Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Monarchy and the "Left" Blogs

For those of any kind of republican disposition, whether mild or fierce, the last few days in the UK have been depressing. Not only has the Royal Wedding of William and Catherine (or "WC" to their friends) been so widely and comprehensively played and replayed across the air-waves and all attempts at dissent resolutely and comprehensively crushed but there has been a parallel corralling of even normally dissident media to adopt the same view. All the three major apparently "Left" blog sites have published responses to the events that have been broadly pro-monarchy.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy Chris Dillow has argued that monarchy is "great" and his reasons for thinking so are revealing. Tackling the case head-on he lists the qualities that might be thought to count against it - namely, that it is, in his words "irrational, out-of-date and absurd" - as qualities in its favour. The fact that it is these things shows not that monarchy is problematic but, apparently, that it is false to judge institutions by a criteria of rationality. This is hardly an argument, as is perhaps not to be expected by someone who has such a light opinion of rationality, as a suggestion that we look for other supports for institutions than reason alone. As such, it will be addressed in more detail below but, as a first thrust it is hardly successful alone without more detail. The second point made by Dillow is that Scandinavian societies,  Japan and the Netherlands are all generally better at producing more egalitarian outcomes and are all monarchies. This "correlation" hardly shows a causative connection but is instead again purely a suggestion, one whose real force is revealed in Dillow's point that monarchy shows that "luck" is as much a factor in life as "merit" and, in any case, that meritocracy alone has inherent flaws. To point to the potential flaws in meritocracy is one thing however, to use this to support a regime of inherited privilege is surely quite another. Dillow's third and final argument is that replacing the monarchy would lead to a head of state who would be chosen for individual qualities which would, apparently, be a bad thing as it would reinforce our "culture of ego" whereas, it appears, foisting upon us a family who exist in their role for no particular individual reasons but as simply as incarnations of it, is, apparently, better. This argument is bizarre on a number of levels. There is no reason why a president or elected head of state would have to be regarded in the way Dillow suggests. Has this happened for example in the Republic of Ireland, a case quite close to hand? Has it happened in Germany? Or in Italy? All examples of republics. The examples of France and the US are implied in Dillow's argument but not directly referred to but there is no reason at all why an elected head of state has to have anything like the positions in these cases. Further, to argue that it is better to have people fill a key role who have to have no discernible individual qualities is a completely strange argument. Perhaps we could extend this argument and replace all prominent positions with people who weren't chosen by such "modern" methods and have all the key roles filled by inheritance? Why not try feudalism in other words??

If Dillow's arguments were bad enough it is all the more depressing to find the position he articulated also followed in variant ways at the two other most prominent British "left" blogs. Over at Next Left Sunder Katwala, the current head of the Fabian Society, gives a biographical account of moving away from his youthful republican position. Katwala makes the general point that there appears to exist no democratic majority for a republican constitution in Britain. This is true enough if the evidence of polling is anything to go by but hardly gives a case for failing to campaign for such a change. Katwala then moves on to historical ground, claiming that no particular progressive change in Britain was prevented by the monarchy. Since it is, after all, a constitutional monarchy this is hardly surprising though it is does not detract from the point, grasped clearly enough by Dillow, that the institution does symbolize inequality in a direct way. Addressing the point that all the media apparently support monarchy so there is little chance of a republican case being put Katwala suggests this is purely a "commercial" decision which is odd since, by his own counting there are at least a substantial minority of republicans in the country so you'd think some budding media magnate might be interested in attracting their custom. Katwala also suggests that it is not irrational in itself to want to hold on to distinctive traditions, suggesting that he, unlike Dillow, doesn't lionise irrationality for its own sake. This appeal to tradition, like Dillow's appeal to other considerations than reason, deserves consideration at greater length. However, simply to cite it like this is, again, hardly more than to make a suggestive comment, not to make an argument. The core of Katwala's argument turns on an appeal to George Orwell who seemed to think that keeping monarchy wouldn't be such a bad thing. It is, however, true, as Katwala doesn't add, that Orwell was generally very conservative in quite a lot of his attitudes and if we adopted him as an overall guide we might find it necessary to follow examples that we would generally eschew.

Even Left Foot Forward which proudly declares its commitment to "evidence-based" politics has published a statement to the effect that there is no present mandate for a republic (as if that was news). To which it has added the claim that the battles that really matter should be fought, thus just leaving untouched the case that this is a battle that matters.

If all the three most prominent "left" blogs in the UK have published such pro-monarchy lines then it is clearly not a good or easy time to be a republican here. The arguments of Dillow and Katwala that really matter are those that appeal to sentiment and tradition. For here there really is a core argument. The basic point is that the institution of monarchy appeals to a sentimental view of politics in which some shining individuals can be lifted above the fray and still incarnate the essential qualities of the polity. That they do the latter is essential and was shown well in the ceremony, held in the state church and saluted by the Royal Air Force. Further, the basic refrain of the whole day concerned one of how good it is to be British! 

