More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor.

Suppose you want to get as high up on a mountain as possible. (This is analogous to getting as much justice as possible.) Gaus says: you should probably climb to the top of whatever mountain you are on, rather than seeking out the very highest mountain – which you probably can’t see from here; and which you probably couldn’t get to, from here, even if you lucked into a distant view through some break in the clouds. [UPDATE: and which Gaus doesn’t believe in. But I’m going to assume the contrary, below, for argument purposes.] (This is an Amartya Sen-ish sort of point.) Rawls (to pick a likely target) is guilty of being too idealistic about all this. His realistic utopianism is too utopian, not realistic enough. A less well-known target who is very much on Gaus’ mind: Dave Estlund, who makes a big deal about not being ‘utopophobic’. There is a point to specifying what is ideal, even if you can’t get there from here, in practice. Pure value aspirationalism, no concessions to practical limits.

Here’s what I think Gaus should say against Rawls, which sort of sidesteps his dispute with Estlund. [UPDATE: the force of my ‘should’ may be unclear. I’m not offering Gaus’ argument, in what follows but an argument that occurred to me, reading him, which I think he would probably be ok with. See comment 9.] The problem with Rawls is that he falls between two stools: what is possible, what is ideal. Political Liberalism – justice as fairness (let’s not fret now about differences between Rawls’ big books, TJ and PL) – ain’t a practical blueprint for reforming American society and politics. It is waaaaaay too idealistic for that. Also, it just isn’t that kind of thing. If there were radical student groups advocating Rawlsian revolution, that would be very … weird. But, on the other hand, Rawls is too concessive for pure value clarification purposes. See G.A. Cohen’s critique, which Estlund develops in various ways. Short version: it is not ideal to say, as Rawls does, that inequality is ok, so long as it benefits the least well off. The logic is that people won’t work – or won’t work as hard – if they can’t get seriously richer than their neighbors thereby. (Again, I’m being approximate.) But you are being a moral jerk if you just want to grab it all for yourself, like that! (Just give me that premise, for argument purposes.) Rawls’ theory is supposed to assume compliance with the demands of justice, unrealistic as that is. But, confusingly, he doesn’t demand that people be morally perfect – heroes, saints. Because that’s unrealistic.

What’s the point of working out a whole theory of a world that is too perfect to get there from here, but not perfect enough that you can learn about perfection by studying it?

In mountain metaphor terms, Rawls definitely wants us to do better than just climb to the top of whatever little hill we happen to be on here. Call our hill A. But he has not done so by exploring the topography of the highest peak of the highest mountain, C, let alone drawing us a roadmap: how to get from A to C, in practice, or even just in theory. What he has done is mapped the topography of B, which is much taller than A but not nearly as tall as C. And, again, he has omitted the roadmap. We don’t know, in theory or practice, how to get from A to B. This seems perverse. Either I should just dance with the one what brung me – A. That’s prudential. Or I should dream of C. That’s Utopian. But B is neither. Thinking about B doesn’t help me get to the top of A. (Just as you can’t see B from A, you can’t really see A from B. They are over each other’s mutual horizons.) And thinking about B doesn’t help me get to C, or get to the top of C if (per imposibile) I should be on the foothills of C and trying to ascend. A detailed map of B is not a rough map of C nor a rough map of A. So what can it be for, either in theory or practice? That’s the critique of Rawls. I think.

This sidesteps the complaints about Estlund because Gaus can say: sure, whatever, ideal value clarification. Maybe that’s valuable, maybe not. (Gaus has his doubts on various grounds.) But Rawls isn’t going to be ideal value clarification, so even if that’s valuable, that’s no defense of Rawls.

Utopia or realism. Take your pick. But don’t mix ‘em because that clouds both views.

Now all I need is a catchy name for B. Utopia is nowhere, or a perfect place. What we need is a term for a delusive place-between-places, where you might lose your way. Your ability to keep your eye on the horizon, on where you are going, on home. How about: calypsotopia? Fancy Homer reference.

{ 50 comments }

1

Ben 08.04.16 at 11:40 pm

I was so sure this was going to be the Fancy Homer reference to calypsotopia. It even fits thematically. “It ain’t gonna happen!” “Not with that attitude”

2

Trevor 08.04.16 at 11:45 pm

Mesotopia is the place between here and there, and maybe sets up some ‘excluded middle’ jokes?

I take Wilkinson to be saying that it’s not just that C is over the horizon, but that really there’s just one mountain after all. Is that in the original Gaus too?

3

John Quiggin 08.04.16 at 11:47 pm

I’m not sure that, in Rawls’ own view, his Political Liberalism is too idealistic to be a practical blueprint for reforming American society.

AFAICT, he has the view that, given equality of opportunity and widely, though not equally, distributed property ownership, the outcome will be consistent with his principles of justice. He doesn’t even see a need for progressive taxation.

4

Rich Puchalsky 08.05.16 at 12:15 am

My one reference to Rawls here (other than this) was the time that I suggested that people should debate behind the veil of ignorance as if they could turn out to be forests, species, ecosystems etc. in addition to humans. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me but not so much to people who knew a lot about Rawls. At any rate, this suggests that people try the thought experiment of imagining themselves as possibly turning out to be mountains A, B, or C and having an interest in not being strip mined for philosophical points.

