Rawls on Rousseau 1973, 1975

As noted in an earlier post, John Rawls delivered a fundamentally important course on the history of political philosophy at Harvard throughout much of his career. (See the earlier post for more about the course and for a set of notes on the section on Marx.) The 1973 course followed these main topics:

  1. The nature of political philosophy 
  2. Natural law and contract theory. [kinds of natural law doctrines; Locke’s account of political obligation; Hume’s critique of contract theory; Rousseau’s theory of the General Will] 
  3. The notion of the original position 
  4. Some principles of justice 
  5. J. S. Mill 
  6. Marx 

Readers of my post on Josh Cohen’s excellent recent book on Rousseau (Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals) may be interested in these course notes I took as a graduate student in Rawls’s course. Cohen points out how important Rawls’s lectures on this subject were for the formation of his own understanding of Rousseau. The notes are not detailed enough to give a full picture of Rawls’s interpretation of Rousseau; but they give an idea of the issues he highlighted as well as an indication of how he related Rousseau’s views to his own arguments in A Theory of Justice.

I attended the 1973 version of the course as a graduate student and served as a teaching assistant in the 1975 version of the course. So I have two sets of notes for most of the course, and it is interesting to compare them. (Here is a PDF document that presents the two sets of lectures side-by-side for easier comparison.)

Several things stand out upon reading both versions of the lectures. First is a very high degree of consistency between the two years. Rawls clearly worked from a very detailed lecture outline; the same topics occur in the same order, with the same breaking point between lecture 1 and lecture 2. Second, there is a great deal of consistency of content as well. Rawls’s explanations of the general will, the well-ordered society, the central problem of the social contract, and the role of unanimity and voting are essentially the same in the two series. Even a somewhat puzzling statement in 1973 — “The ‘system’ of the world has a general will; its object is the law of nature.” — recurs in 1975: “The law of nature is the general will of the universe.” Third, both series indicate Rawls’s interest in relating Rousseau’s ideas to his own constructions in A Theory of Justice.

Finally, the availability of two independent sets of notes from different years gives some basis for judging Rawls’s meaning at various points. For example, when Rawls asks, “What does the general will will?”, he answers “the public good” and “justice”. But Rousseau doesn’t write that “the general will wills justice”; so we have to ask what Rawls means by this. The fact that he repeats the assertion in both years indicates that he has something specific in mind. And it would appear that the connection in his mind proceeds through the idea of the well-ordered society (again, not a concept that Rousseau uses but one that is critical in Rawls’s own thinking).
A synthesis of Rawls’s lectures on the history of political philosophy over a number of years is provided in Samuel Freeman’s edition of Rawls’s lectures in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.

A core text for the course was Ernest Barker, ed., Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, which includes the full text of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Here is a link to the G. D. H. Cole translation of the Social Contract.

John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973 and 1975

[The following are notes taken by Daniel Little; they were intended to capture Rawls’s formulations of the main points presented in the lecture. Text in red is from the 1975 lectures, and text in black is from the 1973 lectures.]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Rousseau. If inequalities are between property owners and non-property owners, giving rise to political differences, it is hard to see that the have-nots have equal opportunity. Especially if the contract view allows for entrenching of privileged class and restricts equality of opportunity.

Like Locke, Rousseau offers a complex view. We will look at one aspect of the Social Contract, with an explicitly narrow approach. 

Rousseau, The Social Contract. The General Will. What is the general will the will of? Every association of people is held together by some common interest. (The “system” of the world has a general will; its object is the law of nature.) Within a political association each sub-association has a general will. This is a theory of associations as general-will-bearing agents. The general will is the general will of the political association. It is the will of the public person or body politic. When active, it is the will of the sovereign. An act of sovereignty is the declaration of the General Will. The general will is the will of the citizen — i.e. as a rational person not determined by his particularity.

The general will. Here is a question: what is it the will of? Every human association has a general will. As long as people identify themselves as belonging to a group having a common aim, the resulting group has a general will. The law of nature is the general will of the universe. If we think of factions within associations, each of them has a general will also; but this is a particular will with respect to the whole association. Normally an association has procedures for making up its collective mind. The general will is the general will of the association established by the Social Contract of the body politic. The declaration of the General Will is the act of sovereignty.

The general will is the will of each person qua member of the association. It is the will that each person would have if they were rational, undeceived, unbiased, undistracted by private interests. We can identify three selves: self as member of political community, self as member of sub-association, and self as private individual.

What does the general will will? The common good — i.e. the good of the public person, just as private will wills the private advantage. The general will wills justice (I.4.4 [ perhaps a reference to TJ I.4, “The Original Position and Justification”]). It wills the preservation of the whole and every part. In the social contract the person only alienates as much of his liberty as is necessary for the sovereign to rule.

Political economy (P114 [perhaps a reference to TJ V.41, “The Concept of Justice in Political Economy”]). The general will wills justice. The Original Position. To ascertain the general will, conditions lead each person to put himself in the place of all others. The general will is therefore the will of all, and applies to all. It must be general in purpose and nature: spring from all and apply to all.

The general will always extends to what is right (but it may be deceived or misinformed).

What does the general will will? It wills the common good, public interest, justice. The general will aims at the preservation and welfare of the whole and every part. This is related to the fact that in the social contract each alienates only so much of his liberty as relates to the community as a whole. This creates authority within limits. (2:4:3) The general will wills justice. It is the most just of wills. To be certain of following the general will it is enough to act justly. Why is the general will right even if not always enlightened? Happiness of everyone qua citizen is wished for by everyone.

In voting no one fails to take “each” to refer to himself. This proves a notion of rights derives from a predilection to oneself. (2:4:4) Qua rational citizens what we are to do is to adopt a certain general point of view. The general will wills justice from adopting the perspective of the citizen as citizen. 

By what acts does the general will act? It acts and expresses itself through enactments of basic laws — particularly through decrees that set up fundamental conventions. It can set up privileges, but it cannot decide who gets them by name. The object of the general will is general.

By what acts does the general will act? It acts in the form of general laws and enactments. These are enactments of a constitutional sort: basic legislative agreements; fundamental laws that regulate the form of a regime.

Book II, chapter iii (link). Institutional questions. Under what conditions is it likely that the general will will express itself? No large public interests affecting voting. No coalitions. A vote is a statement of opinion, not an expression of interest or desire. As a vote approaches unanimity it tends to come closer to the expression of the general will.

The original position is a way of articulating conditions for the expression of the general will. The book describes a well-ordered society.