It is true that many people feel an emotional attachment to the Royal Family and that the continued existence of the monarchy depends on this attachment. However, there are equally strong feelings on the other side, some of us, for example, feel nothing but revulsion at the sight of the pompous display of these characters who truly are, as Dillow suggested, without individual qualities. What is there to celebrate about these non-entities who we are asked to admire and who reign over us with all the parade of power and the panoply of privilege? 

The tradition is the answer. Which tradition? The tradition of monarchical exclusivity? An exclusivity of birth that has nothing to support it other than its reference to its continuity. A continuity that is itself rather broken and fake as witness the arrival, rather recently in British history, of the current incumbent family, one of many to have held the role. The appeal to sentiment is at least respectable in the sense that anyone can feel moved by a wedding, a funeral or similar event. However, the ones held by these people are orchestrated displays of state power.

The Royal Family brings together in a unique way all the predominant prevailing tendencies of the society: Heterosexual Privilege (who is allowed to marry in any case?), the predominance of Family over all other personal ties, Religion, the Military, the Police, the Powers that Be, all brought together in a potent cocktail. And yet, somehow, the uncritical minds of the British left, the same people who present to us a campaign in favour of the Alternative Vote as a recipe for the increase of democracy, are unable to voice a protest against this vicious and potent presentation of institutional privilege. At the core of the family is the simple property of institutional inheritance taken to be a great and guiding principle, the very principle against which all who wish to define themselves as "progressive" should take to be the opposite of a desirable political principle. That the British left should have such leaders in this hour is a matter that is a disgrace and a cause for disgust.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Case Against AV

Warning: posting possibly only of interest to UK readers!

There is coming up on the 5th May only the second referendum in recent times here. The last was held in 1975 on the issue of membership of the EU or "Common Market" as it was generally known then and, as in that case, so in the present one concerning the voting system for Westminster elections, the fact that there is a referendum at all is due to political circumstances of a peculiar sort. Back in the 1970s there was a lot of pressure for the referendum as it helped the governing Labour Party to face both ways on the issue at hand. Now the referendum on the voting system has come about as the price the Liberal Democrats extracted for forming a coalition with the Conservatives. In return the Liberals have "compromised" on a great deal as readers are doubtless aware.

In deciding on the way to vote in this ignobly produced referendum there are two major questions at stake. One concerns the effect of the result on the governing coalition and the other concerns the question of whether there is a genuine issue of principle at stake here that is worthy of a principled commitment. Some people, particularly those in the camp campaigning for a "yes" vote, have attempted to downplay the significance of the first question in order to concentrate on the second. This attempt is doomed to failure given the unpopularity of the coalition government. However, what divides opponents of the coalition when thinking about this question is what result would damage it more and this division is connected to how one understands the character of this government.

Essentially supporters of a "yes" vote have taken the view that the government is, in the terminology of the leadership of the Labour Party, a "Tory-led" government and that the main enemies are the Conservative Party, essentially leaving open possible future alliances with the Liberal Democrats. These considerations are assisted by a general agreement in principle on the part of the Labour leadership with the Liberal Democrats concerning the merits of changing the voting system. This is not a new kind of agreement either since the last Labour government had, as a major piece of its legislative programme, a commitment to constitutional reform that included the ending of hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, the creation of a new Supreme Court and devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, all matters on which there was agreement with the Liberal Democrats. When Labour came to power in 1997 there was a substantial increase in the representation of Liberal Democrats as well and the two, even at this date, shared a commitment to electoral reform, culminating in the establishment of a commission chaired by Lord Jenkins on the question. Labour in government however never advanced the agenda of electoral reform for reasons to do with their own internal politics.

So the first question to be addressed is why it is that there is such a general agreement between the Labour and Liberal Democrat leadership on this issue and why it has extended to the AV referendum debate? The basic core of the agreement is a shared commitment to the view that reform of political processes and constitutional niceties will increase the potential for enhanced democratic engagement in the country. During the campaign thus far the "yes" team have stretched this further declaring that the introduction of AV will "end" safe seats and put greater pressure on members of parliament to be more responsive to their constituents. These are partly factual and partly evaluative claims.

As factual claims there is little to support them. The proportion of seats that will be deemed "safe" is not generally thought likely to change a great deal. The claim concerning the increased pressure that will be placed on members of parliament by the introduction of AV is more of an evaluative than factual claim since it is hardly capable of factual assessment. The evaluative claim is, however, bound up with two other views, one of which is factual and surely wrong. These two other views are: a) that AV will help to produce more proportional outcomes and b) that it will be "better" for politics if representatives of the parties have to speak to a broader segment of the population than their "core" voters.

