Seconds of Desert

Wednesday’s TCS piece on the desert seems to be getting around and eliciting some useful discussion. Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Betram takes me to task for (1) writing for TCS and (2) misrepresenting Rawls. There’s good debate in the comments.

Let me say that I’m very flattered that Chris thinks I am a mind of sufficient quality to lend what he takes to be undeserved intellectual legitimacy to TCS’s enterprise.

This very fact [that WW has a column up at TCS] is regrettable, since Wilkinson is smarter, saner, and more interesting that the average TCS columnist and hence will serve to cover-up — somewhat — the nakedness of this astroturf operation.

And then again:

One of the functions of columns at TechCentralStation is to pander to the psychological needs of a certain stratum of society — gas-guzzling SUV? No need to feel guilty, global warming is a myth ! — but such pandering would be rather unseemly coming from a political philosopher of Wilkinson’s ability, and I’m sure it wasn’t what he intended.

I’m touched (not joking) by Chris’s charitable estimation of my abilities, but, of course, I’m not thrilled to be pegged as a dupe and a shill. And, as they say, “some of my best friends” write for TCS. Anyway, I’ll leave aside the charge that I’m playing a (unwitting?!) part in reinforcing the false ideological consciousness of the ruling class, and just thank Chris for making me feel as though my productions matter more than I could realistically hope.

As to the substantive objection to my piece, Chris writes:

There are no doubt one or two sentences in A Theory of Justice that encourage such an interpretation. But, as Wilkinson surely knows, the argument in which Rawls asserts that “no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society” (which Wilkinson cites, selectively, from the first edition of ToJ) concerns the choice of a co-operative scheme for a whole society. In the passage in question Rawls is not addressing the question of whether those who are better-endowed with natural assets or who have “superior character” ought to get more within a co-operative scheme, he’s writing about whether their better endowment ought to be reflected in the choice of scheme under which they co-operate with others. And his answer is, that no, the more talented have no special right to have their interests given greater weight than those others.

First, I want to make clear that I did not intend to write a piece of Rawls exegesis. Whether or not Chris is right in his interpretation of the import of Rawls’s argument about desert in ToJ, it cannot be denied that many people have read Rawls as making a philosophical argument intented to undermine claims of desert generally, have been influenced by this argument, and have made it part of their dialectical arsenal. I was specifically addressing Yglesias’s thoughts on the matter, which I took to be representative of a certain class of philosophically sophisticated welfare liberals. Matt indicates in the comments of Chris’s post that he takes my reading of Rawls to be the “natural” one. So at this level Chris’s claim that I’ve misinterpreted Rawls is irrelevant. If he’s right, then I’m not attacking Rawls, per se, but rather attacking an argument that many people who have misinterpreted Rawls have deployed to undermine claims of desert and to justify redistribution. I do admit, however, that I should have been clearer that my way of reading Rawls in the column is disputed.

I understand and agree with Chris’s claim that Rawls’s argument comes in the context of the choice of the overall principles of association. But I don’t understand Chris’s appeal to Rawls’s “political” turn. First, Rawl’s understands his own argument in ToJ to be rooted on a partially comprehensive theory, which is why he later rejected the argument. It is not unreasonable as a matter to interpret Rawls’s argument about desert as a piece of comprehensive philosophizing on par with his comprehesive-ish claims later in ToJ about the nature of autonomy and personhood. And as Jacob Levy points out in the comments, ToJ is an extremely influential book, which has been far more widely read than the rest of Rawls’s works. It’s not unreasonable to criticize it in isolation from Rawls’s mature view, given that so many people have been influenced by it in isolation from Rawls’s mature view.

OK, I want to draw attention to the fact that Rawls is making a claim about our considered judgments. Now, it’s hard to keep the cast of characters in Rawls straight: the theorist and the rest of us real people, the model conception of the person (the citizen of the well-ordered society), the parties to the original position. The claim about our considered judgments is an emprical claim about us. (Tryst doesn’t have a copy of ToJ, so I have to wing some of this. I’m sitting next to the bookshelf, and do see a copy of the New Testament, but I doubt it’s going to help my case.) The character of the model conceptions, such as the original position, must justified by the method of reflective equilibrium (RE). Once we’ve our CMJs (considered moral judgments) more or less into RE with our model conceptions, we run the thought experiment of choice in the original position (OP). If it turns out the OP delivers principles out of RE with our CMJs, then we just go back and amend some aspect of the model conceptions until we get prinicples out of the OP that is in RE with our CMJs. My point is that given this procedure, it seems to me that Rawls’s argument has a great deal to do with how things work out within the basic structure. It says that principles for distributing cooperative surpluses need not take into account our sense that some people deserve more of the surplus in virtue of contributing more to the creation of the surplus.

I don’t dispute that we don’t deserve our natural endowments or the social position we find ourselves in. Who would, indeed. I dispute what seems to be Rawls’s next step: that we thus don’t deserve our character (some of us do, we worked at it, and some of us don’t). And I vigorously dispute the next step, whether or not Rawls takes it, that we thus aren’t responsible for and don’t deserve what we have worked to achieve. If he does take it, and it seems to me, and many others that he does, then he’s just wrong. If he’s not just wrong, then he has at least (in the argument on desert) abandoned his usual method of working from within our moral conceptions rather than dabbling in metaphysics-tinged metaethics.

My claim in the TCS column is that our CMJ that people ought to be rewarded roughly in proportion to the value of their contribution to cooperative endeavors, and have moral title to such rewards, runs extremely deep. The implication is that principles of justice that fail to respect title to these deserved rewards — that expropriates and redistributes goods acquired according to this kind of principle of desert — will fail to be in RE with our CMJ, and thus are fail as acceptable principles of justice.

Exactly why principles that fail the test of RE fail is another question. I don’t think the method of RE offers a theory of the epistemic justification of moral beliefs. RE has to do with human sense of justice in a way that is more practical than epistemic. The sense of justice is both the source our considered moral judgments and the source of our motivation to act according to fair terms of social cooperation. I think the function of RE is to tie together the cognitive and motivational dimensions of the human sense of justice to create a social structure that we both recognize and affirm as moral, and which we are disposed to sustain through our willing compliance to the principles of justice. The point of RE is to deliver principles of justice that are sufficiently aligned with the sense of justice to produce motivationally effective individual reasons for action that will tend to scale up to macro-level stability.

That said, a principles of justice that run roughshod over our deep-seated intuitions of desert will therefore fail to gain our affirmation and compliance, and will thus fail to frame a stable social order. That’s why a principle of justice out of RE with our CMJs fails.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center