The Instigator
TheSkeptic
Pro (for)
Losing
0 Points
The Contender
LaissezFaire
Con (against)
Winning
31 Points

Rawslian theory is a justified form of government.

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Started: 3/16/2011 Category: Politics
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 3,906 times Debate No: 15403
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (38)
Votes (7)

 

TheSkeptic

Pro

Sorry for the long delay, I had a lot of personal issues.

Anyway, this is the first round for Freeman's tournament and an anticipated debate between me and my opponent. It's also been awhile since Ive debated - hopefully it's an enjoyable experience.

I've made it 4 rounds since my plan was that Round 1 would be moreso of an introduction, or further stipulations/modifications that may be added. Here I want to define Rawlsian theory, make some clarifications, and invite my opponent to the same. Any substantive argumentation will take place in Rounds 2-4.

What I primarily want to discuss is Rawls theory of "justice as fairness" - namely his take on the social contract, and the discussion of his landmark book A Theory Of Justice(http://en.wikipedia.org...). Concepts such as veil of ignorance, original position, etc. are relevant.

Furthermore, I am open to varying positions that can be named as neo-Rawls, in the sense that I am not bound by everything Rawls says in his book. It's been half a century, and most would not expect any philosophical theory to endure some refurnishing. As long as I retain the core tenets to be even recognizably called a Rawlsian, it should be permissible (for example, including gender in primary social goods was something Rawls was hesitant about initially).

Lastly, justified can have a lax meaning. If it may be that Rawlsian theory is impractical but nonetheless a philosophically sound theory, I see this as being justified. Of course, if my opponent wants to show how a theory is unjustified if it's impractical, I invite him to (though perhaps this may fall into dome deep semantics, if my opponent has serious issues with this clause make it noticed).

Let's get this debate going.
LaissezFaire

Con

I thank my opponent for his challenge, and accept. I'm looking forward to a great debate.
Debate Round No. 1
TheSkeptic

Pro

I apologize in advance to readers who are new to Rawlsian theory - for me to explain his theory would take too much space, so I'm assuming my opponent's and credible voters know at least the basic substance.

There is a certain difficulty in how I am supposed to approach this debate. Given that I don't know my opponent's specific criticism of Rawls, all I will do in this round is supply a few general arguments in favor of Rawlsian theory; they are by no means a sufficient case. Depending on how my opponent responds, I could drop some of the listed arguments for reasons such as focusing the discussion.

As stated before, I will focus on arguing in favor of Rawls "justice as fairness" and thus I begin my discussion about the original position (OP). As should be obvious, it is a purely hypothetical situation and is useful as a heuristic device. The point of the OP for Rawls' theory is that principles of justice as fairness would be chosen by the rational deliberators in the OP as opposed to other patterns of distributions (egalitarianism, utilitarianism, etc.). Thus, I invite my opponent to either show the invalidity of OP in some sense, or of how he would propose some other principle than Rawlsian ones would be chosen by the rational deliberators.

It is a central argument for Rawls that the two principles of fairness, the Liberty principle and Difference principle would be principles that the rational deliberators would be willing to choose on rational grounds. This is the position I will take in contrary to any other principle (notably utilitarianism), and I beget of my opponent to come forth with some alternative or response.

Honestly, I'd prefer not to stress too many arguments without at least hearing some of my opponent's side (for example, many of Rawls arguments are often poised partially as a response to utilitarianism). I would like to hear more of my opponent's position before I delve any deeper, especially if his approach completely sidesteps the OP.
LaissezFaire

Con

My argument center around Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ and ‘original position.’ So, just to briefly recap what those are- The veil of ignorance means a veil that blocks me from knowing any properties about myself. I don’t know that I’m a white male who gets to grow up in America—I could be anyone. The original position just means the position where we’re behind the veil of ignorance. Rawls argues that if we didn’t know where we’d end up in society, it would be rational for us to choose a society with a government that enforces egalitarianism. And so this constitutes a social contract, justifying an egalitarian government.

The first problem I have with this theory rests on an implicit assumption it makes about picking a society. Rawls doesn’t just say we can pick a form of governance (democracy), he also presumes we can decide what all the people in that society do (supports a large welfare state). But if we say ‘a democracy where people support these exact policies’, then why not say, ‘an anarcho-capitalist society not mine? If nothing, then at least some people can’t have been bound by the social contract, making it invalid, as social contracts are supposed to have universal support.