Looking at these two claims, the first is a factual claim and is simply wrong. There is nothing inherently proportional about AV as a system. As Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, put it during the coalition negotiations last year, AV is in many respects "less proportional" than the current voting system in the UK, a claim that is understood by those who point to the fact that in cases of large majorities produced by one party, AV would have the distorting effect of increasing these majorities. This much was admitted by Chris Huhne, currently a Cabinet minister in the coalition, prior to the last election. The negotiations that set up the coalition never involved the Conservatives or Labour offering a proportional system so the Liberal Democrats got, in return for jettisoning large parts of their election manifesto, a commitment for a referendum on a system that is effectively no more proportional in its results than the current voting system.

If the factual claim concerning the effect of AV on members of parliament is bogus then what of the evaluative one? The core of this concerns the fact that it will be of interest to politicians to reach out beyond their core vote and try to win over voters from beyond their base thus ensuring that politicians will, apparently, be more amenable to compromise and more careful solutions. This is effectively the basis of alliance that exists in terms of political reform between the Labour leadership and the Liberal Democrats. The Labour leadership remains embarrassed by the attitudes of many of its voters and, although in 1997 in particular it was able to reach out to a large enough part of the electorate to take power after winning a large majority, it soon enough angered sufficient of them to govern from 2001 to 2010 in such a way that it lost both total vote share and its proportion of the electorate in every election thereafter.

There is a single basic reason why Labour reached the situation it did of progressively losing its hold on the electorate and eventually losing power. This is that it does not stand for anything that is particularly distinctive. The policies it pursued during its years in office were, as is usually the case, a mixed bag. However, what consistently alienated sections of the voting public were its basic tone-deafness on civil liberties, its lack of responsiveness to democratic pressure (as was signally evident in the case of the second Gulf War), its basically technocratic approach to politics and its deregulatory policies with regard to the financial system that contributed in their own way to the melt-down that occurred in 2008.

The general basis of this failure could be said to be grounded in the inherent resistance of the Labour Party to democracy. It is far from alone in this. The Conservatives have no more interest in democracy than Labour though they also rarely pretend otherwise. The whole "Big Society" nonsense of the current leadership is a way of stating that state money will in future be shared between a wider range of providers who will be expected to offer comparative advantages for such largesse to be distributed. It is not, and is not intended to be, about increased participation in decisions or even wider consultation concerning them.

This leaves the position of the Liberal Democrats. Officially they were committed to a proportional system but have settled for this non-proportional one as an outcome that they argue will unsettle the other major parties. Any hope anyone had, prior to the last election, in the ability of the Liberal Democrats to unsettle the major parties and produce more democratic involvement in politics is now surely gone. Their shabby deals, betrayal of principles and casual dismissal of large parts of their own electorate indicates the kinds of "compromises" they think would be part of any real "new politics". It is as shabby and unrepresentative as what is on offer from the major parties.

Given this situation what the debate about AV masks is the real democratic challenge. This is how to ensure that parties come into existence that are not, more or less in advance, merely representatives of different wings of the current plutocracy. Change in the voting system will make no difference to this one way or the other and is purely a technocratic solution to a deep problem. The Labour leadership and the Liberal Democrats are united in their commitment to such a covering over of the real democratic problem whilst the Conservatives have no interest in even bothering with it.

Returning to the considerations with which I opened the posting: it should be apparent that there is little to support the view that there is a principled issue at stake in the AV referendum. Supporters of the switch try to dismiss this argument, suggesting that whilst AV is not the system they would have chosen that it is better than the present one but I see little by way of evidence for this claim if it is viewed as factual and plenty to stand against it if it is viewed as an evaluative claim. Given this situation the more short-term question of the effect of the outcome on the coalition government seems to me of some importance.

In regard to this effect the question becomes which wing of the coalition one takes to be more reprehensible. Traditional Labour supporters tend to unequivocally believe that this is the Tories and so hope that a "yes" vote will harm Cameron. Possibly such an outcome would hurt Cameron but it would strengthen Clegg and his Liberal Democrats. "Yes" supporters claim that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are already discredited. However the mandate to change the voting system would give them a solid basis to believe they had brought about a serious change to the constitution. This would reinvigorate the party that brought us a tripling of tuition fees, the abolition of the teaching grant to arts, humanities and social sciences in the universities, the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance and a program of cuts across the UK. Yes, it was the Liberal Democrats who brought us all this as none of it could have been achieved without them. Further, they betrayed the prospect for political renewal they appeared to represent at the last election. There is also nothing inherently conservative about the present government as has been recognised by most commentators. In fact there are grounds for claiming that, economically, it is "led" by the liberals in the Cabinet of both parties. These factors put together, alongside the flaws in the argument suggesting there is anything especially useful in moving to AV, suggest to me a basic case for a "no" vote on the 5th May.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Kant's Birthday: General Celebrations!

