Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Parfit and "Rawls's Formula"

In my previous posting on the third of Parfit's 2002 Tanner Lectures I looked at the account Parfit gave of the Rawlsian view of deliberative rationality. In this posting I'm going to look further at the third 2002 lecture in order to concentrate now on the treatment Parfit gives there of what he terms "Rawls's Formula", which is Parfit's way of describing the methodological appeal Rawls makes to the "veil of ignorance".

The appeal to the "veil of ignorance" is as part of Rawls' discussion of the original position and is a way in which he moves from the initial situation to the original position. Parfit views it as a "revision" of the basic contractualist conception of rational agreement and he analyses the various defences Rawls gives for the appeal to it and offers what he takes to be a problem with the different versions of the "veil" that Rawls is said to present. Parfit mentions amongst the justifications Rawls gives for appealing to the veil of ignorance that it enables us to move away from contingent facts that apply to us at present and which may influence the way we currently view the situation but which should not, impartially, affect our understanding of just distributions. The way Parfit understands this is that there is no "threat advantage" in the situation, a point that we noted in the previous posting was utilised by Rawls to argue against contemporary Hobbesian views. Our ignorance of who we are in the situation removes any such advantage though Parfit, somewhat oddly, also assumes that this means that "everyone's well-being" is taken into account when, instead, it means that the outcome that is arrived at is one that is not based on considerations of well-being but instead is formally construed.

The difference between these understandings of the veil of ignorance becomes clearer when Parfit begins to assess the general claim that Rawls makes to the effect that the contract doctrine offers a general alternative to utilitarianism. Parfit is surprised that Rawls feels able to make such a claim given, as Parfit puts it, that an appeal to "a combination of self-interested rationality and impartiality" tends to produce utilitarianism. Rawls, however, has already rejected appeals to self-interest on the grounds of the formal constraints of right and his view of impartiality is not one that is shaped by appeal to well-being as Parfit assumes hence the notion of impartiality favoured by Rawls does not tend to lead to utilitarian conclusions.

The reason why Parfit thinks differently about the appeal to the veil of ignorance than I am suggesting is correct is due to how he views Rawls' consideration of the notion of "average" utility which Rawls discusses in section 27 of A Theory of Justice. Rawls here provides a description of why the notion of "average" utility is preferable to the "classical" notion of utilitarianism and imagines arriving at the former through recourse to a device of contractualist reasoning. The way this goes is that Rawls views the notion of "average" utility as conjoined to a conception of having an "equal chance" of being any individual within the society though he also adds to this the assumption that all individuals have "similar preferences" whether or not they belong to the same society. Given these assumptions there is a general rationale existent for the "average" principle of utility. Parfit points out, in a footnote, that there is, even given these assumptions, something to be said to favour taking the "interests" of the worst off most in the situation. In fact, Rawls goes further, pointing out, in the process, that the situation of choice involved in the original position is quite different to any other choice given that the uncertainties it involves are so great and adding that it would be rational, given such uncertainties, to go so far in weighting the position of the worst off that the principle of average utility ends up (even given the "equal chances" idea) of being practically identical with the difference principle.

Parfit pays insufficient attention to this point remaining fixed on the claim that there is something of a case for the principle of "average" utility assuming the preference for criteria of well-being are tantamount for us. In making this point Parfit draws on the way that the argument of section 27 of Theory develops by progressing from the "equal chances" conception of the veil of ignorance to a "full" veil of ignorance in which there is no knowledge provided of the place one has in society. In fact, Parfit fails to note here that it is not only the place one has in society that is affected by moving to the "full" veil of ignorance. It is also the case that we no longer assume that individuals have "similar preferences" whether or not they belong to the society. We do not claim any knowledge of such preferences when we move to the full veil which is another way of saying that questions of well-being (understood through the prism of preferences) are not assumed in advance to guide our decision of the right principles to be chosen.

Parfit points to the account Rawls gives in section 28 of Theory where Rawls gives a further argument for moving away from an "equal chances" conception of the veil of ignorance and where Rawls advances the argument that "there seem to be no objective grounds in the initial situation for assuming that one has an equal chance of turning out to be anybody". In stating this point Rawls refers to the way that the principle of average utility appears to presuppose a principle of insufficient reason as the ground for how probabilities are to be assessed and such an appeal is merely one to "as-if probabilities" that effectively are only ways of stipulating the principle of average utility and are not means of arguing for it as a principle to be adopted. Further the conception that is at work in the "equal chances" view of the veil of ignorance that is preferred by the advocate of average utility itself requires a very stark conception of the person which Rawls terms that of "bare" personhood so that the persons in question lack determinate characters (which is one of the ways the "equal chance" notion works out). By contrast Rawls posits a conception of determinate personhood as the basis of choice so that there really are "interests and ends" of the persons in question even if the nature of them is unknown to the parties involved. So the form of the veil of ignorance that supports the "equal chances" conception, whilst not as full as that which Rawls advocates, is more drastic in its treatment of the persons engaged in forming the contractual agreement.