5

Constantine 08.05.16 at 12:54 am

Hehe

Y’all should read about hill climbing algorithms and simulated annealing. Oddly, both popular in AI like applications (old school now). But seems particularly relevant to this entire philosophical conversation.

6

LFC 08.05.16 at 1:04 am

Holbo:
it is not ideal to say, as Rawls does, that inequality is ok, so long as it benefits the least well off.

As various people have pointed out on CT in the past, Rawls (at least in TJ) does *not* say that any inequalities are permissible if they benefit the least well off. Inequalities that benefit the least well off can still be impermissible, on R’s theory, if, for example, they undermine the bases of self-respect or make the social solidarity implicit in his vision of ‘a social union of social unions’ impossible. Thus if it cd be shown that v. large inequalities benefit the worst off, they would nonetheless be impermissible on R’s view b.c, psychologically, v. large inequalities likely undermine the bases of self-respect, the most imp. primary good. Also, large inequalities might undermine what R calls, if memory serves, the fair value of the political liberties. So inequalities that allow the wealthy to dominate the political system are ruled out on R’s view, even if those inequalities might work to the ec. benefit of the least well off.

Thus Holbo’s summary of Rawls is inaccurate, and for that reason this statement

Rawls is too concessive for pure value clarification purposes

is questionable.

7

Eric Kaplan 08.05.16 at 1:11 am

First of all, big fan.
Second of all — any suggestion of another society can be scored on how good it is and how hard it is to figure out to get there. I do not see your argument for only talking about the one which scores the highest on goodness and the one that scores the highest on reachableness and throwing out all the rest. Why not use them all? When people get too pragmatic we can tell them about the better, less reachable ones. When people get too pie-in-the-sky we can reference the worse, more reachable ones. There may be other metrics too other than goodness and reachability — maybe beauty or emotional appeal too.

8

JimV 08.05.16 at 1:28 am

The mountain analogy corresponds with the problem in numerical analysis of finding a global rather than a local maximum. E.g., Newton’s Method will quickly find a local maximum but will stop at the first one it finds. The No Free Lunch Theorem goes on to say that, averaged over all landscapes, no possible analytical search algorithm can out-perform a random search (which never gets stuck forever at the same local maximum).

Biological evolution is not a purely random search in this sense. Where you can go next in evolution depends on where you are. Humans will never evolve a knee joint that is mechanically much better, although much better joints exist theoretically. The same is probably true for the types of society that have evolved.

9

John Holbo 08.05.16 at 3:10 am

“I take Wilkinson to be saying that it’s not just that C is over the horizon, but that really there’s just one mountain after all. Is that in the original Gaus too?”

Yes. Sorry, there’s a ‘should’ in my post whose force is ambiguous.

“Here’s what I think Gaus should say against Rawls”

That could mean I think I’m sharpening his argument – or shortening it. Or else substituting my own, in the same vicinity. It’s the latter. This post is my argument, but it seems to me Gaus-friendly. Or Gaus-curious. Gaus definitely doesn’t believe in Mount C. That’s key for him. I assume Mount C, for argument purposes. But for Gaus’ purposes, so it looks to me, it would still be useful to argue against Rawls, as he wants to, by saying: look, even if there IS a Mount C, this thing you are doing is still messed up for the reason Holbo outlines. Gaus can then proceed to add the extra coffin nail of C’s actual non-actuality. To put it another way, Gaus is actually arguing against Rawls by arguing against Estlund-style idealism. But it seems to me that it’s worth noting that he also has – or could have – an argument against Rawls that doesn’t need so many anti-Estlund premises, should those prove controversial. ( I don’t mean that Estlund is Gaus’ obsession, but he does mention him by name as a main adversary, in an intellectually friendly way.)

“As various people have pointed out on CT in the past, Rawls (at least in TJ) does *not* say that any inequalities are permissible if they benefit the least well off. Inequalities that benefit the least well off can still be impermissible, on R’s theory, if, for example, they undermine the bases of self-respect or make the social solidarity implicit in his vision of ‘a social union of social unions’ impossible … Thus Holbo’s summary of Rawls is inaccurate, and for that reason this statement

Rawls is too concessive for pure value clarification purposes

is questionable.”

I don’t buy it. Yes, I was not getting into the weeds of Rawls interp for post purposes, but my point stands. In a sense Rawls is assuming full compliance – everyone is being an angel, justice-wise. In a sense he isn’t – he thinks it’s important that his system has built in tolerance to accommodate human frailties and limitations of various sorts. This introduces a fundamental confusion about how utopian and ideal we are being. ‘Realistic utopianism’ – that’s Rawls formula – is ambiguous in unhelpful ways.

10

Constantine 08.05.16 at 3:26 am

JimV:

“Humans will never evolve a knee joint that is mechanically much better, although much better joints exist theoretically.”

Evolve is a fluid word here, isn’t it? Sure, we know how to design a far better knee. we lack the ability to genetically engineer one. That deficit probably won’t last forever, I’m sure.

It’s like saying that nature will never evolve a rocket capable of delivering humans to the moon and back.

