Waldron on the social minimum Notes for December 10

Main points

We discussed Waldron’s criticism of Rawls’s difference principle.

Rawls had argued that the parties in the original position would select the difference principle rather than utilitarianism because they would know they are required to make a final commitment to a set of principles and they would fear that they might not be able to keep their commitment if they wound up as losers in a utilitarian society.

Waldron asked what the parties would choose if they had to pick between Rawls’s principles and utilitarianism with a floor of a guaranteed social minimum. In that choice, the fear of being losers wouldn’t be a reason to prefer Rawls’s principles since, by hypothesis, the guaranteed minimum prevents anyone from losing. And there appears to be a lot to gain from choosing to maximize average utility for everyone above the floor when compared with Rawls’s principles.

Our discussion

Dylan wasn’t completely convinced by Waldron’s argument. He thought people care more about their relative standing in the distribution of income than Waldron said they do. If so, their sense of self-worth would be tied to how close they are to those at the top and a relative standard like the difference principle would be preferable for the parties in the original position.

We revisited the arguments over utilitarianism by talking through a case to see how realistic it is to suppose that utilitarians would recommend doing something drastic like enslaving or killing part of the population. I said that as the cases got realistic, the utilitarian answer didn't look crazy. There is a persistent worry that even when utilitarianism recommends a reasonable course of action, it does so for the wrong reason: adding to the utility pile rather than showing concern for the people affected. But even this isn’t a decisive blow: utilitarianism shows concern for everyone, they say, not just the people immediately before our eyes. That’s how it can come to uncomfortable conclusions about what we should do for people far away.

We also had some discussion of Waldron’s interesting suggestion that accommodating the needs of others is a way of respecting their humanity. If we were solely concerned about social stability, we would use a mix of force and accommodation. In many cases, that’s exactly what we do. But, Waldron said, the threat to social stability caused by unmet needs should be met solely by fulfilling the need and not through suppression. That preference, he claimed, expresses respect.

Of course, as Rachel reminded us, he has an out clause. A society should seek to meet the needs of its members “as far as possible” (p. 31). If a society falls into extreme scarcity or emergency such that it can’t meet the needs of its members, it needs a different rule.

Did Rawls answer Mill?

Mill said our common sense ideas about justice are hopelessly unsystematic. Utilitarianism, he concluded, is the only hope of putting them into any order. Did Rawls show that Mill was wrong?

The original position looks like a serious advance in bringing a system to our ideas about justice. In my opinion, asking “would you approve of X if you didn’t know whether you would be favored or disfavored by X?” is a powerful question. That’s a big deal. At the same time, you might reasonably ask whether the various conflicts among our ideas about justice that Mill pointed out had really been resolved or if the original position largely diverts our attention from them.

And even if the original position is as big a theoretical advance as it appears to be, there’s still the question of whether the parties in the original position would favor Rawls’s principles over utilitarianism. Speaking for myself, I think Rawls has a strong position, but I also think it’s at least very close.

Hey, if the answers were obvious we wouldn’t be asking the questions!

Key concepts

  1. How a social minimum is different than the difference principle.
  2. Why the parties in the original position might prefer a social minimum to the difference principle.

Happiness and IQ

I’m following up on a couple of references I made in class.

First, what would a society that tried to promote the happiness of its members do? This is a serious policy goal in the UK and other countries. While it is not exactly the same thing as utilitarianism (the option of killing the unhappy is not even considered, for instance), it can give us a lot of insight into how utilitarianism would probably work in practice. On this topic, I got a lot out of an article by Richard Layard.** Richard Layard, “Happiness and Public Policy: a Challenge to the Profession,” The Economic Journal 116 (2006). One point he made is that a society that sought to promote happiness (or reduce unhappiness) would spend a lot on mental health services. That seemed like a good point to me. The article also describes methods of measuring happiness in ways that could be useful for the purposes of making public policy.

Second, I referred to the Flynn effect. This is the observation that IQ scores have improved far more rapidly than would be possible if they were predominantly determined by genetic factors. The improvements have to be attributed to social causes. That, in turn, strongly implies that there is a lot that society could do to improve the IQs of its members, regardless of class, religion, race, dominant-handedness, or you name it. Malcolm Gladwell has an engaging article on this in the New Yorker. And you can hear an interview with James Flynn himself through Scientific American.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted December 10, 2012.
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