Saturday, September 15, 2018

Nationalism 005: Veils of Ignorance

Famously, philosopher John Rawls produced a test for determining what counts as a just distribution of goods.

There are philosophers trying to apply these principles to relationships among nations.

In the book, Global Justice, A Cosmopolitan Account, Gillian Brock examined issues of global justice according to a Rawlsian approach. (Brock, Gillian (2009). Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. Oxford University Press.)

A Rawlsian approach, by the way, was invented by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls. It involves imagining yourself behind a veil of ignorance where you did not know anything about the type of person you were in reality. You did not know your race, gender, into what generation you were born, how wealthy your parents were, how wealthy you would be, whether you had any handicaps . . . none of that. And you were to decide on the rules that society would live under. The suggestion is that the rules people would adopt behind this veil of ignorance represented what a just society would be like.

According to Rawls, those people behind that veil of ignorance would adopt two principles. The first is a liberty principle - each person would enjoy as much freedom as could be allowed consistent with the freedom of others. The second is a difference principles - inequality would be tolerated only if the inequality is such that it would make the worst-off people better off. So, if everybody had an equal $10,000 per year, and a system were introduced that gave some $100,000 per year, yet the worst-off only had their income rise to $11,000 per year, this would still make the worst people better off. This would be tolerated. However, if the worst off dropped below $10,000 per year, that would be unjust.

Note that, there is a simple way to make those at the bottom better off than they would have been. Tax those who become better off to raise the worst off above the previous minimum. So, if there is a plan under consideration that would raise some people to $100,000 per year, but drop others below $9,000 per year, then simply tax the person getting $100,000 and use it to raise the worst off above the $10,000 minimum.

To make this relevant to our subject matter here, the idea is to take this "original position" argument and apply it to the whole population.

Would they adopt Rawls' two principles?

Brock reports that there has been some empirical research on the subject.

[Norman] Frohlich and [Joe] Oppenheimer . . . designed experiments to set up conditions of impartiality so they could assess what principles would be chosen and how stable these choices are over time.

According to those experiments, what people would choose is the principle:

Maximizing the average with a floor constraint of $?????: `The most just distribution of income is that which maximizes the average income only after a certain specified minimum income is guaranteed to everyone'.

The participants were allowed to determine the floor dollar amount. It is relevant to note here that the participants needed to come to unanimous agreement on a principle. This is not necessarily the one that everybody preferred over the others, but it is the one that the people could agree upon. People were willing to compromise away from a preferred position to this one. It was "good enough".

In a sense, we can judge this to be a "guaranteed basic income" model. Everybody gets a guaranteed basic income. After that, let people do their best.

I have some problems with these types of thought experiments.

How can it be the case that a decision that I would make under conditions that are not true in the world is applicable to what I should do in the real world.

I can ask you, "What would you do right now if the fire alarm was going off and you smell smoke?" You may answer, "Leave - get far away from this area - as quickly as I safely can." But, that does not imply that, in the real world, where I do not smell smoke and the fire alarm is not going off, I should get away from the area as quickly as I safely can.

Philosophers love thought experiments. However, other thought experiments do not imply that the agent should do something in the real where the conditions established in the thought experiment do not apply. For example, there are the famous trolley thought experiments.

In this thought experiment, imagine that you are standing at a switch along a railroad track. If you throw the switch, the train will go down the left track. Leave it alone, and the train will go down the right track.

Now, as you stand at this switch, imagine that I am asking you to imagine that you are standing at a switch. A runaway train is coming. If you let it go by, it will hit a school bus full of young children and a truck containing poisonous chemicals that will drift over a nearby city killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. If you pull the switch, the train will go down a side track where it will hit an elderly man slowly ambling across the tracks. Do you pull the switch?

The fact that you would pull the switch in that imaginary situation implies nothing about what you should do to the switch in the world where none of those conditions applied. It simply is not relevant.

Accordingly, matters of global politics are going to be decided by people who are perfectly aware of what their positions and their prejudices are, and who will act accordingly. The job in global politics is to try to get them to act in ways that are beneficial to others.

Another problem is that I think that such accounts beg questions concerning liberal attitudes. For example, it argues for "freedom of religion" on the grounds that people would not want to have their religion oppressed by others. Yet, if somebody truly believes that a particular religion is true, then they would argue for the oppression of other religions even if they were to be a member of that religion - simply based on its falsehood.

Even atheists are subject to this. It is quite possible that an atheist would approve of blocking all theists from positions of authority on the grounds that their delusional thinking will make them a danger to others. They would vote for this even if, in the real world, they would emerge as one of the religious on the grounds that, "I would not want my delusional thinking to make me a danger to others."

The thought experiments discussed in the book do not consider these types of situations - they only look at principles of economic distribution. So, the empirical findings are not relevant to these objections.

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