Academic Philosophy

Rawls’s Philosophical Project

I initially wrote a post explaining why I think libertarians should take Rawls seriously. But then I realized I understand Rawls pretty differently than most BHL readers. For instance, I think the Difference Principle is dispensable from Rawls’s philosophical project. You probably don’t think this. In fact, when most of you hear “Rawls” you think “Justice as Fairness” and “Difference Principle” (and “crap arguments for statism” and “hideous collectivism about natural talents”).

So in this post, I explain how I understand Rawls’s philosophical project as a whole, not just the particular manifestation of it in A Theory of Justice.

I. Operationalizing Moral and Political Conflict Resolution

I think Rawls had one, big continuous concern throughout his work, from his first major paper in 1951, all the way down through his last articles in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was to answer various versions of the following question Rawls began with in “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics”:

Does there exist a reasonable decision procedure which is sufficiently strong … to determine the manner in which competing interests should be adjudicated, and, in instances of conflict, one interest given preferences over another; and, further, can the existence of this procedure, as well as its reasonableness, be established by rational methods of inquiry?

Rawls was not primarily interested, at least not primarily, in the traditional question of political philosophy articulated by Plato, “What is Justice?” Instead, he was interested in a broader normative question about how to justify rules regulating social conflicts. Rawls observed that we make lots of moral judgments across all aspects of our lives. In many cases these judgments conflict, so people make competing claims and we need some way of resolving them that all can get on board with. We need a method to resolve our disputes that all regard as reasonable and fair.

Rawls’s first insight was that this justificatory question could be answered by converting it into a question in rational choice theory. We convert the justificatory problem into a deliberative problem. In sum, Rawls’s core project is to operationalize moral and political conflict resolution.

II. Morality, Determinacy and the Difference Principle

Importantly, Rawls wanted his decision procedure to give us an account of duties, and really, moral and political obligations. So the decision procedure cannot resolve disputes by appealing to the balance of power between groups; it can’t generate obligations that way, just prudential advice about how to avoid conflict. The decision procedure must therefore be sufficiently fair.

The search for a fair decision procedure led from “Outline” to Theory. Rawls realized over the course of two decades that there was no single way to solve this problem. In economic terms, Rawls saw that there were an infinite number of points on the Pareto frontier, or many distributions of wealth where all Pareto improvements had been made. So he needed a non-arbitrary method of selecting a particular point on the Pareto frontier. That’s how we got this graph from Justice as Fairness: A Restatement:


In the graph, “LAG” stands for “least-advantaged group” and MAG stands for “most-advantaged group.” J is the equal justice line, where primary goods are evenly distributed between both groups. “D” is the difference principle. It selects a distribution where the most-advantaged group has just enough primary goods to maximize the benefits of the least-advantaged. If we give the MAG less, they won’t work as hard, so they won’t maximize the position of the LAG. But if we give the MAG more, then we take from the LAG. So that’s what’s cool about the Difference Principle: it tells us the margin at which to distribute primary goods among society. So it gets us to a determinate point on the Pareto frontier.*

Rawls found the veil of ignorance model attractive because it could generate a principle of justice (the DP) that picks out a point on the Pareto frontier in a way that appears consistent with our** considered moral judgments. In other words, a sufficiently thick veil delivers determinacy. Thus, the OP is the reasonable decision procedure that Rawls had always sought. Institutions based on the two principles would resolve conflicts fairly under favorable conditions.

III. The Model and Problem of Stability

But operationalizing conflict resolution requires a further condition: the solutions generated by just institutions must self-stabilize. A fair equilibrium cannot be imposed by coercive force alone. Instead, individuals must settle on certain patterns of social behavior because they are psychologically motivated by their sense of justice to do so. In other words, the motivation to comply must come from within, based on our moral sense.

In Theory, Rawls thought it fair to assume that under favorable conditions, citizens would share enough beliefs about the human good that they would regard compliance with Justice as Fairness as a proper part of their good in basically the same way. Thus Part III of Theory.

But some time in the 1980s, Rawls realized that his model of stability was implausible. People governed by the two principles would not normally share a conception of the good or a conception of the person. Under free conditions, due to reasonable pluralism, people will tend to disagree about the good and human nature. A dynamic internal to Justice as Fairness will lead some people to reject Justice as Fairness as a proper part of their good, especially if they adopt transcendent, religious conceptions of the good, which may prioritize the achievement of spiritual goals over earthly ones. If so, then the self-stabilizing institutions of a well-ordered society would gradually collapse.

IV. The Road to Political Liberalism and Public Reason

This concern led to Political Liberalism. Rawls argued that it is more realistic to assume that reasonable people would share a conception of the citizen and a conception of society as a cooperative venture for mutual gain.

