Sunday, 10 June 2012

Rawls on Hedonism and Social Choice

Sections 83-5 of A Theory of Justice present the culminating consideration of the problems Rawls takes to afflict teleological theories of practical reason, at least when these theories tend towards hedonistic formulation. The reasons for viewing teleological theories in terms of the convergence upon hedonism are made clear within this discussion, a discussion that draws upon Rawls' earlier account of practical reason and which culminates in a basic set of reasons for thinking of social choice in the manner favoured by his own contract doctrine. In this posting I will go through the argument of these sections in order to show how the point of them is to defend and further articulate the grounds for the methodological choice of giving the right priority over the good.

Section 83 opens by stating that the general theme Rawls wishes to approach is one that he is going to deal with in an apparently roundabout way. The general theme with which he is concerned has to do with the way that just institutions frame the choice of rational plans and enable the incorporation of recognition of different conceptions of the good. In order to show this the roundabout argument has to deal with the reasons why a different methodological approach within normative theory has been preferred, the one that bases itself upon hedonism. The point, though Rawls is not here explicit about this, is to demonstrate that the flaws in the hedonistic approach provide in their turn a form of indirect argument for his own view.

In approaching the topic of hedonism Rawls begins with a discussion of a general picture of what is meant by describing someone as "happy". Rawls' earlier account of practical reason involved the notion of a "rational plan" that, if drawn up and executed under favourable conditions, can be mainly successfully executed. Essentially if a rational plan is one that is capable of going well and we have good reason to think this will continue then we can be said to be "happy". This entails that the notion of happiness includes both the plan itself as something whose success is capable of being understood by others in addition to the one who has adopted it and the states of mind of the one who is attempting to carry the plan out. So there can be views of happiness that stress one of these two elements more than the other (a division, we could say, between "objective" and "subjective" views of happiness). In terms of Rawls' own view the original position was understood to be governed by the general condition that the parties within it were ones who had true views and so the subjective and objective components of happiness would be taken to broadly coincide.

Rawls next looks at other elements of the notion of happiness as indicated by philosophers who have addressed it. So Aristotle, for example, describes happiness as something chosen for its own sake. This is not meant to rule out the view that a rational plan has sub-parts that are chosen for more or less instrumental reasons in regard to the master goal. But the whole plan would, so to speak, have the property Aristotle describes as being central to happiness. So the activity of following the plan would appear to be self-contained. Happiness is also self-sufficient in the sense that no reasons additional are required for adoption of it as a goal. This also can be translated into the view that some people have special standing in how they have succeeded in living happy lives, a standing that is as important if not more important than the basic claim for happiness itself. 

Now one wrinkle that emerges at this point is that, even assuming that the general account of happiness in terms of rational plans is an adequate one, there is a mis-match between following the plan and "pursuing" happiness. Even if following the plan and having things go well is the basic way we are going to understand the meaning of what it is to be "happy" it does not follow that in following the plan we are thereby "pursuing" happiness. One reason for this point is that happiness is not itself an aim in following the plan as following the plan is undertaken with the aim of achieving its goals, not of becoming happy. Happiness is not something separable from following the plan, it is not a specific goal of it either. Further, if we assume that following the rational plan is something we do under the constraints of right that define the original position we can also see the structural parallel between the way Rawls has here discussed "happiness" and Kant's general claim that happiness is something we have to be "worthy" of. It is the constraints of right that define what we could choose as generic goals that would meet the standards of justice, as, for Kant, it was the setting of material aims within formal constraints that determined worthiness to be happy.

Given these constraints, as specified by the original position, there can be seen to be a place for happiness in Rawls' own theory but it is a clearly subordinate one in the same way as it is for Kant. Secondly, the pursuit of happiness is something that is understood through the prism of the rational plan as really involving the pursuit of some end that is itself taken to provide the basic orientational rationale of the plan and happiness in a way then drops out of consideration. At this point, however, we may now ask a question that will allow us to begin to move towards considering what pulls people towards hedonistic views of motivation. The first step arises when we ask the question of how to choose among plans in a rational way. Rawls' own view is that essentially this requires recourse to deliberative rationality in terms of principles of rational choice. However, we could take an alternative route and analyse our aims. There appears to be a problem when we do this since there is at least an element of what we might term "purely preferential choice" where it is not at all obvious why we should choose some things over others.

