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Hatin’ On Johnny Rawls

December 11th, 2006 · 2 Comments

In opening scene of The Wire‘s season finale, we see a bit of graffiti in the police department bathroom that reads (referring to the deputy of operations) “Rawls sucks cock.” Sigrid Fry-Revere offers a similar assessment in less crude language in a pair of posts over at Cato-at-Liberty, the first of which is titled “Why Rawls Is Devoid of Moral Perspective.” Now, obviously, I think Rawls was substantively wrong about a lot of things. But this is, as one long-ago Cato colleague would have put it, some weak sauce, and profoundly unfair to a deep and interesting thinker.

First, “devoid of moral perspective” is just a preposterously broad way of expressing your disagreement with Rawls’ theory of distributive justice, given that it was just one component, albeit the most famous, of a much larger body of thought containing many genuine insights. It’s also utterly nonresponsive to Will’s post, which praises precisely these other aspects of Rawls’ political theory even while noting he’s out of sympathy with the difference principle as commonly interpreted.

That aside, though, there’s something very backwards about her contention that a central problem with Rawls’ theory is that, in a system of economic redistribution, “the person to whom those goods are given is being morally demoted to the status of a thief.” First, at the risk of stating the obvious, this is only the case if the principle of distributive justice in question is erroneous, so it doesn’t really seem to be a separate objection: It is, presumably, enough to demonstrate that some policy is morally wrong without redundantly adding, as though it were some additional and distinct harm, that it involves the people who implement or benefit from it in wrongdoing. Second, it’s just not obviously true. If I discovered that my parents had sent me to college by robbing banks, I would, obviously, be horrified on numerous levels. And I might even, personally, feel guilty about this. But objectively speaking, it’s not at all obvious that my “moral status” would be compromised by this. Benefiting from others’ wrongdoing does not make you a wrongdoer if you had no hand in it. To suggest otherwise is to assert that my moral standing depends in some fundamental way on the choices of other people—choices of which I may be entirely unaware, over which I may exercise no control. This doesn’t seem consonant with a philosophy of individual responsibility. Finally, there’s a whiff of moral self-indulgence about this focus on “moral status.” Obviously, if I take to mugging little old ladies, I become a particularly execrable sort of thief. But the problem here is that little old ladies are being mugged; whatever hit my “moral status” takes is epiphenomenal. It might be taken as a good sign if I suddenly begin fretting about this, but there’s a sense in which it’s kind of narcissistic for this to be what I’m centrally concerned with. I should stop doing this because it’s a terrible way to treat other people, not because I’m obsessed with how my standing will suffer.

Finally, the second post is just sort of stunning coming from someone who holds a doctorate in philosophy. She writes:

It actually doesn’t matter what form of economy, laissez-faire, socialist, or other, would be best for the worst off. Liberty and respect for others is a moral imperative whether or not it results in a utilitarian net benefit for society from an economic perspective. Wealth is not everything. For one, liberty is a higher good.

First, this is, of course, just a summary of what (some) egalitarians and (some) libertarians disagree upon. It’s a statement of the respective positions. It is, notably, not an argument. But what it is really clearly not is a cudgel to smack Rawls with, since as Will’s original post explicitly mentioned, Rawls himself makes his difference principle subordinate to—in fact, lexically subordinate to—his principle of liberty. Fry-Revere conflates Rawls’ view with one that cares only about “utilitarian net benefit for society”—which is to say, the very sort of view that Rawls so ardently rejected. One of the most famous sentences in the whole of A Theory of Justice, recall, is:
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.

So Fry-Revere closes, ironically, with a sentence Rawls could easily have written, even if he would not have agreed with her on its scope or what it entailed. Libertarians are unlikely to persuade many folks that we have a robust critique of redistribution if we appear innocent of what its most prominent exponent actually said.

Tags: General Philosophy



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 steveintheknow // Dec 12, 2006 at 10:25 am

    When I read this yesterday I was compelled, as I have never really thought about this as a result of redistribution prior, by the argument of degraded moral status of the ââ?¬Å?the person to whom goods are being distributed at the expense of othersââ?¬Â. Perhaps its because the philosophy behind the argument supports a practical solution that I already favored before hearing the argument, therefore causing me to yield at the face value of the argument. Which of course is merely a preaching to the choir situation, void of any meaning.

    Your critique is strong, and points out flaws that I didnââ?¬â?¢t notice. Especially in questioning the real value of determining moral status of anyone in any circumstance. However I feel, while possibly over reaching, the sentiment behind such an effort comes from a tenable position, and serves an important purpose. The purpose, I guess, would be in trying to achieve a balancing of perspective. One in which has been skewed toward viewing such persons as victims of others excessive wealth. That last bit would be my assertion, void of any ââ?¬Å?proofââ?¬Â.

    The mistake made in using the term thief perhaps is in the degree to which ones morality can be attributed to someone else�s action, as you pointed out. However the distinction is not totally off the mark. I would say the class in scrutiny is definitely the beneficiary of theft. And not in the totally benign way suggested by your college student analogy. After all we do live in a democracy, and if the will of the people means anything, which it might not, it should also include some degree of responsibility. Of course there are so many holes in that last assertion that you could strain pasta with it.

    Anyway I know little about Rawls, and have enjoyed reading Cato�s little debate about him. And of course, you are very adept at keeping fools in check.

  • 2 timothy waligore // Dec 12, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    “Benefiting from others’ wrongdoing does not make you a wrongdoer if you had no hand in it.”

    However, can it ever be a wrong not to return ill-gotten gains or make compensation?

    Suppose my parents had stolen the money without my knowledge and given it to me so that I could pay for college. Suppose I find out that my parents robbed the bank before I pay my tuition bill. If I don’t return it, but instead pay my tuition, I think this does affect my moral status.

    I assume you think it would be a different matter if I had spent the money already? (Or had spent the money on a good that could not further be exchanged for money?)