11

John Holbo 08.05.16 at 4:13 am

” “It ain’t gonna happen!” “Not with that attitude””

Yes, I really should have had that in mind. But all I could think of was Homer’s epic poem, sadly.

12

RNB 08.05.16 at 5:24 am

What’s going on here. Is this political philosophy? Isn’t this stuff about scaling mountains, local vs. global optima, and not being able to survive in the valley between a shorter to a taller mountain–isn’t this Sewall Wright’s biology of adaptive landscapes? About 15 years ago I read a history of these adaptive landscapes in Jean Gayon’s book on Darwinism.
Applying this to social dynamics and political philosophy is….really cool! Am reading with interest.
Here’s a weird thought. What happens if what appears to be scaling a mountain usually ends up like a Escher staircase?
OK will read the post and the Will Wilkinson link.

13

Bill Benzon 08.05.16 at 6:25 am

@Rich, #4: Yes.

14

RNB 08.05.16 at 6:26 am

Wilkinson: “This is by no means a theoretical worry. Revolutionary communists understood the implications of aspiring to a “global optimum” and didn’t flinch. They fought the incremental reforms that led to European social democracy precisely because they knew these local improvements in justice did make things better. And they worried, reasonably enough, that this would leave workers obliviously satisfied with a less bad but still profoundly wicked system of structural inequality.”

Good point. But what if the mountain you’re climbing is on a fault line, and the iron laws of seismology mean that it will collapse imminently in an earthquake (Popper’s historicism), then shouldn’t you exchange your climbing gear (which in the case would be Eduard Bernstein’s parliamentary socialism) for the equipment (the revolutionary party) you’ll need to survive in the valley on the way to the putatively more stable, taller peak (socialism)?

In short, Gaus’ argument from this summary seems to me predicated on Popper’s critique of historicism.

At any rate, the Wilkinson piece is quite interesting, and seems to be eerily connected to discussions being had here.

15

RNB 08.05.16 at 6:36 am

As I remember it, Sen’s argument includes a critique of the social contract tradition in that it assumes arbitrary boundaries of political membership and then tries to derive the contents of what the members would contract to even though decisions within that society would possibly have great impact on those outside the boundaries of membership.

Second (the book is in the office) Sen compares transcendental to (I think) comparative institutionalism. But the Wilkinson piece raises a problem for Sen, I think. What if through comparative analysis we find better policies on other mountains? OK the comparative analysis makes us see this. But it does not follow that this higher point on another peak can be reached on the peak that one finds her or himself.

16

Anarcho 08.05.16 at 9:33 am

I guess the problem is not with “ideal” as such but ideology, the ability to create thought-systems which blind you to horrible things. Take the reviewer:

“I used to think that justice requires a society of maximum individual liberty and entirely non-coercive social relations, which means there can’t be a state. My vision of the maximally free, anarcho-capitalist society seemed to me an indispensable guiding light, a compass by which to steer a course through the rugged landscape of real-world politics toward the promised land — the ideally good and morally well-ordered society.”

Except in a capitalist society — marked as it is with inequalities of property and wealth — you cannot have “maximum individual liberty” for the many because they have to sell their labour (and so liberty) to those who do own. I can see why the property owners who have all the property would like to see “non-coercive” as an ideal — it means they get to keep their wealth and power. So while it may see “non-coercive social relationships” these would not be libertarian (or non-authoritarian) social relationships — they would be hierarchical and deeply authoritarian.

Yet “anarcho-“-capitalists claim not to see this — in spite of it being a foundational insight of anarchism since 1840 and Proudhon’s “What is Property?” It gets them into massive contradictions:

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/an-anarchist-critique-of-anarcho-statism

He also states:

“Did I really know that competing private defense agencies wouldn’t just collude and establish a new state more oppressive and coercive than the one we’ve got? I did not.”

Which, while an issue, does not address the fundamental issue that these “private defense agencies” would be employed by capitalists and landlords to enforce their power over their workers and tenants. The collusion issue only matters to the owning class — not the proletariat — as it may lead to the capitalist class paying more than the going rate (the horror!) for the private goons breaking union heads.

(organising a union, you understand, is a coercive act against the boss — and Henry Ford, for example, had his own private secret police to stop that).

As I wrote elsewhere (
http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/anarchist-organisation-practice-theory-actualised ):

Ignoring Rothbard’s immaculate conception of property as being as unrelated to reality as Locke’s social contract theory of the state, the question arises why current and future generations should be dispossessed from liberty by the private hierarchies associated with property. Rothbard helps us answer that question by a hypothetical example of a country whose King, threatened by a rising “libertarian” movement, responses by “employ[ing] a cunning stratagem,” namely he “proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the ‘ownership’ of himself and his relatives.” Rather than taxes, his subjects now pay rent and he can “regulate the lives of all the people who presume to live on” his property as he sees fit. Rothbard then admits people would be “living under a regime no less despotic than the one they had been battling for so long. Perhaps, indeed, more despotic, for now the king and his relatives can claim for themselves the libertarians’ very principle of the absolute right of private property, an absoluteness which they might not have dared to claim before.”