If there is no ready standard of comparison between aims and aims conflict, as they often do, we may feel the need for a more objective standard to appeal to, moving us from a subjective to an objective view of deliberation. The simplest way to specify this will take us directly towards the standpoint of hedonism as the simplest way is to take there to be what Rawls terms "a single dominant end". Assuming such an end exists then all subordinate ends will be able to be related to this in more or less direct ways by means of counting principles. And then deliberative rationality would turn out to be a sophisticated process of instrumental reasoning in which there is general convergence. 

Such a view of deliberative rationality in terms of dominant ends would aim to provide a method of choice that can always be followed in order to make rational decisions. So it would be a process of deliberation that would include a first-person procedure that was generally applicable and guaranteed to lead to the best (most optimal) result. Now the next question concerns what the dominant end would have to consist in. Given what we have uncovered about the structure of rational plans it would be odd to make happiness itself the dominant end since, as we have seen, happiness is attained by achieving aims set into an overall rational plan and is not itself an independent aim separable from the plan itself. This is why Rawls terms happiness not a dominant end but rather an "inclusive" one in the sense that the whole plan specifies what it would be to attain the desired state of happiness. 

If happiness does not itself appear the likely dominant end then even less fitting for such a role is a personal objective such as attaining power since any given purely personal objective such as this would surely have to modified by reference to generally accepted common sense standards of morality to have any appearance of sanity. As an example of failure to meet such a standard Rawls refers to the ways that Ignatius Loyola and Thomas Aquinas appear to present impersonal conceptions of goodness that fail to meet the standards of reference to common sense. If such views are, as Rawls, claims, "extreme" then the question arises as to how their extremity is arrived at. Rawls indicates that it occurs by means of the dominant end adopted in such cases being vague and ambiguous. Human goods are basically heterogeneous and there is something about adopting a homogeneous view of the good that is standardly distorting of the structure of aspiration. This strikes us as crazy and as disfiguring the self.

Now the doctrine of hedonism strictly speaking is defined by Rawls in a non-standard way as an attempt to provide a sustainable treatment of a dominant-end conception of deliberation. As we have seen so far the convergence upon the notion of a dominant-end is meant to provide a way of resolving the indeterminacy of choice by providing an objective standard for it. The dominant end provides the overall means of assessing standards. Now if we additionally assume that pleasure is just agreeable feeling and sensation the dominant end of pleasure then pursuit of such sensation can become the dominant conception of the good. One of the ways we arrive at this view is by rejecting the outcome that was arrived at by thinkers such as Loyola and Aquinas and attempting to maintain a hold upon the requirement of justification towards common sense. In this form of hedonism we find the convergence upon sensation to be something we can see has general approval and, furthermore, has, in the first-personal case, an appearance of infallibility. 

Having got this far it next becomes the general method that we select things in our rational plan according to the balance of pleasure over pain. Counting principles now appear relatively easy. The procedure becomes one of maximisation and with Sidgwick we take pleasure to be our single rational end. This does mean that pleasure is understood to have the capacity to be measured in terms of intensity and duration but the advantage of focusing upon it is we meet our standard of finding a first-person procedure as we indicated was required for a dominant end view. However this view, whilst appearing to adopt an objective process of choice is not based on viewing any particular goals as being objective. The point of this is to attempt by adopting this kind of neutrality between aims to avoid the charge of distortion of aims that we saw applied to the views of Loyola and Aquinas. 

However it is also clear when we have laid the view of hedonism out like this that it does not offer what Rawls terms a "reasonable" dominant end. In making this claim Rawls points to the failure of hedonism so defined to provide us with a sufficiently definite aim. Taking the preference for sensation as having over-riding importance is something that turns out to be as unreasonable as adopting the love of God to be such. Not only does it still appear that we have here a view that is unbalanced but there are problems of priority within the prosecution of the aims set by hedonism. After all, given the disparity between intensity and duration of pleasures, which should have priority? The plurality of pleasures also simply repeats the problem that led us to seek an objective standard to begin with.