Second, Rawls does not show that it is in anyone’s self-interest to support his government, or any government at all. This is only true if one is extremely risk-averse—if someone is much less risk averse, they may choose a monarchy on the off chance that they get to be king, or may choose something in between. Since no level of risk-aversion is objectively more rational than any other, it can’t be said that any particular state is in anyone’s rational self interest. Since no particular state is justified this way, hypothetical unanimous consent could never be reached, which would mean that no state is justified.

And finally, another problem with the hypothetical is that showing that it is in someone’s rational self interest to sign a contract isn’t the same as that person actually signing a contract. If I could show that it was in someone’s rational self interest to marry me, would that make us wed (or rather, keeping with the veil of ignorance, if I could show that it was in the rational self interest of someone who knew nothing about herself or me to marry me)? Of course not. Only consent is consent. Nor would it be possible for any person to bridge the gap between that rational self interest and actual consent, as no people actually exist behind a “veil of ignorance.” Rawls himself admits that he “define[d] the original position so that we get the desired result,” socialism. [1] What Rawls’ imaginary zombie people would choose is irrelevant to what is right for the humans that actually exist. Rawls’ argument may be an interesting way of looking at the distribution of resources, but it isn’t a contract, it’s just some guy’s opinion.

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971). 141.

Debate Round No. 2
TheSkeptic

Pro

Let's jump right into his 3 criticisms:
  1. Problem of universal support
  2. Problem of self-interest (extreme risk-aversion)
  3. Problem of an actual contract
Problem of universal support and Problem of an actual support
Now, truth to be told I'm not entirely sure I understand this criticism (perhaps it may be due to some uncareful wording). From what I can tell, he sees it as an issue that unless there is universal consent to the proposed policies in the original contract, you can't have a valid contract as not all parties under the contract would be consenting. I can see the problem, as after all how can a contract be binding if not all the affected members have consented?

The response is simple: in the original position, there will be a consensus. There has to be one. The original position is to be conceived as a consesus, where rational deliberators are convened to agree on a set of politices. "In a series of pairwise comparisons, they consider all the conceptions of justice made available to them and ultimately agree unanimously to accept the conception that survives this winnowing process. In this regard, the original position is best conceived as a kind of selection process wherein the parties' deliberations are constrained by the background conditions imposed by the original position as well as the list of conceptions of justice provided to them. They are assigned the task of agreeing on principles for designing the basic structure of a self-contained society under the circumstances of justice."

But one could object by arguing we are not rational deliberators but actual human beings, who rarely if ever come into unanimous agreement! That is the criticism of the 3rd point, which my opponent is suffice to say that a hypothetical contract is not an actual one - just because I give you a set of rational reasons to sign contract X doesn't mean you have signed contract X (even if you find it reasonable!). This common criticism of social contract theory, has been addressed many times and is especially null against Rawls' brand. Here is why:


"It has been objected that hypothetical agreements cannot bind people; only actual contracts or agreements can impose obligations and commitments (Dworkin, 1977, 150ff). In response, Rawls says that the OP is to be used “to help us work out what we now think” (CP, 402); “it incorporates conditions…we do in fact accept,” (TJ 587/514) and is a kind of “thought experiment.for the purpose of public- and self-clarification” (JF, 17). Hypothetical agreement in the original position does not then bind anyone to duties or commitments he/she does not already have. Its point rather is to explicate the requirements of moral concepts of justice and enable us to draw the consequences of considered certain moral convictions that we all presumably share. Whether we in turn consciously accept or agree to these consequences and the principles and duties they implicate once brought to our awareness is irrelevant to their justification. For surely it can matter little to the justification of moral principles whether or not existing people actually do accept or agree to them. The point rather of conjecturing the outcome of a hypothetical agreement is that, assuming that the premises underlying the original position correctly represent our most deeply held considered moral convictions, then we are committed to endorsing the resulting principles and duties whether or not we actually accept or agree to them. Not to do so implies a failure to live up to the consequences of our own moral convictions about justice."

To put it simply, the original position tells us what we should do!


Problem of self-interest (extreme risk-aversion)
It's a common criticism of Rawls that the rational deliberators have no rational reason to be risk averse, but rather it can be rational to be any other form of risk-taking (such as the extremely risking). Rawls has replied that risk-aversion is in this case rational, for the original position is a highly constrained situation/ He admits that in normal situations there is no rational reason to be risk-averse over being not, but given that primary social goods are at stake in the original position (that is, goods which would further and faciliate the obtainment of any other non-primary social good - examples of the former being justice, money, etc.), we must be conservative. Am I risk averse for investing in auto insurance or fire insurance? Of course not.