Remember: Rawls wants to operationalize conflict resolution in a moral fashion. But if reasonable people, trying to be moral, will disagree about what morality and the good require, then the decision procedure must incorporate pluralistic reasoning. That’s why we need an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines: to show that Justice as Fairness, now recast as a political conception of justice, could be stable even if people disagree about their practical reasons for action.

However, once we allow for pluralistic reasoning, the stability conditions become considerably harder to realize. Since people have different conceptions of the good, they are more likely to misunderstand one another, and so more likely to doubt that others are as committed to a conception of justice as they are. Thus, we need a public political language by which we can generate assurances for one another that in fact we are on board with the same conception of justice. That’s what public reason is for Rawls. It is a moral, not legal, restriction on public discourse about constitutional matters meant to provide sufficient assurance to get people to comply with institutions governed by Justice as Fairness.

V. Disagreement about Justice

However, once Rawls made it to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, he had to make another concession. If reasonable people can disagree about the good, surely they can reasonably disagree about justice as well. Note that this problem is worse than dissensus about the good. In cases of disagreement about the good, we still agree on a conception of justice, and so we agree on the object of stability, the set of rules we are to coordinate on despite our disagreements. But if we disagree about justice, we disagree about which coordination point is best!

Our attempt to operationalize conflict resolution has led us to multiple potential equilibria, leaving us with indeterminacy. Woe is Rawls!

Rawls argued that reasonable people will still converge on a range of reasonable liberal political conceptions of justice. These conceptions must share three features: (i) they must identify a certain set of basic liberties, (ii) assign them a special (not lexical) priority and (iii) provide all-purpose means to enjoy the worth of these liberties.

VI. Dispensing with the Difference Principle and Determinacy

NOTICE: the difference principle is not a limitation on the range. In other words, a free and equal people could coordinate on institutional rules not governed by the difference principle. Operationalizing conflict resolution in a moral manner can dispense with the difference principle. That’s why the DP is not essential to Rawls’s project.

After fifty years of searching, Rawls gave up on finding a determinate decision procedure for resolving conflicts in a moral fashion. His project unraveled on its own terms.

VII. Conclusion

So that’s how I understand Rawls. Now, here’s an obvious question: if Vallier thinks Rawls’s project fails, how can he think libertarians should learn from him? The answer, of course, is that failures are instructive. Rawls asked the right foundational questions, I think, and in the next post I’ll try to convince you of this. What I will not do is defend Justice as Fairness. That’s not the part of Rawls worth saving.

*Of course, it’s pretty damn obvious that the DP won’t lead a real economy to be on the Pareto frontier. But Rawls made two really implausible and indefensible empirical assumptions to guarantee that they would (see chain-connection and close-knittedness).

** The meaning of “our” changed. Initially it was supposed to include the judgments of most modern people across the world, but later Rawls restricted it to citizens of liberal democracies.

  • FB

    Great article, although I think it misses a few things. Firstly, no mention of ‘Two concepts of Rules’ (1955) which is a brilliant article attacking utilitarianism and explaining social institutions which Rawls calls ‘practices’.

    Secondly, in writing aToJ Rawls is seeking to construct a compelling normative framework to challenge utilitarianism. He succeeded – most contemporary political philosophy now orientates itself around Rawls.

    Finally, I think Rawls’s account of pure procedural justice is important; justice applies to the basic structure, not individual actions or citizens.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Fair enough. Another early aim is providing an alternative to utilitarianism. Though I think the positive project is the deeper one.

    • Tony

      “Great article, although I think it misses a few things. Firstly, no
      mention of ‘Two concepts of Rules’ (1955) which is a brilliant article
      attacking utilitarianism and explaining social institutions which Rawls
      calls ‘practices’.” That is an excellent comment FB and exactly was I was thinking on this as I read Two concepts of Rules last month.

  • martinbrock

    “… the manner in which competing interests should be adjudicated …”

    Start by legalizing divorce. If my friends and I don’t want a relationship with Barack Obama and his band of merry men, let us go our separate way with only a few of the natural resources that the merry men monopolize.

    I suppose we can end in this manner too.

    • Damien S.

      Total divorce isn’t possible, especially on Earth; we share atmosphere and oceans and groundwater, which we can affect. Plus defense and other externalities.

      • martinbrock

        We may share the cost of our defense as much as we choose to share it, and I suppose you love the Earth as much as I do, so even if total divorce is not possible, I don’t know why we need to be subject to the same rulers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why a few rulers want many subjects.

        • Damien S.

          If, say, Iowa secedes from the US, it doesn’t have to worry about defense from anyone but the US. Given that the US let it secede in this case, Iowa can basically free-ride on the US’s defense spending.

          Air and water pollution, and the overfishing of migratory fish, are real things. “Loving the Earth” doesn’t stop them.

