Rawlsian humility

by Chris Bertram on June 28, 2004

Matthew Yglesias on John Rawls :

A Theory of Justice is a brilliant work in many ways, but it’s also—quite obviously—wrong in a number of ways and employs a variety of arguments that are pretty dubious. Any undergraduate can see this, and dozens—if not hundreds—do so every semester. Now it seems to me that a slightly more scrupulous philosopher might have looked at the manuscript and said to himself, “this is a very interesting argument I’m putting together here, but it doesn’t quite work. Better keep on revising.” But instead Rawls put his thought-provoking work out there in the press, attracting decades worth of criticisms, counter-criticisms, suggestions for improvement, and so forth, thus becoming the major figure in postwar political philosophy.

Someone who all accounts agree was a deeply serious, thinker who cared most of all about getting it right (“scrupulous”), is thus dismissed by a blogger as a careless promoter of his own reputation. Contrast John Rawls on reading the history of philosophy:

I always too for granted that the writers we were studying were much smarter than I was. If they were not, why was I wasting my time and the students’ time by studying them? If I saw a mistake in their arguments, I supposed those writers saw it too and must have dealt with it. But where? I looked for their way out, not mine. Sometimes their way out was historical: in their day the question need not be raised, or wouldn’t arise and so couldn’t then be fruitfully discussed. Or there was a part of the text I had overlooked, or had not read. I assumed there were never plain mistakes, not ones that mattered anyway. (Lectures on the History of Philosophy , p. xvi)

Since my own copy of the first edition of A Theory of Justice is peppered with silly undergraduate marginal sneers, I shouldn’t be too hard on Yglesias. What of Brad DeLong, though, who responds approvingly to Yglesias’s comments by suggesting that David Hume’s Of the Original Contract constitutes an avant la lettre refutation of Rawls? DeLong reveals nothing but his own catastropic misunderstanding (as a number of his commenters point out).

{ 49 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 06.28.04 at 10:38 am

Saying _A Theory of Justice_ is a slapdash effort put out to provoke reaction doesn’t say much for Matt’s knowledge about the history of its composition. Putnam has a good line about it somewhere — that _A Theory of Justice_ was the best sort of book: the smarter you get, the smarter it gets.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with the book, or that it isn’t in significant ways a product of its time, but a man who published “three papers in his first 10 years out of graduate school”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000168.html cannot reasonably be called unscrupulous.

2

Nasi Lemak 06.28.04 at 12:28 pm

(nontheorist alert:) But it is true, isn’t it, that the Rawls industry (if you like) derives its vigour from the flaws/lacunae/errors in ToJ? It’s those things, after all, which give people something to write about. (Also a consequence of the long gap before Political Liberalism for various schools of Rawlsian interpretation to develop?) I imagine it wasn’t intentional, but it seems like an effective academic strategy.

I know of at least one semi-parallel case, in judicial behaviour studies. Segal and Spaeth’s “The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model” (1993) was, while a very good book, pretty deliberately overstated and rhetorically heated. This had the intended consequences of attracting hordes of irritated readers into research in the field; according to the legend, things were pretty moribund before it came out, and they have been much more lively since.

(Therefore all failings in my own work are entirely intentional and reputation-enhancing…)

3

Matt 06.28.04 at 12:51 pm

Nasi,
Maybe you don’t mean to imply this, but if you are suggesting that TJ reads as “rhetorically overheated” I’d have to wonder if you’ve read it. And, while there was a long gap between TJ and Political Liberalism, there were quite a few very important papers in between, many of which start spelling out the PL project not that long after the publication of TJ. I don’t really see how what you say holds up.

4

Andrew Boucher 06.28.04 at 12:53 pm

Well in Matt’s defense, his remarks work brilliantly. His comments on Rawls, after all, are submerged in a post whose main point is our society “rewards people who make over-the-top and/or inaccurate attacks” by bringing them attention.

5

Nasi Lemak 06.28.04 at 1:04 pm

matt: Since I didn’t imply that Rawls was rhetorically overheated, I have to wonder whether you’ve actually read…

6

Matt 06.28.04 at 1:11 pm

Nasi,
Sorry if I miss-read you, but I wonder what the point of comparing TJ to Segal and Spaeth’s book, and then calling the latter “rhetorically over-heated” if you didn’t mean to draw the parallel. That’s why I said that maybe you didn’t mean to imply it. But, it sure looked like you did.