Institutional expression of the general will. What each citizen would will if rational, etc. We want to work out what form of institutional expression would do this. Consider the contrast between the will of all vs. general will. Former: what everyone would will if their sectional or personal interests ruled. Optimal conditions for establishing the general will within an association:

  1. No large sectional interests which affect general deliberations, and personal interests cancel out and leave the vote unaffected. 2:3:1-2 
  2. No communication or mutual influence in deliberation. No coalitions. 2:3:2 
  3. Rules of order ensure that the question is perfectly put. What is most of interest of this political association? 
  4. Assurance that we get expression of the general will comes from unanimity or approximate unanimity. 
  5. Every vote has to be counted and no one is excluded. No classes are excluded by constitution. 
  6. People have to be reliably informed. 

The more these conditions are satisfied, the greater our assurance that the outcomes of votes is an expression of the general will. The more important and serious the matter, the greater the need for unanimity. The social contract must be unanimous.

[continued on second lecture]

Last time: What would the conditions have to be for an enactment to represent the general will?

The general will is the will of persons qua citizen. How are we to determine this will? (1) No large private interests should determine action; rather, many small interests which cancel out (II:iii). The notion of the original position is designed to represent the same idea.

One can view the society of the original contract as a description of a well-ordered society. [“A well-ordered society is one designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice” (TJ chap VIII, sect 69).] What are the characteristics of this view in Rousseau? The general will is not historical, but rather a sociological fact. The conditions of the general will must be expressed in institutional form. Rousseau’s society is a natural rights type of society.

What is the content of the general will? Rousseau doesn’t say in sufficient detail what the general will wills. He depends upon social institutions and education to bring about the general will, rather than trying to sketch it out a priori. But one would like at least to know what the general principles are which govern the general will.

Describing a well-ordered society: an association having some conception of the common good which has public institutional expression. Public conception of justice, as expressed in institutional enactments.

We can supplement Rousseau by trying to see what these principles might be. The principles must satisfy a mutual advantage condition. Rousseau doesn’t explore details, however.

What is Rousseau’s special contribution to contract theory? It is clear in Rousseau that the social contract is not historical; not a sequence of actual agreements, as Locke seems to suggest. Rather, it represents conditions on any well-ordered society.

The general will as an interest that exists in every citizen. It is the basis upon which people decide how to vote or what is in the common interest. It is Rousseau’s view that these conditions are realized and secure.

It is a natural rights view of some sort. Rousseau thinks of society as generating in people as they grow up a general will. That interest then determines their public reasoning. This leads them to act as the general will requires them to act, in conjunction with other interests. The society of the social contract is therefore stable. Rousseau does not discuss what the possible conceptions are of justice. Are they many or few?

Rousseau notes a hierarchy of interests: citizen qua citizen, citizen qua bourgeois, citizen qua individual. The object of the general will is the constitutional form, that of the particular is the individual’s own private goals. The higher interests regulate the lower ones. These interests need to be articulated. There is no contradiction between say willing as citizen to establish a law and say willing as individual to avoid the application of the law in my own case. Rawls’s four-stage sequence in Chapter 4 of A Theory of Justice is designed to provide much the same kind of articulation of interests.

Another notion in Rousseau is a hierarchy of interests. The self is not an aggregate of interests, but rather a structure. We have interests of different orders. Higher order interests are interests having other lower-order interests. E.g. an interest or desire not to have compulsive sensuous desires. To get rid of desire we might take specific actions. Higher order interests in some way regulate the growth of lower-order desires. How does Rousseau use this notion? The general will is the highest order desire. It is not necessarily the strongest; this is a logical characteristic rather than a measure of strength. Highest order desire is the most fundamental; it regulates all others.

We might now discuss Rousseau’s fundamental problem: how to find an institutional form which protects the interests of each with the weight of all and yet also leaves each autonomous and as free as before. We may interpret his solution in terms of justice. (1) Each person alienates himself totally and his rights to the whole community and the public conception of justice. This means everyone gives himself absolutely to be regulated by the public conception of justice. (2) The giving of oneself is unconditional; no one is independent of the normative force of the public conception. (3) In giving oneself to the community, he gives himself to no one. There is no one in a superior relation to him; justice is mutual. (Book 1, chap 6, paragraphs 4, 6-8; link)

The central problem of the social contract may be thought to have the following solution. The problem: How to form an association which protects all without losing freedom. Each totally alienates all his rights and freedom to the whole association absolutely and without qualification. When the association conforms to the general will it is all right. If the association is seen as regulated by the common good, then what Rousseau says can be satisfied.

No one then has any rights except those defined by this conception of justice or the common good. Each person in giving himself to the community gives himself to no one. Everyone does the same, and everyone has the same rights. Giving oneself over to being regulated by the notion of the common good.

I-8: being forced to be free. This addresses a concern with the free-rider problem. People may agree that rules are fair but prefer to be an exception. They can be compelled to comply with fair rules. Justice defines rights and defines equal freedoms.

Rousseau the democrat

Rousseau’s political philosophy probably represents the richest and most adequate view of the moral foundations of the state of any of the great figures in the history of political thought. But it is also complex and opaque. Rousseau is usually cast as falling within the social contract tradition, according to which the legitimacy of the state depends on the hypothetical consent of the governed. This puts him in discussion with Hobbes and Locke. But he had substantive and radical ideas about freedom and equality that separate him sharply from these British theorists. His ideas about freedom and equality made him a prime candidate for the title, “philosopher of the French Revolution”. He offered a sometimes mysterious theory of the “general will” as the central focus of politics; but philosophers have offered wildly different interpretations of the meaning of this concept. And, unlike Locke, Hobbes, or Mill, Rousseau had an elaborate theory of psychology — the motivations that lead social actors to behave as they do and the processes of social construction through which they come to have these characteristics. This theory appears to fit into his social philosophy, but it isn’t perfectly clear how.

It is for these reasons that Josh Cohen’s recently published Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals is such an important contribution. The book is an exceptional achievement. Cohen offers a coherent, developed interpretation of Rousseau’s theory; he provides clear statements of the central ideas and shows how they tie together; and he makes use of virtually all of Rousseau’s enormous corpus to tease out Rousseau’s intricate line of thought. Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau’s theory is not simply a series of aphorisms, but is rather a detailed and subtle logical argument, with premises and inferences that can be rigorously reconstructed. It is a full philosophy of politics. Most basically, Cohen shows how philosophical principles, institutional assumptions, and psychological theories are intended to tie together into a coherent view of a democratic society.

