Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rawls Last Installment

The first thing an individual in the Original Position must do when confronted with a choice of basic organizational rules for society is to decide how well or badly off she is, or was, before entering the Hall of Justice. [I shall simply stipulate that our representative person is female, but of the course the person does not know this, or indeed anything else of a particular nature about him/her self.] Since Rawls says that she is rationally self-interested, and is prepared to enter into the bargaining game because she believes that a satisfactory outcome will be to her advantage, she clearly needs to know what her baseline situation is. Otherwise, she cannot make a judgment as to whether a proposed rule will make her better off. Remember: she not only does not know who in particular she is or where in her society she is situated. She also does not know what stage of history she is located in.

    Faced with the necessity of stipulating a pre-bargain baseline [defined, we may suppose, simply by some specified amount of Primary Goods -- this whole thing just gets hopelessly complicated if we try to flesh out her situation in any more realistic manner], she really has only three options. For each possible stage of history in which she might be located, she can either adopt the premise that she is the worst off representative person in that society; or she can adopt the premise that she is the best off representative individual; or she can carry out an expected utility calculation, assigning some level of Primary Goods and some probability to every representative position in the society, and then multiplying the two and summing the results, In this third case, she will say to herself something like this: "There are seven representative positions in the society; fifteen percent of the people are in the first, ten percent in the second, etc etc. The first position has so and so much of the Primary Goods assigned to it, the second such and such amount, and so forth; with no more information than that I am one of the people in the society, I conclude that I have a fifteen percent chance of being in the first position, a ten percent chance in the second position, and so forth. Assuming that I know what my cardinal utility function is for Primary Goods, I can now carry out my expected utility calculation."

    Sigh. I told you this was going to be messy. I am pretty sure, from correspondence I had with Jack, that he is aware of a good deal of this, but I do not think he ever fully appreciated how deeply it undercut his central claim that he was advancing a theorem. At this point, Rawls says that a rational person, recognizing how important the choice is that she is about to make, will adopt an extremely conservative way of evaluating alternatives. What does this mean?

    Well, the first thing it means is assuming that outside the Hall of Justice, in the real world, she is one of the persons occupying the least advantaged representative position in society. Why is this conservative? Because if she assumes that she is in fact well off in the real world, she will be correspondingly less willing to make a deal, and this threatens to leave her utterly disadvantaged should the optimistic assumption about herself prove false. She must protect herself against the chance that she is one of society's poor, and the best way to do this is to agree to inequalities of any sort only if they work to the advantage of those least well off.

    But reasoning in this fashion, she might be tempted to carry out some sort of expected utility calculation and opt for a set of principles that maximizes the average utility that each representative person will enjoy. To be sure, that can be risky, since a higher average overall might be compatible with a lower utility to the least well off. In an expected utility calculation, that risk might be compensated for by a chance at a very much higher payoff to the better off representative positions.

    Rawls now argues that the rational individual under the Veil of Ignorance will reject expected utility calculations and instead opt for the extremely conservative, and also extremely controversial, "maximin" rule proposed by von Neuman. On page 163 of my book [see the chapter to which I have linked], I quote Rawls' reasons for adopting this rule. Here is what he says: "There are three chief features of situations that give plausibility to this unusual rule... The situation is one in which a knowledge of likelihoods is impossible or at best extremely insecure...The person choosing has a conception of the good such that he cares very little, if anything, for what he might gain above the minimum stipend that he can, in fact, be sure of by following the maximin rule. It is not worthwhile for him to take a chance for the sake of a further advantage, especially when it may turn out that he loses much that is important to him.... The rejected alternatives have outcomes that one can hardly accept. The situation involves grave risks." [All four passages from Rawls, p. 154]

    In my book, I have given a formal analysis of these claims, complete with nifty diagrams, but I want here to step back and try to get a sense of what Rawls is really talking about. Remember, first of all, that Rawls is not talking about the quantity of Primary Goods that the various principles of justice offer as possibilities, but rather about the utility that the utility function of the individual under the Veil of Ignorance associates with these various amounts of Primary Goods. The distinction is essential for understanding what Rawls is saying.