Oddly enough, Kant's birthday falls this year on the same day as the Christian celebration of Good Friday, the day on which, supposedly, Christ was crucified. Since this conjunction is suggestive, it's a good day to recommend reading Kant's major work on religion, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, which, along with Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, helped to pave the way for modernist interpretations of Scripture and the undermining of literalist approaches. In commemoration clearly of Kant's birthday, celebrations have been carried on today around the world!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Rawls and "Classical Utilitarianism" (I)

The subject of Rawls' responses to utilitarianism is worth an extended discussion and is one to which I will return in more detail in a subsequent posting. In this one, however, I want to assess merely the description that he gives in the fifth section of the first chapter of A Theory of Justice. I looked at the first four sections of this chapter in a previous posting and will continue to explore this first chapter here.

Rawls opens this section by mentioning that there are many forms of utilitarianism and that he has no intention of surveying them here as it is rather his point to make the contrast between utilitarianism and contractarianism his major focus. However, there is a specific model that is the basis of the treatment Rawls gives here of utilitarianism and this is the work of Henry Sidgwick. (Interestingly, Sidgwick also features in the Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy where it is again the Methods of Ethics that is taken as central despite Sidgwick having written specifically on political philosophy in other works.)

Bearing in mind the Sidgwick reference is of some interest in understanding the picture that Rawls goes on to provide of "classical utilitarianism" since the device used in presenting this picture is very much that of viewing it as a "principle of rational prudence applied to an aggregative conception of the welfare of the group". This way of seeing "classical utilitarianism" is of a piece with Sidgwick's suggestion that the three methods of ethics are intuitionistic common sense, utilitarianism and egoism. It is a contention of Sidgwick's that egoism is a central ethical doctrine and, indeed, one that stands in a tension with universalistic notions of ethics (such as is given in the principle of utility) that is difficult to satisfactorily resolve. So seriously did Sidgwick take egoism that he did indeed wish to show that utilitarianism is a doctrine that can accommodate it and still retain its universalistic formulation.

So, in thinking of the principle of utility in terms of rational prudence Rawls follows Sidgwick pretty closely though it is not, perhaps, obvious that other utilitarians (such as Mill) would have been so sympathetic to the appeal to egoism. After presenting "classical utilitarianism" in this way Rawls goes on to discuss the contrast between the right and the good that I gave attention to in a posting some time ago. Here Rawls argues that the structure of ethical theories can be seen in two distinct ways depending on how one views the relationship between the "right" and the "good". What Rawls terms the "simplest" way is adopted by theories he views as "teleological". In such theories the good is defined independently from the right which ensures that the good is given a specific content and after this has been done the right is subsequently defined simply as that "which maximizes the good".

Note that the way Rawls has defined this "teleological" approach is not merely through two steps but that the second step gives its definition of the "right" purely through a maximizing procedure. In giving this account of "teleological" theories Rawls is open that he is repeating the view of them given by Frankena, a view that is not entirely convergent with that of C.D. Broad and diverges considerably from the schema of ethical theories given by Sidgwick. In understanding "teleological" approaches to ethics in the way he does Rawls effectively conflates them with consequentialism, a conflation I have questioned elsewhere.

For the sake of this posting I won't reopen the difficulty of sustaining this conflation of teleology with consequentialism but simply assume that Rawls' procedure here is alright. The point he makes concerning this kind of "teleological" approach is that it embodies a particular kind of conception of rationality. In this conception, however, are built again some specifically Sidgwickian notions such as the conception that the "good" indicates something picked out intuitively by "common sense morality" and that the step towards universalisation occurs by means of the aggregative approach of maximisation. Different "teleological" theories adopt different standards in relation to the intuitive view of the good on which they rely which is the basis of Rawls' very sketchy and brief discussions of perfectionism. 

Now the important move in Rawls' response to "classical utilitarianism" is the claim that it does not matter on this view how the sum of satisfactions "is distributed among individuals" any more than it matters for it how any particular individual distributes their satisfactions over time. This again, is a specific view of Sidgwick although naturally there are many echoes of this claim amongst later utilitarians (such as Parfit). The point of making this aspect of the utilitarian approach so prominent is to suggest that it naturally works by adopting for society as a whole the "principle of rational choice for one man". Given that Rawls earlier defined the "original position" in terms of a choice problem and that he also indicated the importance of rational choice in doing so it is not the emphasis on rational choice that he can be about to object to. And nor does he do so. It is rather the attenuation of its claim in terms of its being understood through the prism of single individuals extended to the social whole so that there is no special basis either for social principles that are distinct from those that might apply to individuals on the one hand or any specific attention to distinct claims of individuals on the other. As Rawls powerfully puts it: "separate individuals are thought of as so many different lines along which rights and duties are to be assigned and scare means of satisfaction allocated in accordance with rules so as to give the greatest fulfilment of wants".