This is an enormously difficult task to have accomplished. Just take the Social Contract as your starting point and you are inclined to emphasize chiefly the relations between institutions and freedom. Just take Emile or the Confessions as the point of origin and the emphasis will be on the individual’s development. And if you begin with the more applied parts of Rousseau’s work — the constitution for Poland, for example — and you are likely enough to get lost in a forest of institutional details. In other words — three Rousseau’s. Cohen has paid close attention to all these components of Rousseau’s thought, and he has succeeded in showing how they all contribute to a single, coherent line of thought.

The key idea in Cohen’s construction is the notion of a “free community of equals.” (This is also the subtitle of the book.) Each part of the phrase demands analysis — equality, freedom, and community, and unpacking them provides a basis for a nuanced and powerful political philosophy. The phrase also invokes the central problem of political philosophy, the contradiction between security and freedom: how is it possible to find personal security within a state (and therefore being subject to coercive laws), while fully maintaining one’s freedom and autonomy? Here is how Cohen puts the solution he attributes to Rousseau:

The essential point about content is that Rousseau’s solution requires that individuals commit to regarding themselves as belonging to a political community whose members are committed to regarding one other as equals: acknowledging one another as political equals, with equal status in establishing the laws; recognizing one another as equally subject to the laws; and agreeing to regulate their association by reference to reasons of the common good, which gives equal weight to the good of each citizen. (Kindle loc 221)

This formulation captures every element of the solution: equality, the common good, and a consequent situation of full autonomy. The citizen is autonomous (self-legislating) because he/she has willed the creation of exactly this system of law. The common good referred to here is the “general will”; and Cohen makes a good case for understanding that this concept is one that comes down to the individual perceiving and willing outcomes that serve the whole of the citizenry.

Citizens also have their own particular interests; so the situation described here, where all citizens give priority to the common good over their particular interests is one that requires a fairly specific bundle of institutions and motivations. And Cohen demonstrates that Rousseau methodically explores these institutional and behavioral requirements.

Cohen analyzes the idea of a community as being regulated by the general will into a conjunction of four conditions:

  • GW1 Particular Interest Condition [citizens have separate, particular interests]
  • GW2 Common Good Condition [citizens publicly share a common understanding of the common good]
  • GW3 Priority Condition [each citizen gives priority to reasons having to do with the common good over those concerning particular interests]
  • GW4 Reasonable Confidence Condition [citizens can be confident that their institutions conform to their shared conception of the common good]

It is evident that these are strong conditions. So it is incumbent on Rousseau (and Cohen) to demonstrate that they are singly possible and jointly consistent. If these points cannot be established, then the idea of a general will is useless. If the conditions are possible and consistent, then there is a further question to investigate: what empirical conditions (institutions, processes of individual moral development) are needed to establish and sustain them?

Another fascinating line of thought in the book is Cohen’s attempt to reconstruct Rousseau’s argument for the “natural goodness” of the human being. It is a complex argument and one I found highly convincing as an interpretation of Rousseau. And the issue is simply crucial; if this argument cannot be made out, then the free community of equals is an impossibility.

Much of Cohen’s work here is that of philosophical reconstruction: what were Rousseau’s positions and reasons? This is descriptive work, and doesn’t require that Cohen evaluate the theory. (In fact, we can ask the question whether this is simply a hypothetical reconstruction of a Rousseau-like theory, or whether we are to understand that Rousseau actually had these logical connections and explications clearly in mind.) But beyond the explicative work, it is plain that there is much in Rousseau’s conceptions of equality, freedom, participation, and democracy that Cohen admires deeply and regards as fruitful for contemporary discussions of democracy. There are also a few important threads that he is distinctly not pleased by: in particular, the exclusion of women, of course, and Rousseau’s sometimes incipient communitarianism. The latter makes for the possibility of an ethnically or nationalistically grounded community, rather than a community of simple moral equals. And Rousseau sometimes seems to suggest that only a highly uniform community is likely to satisfy the conditions above — a discouraging finding for those of us interested in a creating a democratic, multicultural world.

There is a particularly important meta-level point that emerges from Cohen’s book and that seems to be fully embedded in Rousseau’s thought process: the importance of addressing the question of social justice in full detail from three interrelated perspectives. We need a convincing set of moral principles that help to define what the most important features of a just society are. We need an analysis of some of the institutional requirements that these principles present; an idea of the kinds of institutions that could satisfy the principles. And we need an analysis of human psychology — both the fixed parts and the malleable parts — that would either support or undermine these institutions and principles. In other words, social philosophy requires a concrete study of institutions and psychology if we are to succeed in arriving at convincing and practical models of a good society. And Rousseau seems to have understood this imperative in greater detail than other contributors to the traditions of political philosophy.

Here is a schematic representation of major parts of Cohen’s analysis of Rousseau:

A property-owning democracy

John Rawls offered a general set of principles of justice that were formally neutral across specific institutions.  However, he also believed that the institutions of a “property-owning democracy” are most likely to satisfy the two principles of justice. So what is a property-owning democracy?

In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001) Rawls offered a more explicit discussion of this concept than was offered in A Theory of Justice: Original Edition (1971).  Here are several important descriptions:

Let us distinguish five kinds of regime viewed as social systems, complete with their political, economic, and social institutions: (a) laissez-faire capitalism; (b) welfare-state capitalism; (c) state socialism with a command economy; (d) property-owning democracy; and finally, (e) liberal (democratic) socialism.

Regarding any regime four questions naturally arise.  One is the question of right: that is, whether its institutions are right and just.  Another is the question of design: that is, whether a regime’s institutions can be effectively designed to realize its declared aims and objectives.  This implies a third question: whether citizens, in view of their likely interests and ends as shaped by the regime’s basic structure, can be relied on to comply with just institutions and the rules that apply to them in their various offices and positions.  The problem of corruption is an aspect of this.  Finally, there is the question of competence: whether the tasks assigned to offices and positions would prove simply too difficult for those likely to hold them.

 What we would like, of course, are just and effectively designed basic institutions that effectively encourage aims and interests necessary to sustain them.  Beyond this, persons should not confront tasks that are too difficult for them or that exceed their powers.  Arrangements should be fully workable, or practicable.  Much conservative thought has focused on the last three questions mentionsed above, criticizing the ineffectiveness of the so-called welfare state and its tendencies toward waste and corruption.  But here we focus largely on the first question of right and justice, leaving the others aside.  (136-137)

(Notice that these four questions converge closely with the feasibility conditions on reforms mentioned in an earlier post.)

