Archive for the ‘Rawls’ Category

Belief in freedom of the will has many beneficial consequences. Lab experiments have shown that people reading deterministic, anti-free will statements are more likely subsequently to cheat in their own favor. Researchers have even identified some of the chemical processes in the brain associated with diminished belief in free will:

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action. In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Philosophers have long debated whether moral responsibility requires a belief in freedom of the will. The case in favor holds that “ought implies can.” We only have the obligation to do things that it is under our power to do. Therefore, if it is not under our power to acbrain_regionst otherwise, we cannot have any obligation to do so. Apparently, this view is widespread.

Belief in free will may also have desirable political externalities. Determinist pragmatist John Dewey claimed that bad, old liberalism (what we here at Pileus would consider the good kind) was based on a misguided metaphysics of free will plus outdated social and economic models:

Insistence upon a metaphysical freedom of will is generally at its most strident pitch with those who despise knowledge of matters-of-fact. They pay for their contempt by halting and confined action. Glorification of freedom in general at the expensive of positive abilities in particular has often characterized the official creed of historic liberalism. Its outward sign is the separation of politics and law from economics. Much of what is called the “individualism” of the early nineteenth century has in truth little to do with the nature of individuals. It goes back to a metaphysics which held that harmony between man and nature can be taken for granted, if once certain artificial restrictions upon man are removed. Hence it neglected the necessity of studying and regulating industrial conditions so that a nominal freedom can be made an actuality. Find a man who believes that all men need is freedom from oppressive legal and political measures, and you have found a man who, unless he is merely obstinately maintaining his own private privileges, carries at the back of his head some heritage of the metaphysical doctrine of free-will, plus an optimistic confidence in natural harmony.

Source: John Dewey on Education, ed. Reginald D. Archambault (U of Chicago P), pp. 82-83

What a classic statement of turn-of-the-last-century pragmatist progressivism! What confidence in the ability of “politics and law” to “regulat[e] industrial conditions,” and in the obsolescence of “historic” traditions and beliefs!

Something of this view persists in modern-day progressivism as well. John Rawls’ difference principle, which is typically taken to justify a redistributive state, is based on the notion that no one deserves what she earns in the market, since differential skills, talents, work ethic, and even moral character are all unearned and therefore “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” We can throw all the outcomes of those characteristics into a big social pot and then reason about what to do with that pot.

Law professor John Pfaff makes a similar argument in defense of the PPACA:

Likely part of our opposition to viewing health care as a social good stems from the deep-seated libertarianism that runs through much of our political discourse. (It seems fair to say that even the American left is more libertarian than its European counterparts.) We view our money as our own (“I built it!”), and so if someone wants to take it—to, say, provide insurance for the less well-off—the justification burden is high. But there are two problems with that argument, one general and one perhaps more specific to health care issues.

More generally, our liberatarianism is likely tied to our perceptions that our economy is a meritocracy. Of course, we grossly overstate the degree of intergenerational mobility (the “American Dream” is more alive in Sweden than here), but there is an even deeper problem with the libertarian/meritocratic perspective: to a perhaps-disturbing degree, meritocracies reward generic lotteries.

In our economy, smart people rise to the top, but those smart people didn’t earn their intelligence, they were born with it. And to the extent that it was nurtured and cultured, that is due to their parents (since the returns on education are greatest when we are quite young, and thus before we are making many decisions on our own). And that work ethic? Again, significantly genetic and parental.

It’s true: you really didn’t build it, or at least not all of it. Which isn’t to argue for some sort of completely-leveling socialist state. Incentives are important, and those who take risks need rewards to compensate them. But once we realize that meritocracies are largely genetic and birth-parent lotteries, the moral claim on wealth becomes a bit weaker on the margin, and the moral argument for taking care of the less-lucky-in-birth becomes stronger.

But what happens to people who believe that everything about them, down to their own work ethic and their moral character, is unearned? According to psychology experiments, they slack off. They lie, cheat, and steal. And they vote for big government.

