Paul Churchland, professor of philosophy at University of California, San Diego, rose to address the Beyond Belief 2006 conference to present the moral/political theory of John Rawls.
Churchland began his presentation by reporting that he was asked to speak about the moral and political philosophy of John Rawls probably because the conference organizers wanted to show the audience a system of morality that did not rely in any way on scripture. Rawls’ theory of justice certainly met that objective.
Rawls: A Theory of Justice
Briefly, Rawls suggested that we can best intuit justice by asking what a rational person would choose for a political system if he were placed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. This veil left the agent ignorant of any of the particular facts of his life – his intelligence or access to education, his economic standing, who his friends were, his physical appearance, his race, etc.
According to Rawls, the position that a rational person would choose is one that provided the highest standard of living for those who were the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Such a system, for example, would allow for great inequalities of wealth if the system that produced that wealth left the least-well-off people better than they would have been in a system without such inequalities.
The idea was that the option which raised the position of the least well off was a uniquely rational best option.
Churchland then threatened pulled the rug out from under the conference organizers by claiming that this theory of justice does not work. Of course, what good does it do to assert that we can have a system of ethics that makes no use of God if there is no system of ethics that works.
Churchland’s objection was that Rawls’ theory of justice employed the same type of reasoning that Rene Descartes used to defend particular facts of nature, including the existence of God.
Descartes argued that if he can form a clear and distinct idea of a natural principle than this demonstrated that the principle was a natural law. This meant that all that scientists needed to do was to sit around and measure the clearness and distinctness of their ideas in order to understand nature. Descartes also asserted that one of these clear and distinct ideas was the idea of God; therefore, God exists.
Rawls is using his veil of ignorance to form “clear and distinct ideas” of moral principles. It promises to be no more useful in helping us come to a theory of justice than Descartes plan.
As a matter of fact, science has not made the progress we have seen by testing ideas for clearness and distinctness. It would, in fact, be quite nice if all a scientist has to do is sit back in his office, put his feet up on his desk, and test his ideas for clearness and distinctness.
Yet, science requires a lot of hard work. The scientist has to get up off of his desk, go to the lab (which often is a very uncomfortable place such as a hot desert where he looks for dinosaur fossils, a damp and sweltering jungle, or an arctic research station where he is picking up ice cores). He has to carefully and meticulously take and record precise measurements. Then he needs to fit his favorite theory to those measurements or – GASP! – discover that his theory does not fit.
Churchland’s argument is that morality and justice require the same type of experimentation. He described human history substantially as a social science experiment, with an emphasis on science. We set up a society. We observe the results. From our observations we evaluate whether the assumptions on which our society are validated or falsified. We make adjustments. We then establish a new society, or modify the existing society, to take into consideration what we have learned. We make a new set of observations. And so on.
Churchland used Prohibition as an example of a social experiment. People devised a theory, they set up an experiment, they drew some observations that suggested that prohibition was a bad idea. They tossed out prohibition. I suppose we are to think of inquisitions, slavery, monarchy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia as failed experiments.
This may be a salient point against Rawls’ methods for arriving at moral truth, but it is strangely hollow. Imagine somebody responding to a theory of planetary formation by saying that current theories are only the most recent component of millennia of scientific study and hard work that can be traced back to the first civilizations. This may be true, but it does not help us to decide which theory of planetary formation is correct. It suggests that certain methods should not be used to judge theories of planetary formation, but it says nothing about the methods that should be used.
I have encountered a similar issue with respect to the desire utilitarianism that I have defended here. One of the more frequent objections that I receive says that desire utilitarianism must be rejected because, if desire utilitarianism were true, some moral questions would be difficult to answer. The objector makes the completely unfounded assumption that a moral theory would make all moral questions easy to answer, and that desire utilitarianism must be rejected for its failure to do so.
I would argue for rejecting any theory that distributes answers to moral questions like answers to scientific questions. Some of them are easy to answer. Some are difficult. Some may even remain outside of our ability to answer forcing us to live in a universe with some measure of moral uncertainty. Yet, over time, we have the ability to make moral progress as we make scientific progress, never quite arriving at perfect moral knowledge (just as we will always lack perfect scientific knowledge), but getting closer over time – as long as religion doesn’t muck things up by insisting on teaching moral (scientific) myth.
Other Objections to Rawls
I would like to take this opportunity to throw in a few additional objections to Rawls’ theory of justice.
(1) Implications of the Veil of Ignorance
Rawls asks us to imagine the choices that one will make from behind a veil of ignorance. He then says that these conclusions apply to the real world in which we live. But why would implications drawn from obviously false premises have any relevance in the real world?
Imagine, as you read this, that a fire breaks out nearby filling the room with smoke. What would you do? No doubt, you can come up with a plan. You can pick an escape route and imagine yourself using it. However, it does not follow from the fact that you would perform a particular set of acts in an imaginary world in which there is a nearby fire, that you should – in the real world where there is no fire – perform the same actions.
Similarly, the mere fact that you would choose a particular political system when behind a veil of ignorance certainly does not imply that you should choose that same political system in the real world where you suffer from no such ignorance.
(2) The Extent of Ignorance
Another problem arises from the question, “How ignorant am I supposed to be?” Are we supposed to be ignorant of our beliefs?
For example, am I to assume that I do not know from behind a veil of ignorance whether I am a Christian Scientist? It would seem that I must be ignorant of this if I am going to vote for a system that treats Christian Scientists justly. However, am I also supposed to be ignorant as to the cause of diseases? If I am not to be ignorant of disease, then I would likely support a system that helped Christian Scientists realize their error and would force doctors (rather than priests) to attend to my illness.
Consider the choices that a person who believes in an arrogant and megalomaniacal God who condemns to eternal damnation any who do not believe in him. What would this person choose behind a veil of ignorance?
Or the person who believes that homosexuality is fundamentally wrong? To such a person would likely vote for a society where homosexuals are compelled to seek some sort of treatment that he would want even for himself.
In short, if people are not allowed to take behind the veil of ignorance their beliefs about the nature of the world – the causes of disease, the existence of a God, the intrinsic value of various states of affairs – then we will be too ignorant to make rational decisions. On the other hand, if we can carry our beliefs about such things behind the veil of ignorance, people will end up promoting substantially the same principles behind the veil of ignorance that they promoted in front of the veil.
In short, Rawls’ theory of justice is a secular theory, but it does not work. As such, it is a poor candidate for proving that it is possible to have a system of morality that does not depend on God. This job must be given over to theories that actually work.