There is similar but less developed language in the original version of the Theory of Justice:

Throughout the choice between a private-property economy and socialism isleft open; from the standpoint of the theory of justice alone, various basic structures would appear to satisfy its principles. (TJ, 258)

Rawls argues that the first three alternatives mentioned here (a-c) fail the test of justice, in that each violates conditions of the two principles of justice in one way or the other.  So only a property-owning democracy and liberal socialism are consistent with the two principles of justice (138).  Another way of putting this conclusion is that either regime can be just if it functions as designed, and the choice between them is dictated by pragmatic considerations rather than considerations of fundamental justice.

Here is how Rawls describes the fundamental goal of a property-owning democracy:

In property-owning democracy, … the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality (140).

Rawls isn’t very explicit about the institutions that constitute a property-owning democracy, but here is a general description:

Both a property-owning democracy and a liberal socialist regime set up a constitutional framework for democratic politics, guarantee the basic liberties with the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and regulate economic and social inequalities by a principle of mutuality, if not by the difference principle.  (138)

This last point is important:

For example, background institutions must work to keep property and wealth evenly enough shared over time to preserve the fair value of the political liberties and fair equality of opportunities over generations. They do this by laws regulating bequest and inheritance of property, and other devices such as taxes, to prevent excessive concentrations of private power. (51)

And concentration of wealth is one of the deficiencies of a near-cousin of the property-owning democracy, welfare-state capitalism:

One major difference is this: the background institutions of property-owning democracy work to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy, and indirectly, political life as well.  By contrast, welfare-state capitalism permits a small class to have a near monopoly of the means of production. (139) [also Collected Papers, p. 419]

The past thirty years have taken us a great distance away from the social ideal represented by Rawls’s Theory of Justice.  The acceleration of inequalities of income and wealth in the US economy is flatly unjust, by Rawls’s standards.  The increasing — and now by Supreme Court decision, almost unconstrained — ability of corporations to exert influence within political affairs has severely undermined the fundamental political equality of all citizens.  And the extreme forms of inequality of opportunity and outcome that exist in our society — and the widening of these gaps in recent decades — violate the basic principles of justice, requiring the full and fair equality of political lives of all citizens.  This suggests that Rawls’s theory provides the basis for a very sweeping critique of existing economic and political institutions. In effect, the liberal theorist offers radical criticism of the existing order.

(Thomas Pogge’s John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice has a good discussion of this topic.)

Social progress

What is involved in “making society better”? What do we have in mind when we aspire to improving society? I suppose there are several things we might mean by this idea. Superficially we might say that a society is better off when its members are better off; but is there more to the story? There seem to be several different lines of thought to pursue.

First, we might have a small number of dimensions of goodness in mind — something like a social welfare function — and we might understand social progress as aggregate improvement with respect to these dimensions of welfare. Social progress is defined as “aggregate improvement in quality of life for the population” (income, health status, freedom), and it is achieved through a series of steps in which one or more of these measures is improved. This definition is potentially more complex than a utilitarian moral theory, but it shares the basic structure with utilitarianism. It defines the good of society as the sum of the goods of individuals in society. (We might also have a theory about the processes through which these improvements need to take place; for example, we might say that all improvements need to be Pareto-improving: making some better off without reducing the welfare of anyone.)

Second, we might have a list of specific current social defects in mind — the widespread fact of urban homelessness, the incidence of childhood obesity, or the incidence of violence in society — and we might define progress as the reduction or elimination of these defects. Social progress is the result of sequential reduction of social harms.

Third, we might have a set of moral-structural theories in mind: fairness, equality, democracy, self-determination. And we might define progress as a reform of institutions that increases one or more of these features of society. We might be thinking here along the lines that Rawls suggests in talking about imperfect justice; improving society means reforming unjust institutions and practices. Or it means reforming institutions that unnecessarily interfere with citizens’ freedoms. Or it means reducing the ways in which institutions treat citizens unequally. This differs from the standard-of-living definition, in that it looks at the characteristics that need to be addressed as relational and systemic characteristics, not simply aggregates of the wellbeing of the individual members of society.  A society is better when it is more just or more free.  Here we might find ourselves in a position of saying that “Society A is in a better position than society B, even though citizens of B have a higher level of material wellbeing than those in society A.” Apartheid was a particularly egregious example of a systemic defect in a society, and it required fundamental structural change to improve the apartheid society. Current discussions of democratic institutions fall in this category; the idea is that institutional reforms can create new procedures that better embody the ideals of democracy.

Fourth, we might have in mind the important point that social institutions and practices work in very specific ways and have differential effects on different groups of people in society. So we might have in mind the idea of improving the workings of the basic institutions of society — improve their effectiveness and efficiency, or improve their equity in terms of their effects on different groups. This is analogous to the goal of “making the air transport system better”: we look at the goals the system serves and the practices and procedures through which it does this, and we try to design better procedures to accomplish the goals of the system. We might notice that the environmental regulations governing the siting of hazards tend to disfavor poor people, and we might try to make them more democratic. Or we might notice that land-use permitting processes are very cumbersome in many cities, thus discouraging new and productive uses of land, and we might try to change them in the direction of greater efficiency. Each effort could be described as “making society better.”

Fifth, we might try to locate “social progress” entirely in terms of the wishes and preferences of the members of society.  This is a liberal and democratic definition of social wellbeing: the wellbeing of society, and what counts as an improvement in social wellbeing, is entirely specified once we know what the citizens prefer.  So on this approach we might say that “social progress” is entirely procedural: a set of changes represent progress just in case they were arrived at through a fair and equal process of collective decision making.

An important issue that arises in thinking about social progress is the question of myopia and design. Think of the analogy with the evolution of species: natural selection is a myopic process in which each change is fitness-improving, but there is no longterm plan for what the species will eventually look like. Coming up with a better bicycle, on the other hand, is usually the result of a far-sighted design process, in which the architecture of the bicycle is reconceived so as to achieve certain design goals. The thing about a myopic process of improvement is that it is possible to get trapped in a local maximum, unable to take one step back in order to achieve a higher nearby equilibrium. (Richard Dawkins describes this possibility in Climbing Mount Improbable.)