7

Nasi Lemak 06.28.04 at 1:30 pm

I’m sorry for adding so many dull comments to this interesting post, but let me just clarify this:

matt: Segal and Spaeth, which *is* rhetorically heated (a “semi-parallel” case) is meant as evidence for the importance of “giving people something to write about”, not as an example of a stylistically similar book to ToJ except inasmuch as both “give people something to write about”.

8

Kieran Healy 06.28.04 at 1:55 pm

But it is true, isn’t it, that the Rawls industry (if you like) derives its vigour from the flaws/lacunae/errors in ToJ?

Yes, but as you say that’s true of most topics of discussion in scholarship. So Matt seems to be equivocating between something wrong (ATOJ is slapdash) and something uncontroversial (ATOJ is a big, complex book the provoked a lot of reaction).

It’s probably worth nothing that grand rhetoric and overblown claims alone are not sufficient to sustain interest in a book for forty years. So it’s true to say that a great book’s reach should exceed its grasp, or what’s a gigantic secondary literature for. But there are interesting and uninteresting ways to fail in that way — I’m sure there are a lot of books published in the early ’70s that made grand claims and had significant flaws, but that are also not worth reading then or now.

9

Nasi Lemak 06.28.04 at 2:15 pm

Kieran: I’m not sure it’s totally uncontroversial. I suppose I have the case in mind of a Great Book which is too much the last word, a book which doesn’t seem to leave much of interest unsaid. I think that sort of book would have a debilitating effect on its field, even if widely accepted as a Great Book.

(If pushed to come up with an example, I guess something close to it would be Neustadt on the presidency, which I don’t think had the same creativity-enhancing consequences for its field that Rawls did. i.e. I think the way to respond to Neustadt creatively is to look for a different question. If it were more obviously wrong then it would engender more work within the same question.)

10

harry 06.28.04 at 2:23 pm

As someone who has actually done this I cannot recommend to anyone that they trawl through the 30 years of prominent philosophy journals prior to 1970 looking for admirable examples of normative political philosophy, but I can assure you that if you do so you will find — well, a handful of articles by Rawls, and not much else.

The obscurity of some of Rawls’s formulations and the lacunae in TJ (which, undoubtedly, exist) are owed to the problem of working in a virtual vaccuum, in which his main interlocutors were people like Quine and Dreben, naive and skeptical of normative philosophy but incredibly sharp. He was recreating a normative tradition that had been obliterated by the logical positivist and the ordinary language philosophers, and he was trying to do it within the analytic tradition that the logical positivists had reshaped.

This retrospective criticism is ahistorical in the worst way.
That said, I agree completely with the Putnam comment. Over and over again, in my first ten years of reading it, I would find an argument that seemed obviously wrong, only to discover a few years later that there was soemthng I’d missed which made sense of it (eg, the argument for the difference principle and the argument for fair value of the political liberties).
I have long suspected that Rawls is very badly taught, and Matthew’s comment leads me to suspect this more. Another way to find this out is to look at the received view of Rawls in disciplines adjacent to philosophy — like Education where Rawls is frequently dismissed with objections that were made in the first two or three years after the book was published and which now look embarrassingly ignorant but still, somehow, have currency (eg, nobody could actually imagine themselves behind the veil; the maximin rule is a bad decision rule in general; the priority of liberty paralyses the second principle from doing anything…).

Well, that’s my rant. But, can I now ask whether anyone will teach TJ to undergraduates now that we have Justice as Fairness as a replacement text? I’m planning to use JF supplemented by a few pages from TJ in the rare cases where JF is more obscure than TJ (for example, the argument for the maximin rule in the Original Position, which, in JF, I could make no sense of at all unless I knew the truth from TJ),

11

antirealist 06.28.04 at 2:37 pm

Perhaps Matthew Y’s opinion of TJ, which I think is quite common, is facilitated by the difficulty of finding examples of Rawls responding directly to his critics (feel free to jump all over me if you think I’m mistaken about this).