In fact, even if one were a risk taker it would still be in their interest for their primary social goods to be considered in a conservative fashion! "The original position is such a situation writ large. Even if one knew in the original position that the citizen one represents enjoys risk-taking, this would still not be a reason to gamble with his or her rights, opportunities, and starting position in society; for if she were born into a traditional, repressive, or fundamentalist society, she might well have little opportunity for risk-taking, gambling, entrepreneurship, and the like. It is rational then even for the risk-taker to choose conservatively in the original position and guarantee her future opportunities to take risks. (And assuming that the parties are trustees, then it would be not simply irrational but a dereliction of duty to choose otherwise.)"
LaissezFaire

Con

Pro seems to have misunderstood my first point. I don't see how it was unclear, but I'll try restating it. Actors in the Original Position are deciding what kind of society they want. But they aren't just choosing systems of organizing society (like democracy or anarchy). Rawls argues that they will pick a democracy that has a certain set of policies (specifically, policies following the ‘minimax’ principle, maximizing the well-being of the poorest in society). But, if we can pick not only what system we want, but how exactly the people in that system behave, then why pick a society with a government? Why wouldn’t actors in the OP say they want an anarchist society where everyone’s a really nice person and donates a lot to charity?

Universal consent: You can’t just assert that people in the OP will agree on something, you have to prove it. Rawls argues that there is a specific set of policies that rational actors will agree on in the OP. I argue that there is no such set of policies, and that many different sets of policies can be equally rational (see: previous argument and risk-aversion argument). The only consensus people could reach in the OP are either A) No government, or B) A government. If A, then I’m right, and Rawls’ theory doesn’t justify a government. If B, then the views of some are necessarily forced on others, because there is disagreement and you can’t have everyone’s vision of society at once. But this isn’t even hypothetical consent, much less actual consent, so it can’t be considered a valid social contract.


Risk-aversion: Rawls’ claim that we must be conservative for “primary goods” is nothing more than his subjective opinion on the matter. If someone values a small chance at being king more than he values a guarantee of getting welfare, then you can’t objectively say that he’s wrong. You can disagree, but it’s nothing more than a difference of opinion on the matter. “Am I risk-averse for investing in auto or fire insurance?” Yes, you are! I’d also buy those forms of insurance if I had a car or a house, but I wouldn’t presume that my purchases would be objectively rational and anyone who disagreed with me was irrational--we're both just at least somewhat risk-averse.

As for the idea that risk takers would rationally choose a free society over a society where they wouldn’t be allowed to do risky things—this really misunderstands the idea of risk taking. If I’m a risk taker, is it irrational for me to go skydiving, since there’s a chance I might die and never be able to take risks again? Of course not—that’s a risk I accept, because I value the chance of the thrill more than I disvalue the chance of danger. But by Rawls’ logic, I, as a risk taker, wouldn’t rationally take this risk—which is obviously an absurd conclusion about risk takers. It misses the whole point of risk taking—accepting the chance that bad things could happen.


Actual vs. Hypothetical consent: This takes liberal elitism to a whole new level. Not only do you and Rawls presume to know what’s best for me better than I do, as ordinary liberals do with the nanny state, you guys actually presume to know what I believe is right better than I do. Rawls’ conclusions about morality don’t necessarily follow, they only follow if you first accept his premises about how we ought to think about morality. And, as Rawls said, he “define[d] the original position so that we get the desired result,” egalitarianism. [1] He’s basically saying, ‘if you accept the premises of egalitarianism then you should be an egalitarian!’ Yeah, no sh­it. I’m quite certain that I don’t accept Rawls’ moral system, deep down or otherwise, and I’m sure many others would agree with me. His system is only the deeply held conviction of egalitarians.

But even if Rawls’ beliefs were our hidden convictions, that wouldn’t make his hypothetical contract equivilant to actual consent. You can’t force someone to do something because you somehow just know that deep down, they really agree to it. Even if it were true, that deep down they really did agree with you (something that is, of course, not actually possible for you to know), it wouldn’t be consent. If I somehow knew that deep down, a girl really did want to have sex with me, but just didn’t know it yet, and I had sex with her, I’d obviously be a rapist. Even assuming that my knowledge of her beliefs was true, it still wouldn’t be consent—people have to bring those beliefs to the surface and act on them for consent.
Debate Round No. 3
TheSkeptic

Pro

Thanks for the debate! I'll try to follow the format my opponent used, for the sake of clarity and convenience.

Universal consent: The OP is specifically defined to comprise of rational deliberators who are set with the agenda of figuring out social policies - this is a hypothetical, so I need not 'prove' that they will come into agreement, it is already assumed in the thought experiment!