So what about social progress: should we think of social improvement as the net result of many small, myopic reforms; or should we think about it ideally as the result of a comprehensive policy design process? To what extent are we in a situation of improvement resulting from a large number of small adjustments, versus the possibility of large designed reforms leading to discontinuous jumps in quality and equity? The constraints of democracy strongly suggest the former rather than the latter. Building legislative and democratic majorities for change seems to imply piecemeal reform and a degree of myopia. It is difficult to see how a comprehensive, multi-decade plan for social reform could be implemented and sustained. (Adam Przeworski considers some of these issues in Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America.) So piecemeal and gradual reform on several fronts may be the best we can do.

Generically the concept of reform fits into these ideas very tightly. Reforms are intended to improve the social situation in one way or another; and the cumulative effect of an extended series of reforms may be a significant enhancement in equity, democracy, equality, and quality of life.  But two things are usually true: first, reforms are generally selective and partial; and second, the cumulative effects of an extended series of reforms may lead to outcomes that were never anticipated.  A reform process is not a utopian process: it is generally not guided by a comprehensive vision of what the ideal society ought to look like, and the results of reform are generally pragmatic and limited rather than sweeping and socially transformative.

(The image above is drawn from a manual on forestry management in Karnataka, India (link).  It depicts a sequence of social systems of land use governing farm land, cattle husbandry, and forests.  The middle panel represents degradation of the system and the worsening of the standard of living of the population; the final panel represents the improvement of the system of land use and a major step forward in the standard of living as a result of a major legal reform, confined cattle and protected regenerated forests.)

Influences and arguments

Lately I’ve been writing about the influences that can be discerned in the theories of John Rawls.  Rawls was a “social contract theorist”; to what extent were his theories shaped and framed by his reading of the great contract theorists such as Locke, Rousseau, or Kant?  He was also influenced by the history of economic thought; so is it possible to find parallels or echoes of the thought systems of Adam Smith or Karl Marx in Rawls’s thinking?  And to what extent were there more local influences in the 1940s and 1950s that created fairly specific directions and characteristics in Rawls’s thinking?

This is an interesting question in application to one particular philosopher.  But it also raises a more general question: where do philosophical theories come from?  To what extent is it the case that a given philosopher is working within a “micro-tradition” — a particular and specific field of influence — and to what extent is the thinker “original”, bringing forward new ideas on a topic?  And once a fundamental topic has been established for a thinker — e.g., “What defines the principles of justice for a property-owning democracy?” — to what extent does the theory then develop autonomously according to the arguments and analysis of the philosopher?

This way of formulating the problem invokes several related ideas: influence and tradition; originality and creativity; and orderly, logical development of a position or theory.  
I suppose that there are many instances of philosophers who fall mostly in the “influence” part of the map: their philosophical work largely takes the form of carefully working out the ideas of their influencers.  (This might be part of the legacy of Rawls; I suppose there has been quite an ocean of philosophical work dedicated to specifying more exactly what “primary goods” are, or how “reflective equilibrium” works.)  This might be described as “normal science” — taking the foundations of a field of study as being unquestioned, and then attempting to work out the details more exactly.
There are also some good examples of philosophers who were largely driven by the “logical analysis” part of the map: formulate a good, difficult question, and then spend the rest of one’s career working out analytically sound answers to the problems this question spawns.  “Naturalized epistemology” might fall in this sector; we might say that the philosophers who have tried to give a biological interpretation of the conditions of knowledge are taking one fundamental question — how do biological organisms arrive at knowledge of their environment? — and attempt to apply the findings of cognitive science and evolutionary biology to the issues that arise.  Kant’s philosophy also seems to have this character: once having chosen the topics “What can we know metaphysically?” or “What creates moral duty?”, his mind seems to have proceeded analytically and logically, without correction or stimulus from a contemporary literature.
And what about originality?  Are there examples of philosophers who have largely invented a set of questions and approaches that defined a new philosophy for a given domain?  Wittgenstein is commonly recognized as a highly original philosopher; but certainly his theories were embedded in a tradition of philosophy.  Several things are apparently true about Wittgenstein when it comes to influence and argument.  (a) Many of his ideas and assumptions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from careful readings of Frege and Russell; (b) his insights and assertions in Philosophical Investigations were responsive to a surrounding set of ideas about language, behavior, and meaning, but his solutions and theories still strike one as being highly original; and (c) for certain themes and problems he continued to work carefully to move his position forward through analytical discovery and inference.  So Wittgenstein seems to illustrate all three dimensions of philosophical theory formation and knowledge construction.

Several things seem to be true about the formation of the theories and perspectives of individual philosophers:

  • They are introduced into a fairly specific “philosophical research community” through graduate education that provides paradigm examples of philosophical questions and issues and prescriptive advice about the nature of philosophical argument and analysis.
  • They are introduced to their field at a particular moment in social history: World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the civil rights period, 9-11; and historical events and shifts have an influence on the formation of their thought.
  • “Originality” can take the form of arriving at new questions (“How is group mentality possible?”); new methods of analysis (Frege-Russell’s formal deductivism as a solution to the question of the nature of mathematical truth); or new substantive approaches to philosophical theory (Kant’s Copernican Revolution in thought).

An interesting contribution to this set of topics is an innovative series of volumes posing “5 Questions” to philosophers in a variety of fields (link).  A recent volume is Philosophy of the Social Sciences: 5 Questions,  edited by Diego Rios and Christoph Schmidt-Petri.  Contemporary philosophers were asked to respond to five important questions about their approaches to the field of the philosophy of social science.  The format offers the beginning of a triangulation among “beginnings,” “fundamental assumptions,” and “future directions” for each of these philosophers.  The questions that were provided to the philosophers are these:

  1. How did you get interested in the philosophical aspects of the social sciences?
  2. Which social sciences do you consider particularly interesting or challenging from a philosophical point of view?
  3. How do you conceive the relation between the social sciences and the natural sciences?
  4. What is the most important contribution that philosophy has made to the social sciences?
  5. Which topics in the philosophy of social science will, and which should, receive more attention than in the past?

Contributors include David Bloor, Raymond Boudon, Mario Bunge, Nancy Cartwright, Margaret Gilbert, Daniel Hausman, Harold Kincaid, Daniel Little, Steven Lukes, David Papineau, Philip Pettit, Alexander Rosenberg, David-Hillel Ruben, John Searle, and Raimo Tuomela.  This list includes quite a few of the people who have helped to shape current thinking in this sub-discipline of philosophy; so it is very interesting to have a chance to see what they have to say about some of the original influences on their thinking about the social sciences, as well as their own definitions of the frameworks they have arrived at.  I found it very interesting to think seriously about these questions in my own case, because it forces one to reflect on the ideas, events, and ideologies that led one to choose one set of topics and approaches rather than another.  I would have added a sixth question for each of the contributors: “What are the most basic ideas that you have come to in the course of your studies of the social sciences?”