For example, in his book “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice,” Sandel mounts a vigorous attack on what he takes to be Rawls’ concept of the self. IIRC (and I’m away from my books at the moment), Rawls never discusses where Sandel goes wrong, and indeed I believe he only ever briefly refers to Sandel in a couple of footnotes. In one, he dismisses Sandel’s views by saying that Will Kymlicka has dealt with them effectively.

It it unfair to suggest that this apparent lack of reponsiveness to critics might lead some people to think that the critics were right?

12

Matthew Yglesias 06.28.04 at 2:45 pm

Look, look, slapdashness is a relative quality. As Kieran (and Chris, and others) have been pointing out, it’s not as if Rawls were some kind of political pundit who churns out 15,000 words of copy a week, most of which have barely even been checking for spelling.

The point is that Theory is a work of almost unimaginably ambitious scope — he’s going to tell us what is and is not a just political order. That’s a big task, not like telling us what’s wrong with the argument in Chapter 7 of Theory or what’s wrong with Dick Cheney. A really and truly scrupulous person, who didn’t want to ever publish anything that wasn’t quite right, would never be able to complete a book like that.

I don’t suggest that the world would have been a better place without Theory. On the contrary. I’m not Brad DeLong. I didn’t choose to make a career doing political philosophy, but I wouldn’t have spent four years doing it if I thought it were all just some kind of waste of time. Quite the reverse. What I’m trying to say is that the conversation never would have been advanced if Rawls had really held off on publishing until he could iron out all the wrinkled.

Chris’ quotation implies that we should assume that all the wrinkles have, in fact, been ironed out already. At a minimum, this seems unlikely in light of the fact that in later publications Rawls has acknowledged that portions of the argument presented in the first edition were wrong. That doesn’t prove Rawls is some kind of no-talent hack — just that a very brilliant man writing a book on the hardest subject imaginable is bound to get things wrong.

13

Andy Vance 06.28.04 at 3:02 pm

Yeah right, Matt. Methinks this attack was an effort to get a cite on CT. As someone once said,

The more hysterical work gives its critics more to work with and, therefore, attracts more criticism, more countercriticism, and more more viewers.

14

Brad DeLong 06.28.04 at 3:12 pm

“Catastrophic misunderstanding”? What I take Rawls to be saying is that *if* we were in his Original Position and that *if* we were then in the business of setting up a Constitution by universal assent, *then* we would wind up with set of social and economic institutions X. Thus nobody has a valid claim that set of social and economic institutions X is unjust (or perhaps unfair).

In Rawls’s argument the Social Contract and the Original Position thus serve as something like metaphors.

And the first question I have is, “Why are these metaphor-like constructions supposed to have force?”

15

Matthew Yglesias 06.28.04 at 3:38 pm

Brad: This was well explained by one Hilzoy in your comments section:

His answer is that the conditions in the OP reflect conditions we do accept as governing arguments about justice. If you and I were arguing about whether some arrangement is just, and I say: well, it benefits ME, that’s not an argument for the claim that it is just. This is (oversimplifying a bit) why parties to the OP do not know who they are: arguments based on who they are are (according to us) not sound, and the fact that parties to the OP do not know who they are is supposed to model that fact. The other features of the OP are likewise supposed to model our convictions about arguments for justice.

Suppose you accepted the convictions in question, and the claim that the OP correctly models them: then, Rawls says, you should regard yourself as bound by the decision reached by the parties to it. This is not the sort of argument that Hume attacked, nor (as best I can see) do his arguments tell against it.

Now in my opinion that’s not explained very well in the book (though it’s laid out clearly in Political Liberalism) but that’s how it was taught to me, and it makes a lot of sense.

16

Craig Duncan 06.28.04 at 3:44 pm

A too-brief answer to Brad DeLong’s query. Doubtless I’m simplifying too much, but think of it like this.

One of Rawls’s basic ideals is that of society as a fair system of cooperation for mutual gain. Principles of justice set the terms of this cooperation

But what systems of cooperation–i.e. what principles of justice–count as fair? Hard question.

Rawls proposes a “procedural” strategy for answering those questions–principles of just count as fair if they would be chosen in a fair setting. So in his view principles of justice are those principles that free, equal, and rational beings would choose, under fair bargaining conditions, to govern the basic structure of society.