All decisions thus become understood in terms of efficiency of outcome with the result that no theory of justice is plausible in these terms. But the root of the point is that utilitarianism, thus conceived, "does not take seriously the distinction between persons". As will be discussed in subsequent postings, there are some interesting replies from utilitarians to this attack. Further, there is a lot more to be said about the pervasive nature of Rawls' engagement with utilitarianism but for the purposes of this posting the key point is that the entire construction of Rawls' attack is based very largely on viewing the utilitarian doctrine through the prism of Sidgwick's attempted synthesis between the principle of utility and the egoist principle. A utilitarian who rejected this conception of Sidgwick's might well feel that the characterisation of their doctrine was far from being accurate and since Rawls disclaims here any attempt to deal with the intricacies of utilitarianism in favour of presenting a kind of ideal type of it the key point is whether this "ideal type" is one that best represents the aims of the theory. This question will be part of what will have to be assessed in looking further at Rawls' conception of utilitarianism and utilitarian conceptions of Rawls.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Rawls' Hermeneutics

In a review article written for the European Journal of Political Theory Michael L. Frazer assesses Rawls' Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. The centre of Frazer's review of Rawls' lectures concerns a tension that he discerns within Rawls' hermeneutics, a tension that has serious philosophical roots. The hermeneutics itself is guided, for Frazer, by two principles. On the one hand, Rawls is an advocate of interpretive charity, the view that one should, in interpreting a philosophical text, attribute the strongest view possible to the author one is reading, especially rejecting the notion that the author's text is inconsistent unless it is absolutely impossible to find any other alternative. Whilst Rawls' commitment to interpretive charity appears unusually strong from Frazer's account, it is far from an unusual view to uphold.

The second commitment is to interpretive humility, the view that the authors one is reading and interpreting are, in an important sense, wiser than oneself. When this principle is added to the first then one has specific reasons to work to try to find out the "genius" of the text one is interpreting in order to work out the basis of its significant contribution to the discipline one is engaged with.

Now if these are the principles of Rawls' hermeneutics in a general sense, Frazer contrasts them with a philosophical commitment that, in a sense, undercuts the hermeneutic principles (at least that of interpretive humility). This philosophical commitment is Rawls' modest conception of the role and import of political philosophy, political-philosophical humility, a humility that deflates the place of political philosophy viewing it as, at most, a part of the background conditions for public reason to be effective. However, to this general view of the role of political philosophy is also attached the specific way Rawls understands this modesty with regard to the place of political philosophy. The modesty is defined in terms of viewing political philosophy in the terms that emerged after the "Kantian constructivist" period when Rawls stressed the notion that political philosophy is "political, not metaphysical". This claim requires political philosophy to abstain from commitments with regard to profound existential questions of political life.

Now Frazer's general point is that if you hold, as Rawls did, to such a clear form of political-philosophical humility then you will often have trouble, when interpreting texts, in viewing them through the lenses of interpretive humility when you realise that these authors do not share your view of political-philosophical humility. This tension can be resolved in one of two possible ways. On the one hand, you can interpret the authors according to a notion of interpretive charity and include in your notion of interpretive charity the view that any reasonable author will implicitly or explicitly include in their approach a form of political-philosophical humility even if not one quite as specific as the view that political philosophy should be "political, not metaphysical". This resolution of the tension between interpretive humility and political-philosophical humility by means of interpretive charity has odd results however, implying as it does anachronistic views of the task of political philosophy. The other form of resolution would be to accept that the authors in question do not fit your model of political-philosophical humility but in that case you can no longer be committed to the notion of interpretive humility with regard to these authors given your conviction of the superiority of the approach of political-philosophical humility.

Frazer's review in raising these questions about Rawls' response to the history of philosophy has the important effect of posing a problem for those, like Rawls, who are committed to the view that the interpretation of the history of philosophy has to be, in the first instance, philosophical rather than historical. If one is committed to this view then the standards that one regards as philosophically apt will tend to have the possible effect of distortion of the texts in question. To view the interpretation of philosophical texts, by contrast, as including a commitment to finding the historical basis of the texts' positions as a matter of first priority need not imply that one is not also engaged in a philosophical task though it may lead one to understand the task of philosophy as something that cannot be assumed to fit a method most suitable or convenient to oneself.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Justice and Methodology

The first four sections of the first chapter of A Theory of Justice are stated by Rawls in the "Preface" to the book to be the place where "the fundamental intuitive ideas" of the theory are presented and it is these sections I wish to concentrate on in this posting. As Rawls also writes in the introductory paragraph of this first chapter, the discussion is here "informal" and only intended to "prepare the way" for what is to come. 

The first section of the first chapter discusses the "role" of justice and opens with the striking remark comparing justice and truth as forms of virtue (forms presumably of "intellectual" virtue on Aristotle's conception). Truth is the "first virtue" of systems of thought according to Rawls and, by analogy, justice the "first virtue" of social institutions. This comparison is set up in terms of the claim about the priority of these "virtues" above all others since, as Rawls puts it, a theory even if elegant and economical has to be revised if untrue (here an implied account not merely of science but of philosophy appears to be given).