By contrast, conscientiousness, which depends on a strong belief in one’s own efficacy, correlates strongly with academic and economic success. I can’t help but wonder whether this might be an omitted variable driving an observed correlation between income and voting behavior, controlling for education, in Western democracies. Higher-income people are more economically liberal in the “historic” sense. I doubt that is due to selfishness so much as a belief that everyone can do better by trying harder. That belief drives both classical liberalism and success in life.

So the question is: Is freedom of the will a noble lie? I argue that it’s not. (more…)

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In Free Market Fairness, political philosopher John Tomasi sets forth a new research program in normative political theory that he calls “market democracy.” Market democracy triangulates orthodox libertarianism and social-democratic, egalitarian liberalism and, Tomasi hopes, provides a principled moral grounding for a moderate classical liberalism that has room for both a modest welfare state and a vigorous, competitive, free-market economy. Tomasi’s book is innovative — and, I should note, more readable than most contemporary political philosophy. The arguments he develops here pose important challenges to both “left” (social democrats) and “right” (traditional libertarians), and so it should be widely read.

The book is most effective in making the case that “justice as fairness” and a robust concern for basic economic liberties are not necessarily contradictory. At the same time, the book’s sketch of market democracy–and more specifically, “free market fairness,” the justificatory edifice for market democracy that Tomasi endorses–leaves many details unexplored and is unlikely on its own to persuade traditional libertarians and Rawlsian/egalitarian liberals to abandon their long-held commitments. Tomasi views the book’s purpose as an ice-breaker, opening up new waters for exploration, and it should be read in that light, not as a comprehensive treatise.

I. Approach

Tomasi directs most of his arguments toward left-liberals, not libertarians. He aims to persuade them of two things: a) that some economic liberties are fundamental rights that every just society must guarantee to all; b) that at the level of ideal theory, market democratic regimes (he identifies two ideal types, “democratic limited government” and “democratic laissez faire”) are on a level with Rawls’ egalitarian regimes (“liberal socialism” and “property-owning democracy”) when it comes to their capacity to realize legitimate, egalitarian social goals, such as the maximization of the wealth of the representative poorest worker. Tomasi does not claim anything so facile as, “The free market is the best way to realize Rawlsian objectives.” Rather, Tomasi argues that Rawlsian objectives are flawed insofar as they ignore fundamental rights to own property and engage in exchange that are critical to authorship of one’s own life plan. Further, once we have sussed out the true requirements of justice as fairness, we find that free-market regimes can be designed plausibly so as to aim at meeting those requirements.

Tomasi also claims not to be merely splitting the difference between orthodox libertarianism a la Nozick or Rothbard and Rawlsian egalitarian liberalism (xix). On the question of methodology, Tomasi comes down firmly on the side of Rawls. (more…)

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At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier has an interesting piece on the failure of “Enlightenment libertarianism” and the case for “post-Enlightenment libertarianism.” While I agree fully with Dr. Vallier’s critique of libertarian dogmatism in the Randian and Rothbardian modes, I have considerably more difficulty with the public-reason liberalism he associates with “post-Enlightenment” thinking.

You can’t prove a complete political or moral philosophy apodictically from self-evident axioms. That much is obvious. Somewhere along the way, you are going to have to make contestable assumptions. What Rand, Rothbard, and deductivist dogmatists of all stripes forget is a basic Humean (Enlightenment thinker!) humility about what reason is really good for. Reason helps us check whether arguments are valid, following inevitably from their premises, and whether premises are more or less likely to be true, by matching them against our observations of the external world or our internal moral compass (intuition). But any set of statements that is self-evidently or necessarily true is not going to have much substantive import or be widely applicable to the world we experience. The role of moral and political philosophy should therefore be to make clear the assumptions on which different normative judgments must rest and to assess the plausibility of those assumptions. Like any other political philosophy, libertarianism rests on contestable assumptions — ones I happen to regard as fairly plausible, but contestable nevertheless.