You hint that there could be different sets of policies that would be "equally rational", but how would I make sense of this except to accuse you of epistemological relativism? It's not in the same sense of risk-aversion not being inherently rational over risk-taking, but that's because such psychological dispositions are to be non-rationally evaluated. However, if we have two or more conflicting social policies (i.e. one promoting welfare and the other not), then we CAN'T have them being both equally rational. Furthermore, Rawls specifically states that the rational deliberators will have the same set of interests and background information because of the veil of ignorance - given they are to dutifully acquire the best deal for their client, and given that they all have no substantive knowledge of their client, the rational deliberators are at an equal standing in terms of motivations. The OP isn't a bargaining committee like the UN, it's moreso of a selection process. Again, the OP is a thought experiment!

Risk-aversion: To refresh, Rawls states that even for the risk-takers, it is rational for them to want to preserve the fundamental aspects of their lives that allows for their risky activities (such as position in society, upbringing, etc.). In other words, it is rational for risk-takers to want to be able to take more risks in the future!

Be reminded of Rawls take on the veil of ignorance: it isn't simply uncertaintly or risk, you are ignorant of your client's position in society! And that also means you are ignorant of the probabilities of where you will end up in society, meaning you can't do any risk analysis given you don't know the numbers or percentages in play. Given that further factor, it seems much more rational to prefer the Difference principle and Liberty principle.

Actual vs. Hypothetical Consent: Don't fool yourself, it isn't some elitist attitude Rawls presumes with positing the OP - as I've stated before, this is a thought experiment meant to help us figure out virtuous social policies. Or rather, it's more of a heuristic device that we can utilize as real people in this real world to figure out political building blocks. There is nothing elitist about it - it's an ethical argument, nothing more.

To make an analogy, let's say I propose that there is a hypothetical committee filled with people who are in-tune with moral understanding. In other words, they are so smart they can figure out what is morally correct. I then argue that whatever agreements the committee come to, is what is moral. Does it matter if this actually happened? Of course not, it's just to serve as a device for us inperfect humans to figure out how to function in this world.

In conclusion, I want to end with the repeated proclamation that there not being an actual contract has on bearing on Rawls' theory. His social contractarian theory is considerably more abstract than his predecessors partly given the nature of the OP - it is a perspective we are to consider in moral reasoning. It's actual existence is a nonissue.
LaissezFaire

Con

Thanks for a great debate, Skeptic. I had fun and hope to debate you again in the future, and hope you feel the same way.

First, Pro has again ignored my first argument. To restate it: Rawls assumes that the people in the OP are not simply choosing between systems of governance (say, democracy vs monarchy vs anarchy). The society he says people will choose isn’t simply ‘a democracy’—it is a democratic society populated by people who choose to implement a large welfare state. But if we have the luxury of choosing what sort of people are society is populated by in the OP, why not choose an anarchic society populated by really nice people who give a lot to charity? And, if the theory is modified so that we don’t have that luxury, and are only choosing between different systems, rather than sets of specific policies under those systems, then Rawls and Pro give us no reasons to choose a society with a government over a society without one.


Universal consent: Simply defining the people in the OP as agreeing with each other is nonsense. People value different things differently—risk aversion, for example. If no valuation of, say, risk aversion is more rational than any other, then policies that are different because of the value they place on risk aversion can’t be more or less rational then each other. And since there’s no specific government that could be universally agreed on, any form of government that is established would have to be some’s subjective idea of what’s rational forced on others without their consent—making this not a valid social contract.

Risk-aversion: Again, by this logic, a risk taker would never do anything that could endanger his health or life! No risk taker would ever go skydiving because there’s a chance that he could die and never be able to take risks again. Obviously, this conclusion is absurd. Risk-takers, by definition, are willing to accept a chance of bad things happening to them. It’s true that we wouldn’t know the specific numbers and percentages in play, but, since we’re talking about risk-takers, this doesn’t matter—they could be willing to take the risk that the percentage of something bad happening is high, because they’re risk-takers!

Actual vs Hypothetical Consent: “To make an analogy, let's say I propose that there is a hypothetical committee filled with people who are in-tune with moral understanding. In other words, they are so smart they can figure out what is morally correct. I then argue that whatever agreements the committee come to, is what is moral.” I suppose this is technically true, because you’re defining the committee as being able to figure out what is morally correct. But that isn’t at all what Rawls says, so this is a bad analogy. His hypothetical people aren’t morally perfect, they are essentially just perfect egalitarians. Only if you first accept that taking a bunch of hypothetical egalitarians and having them decide what society should look like is the correct way to determine morality does this theory work.