          • martinbrock

            No. Iowa can’t free ride on U.S. defense spending any more than Lebanon can free ride on Israeli defense spending; however, Iowa can avoid the cost of invading Iraq, which doesn’t defend Iowa at all. If Iowa secedes from the U.S., it’ll be defending itself from the U.S. rather than receiving any defensive gifts.

            Endless lip flapping from U.S. politicians doesn’t prevent over fishing either. Politicians in D.C. don’t care more about over fishing than politicians in Maine, even when they say they do and you believe them.

          • Damien S.

            It would be rather difficult for anyone to attack Iowa without going through the US. Landlocked state, you know. And if the US let Iowa secede in the first place why would Iowa need to defend itself from the US?

            I don’t know the mix of state/federal regulations on fishing; OTOH, government regulations do prevent overfishing in some fisheries, at least. I note you skip past air and water pollution.

          • shemsky

            How are environmental concerns an argument against allowing secession? Do you favor a one world government?

          • Damien S.

            They’re an argument against the idea that one can simply ‘divorce’ from other people. We’re all entangled by the ecosystem we share. If you secede and then go pump harmful stuff in the air, that’s our business, not just your business.

            And yes, that logically leads to a world needing one government, at least on environmental issues. The basically global bans on CFCs and agricultural DDT use are halting steps in that direction. Kyoto could have been another. Next might be a consensus to act on global warming, with sanctions to bring rogue nations in line. Or maybe something else entirely.

          • shemsky

            Just like it’s our business if Canada or Mexico pumps harmful stuff into the air over the US, or if they or someone else dumps harmful stuff into the ocean. That doesn’t imply that we have to share the same political institution. There are treaties that can be negotiated between different governments.

          • martinbrock

            Independent, free associations can agree to cooperate, but even without this cooperation, free associations will often act in an apparently cooperative manner. Canadians can’t effectively pump harmful stuff into air over the U.S. without also pumping harmful stuff into the air over Canada, so people in both regions can reach similar conclusions without ever negotiating.

            Pumping stuff into the air can both harm and benefit simultaneously. Damien imagines some wise sovereign ruling the entire Earth, because he imagines this sovereign knowing the consequences of pumping stuff into the air and the correct balance of harm and benefit, and he imagines the sovereign willing to impose the correct balance the correct balance of harms and benefits.

            The problem is that Damien can only imagine this omniscient, omnibenevolent sovereign. He can’t conjure up the sovereign. Libertarians are utopian, sure enough, but we aren’t that utopian.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t imagine the U.S. letting Iowa secede. I don’t care what the U.S. wants Iowans to do.

            Afghans must be surprised to learn that invading a landlocked territory is so difficult.

            I do not fundamentally oppose rules against over fishing, and I didn’t skip past air and water pollution. The principle is the same. The billionaire boys club assembled in D.C. doesn’t actually care more about air and water pollution than people in local communities, even if you believe them when they say they do.

            If anything, I expect a small group of people in D.C. to care less about air and water pollution far from them. All politicians are pathological liars, and the ones furthest from you know necessarily lie the most about conditions in your community, because they couldn’t tell the truth about it if they wanted to.

          • Damien S.

            Landlocked and surrounded by another state. You do know where Iowa is? One cannnot invade it without going through the US. It’s more like Lesotho than Afghanistan.

            DC cared enough about pollution to pass the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and create the EPA. They in fact get things done. Whether they “care more” is less relevant than the fact that they can *do* more. Acid rain is not a problem you can solve in your local community. Neither was ozone hole depletion. Neither is global warming. Or mercury in the fish.

          • martinbrock

            Local communities can regulate CFC emissions, but if you want to revere the rulers in D.C., that’s up to you.

          • Damien S.

            They can regulate the CFC emissions they emit, but that won’t do them any good if they’re the only ones doing it. If Australia banned CFCs while the rest of the world didn’t, Australia would still suffer an ozone hole. Only a global enforced ban could preserve the ozone layer.

            Externalities, man. Or do you deny they exist? That there are actions where I can benefit while the costs are spread among everyone else, or where I would bear the cost while the benefit is spread among everyone else?

          • martinbrock

            A ban enforced globally does not require a single authority enforcing a single ban.

            Externalities do not require a single authority to counteract them, but beneficiaries of an externality can more easily capture a single authority.

          • Damien S.

            “A ban enforced globally does not require a single authority enforcing a single ban”

            True, but it makes it a lot easier. And the Montreal protocol is an agreement among under 200 governments, the size of a large human tribe, or what some have called our psychological ‘monkeysphere’. Sure, negotiations kind of work there at that scale… but that still leaves <200 governments coercively enforcing the ban they agreed to. It's not some anarchist consensus among 7 billion people.

          • martinbrock

            You believe it makes it a lot easier, but the Montreal protocol is not the decree of a single authority in fact.