So there would appear to be no way, within hedonistic theories, to assume a result that can seriously accord with common sense after all. Realising a rational plan of life is a merely inclusive end and the adoption of a dominant-end view is the taking of a wrong turning. It is a turning that occurs within teleological theories of value and it arises due to the problem of ambiguity with regard to the good being transferred over to the right. The right is not something that should be understood merely as an object of preference and the teleological theorist, recognising this, tries to determine the good as something objective in order to frame the right by means of it but instead transfers to the right the indeterminacy that attaches to the notions of the good. The object of this type of theory is to arrive at, as Rawls puts it, "an interpersonal currency". Whilst teleological theories do not have to be hedonistic the tendency in this direction is a result of the drive towards objectivity considered in the light of the priority being given to the good rather than the right.

Rawls' point in considering hedonism has been to show a basic problem with the teleological approach towards the theory of value. We should not, as Rawls puts it, "attempt to give form to our life by first looking to the good independently defined". It is not aims as selected by reference to an independent conception of the good that should be prior in the assessment of our own nature. It is instead the principles that would govern the background conditions under which aims can be formed and pursued. As Rawls puts this, "the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it" and there is no way to escape the requirements of deliberative rationality.

The conclusion of the discussion of hedonism is that there is not one dominant aim by reference to which all our choices can be reasonably assessed. Pursuit of such an aim is self-defeating and leaves us prey, after all, to the vagaries of intuitionism. The attempt to avoid this by appeal to hedonism is to no avail. So if there is no dominant end how is a rational plan after all to be identified? Rawls' answer is by means of deliberative rationality as defined by the full theory of the good. In section 85 he outlines this full theory in more detail than has occurred up to this point in Theory. This is by means of an account of "moral personality". On Rawls' view moral personality consists in two capacities: a conception of the good and a sense of justice. The realisation of the conception of the good is in terms of a rational plan of life whilst the realisation of the sense of justice is in terms of a regulative desire to act in accordance with the right. Following a Kantian procedure of assessment of moral psychology the latter has priority over the former.

Moral persons have ends that they have chosen and their fundamental preference is for conditions that enable them to arrive at a plan of life that express their nature as free and equal rational persons. The coherence of the plan that they adopt determines the unity of the person and their unity is founded on higher-order "desires" to follow the principles of rational choice as constrained by the sense of justice. It is in the picture of the moral agent that the real difference between Rawls' account and that of teleological theorists becomes apparent. A dominant-end view takes the person to be essentially indifferent to all aspects of themselves except in terms of how they are outlets for pleasant experiences. The view becomes even more "objective" when it frees the reference to such experiences even from the confines of a particular self and makes benevolence a general aim. Then maximisation frees itself from the confines of the self and the self essentially disintegrates as a unit as the social whole's aggregate "good" becomes rationally preferred to all else. This occurs with classical utilitarianism.

By contrast the priority of the right in the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness is quite different in its approach to the self. Moral personality is taken to be a fundamental aspect of the self and dominant-end conceptions are rejected. On this view maximisation has no hold as a procedure. Final ends are, instead, viewed as irreducibly plural and the problem is only how to ensure rational cooperation so that the best conditions for all being to each pursue their own view(s) of the good can be met. The priority of the right, however, constrains the acceptable boundaries and shape of the conceptions of the good. The essential unity of the self thus has its basis in the reference to the priority of the right. Given the priority of the right the indeterminacy of the good is not the problem it is for teleological theories. One reason is that the preferential elements in the conceptions of the good are precisely constrained by the form of the right. There need be no standard above the priority of the right except by reference to the processes of deliberative rationality. The principles of justice have a definite content and the argument by which we arrived at them was justified only by the thin theory of the good and the idea of primary goods. Once we have the principles of justice the priority of the right guarantees the precedence of these principles.

The principles of justice have absolute precedence in the governing of social institutions and set fundamental structural features that constrain every citizens' notions of the good. Relations of justice that conform to principles that would have been assented to by all are best fitted to express the nature of each. This does not mean that the principles of justice express a dominant-end conception themselves. This is because there is no independent conception of the good that is socially recognised. The notion guiding the conception of justice as fairness is thus "the original position and its Kantian interpretation", not a dominant-end conception of the good. This contrast is central to the notion that Rawls has provided an alternative to the utilitarian view of rational choice.

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