In addition, actual consent does matter. The idea of a social contract is that people have rights, but because of this contract the government can violate them. Even Rawls’ hypothetical people are presumed free—they are supposed to freely choose what society should look like. And so even do accept Rawls’ egalitarian premises, even if his society was the best sort of society, that wouldn’t give government the moral right to violate people’s rights, any more than (to reuse my previous example) I would have the right to rape someone who I somehow knew deep down really did want to have sex with me.

Debate Round No. 4
38 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by TheSkeptic 3 years ago
TheSkeptic
@Roy: tbh, I'm not interested at finding a suitable debate for tournament viewing pleasure - I debate what I find to be interesting. As for the font, the preview showed something much different and visible... DDO word manager is quite clonky.
Posted by TheSkeptic 3 years ago
TheSkeptic
And in no way does Rawlsian theory prevent us from looking at concrete, particular facts and incorporating them into theorycrafting. Though, to the extent of hypothesizing whatever you want people to be like is not in question.
Posted by LaissezFaire 3 years ago
LaissezFaire
Thanks. I look forward to reading your comments.
Posted by Danielle 3 years ago
Danielle
I did read this -- still writing my RFD though. I'll probably post it sometime within the next 2 days.
Posted by LaissezFaire 3 years ago
LaissezFaire
Well, my main point about the systems of governance vs. specific policies thing was that it's illegitimate to say that you want "democracy with these specific policies." If you're choosing a just society, you have to work with what actually exists. And with the people that actually exist, democracy gets you what we have now. If we're talking about justifying government, then you have to work with how government actually works. I don't think advocating an anarchy of really nice people would be a legitimate thing to argue for, because that's not what people are like. I have to argue that given what people are like (or given any possible set of people, really), anarchy is the best way of organizing society when I advocate anarchy, and I think people that advocate democracy ought to do the same.

Although I guess that's more about democracy vs. anarchy than Rawls specifically, I guess.
Posted by TheSkeptic 3 years ago
TheSkeptic
Honestly, I think most of you are being uncharitable to Rawls :/. Majority of the criticisms are born out of misunderstandings or strawmen, or perhaps I'm just clueless to the inferences that are being made.
Posted by TheSkeptic 3 years ago
TheSkeptic
If it was purely what the latter phrase stated, then Rawls would have no problem in donating to charity (obviously). If that meant people shouldn't be bound by welfare systems and the like, Rawls would be against it given the difference principle in the OP.

Furthermore, the latter example is distinct from "lets imagine a society where everyone is really nice". In fact, further revisions, criticisms, and indeed enhancements of Rawls theory by the likes of Nussbaum encourage incorporating concrete, particular facts into the theory. We have to consider contingent facts when actually applying the theory...
Posted by LaissezFaire 3 years ago
LaissezFaire
If you can say, "people should vote for these policies" I don't see why you can't say, "people should donate to these charities."
Posted by TheSkeptic 3 years ago
TheSkeptic
I'm clueless as to how anarchy could possibly pass through the OP. Be reminded that Rawls never states that the rational deliberators would come to consensus of how people would 'act', that is completely unwarranted.
Posted by LaissezFaire 3 years ago
LaissezFaire
I'm not saying a democratic government *couldn't* pass through the OP, my point was that anarchy *could.* It was part of my point about not having universal agreement.
7 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 7 records.
Vote Placed by Kinesis 2 years ago
Kinesis
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Reasons for voting decision: I don't know how I missed this awesome debate. Pro didn't have sound counterpoints to Con's (powerful) arguments. I thought there has a hint of desperation in some of TheSkeptic's rounds. I gave Con S
Vote Placed by RoyLatham 3 years ago
RoyLatham
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Reasons for voting decision: Demanding that voters have past familiarity with Rawslian theory is a bad premise for a tournament debate. And where did Pro get that tiny, tiny font? Part of the strategy to discourage reading the debate. Worked.
Vote Placed by mcc1789 3 years ago
mcc1789
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Reasons for voting decision: I have seen no convincing argument for the state, including social contract theory, and this was no exception. That said, well argued on both sides. You both are very knowledgeable, skilled debaters.
Vote Placed by BlackVoid 3 years ago
BlackVoid
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Reasons for voting decision: Honestly Cirrk took the words right out of my mouth. Also I felt that LF's initial argument on Universal Support was fairly simple, and shouldnt have been misconstrued.
Vote Placed by kweef 3 years ago
kweef
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Reasons for voting decision: I based my decision because Con really did a great job at dissecting the Rawslian theory and proving it's shortcomings, which overall outweighed the benefits.
Vote Placed by Grape 3 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: RFD in comments.
Vote Placed by CiRrK 3 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: See comments.