No one thinks we should all get the same stuff. A bed is a piece of stuff, but there isn’t room enough for us all to sleep in the same bed. 
Okay, so it’s that some people think we should all get the same amount of stuff. 
Well no, they don’t think that either. The typical man needs about 1800 calories a day to maintain his body weight, the typical women only about 1200. So these people rightly replace their talk about an equal distribution of stuff with talk about an equitable distribution thereof, where by ‘equitable’ they mean what provides an equal distribution of the utility that stuff is thought to provide. So though stairs and ramps aren’t the same things, they provide the same function, namely access to the floor above.
But for some people, unfortunately, a ramp won’t do. They need an elevator. The cost of providing an elevator for just that one person is prohibitive. But what does ‘prohibitive’ mean, other than we’d prefer to spend the money on a more shareable utility? There’s a treatment that will save sweet little Angela’s life, but it will cost the taxpayer 800 miles of adding a lane to that highway. Is a half-million people getting home an hour earlier worth more than a little girl’s life? Ah, apparently, yes.
Does anyone think we’re each entitled to the same level of comfort? If so, then I suppose we should do away with Economy Class. But if we do that the plane will only be able to take about a fifth of its current passenger load. So maybe instead we should do away with the First Class cabin. Fair enough. But to be more fair, and since there’s not enough lobster to go around, every dinner out will have to be Kraft Dinner. As will be every dinner at home.
Not so, you say? All we have to do is plant and harvest enough lobster so everyone can have lobster. Okay, maybe not lobster, how ‘bout steak. Okay, maybe not steak, but surely … The only way to fill in that “…” is with something that may get us just about to subsistence, but probably not. So instead of only some of us starving to death, we all should. Hmm … So it looks like – and who can blame us? – because we could see that universal starvation coming, we decided not to opt for equality. And certainly not for equity.
In fact even this gets the sequencing of our thinking wrong. Like every other organism on the planet, we never started out hoping to ensure the survival of all members of our species. Nature being red in tooth and claw, we started out hoping to ensure the survival of our kin. Only much later in our memic evolution did it occur to us that our kin would have a better chance of survival – in most but by no means all circumstances – if we shared resources rather than constantly warred over them.
Are all our wars wars of survival? And are all our political arrangements designed to escape these wars of survival? No they’re not. Most of our wars, and most of our political arrangements, are about what Thomas Hobbes called our “delectation only”. We’re not fighting – or more commonly bargaining – over lobster for all rather than Kraft Dinner for all. We’re fighting – or more commonly bargaining – over who gets the lobster and who has to settle for the Kraft Dinner. In other words, we’re fighting – or more commonly bargaining – over how to distribute our inequalities. Or, if you prefer, our inequities.
My question is this: Why would anyone think, or have thought, otherwise? 
And the answer is because they weren’t thinking. They were just, well, virtue-signalling. For example:
In his famous A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls argues that the distribution of the dividends of civil society – or at least a civil society that is not in danger of anyone falling below subsistence – should be whatever we’d agree to were we negotiating the distribution of the dividends of civil society from behind a veil of ignorance as to our material and social endowments.
Why anyone would place himself behind that veil – or follow through on what she’d agreed to once that veil is lifted – he never explains, because, well, only a psychopath would ask these questions. So I guess that was just an aside.
And what we’d agree to, he thinks, is that when it comes to the liberal dividends of civil society – freedom of speech, of assembly, and so on – we maximise liberty consistent with a like liberty for all. And when it comes to the material dividends of civil society – lobsters and airplane seats – we opt for whatever material inequalities might be pareto-optimal, provided we all have equal access to these positions of inequality. That is, inequality will be allowed if but only if one of us is rendered better off by it but no one is rendered worse off by it. And no further inequality will be allowed if the only way one of us could be rendered better off by it is if someone else is rendered worse off by it.
Now then, whole libraries have been written either precisifying or critiquing Rawls ‘egalitarian paretianism’ vis a vis material dividends. But relatively little has been written critiquing his insistence on equality – or, if you prefer, equity – vis a vis our liberal dividends. His argument seems to be that I couldn’t hope I’d be allowed to call you a nigger but you wouldn’t be allowed to call me a kike. Why? Because I won’t know, until the veil is lifted, whether I might turn out to be Black or Jewish. So insofar as my aversion to being called a kike is greater than whatever satisfaction I might take in being able to call you a nigger, I’d opt to forgo that liberty. More generally, then, the disadvantages of being at the shit end of the proverbial stick is not worth the advantages of being at the upper end of it.
Well yes, generally. But not always. For example, I might – in fact I would – happily give up my right to call you a nigger – and yet allow you to call me a kike – on condition that they can play Klezmer music on the radio but not rap. So by maximising liberty consistent with a like liberty for all, we needn’t mean we each get the same liberties, any more than we each get the same way of getting from one floor to the one above. A liberty means nothing to me if it’s not one I can make use of. So instead of like liberty we might agree to trade liberties such that we’re each equally satisfied with the liberties we end up with.
That helps, but not much. In times of war, some of us have to be sent to the wall, and some of us have to not be sent to the wall, and that selection can’t be indifferent to, for example, sex. Rawls’ escape from this embarrassment is to say that war is outside what he calls ‘the circumstances of justice’. And what are those circumstances? Those under which we can afford that indifference. So his theory applies where and only where his theory applies, which is … Wait for it. Never!
Then try it this way. His theory applies to the extent that we can afford to adopt it. 
And my question is: Who ever thought otherwise? 