While Rothbard rejects this “cunning stratagem” he failed to note how this argument undermines his own claims. As he himself argues, not only does the property owner have the same monopoly of power over a given area as the state, this is more despotic. He fails to notice that if the state owning its territory makes it (“as well as the King in the Middle Ages”) “a feudal overlord” then this makes the capitalist or landlord a feudal overlord within “libertarianism.” It is a strange ideology that proclaims itself liberty-loving yet embraces factory feudalism and office oligarchy.

The one remaining defence of “libertarianism” is that these absolutist social relationships are fine because they are voluntary in nature for there is no such a thing as economic power under capitalism. It is easy to refute such claims with Rothbard’s words on the abolition of slavery and serfdom in the 19th century:

“The bodies of the oppressed were freed, but the property which they had worked and eminently deserved to own, remained in the hands of their former oppressors. With economic power thus remaining in their hands, the former lords soon found themselves virtual masters once more of what were now free tenants or farm labourers. The serfs and slaves had tasted freedom, but had been cruelly derived of its fruits.”

So if “market forces” (“voluntary exchanges”) result in the few owning most of the property then this is unproblematic and raises no questions about the (lack of) liberty of the working class but if people are placed in exactly the same situation as a result of coercion then it is a case of “economic power” and “masters”.

Such is the danger of ideology that it allows someone to write a book that actually refutes his own arguments.

17

Doug T 08.05.16 at 11:50 am

While I know many, folks here have forgotten more about Rawls than I know (my knowledge being limited to one undergrad course on Justice and the occasional references at places like this since then), would his defense against the original post be to argue that his concessions to reality are an attempt to map out the real world topology. That is, if mountain C is rejected, it’s because that mountain doesn’t, in fact, exist in the real world that actual humans live in.

So, he’d argue that his political system is, in fact, a global maximum, and that the various more utopian systems are describing theoretical worlds but not ones that really exist.

Regardless of whether that’s a true defense of Rawls, I think it is a valid response to the original post’s argument against mixing utopianism and realism. In fact, the diving of the best such mix could be said to be the pre-eminent question in political philosophy. It’s easy to construct a utopia. But the real issue is what is the best achievable society is, which is just another way of saying how much (and what sorts of) realism do you need to add to your mix before proceeding to utopia.

18

LFC 08.05.16 at 12:19 pm

Can one “clarify values” by imagining impossible worlds (mountain C)? Sure. Can one also “clarify values” by imagining worlds whose realization seems unlikely but is not impossible by definition (mountain B)? Yes.

Holbo doesn’t like mountain B because he says it’s ambiguous, it falls between two stools. On the one hand we’ll never get there; on the other hand it makes concessions to human frailties. But because it makes concessions to human frailties, it can provide a reasonable goal to work toward and a motivation for continuing to climb the mountain you’re on. You don’t have to climb down mountain A, the mountain you’re on, to start ascending B. You can stay on A, climbing, putting one foot in front of the other, while having the idea of B in mind. And once you get to the top of A you will be able to see B — Holbo thinks you won’t be able to see B, but it seems to me he’s wrong — and you can measure the distance between the two peaks. And maybe you then discover that A’s peak is actually a little bit higher than you first thought and you take one or two more steps and when you actually are at the summit of A you may find it’s not that far from B after all. The vision of B did not make you turn back down and descend A; rather, the vision of B gave you a motivation to get to the top of A. So mountain B’s very “ambiguity,” its mixture of the ideal and the realistic, is what it made useful in terms of motivating action.

19

LFC 08.05.16 at 12:27 pm

Doug T:
…a valid response to the original post’s argument against mixing utopianism and realism. In fact, the deriving of the best such mix could be said to be the pre-eminent question in political philosophy. It’s easy to construct a utopia. But the real issue is what is the best achievable society, which is just another way of saying how much (and what sorts of) realism do you need to add to your mix before proceeding to utopia.

I think that’s right. That deriving the best mix of realism and utopianism “could be said to be the pre-eminent question in political philosophy” is very much to the point here.

Holbo’s argument in the OP, if taken seriously, would require one to throw out most of Western political philosophy from Plato onwards. (Presumably there are some who would be retained and not affected by the purge, but not many.)

20

LFC 08.05.16 at 1:08 pm

I wonder if Gaus or anyone else involved in these discussions cites John Herz’s 60-year-old book Political Realism and Political Idealism.

21

oldster 08.05.16 at 1:27 pm

Wilkinson’s summary at Vox presumably simplified a lot–that’s the job of a good popularizer writing for a popular journal.

But if he was right to summarize Gaus’ view as “don’t go downhill for the sake of some higher hill you aren’t on”, then this presumably has immediate consequences for trolley problems, right? And any other situation that involves doing evil that good may come thereof?

The hill I’m on has one person living. That’s a good thing! Cherish it! There’s a distant hill which has this person dead, but five others living. That’s a better thing! But to get there, I have to go downhill by killing this person. Don’t do that! says Gaus.

Or maybe not: maybe the hill I’m on has one person living, and five dead *already*? But in what sense are the five dead *already* on my hill? (are they at a higher altitude?)

We need to integrate the topological metaphor with a transtemporal story: are all of the future branches from my position on my “hill” or not?