            Regulating CFCs would never require the agreement of seven billion people, because producing CFCs requires complex specialization and trade.

  • I kind of have a similar conception of “rights”. My theory is basically that “rights” are conflict resolution mechanisms. Which is one of the reasons that “positive” rights generally don’t work. Assigning everyone a right to a minimum amount of a finite resource X (i.e. health care) does nothing to resolve the conflict because you still have no idea what to do when there isn’t enough X to go around. You would have to redefine the right in terms of a share, but then there are certain things that can’t be divided (i.e. half a kidney is no kidney, half a surgery is not a surgery), so end up not resolving the conflict at all.

    One of the things that works best about libertarian theory is that the system of private property rights does provide a clear system for resolving conflicts over resources, which is generally accepted as fair by most people, at leats on a microeconomic level. People may have objections to the macroeconomic outcomes, but when you start to examine those things in micro detail you start to either discover that (a) all the individual exchanges that led to that outcome are fair and it’s now impossible to object to the outcome, or (b) there is clearly something going on that violates the libertarian conception of property rights and free exchange. In which case the outcome should be amended by making the micro-economic transactions more fair.

    • martinbrock

      Do all libertarians share a single conception of property rights? Should we force all libertarians to share a single conception of property rights?

  • Michael Carey

    Thanks, this is one of the best articles I have read on BHL. I look forward to the next post.

  • Hume22

    Kevin, while I appreciate much of your post, I think that the more Rawls/the Rawlsian emphasizes this functional aspect of justice (justice as a problem-solving concept), the more uneasy the theory sits in relation to certain idealizing assumptions (idealized empistemic capacities/rationality, favorable socio-economic-historic conditions, full compliance, etc.). Note that these idealized assumptions are essential in the shape the theory takes and the argumentation provided in support or against certain values/principles/proposals.

  • Andrew Lister

    Hi Kevin,

    That’s a very nice account of Rawls’s trajectory, but let me complicate things a bit with respect to stability. You say:

    “In Theory, Rawls thought it fair to assume that under favorable conditions, citizens would share enough beliefs about the human good that they would regard compliance with Justice as Fairness as a proper part of their good in basically the same way. Thus Part III ofTheory. But some time in the 1980s, Rawls realized that his model of stability was implausible. People governed by the two principles would not normally share a conception of the good or a conception of the person.”

    However, in Part III, the first story Rawls tells about stability has nothing to do with conceptions of the good. Justice as Fairness (including the difference principle) is supposed to be more stable than utilitarianism because its principles fit better with the facts of human psychology. We have an innate tendency to return like for like, a disposition to reciprocity, tit for tat. Rawls thought that this applied at the interpersonal level (e.g. love a child, the child will generally love back), but also organizationally. If everyone views the rules of social institutions as beneficial to themselves, then they will treat other people’s compliance with those rules as a benefit that ought to be reciprocated (by compliance on their part). Rawls thought that institutions governed by his two principles would do better than utilitarianism, on this count, because in a Rawlsian society anyone on the bottom end of an inequality can say “yes, I have a less, but this inequality benefits me,” whereas in a utilitarian society inequalities can be justified because they give more to those who would have more anyways. So his claim was that JAF fits better with the psychology of reciprocity than does utilitarianism.

    The argument could have stopped right there. People growing up in a society ordered according to Rawls’s two principles would develop an effective and appropriate sense of justice – that’s the claim of the first stability argument. But Rawls didn’t stop there. He went to to discuss the question of congruence. Would I, the typical person in such a society, upon reflection, think it a good thing that I had this sense of justice – a good thing for me, that is? This part of the argument has been controversial, e.g. Brian Barry questioning whether we should really have to demonstrate that it is good for me, for me to have a sense of justice. (cf. Glaucon and Adeimantus in Bk 2 of Republic). It is also here that Rawls made overly restrictive assumptions about conceptions of the good. Earlier in Theory, in the discussion of the circumstances of justice and in the discussion of freedom of conscience, Rawls had assumed that a well-ordered society would be pluralistic. This was one of the main reasons for the original position – to give us a method of reasoning together about what justice requires, despite our foundational religious and philosophical disagreements (thus establishing the bonds of civic friendship). Here, however, in the argument from congruence, Rawls relied too heavily on a Kantian conception of the person – the view, roughly, that what gives me my dignity is my capacity to act for reasons rather than on impulse, reasons that I endorse based on critical reflection. From this point of view, the two principles and the original position method express my true nature as a free moral agent. This is the “be all you can be” interpretation of Justice as Fairness. But obviously this argument isn’t going to work for every reasonable religious or philosophical point of view – hence the need for overlapping consensus, which is a matter of pluralistic congruence.

    Still, the first stability argument based on the psychology of reciprocity is important, and it brings the difference principle into play.