What I would like to see is a next step conducted by a gifted sociologist of the professions, who would attempt to map out the streams of influence and contribution that are documented within the essays in this volume.  Andrew Abbott’s careful analysis of the currents of thought constituting the discipline of sociology in the 1960s and 1970s is a good case in point (Chaos of Disciplines).  Another good example is William Sewell’s attempt to provide a geography of the discipline of social history in the 1960s (Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation).

Marx’s influence on Rawls

John Rawls and Karl Marx shared a number of core intellectual concerns.  Both were interested in the question of what features a good and just society should have; both had theories about the good human life; and both understood that the benefits of modern life depend upon social cooperation.  So it is interesting to ask whether Marx’s thought had an influence on Rawls.  In brief, the answer seems to be largely “no.”  In particular, Marx’s economic writings and his theory of exploitation seem to have been of no special interest to Rawls during the period leading up to the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971.

I didn’t have the opportunity to study with Marx; but I did have that opportunity with Rawls.  I attended both of his lecture series on the history of moral philosophy and the history of social and political thought in 1972 and 1973, and I served as a graduate assistant in the latter course.  And eventually Rawls agreed to serve as primary advisor on my dissertation, “Marx’s Capital: A Philosophical Study” (1977).  (This eventually became the germ of my first book, The Scientific Marx.)  Rawls’s two primary lecture series have now been compiled by former students of Rawls’s: Samuel Freeman’s edition of Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy and Barbara Herman’s edition of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.  The lectures continued into the 1990s, and they certainly evolved significantly during that time.  In particular, the lectures on Marx are substantially more extensive by the time of the 1990s than they were in the 1970s.  (An earlier posting provides the notes I took on a lecture that Rawls gave in 1973 on Marx’s critique of justice.)

Rawls’s teachings about Marx in his courses on ethics and social and political philosophy focused primarily on the early Marx — the “philosophical Marx”.  He taught and reflected upon the theory of alienation and species being, and the main texts he focused on were the Economic and Philosophical ManuscriptsOn the Jewish Question, and Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.  He gave little serious attention to Capital or Marx’s own economic theories. It was Marx’s theory of the human person, Marx’s philosophical anthropology, that he seems to have found of the greatest philosophical interest and value.  (Robert Tucker’s The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition) remains a good source on Marx’s writings. and Rawls used it as the primary source of Marx’s writings in his course.  Rawls also used Tom Bottomore’s collection, Karl Marx: Early Writings.)

There is only one substantive comment about Marx in the lectures on moral philosophy:

A difference between Hegel and Marx in this respect is that Hegel thinks that the citizens of a modern state are objectively free now, and their freedom is guaranteed by its political and social institutions.  However, they are subjectively alienated.  They tend not to understand that the social world before their eyes is a home. …. By contrast, Marx thinks that they are both objectively and subjectively alienated.  For him, overcoming alienation, both subjective and objective, awaits the communist society of the future after the revolution. (Herman, 336)

(Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, which appeared in 1972, provides a similar treatment of Hegel view of the modern state and the citizen’s freedom.)

Rawls gave his primary attention to Marx in his lectures on the history of social and political philosophy. (This occupied roughly two weeks of the 12-week course.)  Here are the selections of Marx’s writings that Rawls assigned in this course:  On the Jewish Question, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, selections from the German Ideology, selections from Capital, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, Vol. I, chs I: sec. 4; VI-VII; IX, sec. 1; X, sec.1; XIII-XIV; and Critique of the Gotha Program.  (These are the assignments listed in the syllabus for Philosophy 171, fall 1973-74.)

The materials assigned from the early Marx in this syllabus provide a fairly complete exposure to Marx’s theories of species being, true human emancipation, and alienation.  On the Jewish Question and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts contain rich bodies of argument in which Marx lays out his conception of human activity and freedom.  Sections from the German Ideology provide some exposure to the theory of historical materialism.  And the Critique of the Gotha Program is a vehicle for discussing Marx’s ideas of a socialist society.  So this batch of materials offer a reasonably thorough exposure to Marx’s thought prior to his political economy and his formulation of an economic theory of capitalism.

By contrast, the imprint of Marx’s political economy in this set of lectures is very limited.  The readings from Capital break out this way:

  • Vol I, ch I, sec. 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof
  • VI: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power
  • VII, sec. 1: The Labour-Process or the Production of Use-Values
  • X, sec.1: The Limits of the Working-Day
  • XIII: Co-Operation
  • XIV: Division of Labour and Manufacturing

This amounts to about 55 pages of reading from Capital, out of the 774 pages of volume 1.  These readings introduce a few fundamental ideas such as the fundamentals of the labor theory of value, the idea of commodity fetishism, and some of the basics of Marx’s sociological description of capitalist society and the economic process within capitalism.  But it is a very sketchy introduction to Marx’s thinking in Capital.  And the most extensive discussion that Rawls provided of any ideas from Capital in his 1973 course — the discussion of Marx’s conception of justice in the 1973 lectures — is largely a paraphrase of Allen Wood’s analysis in “The Marxian Critique of Justice” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1972, link).  This is true all the way down to the two passages that Rawls mentions from Capital in the course of this lecture; both were previously discussed in Wood’s article.  So there is nothing original in the 1973 lecture; Rawls has pretty much adopted Wood’s frame of analysis in treating the question of Marx’s conception of justice.  This isn’t surprising, in that Wood’s article was highly original and rigorous, and opened up a largely new line of interpretation of Marx’s theories.  But Rawls didn’t have much to add to the debate in this lecture.

In other words: As of 1973, two years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls’s references to the economic theories and sociological descriptions contained in Capital were very slender indeed.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rawls had not been significantly immersed in a reading of Marx’s economic and sociological writings during the formative period of his development of the theory of justice.

This breakdown of topics and readings gives a clue to what Rawls found appealing about Marx. The conception of individuals forging themselves through labor is central; it reflects a line of thought extending from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx, and it seems to be foundational for Rawls himself when he describes his theory of the good.

But there are other core ideas in Marx’s thought that plainly did not appeal to Rawls. Central are the ideas of critique and exploitation. Both ideas are absolutely core to Marx; but they play no role in Rawls’s theories.