If we mix our metaphors correctly, then interesting results might arise. Mix them badly, and we’ll answer all trolley-car problems too easily (and many of them wrongly).

22

mdc 08.05.16 at 1:42 pm

Could be worth distinguishing between an “ideal” (a standard of perfection which might not have ever been and might not not ever be realized- like Socrates’ kallipolis) and a “utopia” (where some ineliminable but unwanted factors are assumed away- like material scarcity, or human selfishness). Since ought implies can, I don’t think any ideal can be utopian in this sense.

Wilkinson’s review I think founders on this point: “Do you really need a theory of justice to know that the boot on your neck is unjust? You don’t.” But how do you know, not just that you want the boot off your neck, but that it is unjust? Reliably identifying injustice is pretty much the same thing as framing an ideal of perfect justice, understood as that condition in which no boots are on no necks.

23

JimV 08.05.16 at 2:04 pm

Constintine @10 – Thanks for the reply, but I’m not clear on what your objection is. In context, I was using “evolve” in reference to biological evolution. I agree that human technology can be considered a sort of meta-evolution, and that it could theoretically be less path-dependent than biological evolution, but in practice it also seems quite path-dependent to me. Example: the other day as I was walking to a super-market I started counting the number of automobiles passing me in both directions. I got to 100 in less than fifteen minutes, most of them with a single occupant and many of them SUV’s. This is not a very efficient way for humans to use non-renewable energy to travel, but it is what evolved (in your usage).

24

Matt 08.05.16 at 2:19 pm

One obvious problem (that I saw no solution for at all) in the Sen version of this is that certain “local peaks” can be very low indeed. from the valley of slavery, Jim Crow seems like a fine “local peak” to climb. Other examples are easy. Now, the first reply to this is that these are not peaks at all – that the real local peak is somewhere higher. But now we’ve already had to invoke some sort of impartial ideal to solve this dispute. What would work for that? Some sort of mechanism that is at least similar to the veil of ignorance is the most likely choice. Now, this reasoning alone doesn’t get you all the way to Rawls, but I think it shows that there’s something wrong with the general view found in Sen and Gaus. (I haven’t read the new book yet, but have heard some talks and the basic idea is found in his earlier _The Order of Public Reason_, which I had reviewed here

(The general idea goes back at least to Hume, too. In both his version and Hayek’s, as well as Popper’s, it seems pretty clearly empirically refuted to me as well – either that, or else close to vapid, since we can say in any case that seemed to lead to significant moral improvement that the people were, in _that_ case, just climbing a “local peak”, even if the changes seemed radical at the time. )

25

casmilus 08.05.16 at 2:19 pm

“What’s the point of working out a whole theory of a world that is too perfect to get there from here, but not perfect enough that you can learn about perfection by studying it?”

Yes, I’ve never seen the joy of TOJ. Too abstract to be useful in real politics, not abstract enough to be interesting metaphysics.

26

ccc 08.05.16 at 2:53 pm

The mountain metaphor is misleading and redundant.

The basic point, that political philosophy proposals must be largely or fully evaluated it terms of actual wellbeing outcomes, can be made without mountain talk.

For all we know there may be ways ahead to some not merely marginally better social orders that do not involve harmfully dismantling most of present society first. The mountain metaphor excludes that possibility for no good reason.

27

LFC 08.05.16 at 2:57 pm

Is public financing of all political campaigns, something Rawls pretty much explicitly endorses in TJ, impossible or utopian or “too abstract to be useful in real politics”? Maybe if you’re confining the scope of ‘real politics’ to the U.S. post-1975 or so. Otherwise not, I wd say. Do you need a philosophical argument about what justice requires to favor public financing of campaigns? No, but I don’t see that it hurts.

28

jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.05.16 at 3:34 pm

I really like Bring it Home to Me.
Sorry, wrong Rawls.

29

RNB 08.05.16 at 3:39 pm

Lou Rawls? The best is Tobacco Road.

30

shah8 08.05.16 at 8:47 pm

Man, I was ranting to Yglesias on this yesterday when I read that essay…

I totally thought it besides the point, because ideals and ideal worlds don’t act in the real world as some sketched up abstraction everyone makes real. Ideal worlds define social groups, and ideals measures the individual’s commitment to social norms to all others in the group. Utopias sketched out on pen and paper, or sung to the crowd, or whatever, are merely the detritus of the thing, not the thing itself.

Defining what is good, defines what you/your social group is willing to do for it, and how determined/cohesive you/your social group are. If you don’t like Conan/Nazi SS/Soviet Commissar ideals, then of course, of course you’ll see this as a tyranny. So what we’re talking about is the legitimacy of political opposition without actually talking about opposition. Simply by talking about ideals with a level of detail and complexity that insures disagreement. Which, to me, is sort of weird.

31

Lawrence Stuart 08.05.16 at 10:05 pm

If I were working up a critical review of Gauss (and really, at this point in my life you’d have to pay me to read this kind of stuff closely — but that’s me, not he), my angle would involve a critique of his implied Leibnitz-ish theodicy.

Leibnitz needs to believe that only one universe can exist at a time (an entirely plausible supposition given the state of physics in 1710), and that God is good and reasonable and has chosen this universe as the best actual one (perhaps a less plausible supposition, without an extensive metaphysical, not to say theological, framework to sustain it). So the evil that exists in this universe is necessary.

