Monday, July 12, 2010


Why the change? Pretty clearly, it is required by the special conditions imposed by the Veil of Ignorance. Since the parties in the Original Position now do not know who they are, they are pretty well forced either to carry out expected utility calculations over the entire range of positions in the society, some one of which each of them will actually turn out to occupy when they leave the Hall of Justice and regain their knowledge of who they are, or else to adopt the conservative assumption that they occupy the lowest position, and bargain to improve its allocation of Primary Goods. As we shall see, this is Rawls' version of the conservative rule proposed by von Neuman, to maximize one's security level.

    All this goes by so quickly in Rawls' exposition of the mature form of his theory that unless you are paying real close attention, you may not notice how wildly implausible, or even downright impossible, it all is. This is the form of the theory that everyone is familiar with, but people usually do not have any coherent idea why Rawls has made all of these very powerful stipulations. The reason, as I have indicated, is that each element of the final theory is designed to meet an objection to an earlier form of the theory.

    So where does all of this revision leave us? Well, first of all, something odd has happened along the way, as Rawls has altered his description of the choice situation to meet and overcome the difficulties with the first formulation. The original idea was that the parties to be governed by the agreed upon foundational rules would confront one another and bargain. The parties were assumed to be rationally self-interested, but with differing interests and desires. Rawls' central idea was that if to this premise of rational self-interest we added only one additional premise -- the willingness of the parties to abide by a set of rules arising from the bargain, the willingness to take that one step beyond self-interest to something resembling what is involved in having a morality -- then we could prove that the one and only set of rules on which they would self-interestedly settle would be his "two principles."

    But if we think about it for a moment, we will realize that after the revisions, Rawls no longer has a Bargaining Game that looks anything like this. Since the players have been stripped of any individuating features that might distinguish them from one another [such as differences in tastes or talents, or indeed even differences in which stage of human history they happen to be located in], there are no rational grounds on which any two of them could reason differently from one another about the choice of the basic structure and rules of the society in which they will find themselves when they emerge from the Veil of Ignorance. In short, what began as a problem in Bargaining Theory has morphed into a problem in the Theory of Rational Choice. [This is one of the reasons why Rawls tended to move toward what he himself called the Kantian Interpretation" of his theory. But that really does get us too far afield.]

    Before addressing the central question, viz., are these two principles thus revised, the solution to the Bargaining Game, thus altered, there is one subsidiary matter I should like to take up. Rawls says that although the parties in the Original Position under the Veil of Ignorance have temporarily forgotten who they are, what their specific desires are, and where they are located in history and in the structure of their society, they do retain a knowledge of the "general facts about human society." Each of these individuals, Rawls elaborates, understands "political affairs and the principles of economic theory," as well as "the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology." In my book, Understanding Rawls, I argued that this is an epistemologically impossible state of affairs. There is not time or room here to repeat what I have said there [another shameless plug for my book :) ], but I think it is worth indicating the line of argument that I develop there.

    The first thing to be clear about is that under the Veil of Ignorance, the individuals in the Original Position do not even know in which stage of human history they are located. This fact leads Rawls into an extremely interesting discussion about the appropriate rate of savings that should be chosen as part of the basic socio-economic structure being negotiated. Debates about the social rate of savings are familiar to economists, but have been virtually absent from the political philosophy literature. It is greatly to Rawls' credit that he recognized this and introduced the subject into his theory. For those who are unacquainted with the discussion, the central issue is this: The capital required for future economic activity [seed corn, machinery, Research and Development, and their monetary equivalents] must be obtained from current production by somehow imposing limits on consumption -- eat all the corn this season, and there is no seed for next season's crop. Simple prudence dictates that people this year save for next year. But what shall we say about the responsibility of people in this generation to save for generations as yet unborn? A high, self-denying rate of social savings, such as that now being enforced by the Chinese government, will make possible an explosion of production in future generations, to the manifest benefit of those who are then alive. But that future production will come at the expense of this generation, which will have to deny itself some measure of present consumption.

    From the perspective of Rawls' theory, the question becomes: Under the Veil of Ignorance, what rate of savings will rationally self-interested individuals choose to impose upon themselves once they emerge from the Veil and discover which generation of their society's evolution they are actually located in? I encourage readers interested in this subject to take a look at Rawls' discussion.

    But getting back to the epistemological issue, the individuals in the Original Position are presumed to know the general facts of nature, society, economy, and human psychology, and even to know the broad outlines of the historical evolution of societies, but not to know where in that evolutionary process they are themselves located. Rawls clearly thinks it is possible for someone to be in this particular epistemological position. I think it is not. Why not?

    First of all, the individuals in the Original Position are blocked from accessing certain individuating facts about themselves, but they have not lost their powers of reason. To put the point simplistically, if the Veil has enabled them to retain the knowledge that All men are mammals and the knowledge that All mammals are animals, then their unimpaired powers of reason will allow them to conclude that All men are animals. Somewhat more to the point, if they know the standard theorems concerning the relation of supply to demand in the determination of price in a capitalist economy based on the production of commodities for sale in the marketplace, then they will be able to infer that their society has undergone the transition from Feudal to Capitalist social relations of production, because until such a transition has taken place, individuals do not even possess the concepts that are employed in the formulation of those economic laws. What is more, if, as I believe, capitalist social relations of production systematically mystify the underlying structure of exploitation on which capitalist profit rests, so that people mistakenly but inevitably perceive those relations as the expression of eternal and immutable economic laws, then only someone enmeshed in a capitalist society and economy will make the mistake of thinking that there are "laws of supply and demand."

    Now, maybe I am right about that, and maybe I am wrong. But by building these assumptions into the structure of the bargaining game from which he hopes to extract the principles of justice, Rawls has begged all of the questions that might be raised by someone like me ["begged" in the proper use of that term -- i.e., assumed what is to be proved]. This is one more example of my general claim that the misuse of formal methods allows authors to present their ideologically laden assumptions as value-neutral elements of a formal analysis.

    Let us now return to the central question: Would the individuals situated under the Veil of Ignorance in the Original Position coordinate on Rawls' Two Principles of Justice as revised in A Theory of Justice? This question is much more difficult to answer now than it was with regard to the first form of the theory. Even to make the question determinate enough to grapple with it we must make a considerable number of assumptions and specifications with regard to matters that Rawls either does not discuss or else leaves up in the air.

    At this point, in order to make this manageable, I must ask you to consult the chapter from my book, a link to which was posted earlier on this blog. I will discuss the problems in general terms, and leave it to each of you to read my detailed analysis in that chapter.


  1. Thanks Professor Wolff for bringing up the wildly implausible epistemic states attributed to parties in the OP, as it makes me realize that I was not off-base to make a similar criticism in my MA thesis. However, when I was writing it, I did not encounter your book (and that specific criticism) when I was researching, but maybe I wasn't looking hard enough. I'm always surprised that this criticism isn't made more prominently in the vast Rawlsian literature, because to me, it is so implausible on its face.

  2. Well, if you are that Michael Zhou, political theory, metaethics, and basketball is a pretty eclectic set of favs.

    Are you, have you, taken a doctorate as well?