But what are fair bargaining conditions? Well, for starters, a fair bargaining process would eliminate potential sources of bias, such as knowledge of one’s religion, race, social position, etc. So imagine that people were deprived of this knowledge…

Well, that is just the idea of the Veil of Ignorance. So the “metaphor” Brad refers is instead a thought experiment conducted by way of a “procedural answer” to the question of what system of social cooperation would count as fair.

Agree or disagree, but Rawls’s proposal is hardly an irrelevant fairy tale.

17

Richard Bellamy 06.28.04 at 3:57 pm

I think you are all (except Matt) missing Matt’s point, and think that Matt is calling Rawls non-scrupulous.

The point is that you make a bigger splash making a huge claim that is 95% right than a small claim that is 100% right. It is also the case that it is much harder to do the latter than the former.

Philosophers who make minor, incremental improvements upon their predecessors will likely by 100% right, but unimportant. Better to be Descartes and leave huge gaping holes in your original argument.

18

laura, 11d 06.28.04 at 4:01 pm

It’s funny that this conversation should come up, because I was thinking a lot about Rawls yesterday while reading Alstott’s No Exit, along with Harry. Why is it that Rawls is the only political theory that law professors ever read?

To tell you the truth, Rawls has never done it for me. The OP and all is a nice mental exercise, but when you try to apply it to real life, as Alstott tries to do, things fall apart. More on that later.

I suppose that I really don’t like Rawls, not because of any logical errors in his thought, but for more normative ones.

His OP is sterile and unreal. Not like Hobbes or Locke’s state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short or at least terribly insecure. They talk of inalienable rights and the purpose of government is to protect them.

For me, a government that protects rights makes sense to me. A government that seeks to protect fairness is impossible. Too many variables. Which variables are most important?

I like that Rawls tries to use the old state of nature device to come up with a justification for an egalitarian society. I just think that he could have borrowed from the notion of rights to advance his argument, rather than develop his ideas of fairness, which makes little sense to me.

19

laura, 11d 06.28.04 at 4:02 pm

It’s funny that this conversation should come up, because I was thinking a lot about Rawls yesterday while reading Alstott’s No Exit, along with Harry. Why is it that Rawls is the only political theory that law professors ever read?

To tell you the truth, Rawls has never done it for me. The OP and all is a nice mental exercise, but when you try to apply it to real life, as Alstott tries to do, things fall apart. More on that later.

I suppose that I really don’t like Rawls, not because of any logical errors in his thought, but for more normative ones.

His OP is sterile and unreal. Not like Hobbes or Locke’s state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short or at least terribly insecure. They talk of inalienable rights and the purpose of government is to protect them.

For me, a government that protects rights makes sense to me. A government that seeks to protect fairness is impossible. Too many variables. Which variables are most important?

I like that Rawls tries to use the old state of nature device to come up with a justification for an egalitarian society. I just think that he could have borrowed from the notion of rights to advance his argument, rather than develop his ideas of fairness, which makes little sense to me.

20

laura, 11d 06.28.04 at 4:02 pm

It’s funny that this conversation should come up, because I was thinking a lot about Rawls yesterday while reading Alstott’s No Exit, along with Harry. Why is it that Rawls is the only political theory that law professors ever read?

To tell you the truth, Rawls has never done it for me. The OP and all is a nice mental exercise, but when you try to apply it to real life, as Alstott tries to do, things fall apart. More on that later.

I suppose that I really don’t like Rawls, not because of any logical errors in his thought, but for more normative ones.

His OP is sterile and unreal. Not like Hobbes or Locke’s state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short or at least terribly insecure. They talk of inalienable rights and the purpose of government is to protect them.

For me, a government that protects rights makes sense to me. A government that seeks to protect fairness is impossible. Too many variables. Which variables are most important?

I like that Rawls tries to use the old state of nature device to come up with a justification for an egalitarian society. I just think that he could have borrowed from the notion of rights to advance his argument, rather than develop his ideas of fairness, which makes little sense to me.

21

Matt 06.28.04 at 4:14 pm

Laura,

I don’t know the story you refer to, and your reference could be taken in different ways, but I worry that you’re suggesting something Rawls distinctly warns against, namely, that the OP argument is something that is to be applied in one’s day to day life. It’s not. It’s a device for evaluating institutions, not something to applied day to day or case to case. (This is even more true of the difference principle, and a common source of confusion.) Maybe this isn’t what you meant, but I wanted to point this out to help avoid any confusion. (To my mind Rawls is quite clear about this, but this confusion pops up all the time.)

