Rawls and a social minimum Notes for May 3

Main points

Waldron criticizes Rawls’s argument for the difference principle. He maintains that Rawls’s premises more naturally support a need-based social minimum.

Specifically, Waldron argued that the finality condition and the strains of commitment would lead the parties in the original position to choose a need-based social minimum. By contrast, he argued, Rawls did not explain why the minimum established by the difference principle would be necessary to avoid the strains of commitment.

And if neither “finality condition” or “strains of commitment” roll off the tongue, you should probably review the big handout on Rawls’s theory.** My gloss on “finality” may be too simple; I’ll have to review it. “Strains of commitment” gets the right idea.

Needs vs. utilitarianism

We had an extensive discussion about Waldron’s social minimum and catastrophes. As Andrew pointed out, the chief reason why the possible utilitarian minimum is so low is that utilitarianism is willing to sacrifice individuals in the case of dire emergencies, when drastic measures, such as a military draft, are necessary. (Andrew was assuming that slavery and the like simply would not maximize utility in more ordinary circumstances.)

A lot of what we talked about was fairly specific. Could there be a principled set of floors and subfloors for various contingencies that didn’t simply amount to utilitarianism?

Did Rawls answer Mill?

I said that Mill made two broad points about the relationship between utilitarianism and justice. First, the sentiments of justice are implicitly utilitarian insofar as they involve protection of our most important interests. We only think they are separate from utilitarianism because of a psychological error. Second, our common ideas about justice are hopelessly unsystematic. That is why we can make perfectly good arguments for the justice or fairness of opposing different policies.

Rawls’s theory attempts to answer the second point by showing how our common sense ideas about justice can be put in systematic order. (And if we do so, we’re less likely to think that our common sense ideas about justice are poorly understood approximations of the utilitarian truth.)

We spent the end of the session talking about whether he had succeeded. There were many excellent points made. Here are a few that I took note of.

Nathaniel argued that Rawls had largely argued that his theory is superior to utilitarianism. That isn’t the same thing as putting the variety of ideas about justice into a systematic order. Specifically, he hasn’t compared his system with other accounts of a just society. Waldron’s article gives one example of the sort of comparison that Rawls didn’t do in A Theory of Justice.

Jon maintained that Rawls had made progress in imposing system on our ideas about justice. The original position, he said, is the best approach of any we have discussed for thinking about justice. His point was that, regardless of the specific design of the original position in Rawls’s philosophy, the theoretical device of the original position is a significant advance. Sam and Andrew seconded Jon on this point.

We closed with two concerns about the original position method.

Nathan noted the difficulty of genuinely imagining that you could be anyone. You can’t really get out of your own shoes and that limits our ability to use the original position. The question, of course, concerns how far we are limited.

Will pointed out that there’s a danger of importing your conclusions into the way you set the original position up. If you think that the parties have to take natural rights into account, for example, then you’ll get a political philosophy that gives a central place to natural rights. If you don’t, then you won’t. (Michael made a similar point.)

As with Nathan’s point, I think we have to take up specific proposals to see if it can or can’t be done. But they’re both good points about problems to watch out for in extending Rawls’s original position method.

It was a sophisticated discussion and a worthy way to end the class. Congratulations all around!

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted May 3, 2010.
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