    Look forward to post 2!

    • Kevin Vallier

      Andrew, thanks for commenting. Always great to have smart philosophers and theorists chime in. You’re right about Part III having two kinds of argument, but I still think the idea of congruence matters for the first type of argument in cases where people may decide their conceptions of the good override the psychological principles that make JaF more stable than utilitarianism. So maybe the first argument you outline holds given a suppressed premise brought out later: namely that our practical reasons to pursue a conception of the good don’t outweigh the psychological principles that lead JaF to be more stable.

  • marklebar

    Kevin, this is brilliant! I think it is the best thing I’ve read from you. Thanks for the synopsis!

  • John P. McCaskey

    Yes, for his whole career, the foundational presumption for Rawls is that the interests of rational and self-interested people conflict. If, however, Ayn Rand was correct, the interests of rational and self-interested people do not conflict and Rawls’ project can’t get started or if started will collapse. For Rawls we need a way to protect ourselves from self-interested people acting rationally. For Rand we need a way to protect ourselves from self-interested people acting irrationally. For Rawls, rational people are a threat to me, always trying to take my stuff. For Rand it’s irrational people who are a threat to me.

    If Rawls is wrong on this, everything in his system, not just the DP, needs to be reworked before it can support a welfare state or modern liberalism or BHL.

    • Damien S.

      How did Ayn Rand solve the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

      • John P. McCaskey

        It’s one of countless no-win situations rational people avoid getting themselves into.

      • Michael Philip

        The Prisoner’s Dilemma itself requires accepting a contradiction (existence by force vs existence by reason), and when you start with a contradiction, you are going to get a dilemma.

    • good_in_theory

      But Rand is wrong and Rawls is right: Rational and self-interested people do enter conflict with one another; so no worries.

    • John,

      I listened to the interview you did with Diana Hsieh, in which you similarly stressed the importance of the conflict-of-interest view for Rawls’ overall system.

      I do agree with you that an important point of contrast between classical liberals and (some) on the left, is the degree to which they see human interaction as marked by conflict rather than confluence of interest. But I wonder how well the point really applies to Rawls. One of his most famous claims in the early part of Theory of Justice, for instance, is that society is a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage.” He goes on to say that:

      although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share.

      And I guess this seems just right to me. Society is not all conflict, but it is not all confluence either. Sometimes our interests converge, and sometimes they conflict. Sometimes they even converge and conflict in the very same situation. So, for instance, suppose I have a house that I’d be willing to sell for anywhere between $600k and $650k, and which you’d be willing to buy for anywhere between $575k and $625k. There is a possibility for mutually beneficial trade here – a trade anywhere between $600 and $625 will be in both of our interests. Even so, it is in my interests that the trade take place somewhere closer to $625k, and in your interests that it take place somewhere closer to $600.

      So neither the “all conflict” or “all confluence” view seems correct, and Rawls seems to have the more correct in-between view.

      • John P. McCaskey

        You’d sell for $600, I’d pay $625. OMG! We have a conflict of interest!

        Not really.

        You have left out the crucial fact in the story. For both of us, of higher interest than the price is that we both act voluntarily. Contra Rawls, it’s not in my interest for you to be forced to take $600 or in your interest if I were forced to pay $625.

        Also of higher interest than the final price is, for you, that you get at least $600 for it and, for me, that I pay less than $625.

        And our agreeing to haggle itself has a value.

        There are then many values and disvalues in the haggling besides the final price — impatience, fear of losing to another bidder, risk-aversion, knowledge or ignorance of the other’s concerns, time available to becoming a good negotiator, secondary financial considerations, payment terms, etc.

        If we agree at $620, who lost? Our highest common interest — voluntary trade — was met. Our common secondary interests were met: We haggled, you got more than $600, I paid less than $625, and we made the trade.

        I paid $20 more than I would have had you offered it for $600; you got $5 less than if I’d offered $625. But you didn’t, and I didn’t, and we agreed to haggle — and thereby found dollar values for our respective impatience, fear of losing to another bidder, risk-aversion, knowledge or ignorance of the others’ concerns, time dedicated to becoming a good negotiator, secondary financial considerations, payment terms, etc.

        In this case, the haggling itself was in our respective interests and is accounted for in the final price.

        I went to the store the other day and bought butter for $6. Had it been marked $7, I’d have paid that. The manager could have made a profit at $5. OMG! A conflict of interest! — No, we each assigned some value to the convenience and benefits of trading at marked prices.

        Now back to Rawls’ language. Was I “indifferent to how the greater benefits produced by our collaboration are distributed”? Only if we take the trade sufficiently out of context, something we shouldn’t do.

        But more importantly, what is meant by Rawls’ “distributed”?