Similar to truth in this respect is justice in the sense that questions of efficiency and cohesion have to take second place to justice. This claim is supported by an assertion that, however, appears to arise from a larger, implicitly Kantian moral theory when Rawls writes: "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override".  This point is clearly a kind of pre-emptive strike against utilitarianism, a theory considered in more detail in the fifth section of the first chapter. However, the nature of the strike is that it involves an assumption about the status of particular persons that implies something like Kant's formula of humanity being invoked for its justification, something that certainly is not given at this early a stage of A Theory of Justice. In support of the claim, however, Rawls does advance the consideration that the "inviolability" mentioned in this sentence is one that relates to the possession of freedom since it would be the loss of this that could not be compensated for by a greater good of others. This point is then emphasized further as it is suggested that in a just society "the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled". This point already seems to indicate one of the key principles of justice although Rawls has not, as yet, even advanced the key methodological principles that it is the main burden of these opening sections of chapter 1 to give. The point about the liberties of equal citizenship is introduced as an illustration of the claim concerning justice as the "first virtue" of social institutions as is clear when Rawls states that justice is "uncompromising" given its standing as such a first virtue but giving such an illustration in advance of the description of liberty as one of the principles of justice is certainly curious.

Having begun this first section of the first chapter in such a strong fashion Rawls next begins to draw back since the propositions just given are now indicated as expressing "our intuitive conviction" of the primacy of justice and confessed to express this conviction "too strongly" but what Rawls aims to do, he states, is to interpret and assess such claims by means of working out his theory of justice. In order to do this he next turns to the methodological consideration of principles of justice and their relationship to a unique "choice". The principles of justice are described as designed to deal with the conflict between the "cooperation" required for society to work on the one hand with the conflicts of interest that are evident also within societies. The latter leads to argument given that each prefers a distribution that would be personally most advantageous. The principles of social justice are thus the means by which rights and duties in "the basic institutions of society" can be assigned.

Having begun with a description of the point of principles of social justice Rawls next describes the nature of a "well ordered" society as consisting in having the design that it does due to the general wish to advance the good of its members according to a "public conception of justice". This first appeal to publicity is then specified given that the principles of justice are ones that "everyone accepts and knows that the others accept" so that the basic social institutions are held both to satisfy and to be known to satisfy these principles. Such a public sense of justice enables security to apply to social association, a point that ties together the notions of publicity and stability.

After introducing this notion of a "well ordered" society Rawls again moves back from it to an account of "existing" societies as being "seldom" well ordered since, within them, it is a matter of course that principles of justice are in dispute. In such societies thus there is not a generally agreed and accepted public conception of justice and, due to this, existing societies are unstable. In the disputes that split such societies there are present divergent conceptions of justice but Rawls immediately raises the critical question of what is held in common between the disputants suggesting that uncovering this enables the "concept of justice" to be distinguished from the "conceptions" of it. On doing so Rawls points to the general agreement that there should be no "arbitrary" distinctions made between persons when assigning rights and duties as well as the point that there should be a "proper balance" between competing claims to social advantages. If these points are generally agreed, however, between disputing conceptions of justice, it is the case that this agreement depends precisely on the point that the notions of arbitrariness and proper balance themselves require to be interpreted.

A final point is raised in this introductory section which concerns other prerequisites for viable societies which are "coordination, efficiency and stability" (although, as we have noted, the last named has already played a role in the account of publicity in "well ordered" societies). "Coordination" is involved in ensuring that activities of distinct parties are compatible with each other and efficiency is the way of ensuring that such compatibility is brought about in the best manner. Stability indicates the need for regularity in enforcement of rules and these factors are all connected to justice.

The second section of the first chapter concerns the "subject" rather than the "role" of justice. If the latter has enabled the point of fundamental principles to become clear, the former requires the site of justice to be specified. Rawls does this by distinguishing the point of his theory as to give an account of "social" justice which means an account of how major institutions distribute rights, duties and the division of advantages. Interestingly, included amongst these "major" institutions are not just political constitutions and the principal economic arrangements but also the social arrangements, down to such matters as the "monogamous family". The general name Rawls gives to this conglomerate of major institutions is the "basic structure" and he takes it to be the "primary subject" of justice.

The rationale given at this stage for the focus on the "basic structure" is only an intuitive one to the effect that the institutions of society favour certain starting places in life and thus give rise to deep inequalities though it is instantly noticeable that just as the justification of the claim about justice being the "first virtue" of social institutions led to an anticipation of one of the principles of justice so the account of the "basic structure" leads to an anticipation of the other principle of justice. The focus on the "basic structure" ensures that Rawls leaves aside considerations of justice in voluntary associations and it leads to the major methodological abstraction of considering a particular society in isolation from others, as thus a "closed system".