    Concretely, Rawls is claiming that the rational individual under the Veil of Ignorance will say to herself: "If I opt for a system of social organization that holds out the possibility of vast wealth for a few, but that fails to protect those at the bottom from absolute penury, I am risking ending up in a disastrous situation, one that "involves grave risks." But all I stand to gain is the chance at one of the top spots, even though I "care very little, if anything, for what [I] might gain above the minimum stipend that [I] can, in fact, be sure of by following the maximin rule."

    Fair warning: I am now going to say something that is mean-spirited and snarky, but I really do not know how else to get at what is going on in this argument. I apologize if I offend anyone. Here goes:

    What sort of person says to himself or herself what the individual in the Original Position, according to Rawls, says? Not just a rational person. There is nothing formally irrational about being willing to risk utter penury for a chance at fabulous wealth. That is just a matter of having a utility function of a particular shape[one that is, over a certain range, monotonically increasing rather than decreasing.] Would Gordon Gekko think this way? [If there is anyone who does not recognize the name, Gordon Gekko is the main character of the 1987 film, Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas. If you haven't seen it, by all means get it from NetFlix.] Of course not. But Gordon Gekko is not formally irrational. He just places a very high value on vast wealth and has a very high tolerance for risk. What about Picasso? I think not. If you offered Picasso a chance at artistic immortality, with penury and misery as the alternative if he turned out not to have real talent, I think he would have grabbed the chance with both hands. In fact, of course, he did.

    No, the sort of person who would reason as Rawls thinks the individual in the Original Position would is a tenured professor -- someone who has a comfortable albeit modest lifestyle that is absolutely assured against any risks, someone who has perhaps turned down other careers offering much larger rewards but also "involving grave risks." In short, the sort of person who would reason as Rawls thinks the individual in the Original Position would is ... John Rawls.

    Strip away all the talk about theorems, all the lovely filigree of philosophical elaboration, all the Reflective Equilibrium and Strains of Commitment and allusions to Game Theory, and you have a simple apologia pro vita sua.

    If the Representative Individual in the Original Position is an academic at a good American university or college that offers life tenure and a comfortable middle class life, then I think it is quite likely that he or she would opt for Rawls' two principles. They guarantee a continuation of that pleasant life style, combined with a virtuous but really cost free concern for the poor downtrodden denizens of the Inner City [the least well off representative individuals].

    Now, that is just about as mean-spirited as I have ever been in print [though not, I am afraid, in person], but what else can one conclude if one takes Rawls' theory seriously and tries to think through what it really means?

    The time has come to step back from the details of Rawls' discussion and try to get some perspective on what is, when all is said and done, the most important contribution to political philosophy of the past hundred years and more. I observed at the beginning of these remarks that Rawls offered his very new theory at a time when Anglo-American Ethical Theory was mired in an antinomy -- a several decades long face off between Intuitionism and Utilitarianism. Rawls invited us to get past that stalled historical moment by making use of ideas drawn from Game Theory [and also from neo-classical economics, but that is another matter.] If he had simply offered his Two Principles as an alternative to, or perhaps more accurately as a fusion of the best parts of, Intuitionism and Utilitarianism, there is no question that his proposal would have commanded considerable attention. The elegance of his discussion of Utilitarianism and the interesting and suggestive detail of the fully elaborated version of his proposal would, I am sure, have generated a lively discussion among philosophers, political theorists, and others.

    But what made Rawls' theory stand out as deserving of what constitutional lawyers call heightened scrutiny was his claim to be able to establish his two principles as the solution of a bargaining game. Now, even if this thesis could be sustained, it would still be open to readers to reject Rawls' claim that the solution of such a game ought to be considered the principles of social justice. But a genuine proof of Rawls' theorem would have vaulted his theory to an entirely unique status in ethical and political theory. Such a theorem would have taken its place beside Kenneth Arrow's General Possibility Theorem as a major result of formal analysis. [I remain convinced, in the absence of any textual or anecdotal evidence whatsoever, that this is exactly what Rawls dreamed of accomplishing.] This is why, both in my book and in these blog posts, I have focused almost exclusively on the logical status of the theorem that Rawls adumbrates in "Justice as Fairness," and continues to allude to as a theorem, albeit in a hedged manner, in ├Éistributive Justice" and A Theory of Justice.

