The spiteful philosophy of John Rawls
Posted by aogSunday, 16 January 2005 at 10:36 TrackBack Ping URL

Over at the Brothers Judd they’re ripping on the philosophy of John Rawls. There are so many flaws in the work it’s hard to understand why it’s been so influential, although of course given the state of modern academia it might well be popular because of the flaws.

I was introduced to it years and years ago and it never made sense to me. What struck me was the presumption of Rawls that egalitarian societies were better for the unfortunate. One can see this in Rawls’ second principle, that

social and economic inequalities are permissible only if they are to the greatest benefit of the “least advantaged” or “worst off”

Why “greatest”? If I were behind the veil of ignorance and accepting of Rawls’ basic “sense of justice”, I’d still go for societal features that had the greatest absolute benefit to the unfortunate, not the greatest relative benefit. In the Rawlsian view, the unfortunate should forgoe benefits if those benefits would be greater for the more fortunate. That’s pure spite. What rational person would refuse the offer “I’ll give you $1000 if I can give your neighbor $2000”? Yet that’s precisely what Rawls’ second principle states. It seems just a bit bogus to me to basis what is putatively a theory of justice on pure spite.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Chris Sunday, 16 January 2005 at 18:53

Interesting point here. Relative benefit is more important than you give credit for however. If you allow the difference between the wealthiest and poorest members of society to become too great, then you risk destabilizing the society. In an absolute sense the poor in modern America live like medieval Kings. But it wasn’t the material comforts that made the difference, it was the standing in society relative to peasants that the material goods symbolized that was significant. You get riots (see watts, detroit, seattle globolization protest), crime, drug use, etc. when the difference between richest and poorest is too great. Another way to put this is just what do you mean by “absolute benefit”?

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 16 January 2005 at 23:03

I’m not sure I agree that increasing disparity destabilizes society. The riots you mention were either based on legally enforced inequality (Watts, Destroit) or were protests staged by the wealthy, not the power (the anti-globalization protests consisted primarily of the priviledged children of the upper middle class). One sees this even internationally, where Al Qaeda has far more members who are children of priviledge than people who were actually poor (Osama bin Laden was a deci-millionare several times over).

But even granting that, then minimizing wealth disparity is simple a technique to keep society running in the face of counter-productive human tendencies (look at what happened to Watts and Detroit after the riots — it was the poor who suffered by far the most from those episodes). It is hardly a basic principle.

As for absolute benefit, I mean things that raise the standard of living. Cheaper goods, higher pay, better medical care, better technology, etc. Those things that enable the poor of America to live far better than most of the wealthy on the planet.

Jeff Guinn Wednesday, 19 January 2005 at 19:59

People whose worst health problem is obesity, and whom society isn’t actively dumping on, do not aspire to destabilize said society.

Rawls, like all leftists, is essentially writing science fiction, with prescriptions entirely unsuited to the actual humans, and their nature, that inhabit this planet.

End of Discussion