        What was of higher interest to the grocer and me, higher than the price, was that our trade was voluntary. Rawls means to say that the grocer and I would sacrifice the voluntariness in order to be given some benefit that could not be obtained in free trade.

        And, Rand says, it would not be in a rational person’s self-interest to do that.

        Now whether my explication on Rand here is accurate or not, the major claim stands: If she is correct that there is no conflict of interest among rational people, then Rawls’ edifice falls apart. Rand at least presented an argument for her position. Rawls just took his for granted. (For Rand, see “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests” in Virtue of Selfishness, or various secondary sources; this is an aspect of her system frequently enough noted.)

        • Hi John,

          I’ve read Rand’s essay on this, and a good deal of the secondary literature. But it’s always struck me as one of the less plausible elements of her system, and I think that’s true for a number of people who are (like me) broadly quite sympathetic to Rand’s view. There’s a good insight there, but Rand overstates it. There is not as much conflict of interest as many people assume in human interaction, but there’s not zero conflict either, even between just the rational people.

          Let’s continue with the example that I gave in my original comment, and that you developed in your response. You say that in addition to having an interest in the final negotiated price, the parties have other interests as well. They have, you say, an interest that the exchange be voluntary. And we have an interest in arriving at a price somewhere within the bargaining zone of $600k to $625k.

          But even if I grant both of these claims, it is not clear to me how they undermine the point I was trying to make. That point, again, was not that the interests of the parties are completely opposed, but only that they are partially so. That is, their interests overlap to some extent, and conflict to some extent. So, in this particular example, we both have an interest in negotiating voluntarily and in arriving at an agreement somewhere between $600k and $625k. But even still, it is in my interest for the final negotiated price to be somewhere closer to $625k, and in yours for it to be somewhere closer to $600k. And so, as rational individuals, we will act in ways that reflect these interests. I might act in ways that lead you to believe that my reservation price is higher than it really is. You might act in ways that lead me to believe that your BATNA is better than it actually is, and so on. People use bargaining tactics like this not because they are irrational, but because they are rationally responding to a real (but partial!) conflict of interests that is inherent in the bargaining process.

          I’m pushing the limits of reasonable length for a blog comment already, so I won’t tie this back into Rawls for now. But we can come back to him later in the conversation if you wish. For now I just want to establish the point about the possibility (and indeed reality!) of partial conflicts of interest between rational persons.


          • John P. McCaskey

            Distinguish goals and interests. All the runners have the goal of winning the gold medal, but all share an interest in seeing the prize go to the fastest. We may both have the goal of winning Barbara Ann’s hand in marriage, but we have a common interest in letting her choose. I have a goal of paying little and you have a goal of charging much, but we share an interest in haggling to a voluntary exchange.

            Whether there is competition, as in these cases, or not, what makes a goal valuable is how it is achieved.

            Rawls wrongly assumes values are intrinsic when he says, “for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share.” Take that out and keep the previous clause, “persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed.” OK, let’s accept that. Persons are not indifferent. It is in their best interests that the benefits be distributed voluntarily, i.e., by the voluntary acts of each party in each trade. And then scratch Rawls’ erroneous conclusion, “There are conflicts of interest.” Finished. He could have ended the book on page 4.

            If values really were intrinsic and not objective, then OK, maybe Rawls’ system would be as good as any alternatives. Maybe there’d be less blood and gore. Maybe. But the point is irrelevant. Values are not intrinsic.

          • How do you define “interest” such that I don’t have an interest in getting more money for my house rather than less?

            I agree that in some cases, what matters is how a goal is achieved, not just that it is achieved. If I am sick, and have a goal of becoming healthy, I am much more concerned that the goal is achieved than in how it is achieved. Of course, I think it would be morally wrong for me to obtain a cure by violating another person’s rights. But even there, I would not say that it wouldn’t be in my interest to obtain the cure by violating the person’s rights. Rather, I would say that it would be wrong for me to obtain the cure by violating another’s rights despite the fact that doing so would be in my interest. I understand, however, that a Randian would say that I am operating with a improperly narrow understanding of “interest.” And in some cases, that seems a plausible critique. What strikes me as implausible is the universal, absolute claim – that it is never in my interest to gain at another’s expense, no matter how great my need, and no matter how small the expense for the other person.

          • John P. McCaskey

            The distinction is between actually valuable and potentially so. Getting more for your house is potentially valuable. But the potential will only be actualized if you don’t give up a higher value in pursuit of this one.

            On the implausibility you mention: (1) Property rights are secondary to the right to life and should be codified in objective laws. It may be that some of the situations you imagine are properly covered in de minimus provisions. (2) Rand’s claim is about interactions between rational people. For rational people in the right situations, charity is a virtue. It sounds like you have such situations in mind.