22

JRoth 06.28.04 at 4:53 pm

I guess Matt is too modest to object, but I just want to mention that I think the dismissal of him as “a blogger” is a bit of rhetorical bullying. MY may be young and have no graduate experience. but he’s not just some kid with a LiveJournal account – he’s studied the stuff, at a reasonably prestigious school. Seems to me that deriding him as a [mere] blogger is a pretty cheap attempt to bolster your argument.

That said, this whole dustup has been helpful to me, who has studied this stuff not at all: I can now reliably attach a concept I was familiar with (VoI) with a philosopher whose name I knew. Thanks, Internet!

23

Brian Wilder 06.28.04 at 5:03 pm

We’re story telling animals, and we respond viscerally to narrative structure and point of view. There’s no “truth” value in narrative structure and point of view, as there may be in analysis or empirical research. In fact, point of view and narrative are inherently “flawed” and “biased” by the standards of analysis and empirical investigation. But, as humans beings needing motivation and drama, we can not do without narrative and point of view, while pure analysis or pure fact — if there can be such a thing — is both difficult to comprehend and boring — a fatal combination.

The “social contract” is a narrative leading toward an analysis. But, as an analysis, the narrative is necessarily flawed. Its the narrative, more than the analysis, which attracts attention, not just because narratives are flawed, qua analysis, but because as human beings, we are intrigued by the narratives.

We humans love our “cause-and-effect” — the narrative face of factual analysis. Anyone who has mastered the scientific analysis of anything knows that “cause-and-effect” forms no real part of it, in the end. A good analysis can be applied to tell any number of stories from any number of points of view.

I liked ToJ for Rawls’s good will, but as a philosophical analysis, it will always be a very, very good book for college sophomores, who, after all, need a strong narrative to lead them toward critical thinking.

In any case, I think it is not the flaws in the analysis, which attract readers and critics, but the qualities of the narrative.

It just happens that all narratives are flawed, qua analysis.

24

Jeff R. 06.28.04 at 5:57 pm

If this is a ‘Rawls Experts present answers to criticisms of the T.O.J.’ forum at this point, I’d like to present another: As I see it, it is impossible for the people in the original position to ever reach a consensus, because human beings vary widely in the degree to which they are willing to accept risk, while Rawls assumes that everyone must be considered as as risk-averse and pessimistic as a 19th century Russian serf.
When you add in the fact that some people in the less-risk-averse category may in fact have a positive preference for inequality [want to maximize the chance that there are others with less than they have], it appears that there really is no possibility of the original position achieving any consensus or in fact anything other than endless, fractuous debate.
And if you require the O.P. people to not merely be amnesiacs but also maximally pessimistic/risk-averse, stripped of all other-regarding-preferences androids, well, it’s unclear what relevance the decisions of these aliens has to the ordering of human society.

25

dan 06.28.04 at 6:23 pm

I’m one of those folks who has spotted flaws in TJ as an undergraduate, though, unlike Matt, that has not led me to write my thesis on Rawls. I think that Matt’s main point was about Rawls’s work, not Rawls the person. Matt sees the influence of the book coming, not despite the many errors that he & others have spotted, but rather in part because of them. Matt’s suggestion that Rawls the man was a bit unscrupulous was a mistake from the point of view of creating a tightly-argued case, though judging by the results it has been a success at attracting attention.

“What flaws have I seen in TJ?” you ask, through my e-ventriloquism. For one, it always seemed unreasonable to me that an individual in the OP would care about groups in society rather than individuals in society, or that she’d only care about some of the goods that would be available in society (the primary goods). Also, Rawls rejects utilitarianism as the decision that would come out of the OP, largely by disallowing any consideration of probabilities, despite the fact that the fairness of the OP seems to make it unreasonable to assume that your chance of becoming any one person in the society is any different from your chance of becoming any other person. He even accepts that a perfectly unselfish person in the OP who gave equal weight in his decision to every person in the OP would choose utilitarianism. Given that every person in the OP is in an equivalent position, how could a person’s decision for himself come out differently?