The idea of critique involves the notion that there are hidden presuppositions underlying a given theory, and critical philosophy can uncover them. Ludwig Feuerbach represents on ideal along these lines; Feuerbachian criticism of religion “lays bare” the hidden agendas represented by official religion. Marx’s own arguments in the German Ideology reflect this method. And in fact, many of Marx’s titles have the subtitle “towards a critique of political economy”.  Does Rawls ever give attention to this intellectual style? In a word, no.  Rawls pays no attention to Marx’s philosophical method when it comes to “critique” as a tool of intellectual discovery.

The other unspoken Marxian concept in Rawls’s writings and teachings is exploitation. Marx believed, as a matter of objective economic analysis, that capitalism is a system of exploitation in a specific technical sense: the capitalist is enabled to expropriate the unpaid surplus labor of the worker.  This perspective on modern economic relations as representing a set of fundamentally unfair economic relations between the powerful and the weak is not one that Rawls found compelling, apparently.  And the fundamental “ontological” framework of Marx’s thinking — the idea of capitalism as a system of relations of production through which economic activity transpires — never comes in for detailed description or discussion in Rawls.

This aspect of Marx’s theory of capitalism became central in the debate in the 1970s and 1980s over “Marx’s theory of justice” (for example, Allen Buchanan, Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism and Allen Wood, Karl Marx). If capitalism is exploitative in its most fundamental institutions, then presumably Marx would judge that capitalism is unjust. Debate raged.

The topic of justice comes up directly in Rawls’s 1973 lectures. But significantly, Rawls’s analysis here is taken almost point-by-point from Wood; Rawls doesn’t seem to have given the question much thought himself.  So the theory of exploitation, in spite of its relevance to Rawls’s central topic, is not an area of influence on the development of Rawls’s thought.

And why is this? Apparently because both ideas are fundamentally anti-liberal.  As Rawls writes in his lectures on political philosophy, “I will consider Marx solely as a critic of liberalism” (Freeman, 320).  The two ideas mentioned here both fall in the category of fundamental critique of liberalism.  The first discredits the philosophical foundations of Smithian political economy, promising to lay bare the underlying and contradictory assumptions it rests upon. The second lays out an explicit theory purporting to demonstrate the explicit inequality and unfairness of market institutions at their core. Perhaps it was cognitive dissonance that kept Rawls from giving more attention to the later Marx.

It is interesting to note that the explosion of interest in Marx by analytic philosophers took place in the early 1970s — about the time of publication of A Theory of Justice.  Philosophers such as Allen Wood, George Brenkert, Allan Buchanan, John McMurtry, Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworksi (a political scientist), and John Roemer (an economist) began taking Marx’s writings seriously and offering extensive analysis and criticism of his theories.  This resurgence began in discussions of “Marx’s theory of justice,” but extended quickly into many other areas of Marx’s thought — the theory of exploitation, the labor theory of value, the theory of historical materialism, and his theory of capitalism as a distinctive mode of production.  (I myself argued for a “rational choice” interpretation of Marx’s theory of capitalism in The Scientific Marx.)  Early arguments discrediting the labor theory of value fall in this category as well.  Examples of some of this work are included in John Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism: Studies in Marxism and Social Theory.  This work was referred to as “rational choice Marxism” or “analytical Marxism,” and it represented an intellectual agenda that took Marx seriously as a thinker but often came to conclusions that offended orthodox Marxist theorists.

Rawls on Marx; December 1973

John Rawls taught a course on the history of political philosophy throughout much of his career at Harvard University.  The course contained his description and analysis of the most important figures in modern political philosophy, including Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx.  The course evolved over time; the final version from 1994 is edited in Samuel Freeman’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.  I served as graduate assistant in Rawls’s lectures on this subject in fall 1973, and recently reread my notes of the course.  Here are my notes of a particularly important lecture towards the end of the course: Rawls’s treatment of Marx’s ideas about economic justice.  This lecture demonstrates Rawls’s understanding of the fundamentals of Marx’s economic theories and the labor theory of value.  (I am inclined to think that Joseph Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis (1954) was an important source for Rawls on the history of economic thought, including Marx’s economics, though I can’t at this moment confirm this.)  This lecture is particularly significant in that it is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of “analytical Marxism” announced by the publication of an important article by Allen Wood, “The Marxian Critique of Justice” in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 (link).


John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973
Notes from lecture, December 11, 1973
[notes taken by Daniel Little; intended to capture Rawls’s formulations of the main points presented in the lecture]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Capital seems to be a description of an unjust society. The owners of the means of production live in relative abundance and idleness at the expense of the ever-growing class of wretched laborers. But Marx doesn’t make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just.  Why so?

(a) It is not enough to say Marx is averse to preaching or moralizing. He is so averse; but judgments of justice can be reasoned and hence not properly described as “preaching”.

(b) It is not enough to say that he didn’t want the critique of capitalism to rest on some social ideal. He does reject the utopian socialists’ program; but that would not prevent him from stating his own opinion. And he doesn’t do that either. He reproaches the utopians for not realizing that some major social change must precede an adjustment along moral lines.

Here is my conjecture as to why Marx didn’t judge capitalism unjust. He thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory. A further qualification: It is worthwhile to distinguish between the high time of a form and its low period — where the form is a progressive force and where it stands in contradiction to the mode of production.

Here is a brief discussion of justice in Capital III:

To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does, is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as wilful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradics that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities. (Capital III, 339-40) 

Here Marx conceives of justice in terms of adequacy to the mode of production.  (1) The justice of legal forms cannot be discovered on the basis of those forms alone. Rather it depends upon their adequacy to the mode of production. The juridical institution is formal; to give it content we must look to the way of life and its requirements. A consequence: There is no universal theory of justice which allows us to evaluate generally the social institutions of any society. There is no general principle like “slavery is always unjust.” There are thus no general rules of natural rights, no universal justice. (2) This adjustment of justice to the mode of production doesn’t mean there are no injustices. Slavery is unjust under capitalism; wage labor is just under capitalism, provided that the worker is paid the value of his labor power.

This view seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

Let’s now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental — as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.

Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

Consider the description of the production of surplus value in Capital.

Every condition of the problem is satisfied, while the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, have been in no way violated. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent. For the capitalist as buyer paid for each commodity, for the cotton, the spindle and the labour-power, its full value. He then did what is done by every purchaser of commodities; he consumed their use-value. … This metamorphosis, this conversion of money into capital, takes place both within the sphere of circulation and also outside it; within the circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; outside the circulation, because what is done within it is only a stepping-stone to the production of surplus value. (Capital I, p. 194)

The fact that surplus value arises is a piece of good fortune for the buyer, but no injustice to the seller.