        • John P. McCaskey

          The distinction is between actually valuable and potentially so. Getting more for your house is potentially valuable. But the potential will only be actualized if you don’t give up a higher value in pursuit of this one.

          On the implausibility you mention: (1) Property rights are secondary to the right to life and should be codified in objective laws. It may be that some of the situations you imagine are properly covered in de minimus provisions. (2) Rand’s claim is about interactions between rational people. For rational people in the right situations, charity is a virtue. It sounds like you have such situations in mind.

      • Michael Philip

        So, there is a range of house prices at which a deal might be struck. That just means that the buyer won’t be sacrificing at any price up to $625k, and the seller won’t be sacrificing at any price above $600k. With any price between these two values, inclusive, both the buyer and the seller will go home thinking they are better off than they were before the deal. That means there’s $25k in “gravy money” here that will be divided between the buyer and seller depending on who is the better negotiator. They buyer will try hard not to divulge his highest acceptable price, and the seller will try hard not to divulge his lowest acceptable price.

        When the deal is struck, both parties believe they got the best possible deal from the other party — because any better possible deal has been hidden from them.

        Imagine this conversation after the deal:

        Seller: “So, how high would you have gone?”
        Buyer: “10 grand higher than you settled for. How low would YOU have gone?”
        Seller: “15 grand lower than you bought at.”
        Buyer: “Really? Then give me the 15 grand!”
        Seller: “No way! You give me the 10 grand!”

        Fisticuffs ensue.

        Absurd? Of course, because the entire deal has been predicated on a respect for each individual’s right to his own property, and that includes a right to keep hidden exactly how much of that property he might be willing to trade for another person’s property.

        A negotiation is not a fight. It’s a search for a mutually agreeable price, where the *range* of agreeable prices is not shared ahead of time. It’s a sort of dance where both parties start out at their best possible price, and the two prices converge until they end up meeting, or not.

        Each party in the trade is saying, effectively, to the other: “do you want what I have enough to meet my price?” The more patient party usually ends up with the best deal.

        One might *wish* that negotiation were an unnecessary skill, but it *is* necessary, and the money it *earns* is precisely that. The “gravy money” is not a collective product that both parties fight over. It’s money the buyer initially owns, and which the seller earns some of from the buyer based on how well he can negotiate.

  • David Friedman

    Thanks–you have saved me the effort it would have taken to research Rawls on my own in order to see if my view of him is unfair.

    On my blog a while back, I commented that what intrigued me about both Rawls and Rand was the claim to have solved Hume’s is/ought problem. A commenter objected that Rawls made no such claim. It sounds from what you write as though he at least made a claim close to that, although he eventually retracted it–claimed that there was a way in which rational people could reach agreement on normative questions.

    His central question as you describe it is one I have been thinking about for nearly as long as he did, although I started doing so a decade or so later–and reached the same conclusion a good deal earlier. I can see that even an unsuccessful project in philosophy might be of interest to philosophers–along analogous lines, I like to describe _The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior_ as the most impressive failure of the 20th century, a failed attempt by an extraordinarily brilliant mathematician to solve the puzzle of strategic behavior and thus a whole lot of important problems across a range of fields.

    But I do not see why a philosopher who concluded that the project was unsuccessful and that the initial claimed success depended on an indefensible line of argument (the derivation of the difference principle), should be reluctant to class people who took that line of argument seriously with people who took indefensible lines of libertarian argument seriously. Which I think is where Rawls entered the extended exchange between me and you and several of your fellow bloggers across both our blogs and a few other places.

    • matt b

      Do you not believe that rational people can reach agreement on normative questions?

      • David Friedman

        They can reach agreement in the sense of “these are the terms I’m willing to interact with you on.” I don’t think they can reach agreement in the sense of “for these reasons, any rational person must agree about what are the correct answers to normative questions.”

        • matt b

          Okay, I appreciate the answer.

    • Chad Horne

      The problem of moral justification and the is/ought problem are different problems. On some forms of naturalism, I suppose, the problems are equivalent. But Rawls was not a naturalist. He had a view of moral justification but that view was not meant to be a response to the is/ought problem. In fact, in “The Independence of Moral Theory” Rawls argues that we don’t need to wait on the resolution of epistemological, semantic, or metaphysical questions in order to do moral philosophy. I don’t think he was ever worried about the is/ought problem.

      I would also point out that the second sentence of Vallier’s post says “I think the Difference Principle is dispensable from Rawls’s philosophical project.” And yet you oddly seem to interpret this post as further support for your view that Rawls’s “failed” argument for the difference principle bankrupts his entire project. That is an odd conclusion to draw.

      • David Friedman

        “And yet you oddly seem to interpret this post as further support for
        your view that Rawls’s “failed” argument for the difference principle
        bankrupts his entire project.”