26

Shai 06.28.04 at 7:00 pm

It’s hard to argue with innuendo because we don’t know what’s behind it. I did gloss through Matt Y’s undergrad thesis a year and a half ago when it was posted on his web site: there was a lot in it about Rawls and I don’t remember seeing anything spectacularly wrong. He’s not the crudest critic of Rawls that one could imagine, although Chris comment about old notes in the margins of his ToJ ring true for me. I just had a look at my copy of Rawls collected papers — horrible… and those notes were from last week… just kidding. hehe.

I do keep a little journal and it’s always been painful to look back 6 months or so, sort of defeating my original intent to capture useful ideas. It turns out it’s an encyclopedia of undergraduate mistakes, but that’s useful as well.. I hope :-)

27

bob mcmanus 06.28.04 at 7:05 pm

“Given that every person in the OP is in an equivalent position, how could a person’s decision for himself come out differently?”

But isn’t the point that every person in the OP is not equivalent? Isn’t that part of the reason for the VOI? I think Rawls very much assumes individual traditions, prejudices, etc. The purpose of the OP and VOI is to develop rules and procedures that are acceptable to all.

Concrete example: Supreme Court on religion. That some members are Jews and others Catholics is precisely(partially) why they can and do try to reach impartial interpretations of Church/State issues.

28

Shai 06.28.04 at 7:38 pm

In resonse to jeff r:

I’m not an expert so take this with a grain of salt: I only wanted to say that your gambling argument about the level of risk one would take on is one of the standard objections to maximin in the veil of ignorance. A little thought about positional goods puts a lot of doubt in the persuasive force of the thought experiment, although I don’t think it’s a knockdown argument unless one implausibly interprets Rawls as advocating a strict egalitarianism.

ref:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/

29

Matthew Yglesias 06.28.04 at 8:19 pm

You know, reading this all over I think I should have objected more strenuously to Chris’ characterization of my post. I describe Rawls as “brilliant . . . thought provoking . . . the major figure in postwar political philosophy” and find myself accused of having “dismissed” Rawls with “undergraduate sneers” for having the temerity to suggest that A Theory of Justice is wrong in some ways and employs some arguments that don’t work.

I don’t think the claim that Theory is not, in fact, a 100% correct account of political philosophy is a particularly controversial claim, and I’m positive that the claim that some of the arguments contained in Theory don’t work is uncontroversial.

30

Matt 06.28.04 at 8:49 pm

Matthew,

The claim that I think got most people (including me) riled up was that the flaws in TJ are “obviously” wrong, and that “any undergraduate” including “thousands each semester” see this. This is what I fide quite dubious. I say this as one who has discussed TJ w/ quite a few smart undergrads. Many see what they think are flaws, and most, maybe nearly all, are really showing that they don’t understand, or have not read enough, or so on. This is why I think Chris posted his contrast. Especially when one is an undergrad and thinks one sees a “obvious” flaw in a great thinker’s work, the first (and second) thought should always be, “Maybe it’s me that doesn’t understand what’s happening here.”

31

dan 06.28.04 at 9:12 pm

I would question the use of “…” in the comment that characterizes Matt’s original post as praising Rawls if it weren’t written by the man himself, and I guess I can do so regardless. In the context of the post, in which Rawls’s flaws are called obvious and Rawls’s scrupulousness is questioned, “thought-provoking” and “the major figure…” are not necessarily complimentary, as the former could suggest “intentionally provocative instead of well-reasoned” and the latter could suggest that his prestige is undeserved.

Thus, I think that the most worthwhile use of this comments thread would be for us all to argue over what Matt really meant, and what his views on Rawls suggest about him as a person. We certainly wouldn’t want to waste our time considering the reasons for Rawls’s major role in postwar political philosophy, including whether flaws in his work have actually helped him gain prominence.

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SqueakyRat 06.28.04 at 10:04 pm

Rawls was a piker. Clearly the greatest virtuoso of the technique of provocative boneheadedness was that shameless, self-promoting, posturing buzzmeister and intellectual hack from Koenigsberg, Immanuel Kant, whose error-littered pages have provided inexhaustible amusement for undergraduate beer-swillers and dissertation-fodder for hideous graduate molerats ever since, on a scale of which the fraud of Emerson Hall could only have dreamed.