Gauss’ argument, such as my understanding of it, is scaled down from the cosmic to the political. But the cosmic forces are there in the form of plate tectonics — ‘the real’ are the actually existing forces of the political universe pushing up his mountain. For all its rhetorical charms, however, ‘the real’ is a fluid and slippery thing: pluralistic, polyphonic, deeply immersed in the mercurial element of time, and thus difficult in the extreme to distill into a singular point, particularly a point from which to make judgements about what is and what is not a necessary concession to evil (or evils, like injustice).

‘The real,’ in short, serves a function similar to that played by Leibnitz’s metaphysical framework, but without the certainty or the security of an underlying set of universal processes capable of calculating the minimum sum of necessary evil.

32

John Holbo 08.05.16 at 10:55 pm

“The mountain metaphor is misleading and redundant.

The basic point, that political philosophy proposals must be largely or fully evaluated it terms of actual wellbeing outcomes, can be made without mountain talk.”

You are welcome to your own basic point, ccc, but I don’t think you’ve grasped the basic point of the post, or of Gaus’ book.

33

LFC 08.06.16 at 1:31 am

R. argues (in TJ; perhaps he modified this later) that in a just society people will develop the desire to act in ways that keep it running justly; the reach of their moral sentiments (to use the old-fashioned phrase that R uses) will expand from the circle of their friends and associates etc. to encompass everyone once they see that, in a well-ordered society, everyone’s reasonable expectations are being (roughly) met and that there is a reciprocity built in to the arrangements.

“We develop a desire to apply and to act upon the principles of justice once we realize how social arrangements answering to them have promoted our good and that of those with whom we are affiliated. In due course we come to appreciate the ideal of just human cooperation.” (TJ, ’71 ed., 474; emphasis added)

So one way to read the argument, I suppose, is that the contractors in the original position, though constrained by the veil of ignorance and possessed of some ‘sense of justice’, are basically out for themselves, and once they’re living in a well-ordered society they come “in due course” to a ‘higher’ stage of moral development.

Thus the reason, or a reason, that, in the OP’s words, they aren’t “moral jerks” who want to grab everything for themselves is that the experience of living in a just society running on terms of mutuality leads them to “appreciate the ideal of just human cooperation” and to want to support it.

Realistic? Unrealistic? In a way we don’t know, b.c there’s never been a Rawlsian just society (though there may have been some approximations), so the posited expansion/development of the ‘moral sentiments’ and the developing attachment to the “ideal of just cooperation” have never been put to the test. Or so one might argue.

34

ccc 08.06.16 at 10:01 am

John Holbo #32: “You are welcome to your own basic point, ccc, but I don’t think you’ve grasped the basic point of the post, or of Gaus’ book.”

Right, the basic point WORTH MAKING HERE is that political philosophy proposals must be largely or fully evaluated it terms of actual wellbeing outcomes, and that point can be made without mountain talk. The rest of your, Wilkinson’s and (judging only from your/Wilkinson’s descriptions) Gaus’ mountain talk appear misleading and redundant.

Libertarian utopias are pie in the sky because the theory detach from wellbeing outcomes, instead devising perfect-on-paper institutional schemes and dogmatic notions of non-coercion and liberty. Marxian non-exploitation institutional utopias share the same flaw. Both take a big leap of faith that life within those institutions will be great. A political philosophy grounded in wellbeing outcomes curbs such institutional leaps of faith since the ideal is always *constituted* by wellbeing outcomes.

Wilkinson metaphorically uses the real mountain feature that you have to go down the mountain you’re on to go up another higher mountain. Transferred to political philosophy: attempting to get to more ideal justice necessitates an intermediate period of (some? substantial? severe?) injustice. That is misleading because it simply assumes there are no ways ahead to some not merely marginally better social orders that do not involve harmfully dismantling most of present society first. So far no argument by you, Wilkinson or any Gaus argument either of you describe has supported that assumption. Perhaps Gaus has some such argument not yet presented here. Then I’d like to hear it straight, not in mountain metaphors.

Your Rawls ABC mountain metaphor has the same flaw. Why assume that a move from the present A towards Rawls B must go through a period of injustice? If you reply that *your* mountain metaphor wasn’t meant to have *that* feature then why are you engaging in mountain talk at all, seeing that you’ve just removed one of the most prominent real mountain features from your metaphor? Why not simply say “Rawls view isn’t fully realistic but also not fully ideal and such an intermediary theory is not useful”? Why the detour to bizarro mountain metaphor land?

35

John Holbo 08.06.16 at 10:47 am

“That is misleading because it simply assumes there are no ways ahead to some not merely marginally better social orders that do not involve harmfully dismantling most of present society first.”

Sorry, are you assuming that, necessarily (?), there must be a path to a (relatively) ideal world that proceeds through stages, all of which are marginally better than the world we are in?

Look at it this way: suppose you are right and we are so fortunately situated (either necessarily or contingently). Gaus is fine with that. Why not?

“Why the detour to bizarro mountain metaphor land?”