But what about “public reason” methodology — does that allow us a way out of the limitations inherent to intuition and deduction? As Dr. Vallier puts it: “The post-Enlightenment view still aspires to show that our diverse reasoning can lead us to converge on public principles that protect human freedom, but its aspirations are chastened. The fact of reasonable pluralism explains why many liberals have become public reason liberals, because treating others as free and equal requires admitting that the free use of practical reason leads in many different directions.”

As someone who occasionally reads contemporary political philosophy but is far from an expert, my novice’s take is that public-reason liberalism does not give us much purchase on controversial moral questions in Western societies. To the extent that public-reason philosophers are merely making modus vivendi, Augsburg-style arguments for liberalism, those arguments are potentially valuable as far as they go, but they cannot go far. Of course, public-reason theorists don’t think they are making mere modus vivendi arguments. But the more they diverge from mere modus vivendi argument (which has to be guided by empirical research, I might add), the more they tread into controversial moral territory of the “bad, old Enlightenment” rationality.

Take Rawls’ Political Liberalism for example. It’s been over a decade since I’ve read it, but I recall finding it far less persuasive than A Theory of Justice. Rawls, you change your methodology radically and just happen to end up reaching almost exactly the same conclusions (albeit with less scope for liberty)? Come on! There seem to be numerous controversial moral assumptions sneaked into his argument despite the overt concern for overlapping consensus among moral communities that radically disagree. Rawls’ theory of justice couldn’t even find overlapping consensus among the members of his own department.

So it seems to me we are stuck with the bad, old way of reasoning because there is no alternative. But certainly a little humility and open-mindedness are in order.

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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Andrew Breitbart has posted a video (HT: Phil Arena) showing liberal, pro-income-redistribution students rejecting out of hand the concept of redistributing grade point averages (GPAs) from the best-performing students to those less fortunate, saying things like “It’s not fair” and “I worked for my grades.” Does their position constitute hypocrisy, and does this experiment show that something like the libertarian conception of property rights (“from each as she chooses, to each as she is chosen”) is somehow more “natural” to us humans? One argument might go something like this: Being committed to income redistribution requires being committed to redistribution of grades. Being committed to redistribution of grades is unlikely to be justified. Therefore, being committed to income redistribution is unlikely to be justified.

To put some flesh onto the problem, it’s useful to narrow down possible justifications for redistribution, so I’ll focus on John Rawls’ Difference Principle, which states that all inequalities in a society must work to the advantage of the representative least well off person in that society. In other words, the baseline assumption should be perfect equality, and deviations from equality (in income, wealth, prestige, and anything that might constitute “social bases of self-respect”) have to be justified by their benefit to all. One common objection (see, e.g., Lomasky’s Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community) to Rawls’ Difference Principle is that it would require the more physically attractive or talented to compensate the less attractive or talented. Rawls’ prior Equality Liberty Principle potentially prohibits actual redistribution of body parts, but Rawls is certainly open to redistribution of wealth from those who enjoy psychic benefits from their natural abilities and characteristics to those who are less well off psychically. There is nothing in Rawls’ Difference Principle that limits unjust inequalities to uncompensated financial inequalities.

Breitbart’s experiment seems to me to raise similar concerns. One’s intelligence and hard work may yield financial rewards, but they also yield psychic benefits. Obtaining a high GPA confers prestige, status, and a greater sense of self-esteem. No one “deserves” intelligence or a penchant for hard work, since these are things we’re either born or raised with. So should GPAs be redistributed? One might object on practical grounds. Redistribution of GPAs might discourage student effort (but redistribution of income also discourages worker effort). Redistribution of GPAs might interfere with correct productivity assessments in the marketplace (but so might redistribution of income, since it is always accomplished through a highly complex tax code). Even if these practical objections decide us against redistributing grades, if we are committed to the Difference Principle, we must remain in principle committed to compensating those who earn lower GPAs for their “unfair” disadvantages (perhaps financially). If we find this conclusion absurd, then so must we find the Difference Principle.

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