Have a nice day.

33

Leo Casey 06.28.04 at 10:16 pm

The problem with Brad DeLong is the narrow economists’ conceit, such that the notion that a concept might be metaphorical is an instant disqualification as serious. The answer is simple: yes, it is in important ways metaphorical, and so what… There isn’t a central concept in the history of economics proper, starting with the invisible hand, that doesn’t have a metaphorical component. The problem is that narrow economists just don’t think about these matters often enough to realize that they are waist deep in the Big Muddy with the rest of us.

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Leo Casey 06.28.04 at 10:17 pm

The problem with Brad DeLong is the narrow economists’ conceit, such that the notion that a concept might be metaphorical serves as an instant disqualification of its seriousness. The answer is simple: yes, it is in important ways metaphorical, and so what… There isn’t a central concept in the history of economics proper, starting with the invisible hand, that doesn’t have a metaphorical component. The problem is that narrow economists just don’t think about these matters often enough to realize that they are waist deep in the Big Muddy with the rest of us.

35

Leo Casey 06.28.04 at 10:17 pm

The problem with Brad DeLong is the narrow economists’ conceit, such that the notion that a concept might be metaphorical serves as an instant disqualification of its seriousness. The answer is simple: yes, it is in important ways metaphorical, and so what… There isn’t a central concept in the history of economics proper, starting with the invisible hand, that doesn’t have a metaphorical component. The problem is that narrow economists just don’t think about these matters often enough to realize that they are waist deep in the Big Muddy with the rest of us.

36

Leo Casey 06.28.04 at 10:21 pm

The problem with Brad DeLong is the narrow economists’ conceit, such that the notion that a concept might be metaphorical serves as an instant disqualification of its seriousness. The answer is simple: yes, it is in important ways metaphorical, and so what… There isn’t a central concept in the history of economics proper, starting with the invisible hand, that doesn’t have a metaphorical component. The problem is that narrow economists just don’t think about these matters often enough to realize that they are waist deep in the Big Muddy with the rest of us.

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SqueakyRat 06.28.04 at 10:25 pm

Jesus, Leo, did you fall asleep with you forehead on the mouse?

38

bob mcmanus 06.28.04 at 11:04 pm

This comment contains audacious assertions and subtle intentional errors designed to make me world-famous, and a category on Jeopardy.

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Chris Bertram 06.28.04 at 11:44 pm

Matthew, basically, what Matt said in his comment immediately below your 2nd one. “Undergraduate sneers” was, btw, my characterization of my own marginal notes made as an an undergraduate.

I wouldn’t have picked up on your comments, coming, as they do, at the end of a post on something else, if Brad DeLong hadn’t picked them up and run with them. But he did.

40

q 06.29.04 at 1:46 am

What is the English for an “avant la lettre refutation”?

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Ralph Wedgwood 06.29.04 at 2:18 am

Surely we all know perfectly well that the fact that an undergraduate can (with some prodding from their tutor) spot a fallacy in a work of philosophy does nothing whatsoever to show that it is not a work of unsurpassed genius. Otherwise, why would we ever bother teaching Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Kant or Mill — or, for that matter, Rawls?

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S Frug 06.29.04 at 6:37 am

Q: the English for “avant la lettre refutation” might be “anticipatry refutation”.

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S Frug 06.29.04 at 6:38 am

Q: the English for “avant la lettre refutation” might be “anticipatory refutation”.

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Michael Greinecker 06.29.04 at 11:24 am

matt:

“I don’t know the story you refer to, and your reference could be taken in different ways, but I worry that you’re suggesting something Rawls distinctly warns against, namely, that the OP argument is something that is to be applied in one’s day to day life. It’s not. It’s a device for evaluating institutions, not something to applied day to day or case to case. (This is even more true of the difference principle, and a common source of confusion.)”