The second abstraction involved leads back to the earlier invocation of a "well-ordered" society since it is the principles that would regulate such a society that Rawls is principally concerned with. This ensures that A Theory of Justice is, in its fundamental principles, a form of strict compliance theory or ideal theory. Partial compliance theory or non-ideal theory is dealt with in the discussions of punishment, war, civil disobedience, resistance and revolution but these topics are not the centre of the theory that follows.

The conception of social justice as built upon the notion of the "basic structure" is "in the first instance a standard whereby the distributive aspects" of society are to be assessed. It is not a complete conception as questions of efficiency, for example, are not included within the orbit of the theory given despite the importance they have in social life.

The third section of the first chapter looks at the "main idea" of the theory of justice and this is that it is intended as a conception which generalizes and makes more abstract the notion of the social contract. The manner in which this is done is by means of the notion of justice as fairness. Justice as fairness involves the notion of all arriving at the principles of justice by means of a hypothetical situation of equal liberty. This original position of equality is meant to be analogous to the state of nature in the older theory of the social contract. However there is an interesting difference which is not the one Rawls stresses of the older theory appearing to refer to an actual occasion (since it is arguable that this was never intended). It is rather that the state of nature generally indicates constraints that are pictured in terms of coordination of action between persons leading to the need for sovereigns to emerge to resolve the problem. By contrast, Rawls' account is meant instead to arrive at constraints on reasoning that will show the need for two specific principles and the rejection of rival contenders. Whilst the older conceptions do aim at justifying conceptions, it could be argued that they do this indirectly by means of discussion of constraints on action whereas Rawls' procedure, by contrast could be said to discuss constraints on action indirectly by focusing instead on constraints on reasoning. (Though the example of Kant here would be much more complicated than this contrast might suggest.)

Included in the hypothetical situation Rawls envisages is the "veil of ignorance" concerning one's place within society and that it is not possible even to have a view of one's conception of justice in this situation. So the principles of justice are presented as the product of a "fair agreement" and this is what is meant by describing the "main idea" of Rawlsian contractarianism as "justice as fairness". 

For given the circumstances of the original position, the symmetry of everyone's relations to each other, this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair.

Features of the situation envisaged include a view of the persons in it as rational and mutually disinterested with the latter meaning that persons are not taken to have any particular interest in the affairs of others. The rationality of the participants is also interpreted in a narrow sense that conforms with rational choice theory. However this ensures that no one has a reason to opt for any principles that will produce enduring loss for themselves and, given that they do not know where they are in the society, will thus have an incentive to adopt principles of the greatest generality.

Rawls' two principles are next mentioned for the first time though the account of this third section is not one that justifies them. The principles are the ones familiar from Rawls' earlier work of equality in assignment of basic rights and duties and that inequalities in social and economic senses are justified only if they are met with compensating benefits for all.

The fourth section of the first chapter concerns the original position and justification. Rawls here explicitly connects the theory of justice with the theory of rational choice and discusses the "choice problem". In describing this problem he agues from widely accepted but weak premises to specific conclusions. This includes the point that no one should be given advantage (or its reverse) by natural fortune and that principles should not be tailored to one's own case and this is taken to justify the need for the veil of ignorance. Rawls indicates again the point that this provides "constraints on arguments". A further such constraint is the assumption of equality between the parties in the original position, a moral assumption. Finally Rawls arrives at the notion of "reflective equilibrium" which involves a kind of zig-zag movement between the initial situation and considered convictions of justice, sometimes modifying one, sometimes the other.

Friday, 15 April 2011

London Metropolitan University Implodes

According to an article in the latest Times Higher it appears that London Metropolitan University has plans to abolish itself. Plans have been uncovered that include yet another plan to abolish philosophy but, in this case, that's hardly the half of it since they are also thinking of abolishing history, theatre studies and modern languages. The general proposal in effect would remove more half of the courses on offer. It is true that London Metropolitan has had a rather troubled history and is in dire financial trouble but proposals of this sort are surely tantamount to the institution advocating that it cease to be a university at all. Perhaps it should be retitled "London College That Doesn't Teach Very Much"?

Monday, 11 April 2011

A Theory of Justice

After recent postings looking at John Rawls' early writings I come at last to A Theory of Justice, a book that is, as Rawls himself put it, long "not only in pages". I hope to have the energy and engagement to write at length on this blog about this work, looking at it chapter by chapter from beginning to end, first simply to read it and later to test and think through a recent interpretation of the work in relation to the reading I have produced myself.

It is an ambitious task to attempt this and it is worth thinking about a basic reason why this should be attempted on this blog which is because, as Rawls himself states, the theory outlined in A Theory of Justice is to be viewed as "highly Kantian in nature". What the meaning of such a claim consists in is central to the interpretation of the work that will be given in the postings investigating it here. Which does not mean, naturally, that this can be the only concern since, after all, regardless of what this claim consists in, there is a simpler question concerning how the theory is, in general, to be understood through its central statements and aims. 