    I think I have demonstrated that the theorem is not valid, either in its original or in its revised form, or, more precisely, that it can only be made plausible by so many ad hoc adjustments, presuppositions, and qualifications that it loses its grip on our attention. I also think it is clear that the theory, as Rawls sets it forth in his book, covertly valorizes, without adequate argument, one particular substantive vision of the good society -- a vision some components of which I share, but for which Rawls fails to offer an argument.

    Well, this is twenty-four pages about Rawls, which is enough, I think, for this blog. I will turn my attention next to the single most important formal result in the application of formal methods to political philosophy: The General Possibility Theorem of Kenneth Arrow. My tone will change dramatically, as you will discover. No sniping or snarking, no ad hominem arguments. Arrow's result, like von Neuman's Fundamental Theorem, is a genuine triumph, and I shall do my best in expounding it to make its logical structure clear.


  1. I'd like to offer another interpretation of the `grave risks'. I'm not sure if I accept it myself, but it is more plausible (and perhaps charitable) than the interpretation you give.

    Rawls' big problem with Utilitarianism, throughout TJ, is that it has only very flimsy protections for individual liberties: if curtailing the freedoms of conscience and association of some minority religious group would increase average (or total) utility, say by giving the members of the majority religious group a feeling of superiority and satisfaction at suppressing heterodoxy, then utilitarianism commends it (indeed, morally requires it). I don't have my copy of TJ at hand, but if I recall correctly, Rawls' examples of the `grave risks' are all examples of this sort, where someone's basic liberties are sacrificed to give someone (possibly even the same person) an opportunity for a larger bundle of other primary goods. More generally, I suggest, the grave risks are the risks associated with having so few or so limited a bundle of primary goods that one is unable to pursue one's conception of the good. Then, much of the equipment introduced in the last part of TJ -- the Kantian interpretation, the Aristotelean principle, the rational plans of life -- serve in part to make these risks very, very grave indeed. To be a bit crude about it: It's quite natural for Kantians to be adverse to waging one's autonomy on a larger pile of cash!

    This interpretation of the grave risks explains the priority of the first principle -- indeed, this is substantially the argument Rawls develops in `The basic liberties and their priority' -- and provides an argument that the position of the least-advantaged should weigh much more heavily than the position of the most-advantaged when doing any sort of expected utility calculation. It doesn't imply anything about how much more weight this position should get, though, much less a maximin rule. Nor does it help us constrain the parties' utility functions.

  2. Noumena [I love that handle!], I find that an extremely intelligent comment [and, God knows, a good deal more charitable than mine]. I think it is probably also an accurate representation of what Rawls had in mind. The reason I do not go down that road is that all of that really has nothing to do with demonstrating a theorerm in Bargaining Theory, but instead is just a good example of an old and honorable tradition of moral reasoning in Western Philosophy. My entire focus in this blog has been on the use [and abuse] or formal methods in political philosophy. If a defender of Rawls gives up the claims about the Original Position, the Theorem, etc., and just offers arguments for one view of the good society, so be it, but I do honestly believe that a significant part of the appeal and the influence of Rawls' work is the air of formalism about it, the sense that it is somehow rigorous, where other moral philosophers are not.

  3. Following along with Noumena, it seems as if Rawls has simply picked the wrong micro-foundations for his political theory. Bargaining and Game Theories simply don't seem suited for any non-Utilitarian (and probably not even all Utilitarian) moral theories. If he instead founded it on an Aristotelean account of ethical action and motivation, for example, and added a few assumptions about human moral and cognitive potentials that Aristotle would not have made, certain forms of his principles would make far more sense. I'm afriad I just can't see how he could have expected utility calculations to yield results so diametrically opposed to theories that are built off of such calculations.

  4. Just out of curiosity have you ever written anything on the debate over incentive inequalities?