While it is correct that Rawls draws such a line, one can argue that this line makes little sense. The basic point of G.A. Cohens If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? is exactly that one cannot consistently have just institutions without ethically just people. I think Cohen is pretty convincing.

harry:

The criticism of the decision theory employed by Rawls is valid and doesn´t look “embarrassingly ignorant”. Changing the assumption of infinitely risk aversity even slightly can lead to justyfying some very inegalitarian results. John Roemer has a nice paper on it: Egalitarianism against the veil of ignorance. The rather technical paper (it´s written for an economics audience) also contains one of the most powerful critiques of the whole “veil of ignorance”-approach:

There is a cost and a benefit to using the veil of ignorance. We often mention the benefit, seldom the cost. Truth be told, it would be better to make decisions ex post, that is, after we know which preference orders and welfare functions are associated with which social positions (that is, after the birth lottery has occurred). The problem with making distributional decisions ex post is one of maintaining objectivity: how can we be sure that the decision makers, if they are drawn from the society in question, are not simply making recommendations from self-interest? The benefit of the veil -of –
ignorance construct is that it forces objectivity, or impartiality. But the cost is that we must make decisions with a great handicap – we have discarded massively important information that is available to us in the real world, namely, what the actual joint distribution of resources (here, wealth) and types is. The veil-of-ignorance approach asks us how we would allocate resources if we did not know that actual distribution. But would it not be better to think about the problem of distribution (now, redistribution) knowing what the actual distribution is, if we could otherwise maintain impartiality?

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Chris Bertram 06.29.04 at 12:13 pm

The criticism of the decision theory employed by Rawls is valid and doesn´t look “embarrassingly ignorant”.

Some of the criticisms of Rawls on this point may be valid, but others are indeed “emabarrassingly ignorant.” Take, for example, this very thread, where one commenter asserts:

… Rawls assumes that everyone must be considered as as risk-averse and pessimistic as a 19th century Russian serf.

This, despite Rawls’s insistence that his argument does not depend on attributing some special risk-averse psychology to the parties.

Or, take, for another example, the many assertions in undergraduate essays, that because maximin would be a poor guide to what to do in day-to-day life, it is _therefore_ a poor rule for the parties to employ in the OP.

None of this is intended to deny, of course, that there are mistakes in ToJ, or that there are valid criticisms of Rawls’s use of maximin or of his derivation of the principles in the OP. Many critics have toiled long, hard (and respectfully) at producing just such critiques.

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bob mcmanus 06.29.04 at 1:09 pm

“we have discarded massively important information … what the actual joint distribution of resources (here, wealth) and types is”

Is this the case? Teach me about Rawls. My impression was that the VOI did not hide all empirical information, but, for this specific example, only whether a particular rule-maker was representing a rich man or a poor one.

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Michael Greinecker 06.29.04 at 1:45 pm

Rawls may have a decision theory in which this can be derived without assuming risk averse preferences, but that doesn´t change the fact that this theory must be neccesarily at odds with mainstream decision theory. That´s why John Harsanyi,a leading game theorist and philosopher that used the veil of ignorance before Rawls, employed standard bayesian decision theory.

“Is this the case? Teach me about Rawls. My impression was that the VOI did not hide all empirical information, but, for this specific example, only whether a particular rule-maker was representing a rich man or a poor one.”

The problem is that (using ordinary decision theory) one can get rules that lead to ex post unacceptable distributions. That means that one can reasonably make society more just after the veil was reveiled.

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Luke Weiger 06.29.04 at 9:25 pm

“Or, take, for another example, the many assertions in undergraduate essays, that because maximin would be a poor guide to what to do in day-to-day life, it is therefore a poor rule for the parties to employ in the OP.”

What arguments does Rawls use to support maximin? And why deny contractors in the OP knowledge of probabilities?

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vonmises 07.01.04 at 8:50 pm

1. The ‘obviousness’ of the flaws in TofJ wasn’t apparent when TofJ was published. Maybe by the time Yglesias got to Harvard and learned Rawls from one of his most influential critics (Sandel), they ‘seemed’ obvious, since Sandel would have led up to Rawls in that way. Not to be unfair, but because Sandel had his own points to get across. That’s good undergraduate teaching.

2. I’m surprised that no one has recently gone back over Wohlstetter’s work on inequalities of income. See Casual Notes on Equality and Equity (http://www.rand.org/publications/classics/wohlstetter/DL17717/DL17717.html) It would be interesting to compare Perle and Wolfowitz’s game-theoretic mentor’s thoughts with Rawls’.

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