A Theory of Justice is a complicated work in a number of ways. Firstly, there are textual questions since the work was revised and reissued by Rawls and includes a 1990 preface written for the revised edition. Few interpretations try to rest too much on this point though it is of interest to note sections and places that Rawls saw fit to expand or delete. Second, there is the relationship of the book to the work Rawls did before, a relationship heavily discussed in the preface to the original edition of the book. Thirdly, there is the relationship of the work to Rawls' later work, both in terms of the subsequent work of the 1970s and 1980s and to the second substantial work he wrote, Political Liberalism. This area is one that includes a great number of questions, not least given that Rawls' official line authorises an interpretation both of A Theory of Justice itself and the works subsequent to it that tends to take the arrival at the position of Political Liberalism to be the natural outcome of his work, something that many have, however, found counter-intuitive and, indeed, a product of an undesirable "turn" in Rawls' own thought. Regardless of the attitude here adopted the nature of the change involved and the reasons for it require investigation but this investigation cannot be grounded only on reading A Theory of Justice. Rather the reading of A Theory of Justice should first suggest how the work prior to it led to Rawls' formulations in it and later interpretations of other works should then complicate the question of the self-interpretations of the work that multiply subsequently to its publication.

In this posting I want to stick, for now, to pointing to some significant points raised in Rawls' 1971 preface to the first edition of the book. Here Rawls opens by referring back straightaway to the works written previously to its publication. Rawls refers to the division of the work and relates how the different parts connect to previous publications. So the first part of A Theory of Justice which is concerned, apparently, with "Theory", is related to two papers specifically, the 1958 original paper on "Justice As Fairness" and the 1968 paper "Distributive Justice: Some Addenda" and this hint will be worth following when looking at the first part of the book. The second part of the book, by contrast, which concerns "Institutions" is related to the papers on "Constitutional Liberty" (1963), "Distributive Justice" (1967) and "Civil Disobedience" (1967 but, for some reason, referred to here as 1966).  The third part of the book, concerned with "Ends", is, by contrast to the first two parts, treated as distinct from the previous essays written except for being related to the 1963 paper on the "Sense of Justice". All these connections will bear consideration later.

After referring back to these connections to previous publications Rawls goes on to give the basic rationale for writing the book which is to provide a systematic or, as he terms it, "comprehensive" reply to utilitarianism since the utilitarian theory involves not merely an account of morality but also of social theory and economics and yet there has been little attempt to reply to such a view with something that is as comprehensive and this is why the main opponents of utilitarianism have tended to be intuitionists. The basis of the comprehensive reply that will be given is the distillation of the social contract tradition which occurs through the use of "certain simplifying devices" in a general framework so that the "chief structural features" of an alternative conception come into view.

After making this general claim Rawls provides a view of the main claims of A Theory of Justice indicating a way of understanding its sub-parts. This leads to the view that chapters IV-VIII are not basic to the argument of the book, that is, all of the part dealing with institutions and two-thirds of the part dealing with ends. This is a surprising overview of the book's claims though Rawls modifies this slightly by stating that the discussions in these chapters are "an important test" of how well order and system has been introduced into a wide range of questions. Nonetheless there are likely to be problems that will concern different readers here more or less so latitude is allowed for how much one thinks about or looks at these questions.

The final part of the preface indicates debts Rawls has incurred in arriving at the publication of A Theory of Justice and these basically relate to previous drafts of the work and articles that have addressed some of the essays written on the way to its publication. Whilst there would be something to be said for looking at all the material there listed it would have something of a purely scholarly endeavour, not necessarily of the greatest import for a philosophical evaluation of the work.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Christian Onof in *Kant Studies Online*

The latest article to be published in Kant Studies Online is by Christian Onof and it is entitled "Moral Worth and Inclinations in Kantian Ethics" and it can be freely accessed and downloaded here.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Blogging When Distressed

I'm aware that, after the bumper number of postings in March, the blog has got off to a slow start in April. There is a simple reason for this: distressing family news. Without going into detail about it, safe to say it is the kind of happening that has to be faced in life but which never is something that can be expected to be easy. This creates a number of questions but one I thought I would put to myself and my readers here is, what is it like to try to keep in communication with others on a public site such as a blog when life has taken you and given you a difficult time?

Of course the simple thing to do in such a situation is shut down such public activities for a time and I might do this. The opposite response would be to use such a platform for open confessional purposes but I would find that distasteful. So an intermediate solution would be to acknowledge to readers that I am feeling this distress and that, due to it, I might be intermittent in posting for a little while and perhaps sound a bit off-key. I will be back on form soon but, in the interim, would just like to say that it is true that no one ever said this living thing would be easy and its just as well they didn't because it isn't!