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy

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2 replies

  1. Several years ago I attended a law school event at which Rawls was one of the presenters in a group discussion. I found it very difficult to understand what – if anything – he was explaining. Thank you for helping me to understand why.

    One of the difficulties I had with his use of terms like “civil society” and what I called the indeterminate “we”. Civil societies aren’t generic abstractions they are located somewhere and have characteristics based on that location and their neighbours. Civil society in Ukraine right now is significantly affected by the “special military operation” by one of its neighbours.

    When speaking about “we”, as in we should do this or should not do this, or should distribute material goods a certain way, I am always struck by how that “we” is never defined. Yet the speaker’s argument would be quite different if the “we” included only the residents of his state or province, or the entire country, or the entire planet. The scope of the chosen “we” is an unarticulated premise that is undisclosed in arriving at the conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul asks, “And my question is: Who ever thought otherwise?”

    Americans, that’s who. Most who believe that the right of a woman to control her fertility is absolute* believe that it is absolute in all circumstances–mostly just because they don’t like the Dobbs decision or the makeup of the Court that decided it. They don’t even get why womb-bearers cannot be sent into combat where they may be slaughtered gratuitously. I have trolled them by raising your oft-cited counterfactual of an epidemic that rendered all but six women in the world infertile: how long do you think we could afford to let those six women avoid or abort pregnancy? They get all huffy and emit word-fog like, “I’m not comfortable with the idea that women have to forgo their rights and be kept pregnant just to replace the race after a catastrophe.” Huh? Who else is going to? The enemy you just prevailed over in a bitter war of national survival?

    The situation is not purely hypothetical. If Ukraine is to survive as a country, the six women of child-bearing age who remain alive on Ukrainian soil when the Russians finally give up will have to get busy procreating. There may not be a lot of men to choose amongst. (Fertility was only about 1.1 per woman before the war, even lower than Russia, and no one immigrates into Ukraine.) Ukraine might not even be able to afford the luxury of allowing women pregnant by Russian rape to abort those fetuses. (The fathers are mostly not ethnic Russians anyway.)
    * By “absolute, I don’t mean necessarily that feticide during labour is a claimed right (which of course it is in Canada.) Only that under whatever limits the state places on abortion, to have one is the woman’s unfettered sole personal choice under all imaginable circumstances.


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