Marx thus rejects the Ricardian principle of contribution. He finds it a bourgeois notion, basing property rights on one’s labor.

Summing up. (1) Marx views the notion of justice as a virtue of legal forms and institutions, and thus perhaps it is a notion which belongs to prehistory. The state depends upon the mode of production. (2) Marx doesn’t deny that the various conceptions of justice have formal features in common — exchange of equivalents for equivalents — but the notion of what is equivalent is determined in different ways. Marx would be prepared to admit that capitalism in its high period is just. One reason he rejects the utopian’s argument is that it is misleading. It rests on a misapprehension of where the essential problem lies: not in the superstructure, but in the mode of production. He felt that the key enterprise is to give a scientific theory of the mode of production.

A second point: justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

[Other relevant materials from the course:]

From the syllabus:

(a) Marx’s criticism of the liberal state; (b) His attitude towards theories of justice; (c) The theory of alienation and exploitation; (d) The conception of rational human society

Final exam questions on Marx:

4. Present and discuss Marx’s theory of alienation (as developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
5. Present and discuss Marx’s theory of historical materialism (as developed in the German Ideology)
6. Present and discuss Marx’s analysis of historical change in the Communist Manifesto.
7. Outline Marx’s analysis of the basic characteristics of capitalism: the social relations which define it and the nature of the form of economic production.

Rawls and decision theory

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was a strikingly original contribution to political philosophy upon its appearance in 1971.  Against the prevailing preference for “meta-ethics” in the field of philosophical ethics, Rawls made an effort to arrive at substantive, non-tautological principles that could be justified as a sort of “moral constitution” for a just society.  The theory involves two fundamental principles of justice: the liberty principle, guaranteeing maximal equal liberties for all citizens, and the difference principle, requiring that social and economic inequalities should be the least possible, subject to the constraint of maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  (The principle also requires equality of opportunity for all positions.)

Two elements of Rawls’s philosophical argument were particularly striking.  The first was his adoption of the anti-foundationalist coherence epistemology associated with Quine and Goodman (SEP article by Jonathan Kvanvig); so Rawls conceded that it is not possible to provide logically decisive arguments for moral positions.  Though his theory of justice has much in common with the ideas of Kant and Rousseau, Rawls rejected the Kantian idea that moral theories could be given secure philosophical foundation.  It is rather a question of the overall fit between a set of principles and our “considered judgments” about cases and mid-level moral judgments.  He refers to the situation of “reflective equilibrium” as the state of affairs that results when a moral reasoner has fully deliberated about his/her considered moral judgments and tentative moral principles, adjusting both until no further changes are required by the requirement of consistency.

Another and perhaps even more distinctive part of Rawls’s approach is his use of the apparatus of decision theory to support his arguments in favor of the two principles of justice against plausible alternatives (including especially utilitarianism).  Essentially the argument goes along these lines.  Suppose that representative individuals are brought together in a situation in which they are expected to make a unanimous and irreversible decision about the fundamental principles of justice that will regulate their society; and suppose they are profoundly ignorant about their own particular characteristics.  Participants do not know whether they are talented, strong, intelligent, or eloquent; and they do not know what their fundamental goals are (their theories of the good).  Rawls refers to this situation of choice as the original position; and he refers to the participants as deliberating behind the veil of ignorance.  Rawls argues that rational individuals in these circumstances would unanimously choose the two principles of justice over utilitarianism.  And this conclusion is taken to be a strong basis of support for the two principles as correct.  This is what qualifies Rawls’s theory as falling within the social contract tradition; the foundation of justice is the fact of unanimous rational consent (albeit hypothetical).

Once we connect the question, “what is the best theory of justice?”, with the question, “what principles of justice would rationally self-interested persons choose?”, there are various ways we might proceed.  Rawls’s description of the original position is just one possible starting point out of several.  But if we begin with Rawls’s assumptions, then it is natural to turn to formal decision theory as a basis for answering the question.  How should rational agents reason in these circumstances?  How should they decide which of several options will best serve their future interests?  And one point becomes clear immediately: the choice of a decision rule makes a critical difference for the ultimate choice.  If we were to imagine that decision-making under conditions of uncertainty mandates the “maximize expected utility” rule, then one choice follows (utilitarianism).  But Rawls argues that the expected utility rule is not rational in the circumstances of the original position.  The stakes are too high for each participant.  And therefore he argues that the “maximin” rule would be chosen by rational participants in the circumstances of the original position.  The maximin rule requires that we rank options by their worst possible outcome; and we choose that option that comes with the least bad outcome.  In other words, we “maximize the minimum.” (The maximin rule was described by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.)

Notice that this analysis involves a question of second-order rationality: not “what outcome would the rational agent choose?”, but rather “what decision rule would the rational agent follow?”.  So it is the rationality of the decision rule rather than the rationality of the choice that is at issue.

Another important qualification has to do with defining more carefully what part of the theory of rationality Rawls is using in this argument.  It is sometimes said that Rawls applies game theory to the situation of the original position; and there is a certain logic to this interpretation.  Game theory is the theory of strategic rationality; it pertains to that set of situations in which the payoff for one participant depends on the rational choices of other participants. And the original position seems to embody this condition.  However, the requirement of unanimity and the complete absence of a context of bargaining makes the situation non-strategic.  So Rawls’s use of rational choice theory does not involve game theory per se, and he is not interested in demonstrating a Nash equilibrium in the OP.  Instead, he believes that there is a single best strategy that will be chosen by each individual–the two principles of justice.  (Here is a good brief description of the main assumptions of game theory.)

One might ask whether the two features singled out here — anti-foundationalism and decision theory — are consistent.  If Rawls’s theory of justice depends on an argument within formal decision theory, then why is it not a foundationalist argument?  (And in fact, Rawls on occasion refers to his argument as reflecting a “kind of moral geometry”.)  What makes Rawls’s use of decision theory “anti-foundationalist” is the fact that this argument itself is philosophically contestable.  Reasonable decision theorists may differ about the rationality of the maximin rule (as John Harsanyi argued against Rawls).  So the appeal to decision theory does not obviate the need for a balance of reasons in favor of the approach and the particular way in which it is specified in this situation; and this in turn sounds a lot like the role of physical theory and methodology within Quine’s notion of “The Web of Belief.”

(A mountain of words have been written about Rawls’s moral epistemology.  Here is Samuel Freeman’s excellent article on the original position in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; here is a useful compendium of the history of rational choice theory; and here is an old article of mine on the epistemology of reflective equilibrium.)

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