I’m not familiar with this use of ‘bizarro’. I’m more familiar with the one derived from the character in the Superman comic. Are you just saying that ALL metaphors are bizarro? Or all mountains? Or what?

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ccc 08.06.16 at 12:20 pm

“Sorry, are you assuming that, necessarily (?), there must be a path to a (relatively) ideal world that proceeds through stages, all of which are marginally better than the world we are in?”

No, I’m merely saying that the claim (built in to the mountain metaphor) to know that there is *not* such a path need to be supported by argument if we are to accept it.

Note also that the mountain metaphor easily invites the thought of not only a small intermediate setback but the more extreme thought of a necessarily very long move downwards before any move up the higher mountain is possible.

With bizarro I meant (pace Superman!) only discarding mountain metaphor features in a way that makes no sense and is misleading.

37

LFC 08.06.16 at 1:51 pm

ccc @34
Wilkinson metaphorically uses the real mountain feature that you have to go down the mountain you’re on to go up another higher mountain. Transferred to political philosophy: attempting to get to more ideal justice necessitates an intermediate period of (some? substantial? severe?) injustice. That is misleading because it simply assumes there are no ways ahead to some not merely marginally better social orders that do not involve harmfully dismantling most of present society first.

Basically agree w/ this (at least tentatively). I thought I’d made roughly the same point @18 but looking back at my comment there, I see that I was making a somewhat different one.

38

Bob M 08.06.16 at 6:15 pm

This is all too restrictive in thinking about a single society.

In numerical optimization, there’s an alternative to hill climbing called “beam search” – sending multiple independent probes that do a combination of random moves and hill climbing. In practice, this works better at avoiding local optima. You could also use evolutionary algorithms, which try to combine features of various probes and mive non-locally on the optimization landscape.

Neither of these ideas are new in policy. (“The states are laboratories of democracy!”) But once you accept that you can learn about what works other than through direct experience, it undermines his whole thesis. At least, it sounds like it – does anyone who has read the book know what his reply would be?

39

John Finkbiner 08.06.16 at 6:42 pm

I am probably the least well-read participant in this discussion (I have repeatedly failed to get more than 100 pages into A Theory of Justice.) Nevertheless this strikes me as bizarre:

Rawls’ theory is supposed to assume compliance with the demands of justice, unrealistic as that is. But, confusingly, he doesn’t demand that people be morally perfect – heroes, saints. Because that’s unrealistic.

The question Rawls is exploring (as I understand it) is “how should society be structured so that the humans living in that society experience as much justice as possible?” The nature of human beings is taken as a given to be accommodated and accounted for. If human nature is freely changeable in our thought experiment, (as you suggest in the second sentence) we might conclude that the perfect society consists of sessile photo-synthesizers. Perhaps that is true, but it doesn’t illuminate the ideal state of human society.

As to the first sentence in the quoted passage, I don’t think he does make such an assumption. He wants to allow his hypothetical society to adjust the incentives to encourage people to make individual choices that result in greater justice overall. He does assert, as someone pointed out above, that living in a just society will tend to bend human behavior toward justice, but that is a conclusion based on the observation that people tend to adapt to the expectations of the surrounding society.

I hope that makes as much sense as it did in my head.

40

John Finkbiner 08.06.16 at 6:43 pm

I swear I closed that block quote.

41

John Holbo 08.06.16 at 10:53 pm

Fixed your block quote, John.

“The question Rawls is exploring (as I understand it) is “how should society be structured so that the humans living in that society experience as much justice as possible?” The nature of human beings is taken as a given to be accommodated and accounted for. If human nature is freely changeable in our thought experiment, (as you suggest in the second sentence) we might conclude that the perfect society consists of sessile photo-synthesizers.”

Yes, good old Rousseau: take men as they are, laws as they might be. That’s definitely it for Rawls. And Rawls would agree that the point is, as you say, because humans can’t be angels – or photosynthesizers, or whatever. But Estlund and Cohen and I would say, and Gaus would agree (I think): it isn’t so cut-and-dry and tidy. We are imagining ‘full compliance with the demands of justice’. That’s humanly unrealistic. You could say that’s just so we can model what the laws demand, but that’s not so clear. Reading Rawls, we are imagining some not-quite-humans, emerging from their (photosynthetic?) vats of ignorance. Ok, I kid. Try it from the other side. It seems silly to imagine we are all plants. But is it silly to say: there would be more justice if kids had less lead in their systems, ergo the best plan for more justice is lead paint abatement? We don’t need to take men as they are, if men who have licked less lead paint as kids would be more just. It’s … complicated. Now of course ‘it’s complicated’ is not a criticism. Who thought it was going to be simple. But I think it’s fair to say that Rawls, in trying to clarify things, induces a very confusing double-vision. The mix of realism and utopianism is unspecified, unsteady and unclear.

42

John Holbo 08.06.16 at 10:54 pm

Just to clarify the lead paint analogy a bit further. Is it really so silly to imagine somewhat ‘better’ beings than we are, and say: their society would be more just?

43

John Holbo 08.06.16 at 11:08 pm

“Note also that the mountain metaphor easily invites the thought of not only a small intermediate setback but the more extreme thought of a necessarily very long move downwards before any move up the higher mountain is possible.”

