with the Original Position, since both are assuming self-interested decisions made by rational agents. Fortunately, almost nobody makes the assumption these days that the market is rational.

One criticism I have read about Rawls that seems valid, is that he believed the motivations of people would not change from the noble concept of securing their own freedom to the corruption of taking advantage of the rules. That position seems a bit naive.

Step2: the market is not in competition with the Original Position. It's hard to see how it could be: after all, the market works in the actual world, while the OP is a hypothetical construct designed to serve a purpose the market does not pretend to serve, namely providing a justification for criteria by which the justice of rules can be assessed.

It could turn out that the OP conflicted with the market by, say, leading to the conclusion that market economics is somehow illegitimate. But it doesn't: the first principle (liberty) includes "the right to hold and to have the exclusive use of personal property" (PL 298), which presumably entails the right to buy and sell that property. What constraints, if any, should govern what we can buy and sell (children? organs? the sun?), and what rules should govern the market (e.g., accounting rules for publicly traded companies, zoning restrictions on the use of real property, etc.), are not settled by this right; but those questions concern the form a market system should take, not "the market" per se.

Moreover, if it turned out that markets would penalize those who discriminate unfairly, then anti-discrimination laws would be unnecessary, but e.g. support for education would not. So I'm not sure I see the point here.

Rawls does not think that the motives of people in the actual world will mirror the motives of people in the OP. He has a lot to say about human motivation, but not along the lines of the 'criticism' you mention.

Dutchmarbel: it's only the principles that are lexically ordered.

Dutchmarbel: perhaps, but only if they believed in random reincarnation. Historical societies that believe(d) in reincarnation also believed that you deserved the circumstances of your new incarnation based on your behavior in previous lives, so it was acceptable to discriminate against the lower castes.

Josh Travino wrote:

The march of history seemed to be on the side of the statists, and the great questions of the day revolved about how, rather than whether, the state would manage the lives of the people. Against this, the conservative was ill-equipped; and so he often enough took his refuge in anger, in symbolism, and in isolation from the public square.


How can you even begin a dialogue with a group of political activist who believe their right-wing statism is some magical anti-statism?

This is a political class who has embraced the state to engineer democracy through war and occupation and believe the regulation of church discipline should be the federal government’s responsibility.

Until right-wing statists begin to except the fact that they are NOT anti-state but right-wing state, you’ll be debating pass each other.

That should be “accept” and not “except.”

I sure would hate someone to miss my point because of my grammar

I hate to threadjack, but I think you miss his point if you believe it has something to do with the current Republican party being anti-statist.

It seems to me that the point "and the great questions of the day revolved about how, rather than whether, the state would manage the lives of the people." is reinforced by the modern incarnation of the Republican Party.

I didn't read Step2 as saying that the market necessarily is in conflict with the OP. I thought he was saying that market fundamentalists seem to believe this--they define market transactions as inherently just, so arguments based on the OP are at best superfluous. They might reinforce what market fundamentalists already believe, but if they don't, then so much the worse for the OP.

"Rawls does not think that the motives of people in the actual world will mirror the motives of people in the OP"

Am I taking too broad or simple interpretation of the OP to see its common application in real life?

For instance, were arguments for preserving (or abolishing, on the part of Yglesias) the 60-vote filibuster an example of an OP argument? "Well, we might want it when we are in the minority, so we should preserv the rule now."

bob: it's the same basic idea, though the OP is a lot more detailed, since it's designed for a much more specific task. But yes, the idea is the same: that you should favor rules not based on whether they advantage your side, but on whether they're fair.

(The big difference, though, is that in the filibuster argument, we can all expect to be on the wrong side eventually. Not so with the structure of society, absent reincarnation. -- I mean, even if I lose my shirt tomorrow, there's no undoing my upbringing, education, etc.)

Sebastian: I'm also glad you focused on the 'lexically ordered' concept. I suspect much of my frustration with latter political philosophers and those who invoke Rawls for their political ends involves a lack of attention to the lexical order of the principles.

Who are these people? I don't remember ever hearing of Rawls. I do hear Warren Buffet describe the birth lottery thought experiment, which is apparently related to Original Position. Perhaps if you name names, we can see what you are talking about.

"Who are these people? I don't remember ever hearing of Rawls."

Umm. I don't even know how to respond to "I don't remember ever hearing of Rawls" other than to say that you aren't the target audience of this discussion if you haven't. (I don't mean it in a snotty way. If we were talking about Jazz and you said you had never heard of Coletrain I would have difficulty knowing how to respond in much the same way).

But in an attempt to explain, Rawls was a hot topic among people interested in politics during my college life, and has been such for the more philosophical looks at politics for my entire lifetime. He is regularly invoked (though I'm beginning to suspect improperly invoked) in discussions of egalitarianism. Discussions of the original position and max-min societal ordering show up regularly at say CrookedTimber.org.

JayS, here's an appreciation by Nussbaum, which will give you an idea (I didn't read it, I'm taking it on trust)


Sebastian, "Coletrain"?! (do you use voice software?)

Lol, Coltrane.

No, I'm just a horrific speller. Sheesh, smack me please. :)

It was instant karma punishing me for being snarky.

It was instant karma

right :)

The trackback at the top leads to an appreciation of Rawls and hilzoy-on-Rawls.

I liked this:"Rawls coherently argued that you have to extract your specific life situation before you can apply the concept of fairness." ...punk**a

Personal experience & history may not be the worst teacher, but it is certainly not the best.


Thank you very much for posting this. I recall a time when some friends were hard at work on Rawls-based dissertations, but that was long ago, and I didn't pay that much attention.

One initial reaction I have is that the logic is a bit facile in some respects, and rests on assumptions not made explicit, not least a high degree of risk aversion in economic matters. As I noted in response to Sebastian, this is, as an empirical matter, accurate, so maybe that's OK.

Other things I find puzzling. Consider your example that Catholics should not get priority for good jobs. As a matter of my individual expectation, I don't see why I would worry about this in the OP. After all, I might end up a Catholic, so the probabilities balance out. You say that Rawls concludes that

insofar as possible, people with equal talents, willingness to work, etc., should be able to compete equally.

But if I know nothing of what my talents will be why should I not be as willing to gamble on being Catholic as on having whatever other attributes will help me compete? Why would I not be indifferent between a system that favored Catholics and one that favored smart people? It makes no difference to my chances as seen from the OP.

Is the idea that we would agree to reduce or eliminate the weight of personal attributes, and reward only behavior, to eliminate randomness as much as possible?

The description of the economic conditions as those of "moderate scarcity" strikes me as more evasive than helpful. This lack of precision is what makes Sebastian's objections reasonable. Rawls could be describing the US, or Mexico, or China, or Saudi Arabia. I think the conclusions about permitted inequalities would vary across these countries.

Anyway, these are things I will try to reflect on.

Thanks again for the post.

The comments to this entry are closed.