        That wasn’t my point. I was interpreting the project as a failure on the basis of “His project unraveled on its own terms.”

        I was raising the difference principle in the context of the argument, part of it on my blog, about whether the “cartoon libertarian” post (by a different blogger here) exhibited a double standard, criticizing libertarians who accepted bad arguments in a way in which the poster was not willing to criticize liberals who accepted a bad argument from a famous academic philosopher.

        • Kevin Vallier

          David, thanks for your comments. I’ll try to remember to address some of your points in my next post.

  • TracyW

    This is interesting. I haven’t read Rawls first hand, just summaries of his theories, and I’ve always thought that the religious person asserting that the greatest good was devoting your life to God would be a spanner in the works of any veil of ignorance discussion. I hadn’t realised he’d had basically the same thought.

  • Chad Horne

    I do not understand your first asterisk: What do you mean when you say, “it’s pretty damn obvious that the DP won’t lead a real economy to be on the Pareto frontier”? I don’t see how that can be obvious unless you think it’s just generally impossible to stay on the Pareto frontier. (It probably is, for any sustained period of time). I don’t see why it should be any harder to achieve the point on the Pareto frontier where the least-advantaged do best than to achieve any other Pareto-optimal point.

    Maybe you think Rawls’s “property-owning democracy” won’t be efficient in the sense of Pareto-optimal, but property-owning democracy is not the difference principle and the difference principle does not require property-owning democracy. In fact, if the least-advantaged do worse under property-owning democracy than they would under free-market capitalism, then the difference principle requires free-market capitalism (subject to the constraints of the other principles of justice, of course). The DP just says we must aim for the point on the Pareto frontier where the least-advantaged do best; it is silent on the question of how we should get there.

  • Guest

    I’d like to take issue with these concluding claims:

    “That’s why the DP is not essential to Rawls’s project.”

    “His project unraveled on its own terms.”

    I disagree with these claims because: (a) I don’t think that Rawls had a single monolithic ‘project’, but rather a number of (closely related but distinct) projects; and (b) I don’t think that Rawls’s main projects ‘unravelled’ (and I certainly don’t think that Rawls ever thought that they did).

    Regarding (a). While one aspect of the ‘stability argument’ in part III of TJ (viz. the ‘congruence argument’) is what prompted Rawls’s move to political liberalism (much to the chagrin of some commentators like Brian Barry, as Andrew Lister notes), the revisions that Rawls introduced in order to ‘fix’ this aspect of his stability argument never led him to reject justice as fairness (including the difference principle) as the most justified conception of justice. Indeed, in Justice as Fairness (A Restatement), Rawls introduces some new arguments based on reciprocity to support the difference principle.

    What the failure of the ‘congruence argument’ did do is lead Rawls to became concerned with political *legitimacy*. And as Rawls explained in PL, the concepts of justice and legitimacy, while related, are distinct. Moreover, legitimacy is a less demanding criterion than that of justice (a society’s ‘basic structure’ can be legitimate without being fully just.

    So Rawls came to have (at least) two (related) projects: (i) a ‘justice’ project (the one from TJ, which was only slightly modified in later writings, and which *never* involved a rejection of the difference principle); and (ii) a ‘legitimacy’ project (the one that emerged in PL, and which allowed for a plurality of ‘reasonable’ conceptions of justice, whilst retaining a commitment to justice as fairness as the ‘most reasonable’ one).

    Regarding (b). Your main claim seems to be that Rawls’s ‘legitimacy project’ showed that his ‘justice project’ failed (given that Rawls eventually came to concede the legitimacy of a plurality of reasonable conceptions of justice). I think that this is incorrect, or at least I don’t think that any Rawlsian (and certainly not Rawls!) would understand Rawls’s trajectory in this way. Rather, Rawls came to see that justice alone is insufficient for a political theory – we need a theory of legitimacy as well. Acknowledging that legitimacy is important and distinct from (though related to) justice does not mean that justice is no longer important.

    So Rawls continued to think that the arguments (especially those from reciprocity) best supported justice as fairness, while conceding the importance of legitimacy. Rawls’s ‘justice project’ became *supplemented* by – *not* replaced by – his ‘legitimacy project’. And neither ‘unravelled’ (or so I think, but then I’m a pinko Rawlsian!).

    • Blain

      The above post was by me (I had trouble signing in).

    • Kevin Vallier

      I grant that Rawls always thought that justice as fairness was the most reasonable member of the family of reasonable liberal political conceptions. So in that sense, he never completely abandoned his arguments in TJ. But at times he even seems skeptical that he can demonstrate that JaF is the most reasonable, just that it is reasonable. But if so, then given Rawls’s broader constructivist ambitions, the DP because a much less central part of the main project. Even the justice project, if we make that sharp distinction you suggest, since a conception of justice must be able to be stable for the right reasons.

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