Parfit, however, objects to the claim that there are no "objective" grounds for favouring the "equal chances" version of the veil of ignorance on the grounds that it appears to treat the original position as an actual state rather than an hypothetical one. This is incorrect as we have seen. It is not a question of treating the original position as an "actual" state, it is rather one of specifying what assumptions are involved in the relative ways the thickness of the "veil" is presented as. The "equal chances" formula requires adoption of a particular conception of probability that is itself not neutral between principles to be considered and which is, further, thicker than Rawls' version of the "veil" in another way, in the way, that is, that it treats the persons in the contractual situation since it renders them mere vessels for utility maximisation. Thus there are two ways in which the "equal chances" view of the veil of ignorance is philosophically problematic: firstly, it assumes a form of probability assessment that is a covert introduction of the principle to be argued for and secondly it pictures the contracting parties in a way that is part of the general utilitarian conception of ignoring the separateness of persons.

Indeed returning to the way the path to the principle of average utility was earlier rendered by Rawls in section 27 of Theory shows that it was precisely by assuming these points that the principle was taken to be available for consideration in the first place. Rawls wrote there: "if we waive the problem of interpersonal conceptions of utility, and if the parties are viewed as rational individuals who have no aversion to risk and who follow the principle of insufficient reason in computing likelihoods....then the idea of the initial situation leads naturally to the average principle" (my emphasis). It is only by not following through that it is these controversial assumptions that support the advocacy of the principle of average utility under the "equal chances" view of the veil that Parfit can assume that the argument for the "equal chances" view of the veil is as good as that for the "no knowledge" view of the veil (which latter is, as we have seen, mis-named).

Parfit assumes that the two versions of the veil of ignorance are equal in their impartiality. In fact, however, they express two quite different conceptions of impartiality since the "equal chances" version of the veil of ignorance takes impartiality to imply that persons are treated rightly when they are viewed only in terms of interests and desires whilst the other version of the veil of ignorance takes it that there is more to people than this. So different conceptions of the person are related to different views of impartiality and the one that supports the "equal chances" formula is one that is framed to lead us to the principle of average utility and to its formula of "impartiality".

As a separate argument Parfit considers the claim that utilitarianism conflicts with our strongest moral beliefs and that this is a distinct argument for rejection of it and to favour Rawls' principles of justice. However, against this argument Parfit states that if we use the appeal to our beliefs to favour one of the versions of the veil of ignorance we cannot also use the veil to produce a rationale for these beliefs. This fails to grasp the point of the reference to the veil of ignorance and suggests some misunderstandings on Parfit's point of Rawls' procedure. The point of appeal to the veil of ignorance is to move away, as Parfit earlier recognised, from contingent features of existing situations in order that consideration of correct principles can be undertaken. Does this entail that there are no constraints involved in the choice of the principles in question? No: Rawls is explicit in appealing to the constraints of right in the situation. He incorporates such features as, for example, the publicity condition. The point is not that such conditions are equivalent to or presented as arguments for the principles of justice. It is rather that they provide us with a way in which the criteria for what would count as a preferable conception of justice can be specified. And if some account of a principle emerges which violates some of these conditions (which include what Rawls terms the "circumstances" of justice) then this is an argument against them.

The final argument that Parfit presents against the formula of the veil of ignorance Rawls has favoured returns to the reasons Rawls gives for taking the position of the worst off into particular account. Parfit formulates this as an argument that requires us to "maximise the minimum level" and thus terms it the "Maximin Argument".  There is lack of specificity in terms of how Rawls understands the worst-off since there is no one specific way that definitely defines them and Parfit suggests that this group should be understood in egoistic terms despite the point that this offends against specific constraints of right on the grounds that Rawls mentions at one time a view of a "representative" person of this group which Parfit argues offends equally against specific constraints of right. However the key problem here is not so much how the group is to be defined as to understand how addressing their situation should be understood. Parfit typically takes it that we address their situation by means of application of a consequentialist process of welfare distribution whereas this is contrary to the point and process of the difference principle. The latter points not to welfare increments but instead to the conditions under which self-respect and the general primary goods (which include conditions of character formation) are to be enhanced. So the considerations Parfit applies to the "Maximin Argument" are of the wrong sort.

Finally Parfit looks at the Maximin Argument in terms of the selection of moral principles rather than in relation to principles of justice which means that the assessment of the argument is simply understood in a way that is not apt for it. One of the reasons why this odd element of Parfit's account of the Maximin Argument is followed appears to be due to an overall claim on Parfit's part that the difference between Rawslian reasoning and that of utilitarians is much less than first appears. A reason for this appears to be Rawls' remark in section 87 of Theory that, in the "initial situation", parties are not taken to have any particular ethical motivation but instead to decide solely on the basis of what seems best calculated "to further their interests" and this passage is meant to bolster the peculiar way Parfit understands the original position. The point here is one that Rawls is making about recognising the intuitive idea of rational prudential choice but Rawls immediately adds that the formal conditions on principles and the veil of ignorance mean that it necessarily also includes moral features and we have seen that his criticism of the average principle of utility further pointed to a conception of the persons involved in the contractual situation as having ends in addition to interests even though we did not know what they were. This passage therefore does not support Parfit's conception of the original position.

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