I can see the following criticism of the mountain metaphor: it’s so intuitively plausible that one might mistake it for some kind of conceptual truth. But you seem to be objecting that it isn’t plausible. I don’t have a proof that, in order for things to get very substantially better, some basic changes would have to be made, and those would probably be highly uncomfortable, short term. But surely that’s a highly plausible scenario. Right?

44

LFC 08.06.16 at 11:46 pm

John Finkbiner @40

[Rawls] does assert … that living in a just society will tend to bend human behavior toward justice

Yes, specifically it will tend to bend behavior in ways that ensure the just society’s perpetuation. One of G.A. Cohen’s criticisms of Rawls is, roughly, that R. doesn’t demand enough of individuals at the level of day-to-day behavior — R’s principles apply to the ‘basic structure’ of society not to the rules and norms that govern the granularity of daily life and daily decisions. While that’s true, it must be the case that R thinks people can act in ways that either encourage or discourage the just society’s perpetuation. In a just society, he thinks people will develop a desire to act in accordance w what the principles demand — this is (part of) the ‘full compliance’ or ‘strict compliance’ view that J Holbo says is unrealistic. (But as I suggested above, there’s a decent argument that we don’t know whether this part of the strict compliance view is unrealistic or not. But I don’t have time to repeat it now.)

but that is a conclusion based on the observation that people tend to adapt to the expectations of the surrounding society.

Maybe partly, but that is not the main ground for the conclusion that R gives in TJ. The main ground is his view of moral psychology and moral development, which posits that people can get attached to abstract principles in much the same way they can get attached to their friends and associates, once they see that those abstract principles in operation are working to everyone’s benefit. (See Pt 3 where his view of moral psychology is laid out.)

45

js. 08.08.16 at 12:00 am

I *think* a problem with Holbo’s argument against Rawls is that it (implicitly) treats Rawls’ conception of rationality (and reasonableness, if we want to get into the weeds) as separable from what Rawls considers to be ideal theory. But I don’t think they’re actually separable. The focus on “mountain B”, if that’s what it is (and I’m not sure that’s the right way to think of it), is inextricably tied to the rational-constructivist method of Rawls’ philosophical system. Now maybe you think this method is all wrong. But I don’t think you can make the criticism stick as long as you phrase it in these value theory-ish terms (loosely speaking).

Sorry, that’s a bit elliptical. I’ll try to work up the courage for a multi paragraph comment.

46

js. 08.08.16 at 12:11 am

I think it’s useful to think about how for Kant virtue is both ideal and habitus. If you think in proper Aristotelian terms, it’s very weird for something to be both. (Right?) So Kant is doing something weird where something can be a “habit”, or a dispositionally stable mode of acting, but an unachievable ideal at the same time. (It’s the tiniest bit less weird than I’m making it sound. I promise.) I think this is useful when thinking about how Rawls thinks about compliance.

47

LFC 08.08.16 at 1:59 am

js @45/46
I wd be interested in a bit of elaboration of your 45, if you feel like it.

I wd also say that I think the way Holbo formulated his criticism at end of 41 — “The mix of realism and utopianism is unspecified, unsteady and unclear.” — is better than just saying ‘he mixes realism and utopianism and that’s no good’. Not that I nec. agree that the mix is “unsteady and unclear,” but I do see where this criticism is coming from, sort of.

48

Keith 08.08.16 at 2:06 am

Wait, wait, when I was focused on a specific injustice against a Christian couple who ran a bakery, Holbo was telling me to focus more on abstract hypotheticals about an ideal libertarian society. Has Gaus changed Holbo’s mind on this?

49

ccc 08.08.16 at 9:17 am

Rereading the Wilkinson piece.

It is striking how Wilkinson’s practical use (setting aside his personal struggle through decades of damaging dogmatic libertarian delusions) of Gaus seems to be to stamp out everything to the left or right of the US democrat-republican policy acceptability zone: “Encourage your idealistic, third-party-voting progressive and libertarian friends to drop their fantasies of an ideal, radically revised political and economic order and fight instead to protect what we’ve got.”

However the real world is asymmetric because there is the real world, century long success of nothern european social democratic universal welfare states. And the US is in many policy areas the outlier among democratic advanced economies.

Hot take: Wilkinson and the Niskanen Center is an exhibit of Cohen’s kidnapper argument against Rawls on incentives.

A lot of right wing think tank people (Cato Institute-ites, Grover Norquist, …) spend decades and truckloads of corporate money to strategically create political blockages against progressive policies. Then they Vitamin Water rebrand as Niskanen Center – voice of Reasonableness, Reality and Compromise – and deem more than incremental progressive policies unrealistically utopian. Which is made true only as long as the blockages they themselves help uphold are upheld.

How about Will Wilkinson before writing another piece calls up his think tank advisory board member Grover Norquist and ask him to publicly retract a thing or two?

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John Holbo 08.08.16 at 10:46 am

“Holbo was telling me to focus more on abstract hypotheticals about an ideal libertarian society.”

Well, I wouldn’t call it ideal. They were being jerks, if I recall. More seriously: asking hypothetical questions is not the same as acting abstract questions, which is not the same as proposing utopian solutions.

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