June 26, 2004

David Hume, "Of the Original Contract"; or, The Shadow of Rawls and the Shadow of Hume

Matthew Yglesias muses about how being shrill and sloppy seems to pay off, with an application to the career of the late John Rawls:

Matthew Yglesias: June 20, 2004 - June 26, 2004 Archives: ...Poor toilers in the salt mines of sober-minded social science research, conversely, die in obscurity. I sometimes think of John Rawls in this way.

A Theory of Justice

is a brilliant work in many ways, but it's also -- quite obviously -- wrong in a number of ways and employs a variety of arguments that are pretty dubious. Any undergraduate can see this, and dozens -- if not hundreds -- do so every semester. Now it seems to me that a slightly more scrupulous philosopher might have looked at the manuscript and said to himself, "this is a very interesting argument I'm putting together here, but it doesn't quite work. Better keep on revising." But instead Rawls put his thought-provoking work out there in the press, attracting decades worth of criticisms, counter-criticisms, suggestions for improvement, and so forth, thus becoming the major figure in postwar political philosophy.

Indeed. I never understood the cult of Rawls. His arguments seemed to me to have only one thing going for them at Harvard around 1980: they were less sloppy, more careful, and informed by a much less niggardly will than those of Robert "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" Nozick. I didn't understand why Rawls's arguments were supposed to be so powerful. And the thought of majoring in political philosophy in Rawls's shadow seemed distinctly unappetizing.

Perhaps my problem was that I read Hume's "Of the Original Contract" when I was too young. I found Hume's arguments unanswerable: given that the questions of whether one has an obligation to fulfill various political and personal contracts are so knotty, it seemed simply absurd to try to base all political obligation on one's being a supposed party to a contract that one never even made. I could never even figure out how Rawls could flower in the shadow of Hume.

Read on for Hume's, "Of the Original Contract"...


OF THE ORIGINAL CONTRACT

David Hume

1748

Edited and rendered into HTML by Jon Roland

As no party, in the present age, can well support itself without a philosophical or speculative system of principles annexed to its political or practical one, we accordingly find, that each of the factions into which this nation is divided has reared up a fabric of the former kind, in order to protect and cover that scheme of actions which it pursues. The people being commonly very rude builders, especially in this speculative way, and more especially still when actuated by party-zeal, it is natural to imagine that their workmanship must be a little unshapely, and discover evident marks of that violence and hurry in which it was raised. The one party, by tracing up government to the Deity, endeavoured to render it so sacred and inviolate, that it must be little less than sacrilege, however, tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article. The other party, by founding government altogether on the consent of the people, suppose that there is a kind of original contract, by which the subjects have tacitly reserved the power of resisting their sovereign, whenever they find themselves aggrieved by that authority, with which they have, for certain purposes, voluntarily intrusted him. These are the speculative principles of the two parties, and these, too, are the practical consequences deduced from them.

I shall venture to affirm, That both these systems of speculative principles are just; though not in the sense intended by the parties: and, That both the schemes of practical consequences are prudent; though not in the extremes to which each party, in opposition to the other, has commonly endeavoured to carry them.

That the Deity is the ultimate author of all government, will never be denied by any, who admit a general providence, and allow, that all events in the universe are conducted by an uniform plan, and directed to wise purposes. As it is impossible for the human race to subsist, at least in any comfortable or secure state, without the protection of government, this institution must certainly have been intended by that beneficent Being, who means the good of all his creatures: and as it has universally, in fact, taken place, in all countries, and all ages, we may conclude, with still greater certainty, that it was intended by that omniscient Being who can never be deceived by any event or operation. But since he gave rise to it, not by any particular or miraculous interposition, but by his concealed and universal efficacy, a sovereign cannot, properly speaking, be called his vicegerent in any other sense than every power or force, being derived from him, may be said to act by his commission. Whatever actually happens is comprehended in the general plan or intention of Providence; nor has the greatest and most lawful prince any more reason, upon that account, to plead a peculiar sacredness or inviolable authority, than an inferior magistrate, or even an usurper, or even a robber and a pirate. The same Divine Superintendent, who, for wise purposes, invested a Titus or a Trajan with authority, did also, for purposes no doubt equally wise, though unknown, bestow power on a Borgia or an Angria. The same causes, which gave rise to the sovereign power in every state, established likewise every petty jurisdiction in it, and every limited authority. A constable, therefore, no less than a king, acts by a divine commission, and possesses an indefeasible right.

When we consider how nearly equal all men are in their bodily force, and even in their mental powers and faculties, till cultivated by education, we must necessarily allow, that nothing but their own consent could, at first, associate them together, and subject them to any authority. The people, if we trace government to its first origin in the woods and deserts, are the source of all power and jurisdiction, and voluntarily, for the sake of peace and order, abandoned their native liberty, and received laws from their equal and companion. The conditions upon which they were willing to submit, were either expressed, or were so clear and obvious, that it might well be esteemed superfluous to express them. If this, then, be meant by the original contract, it cannot be denied, that all government is, at first, founded on a contract, and that the most ancient rude combinations of mankind were formed chiefly by that principle. In vain are we asked in what records this charter of our liberties is registered. It was not written on parchment, nor yet on leaves or barks of trees. It preceded the use of writing, and all the other civilized arts of life. But we trace it plainly in the nature of man, and in the equality, or something approaching equality, which we find in all the individuals of that species. The force, which now prevails, and which is founded on fleets and armies, is plainly political, and derived from authority, the effect of established government. A man's natural force consists only in the vigour of his limbs, and the firmness of his courage; which could never subject multitudes to the command of one. Nothing but their own consent, and their sense of the advantages resulting from peace and order, could have had that influence.

Yet even this consent was long very imperfect, and could not be the basis of a regular administration. The chieftain, who had probably acquired his influence during the continuance of war, ruled more by persuasion than command; and till he could employ force to reduce the refractory and disobedient, the society could scarcely be said to have attained a state of civil government. No compact or agreement, it is evident, was expressly formed for general submission; an idea far beyond the comprehension of savages: each exertion of authority in the chieftain must have been particular, and called forth by thepresent exigencies of the case: the sensible utility, resulting from his interposition, made these exertions become daily more frequent; and their frequency gradually produced an habitual, and, if you please to call it so, a voluntary, and therefore precarious, acquiescence in the people.

But philosophers, who have embraced a party (if that be not a contradiction in terms), are not contented with these concessions. They assert, not only that government in its earliest infancy arose from consent, or rather the voluntary acquiescence of the people; but also that, even at present, when it has attained its full maturity, it rests on no other foundation. They affirm, that all men are still born equal, and owe allegiance to no prince or government, unless bound by the obligation and sanction of a promise. And as no man, without some equivalent, would forego the advantages of his native liberty, and subject himself to the will of another, this promise is always understood to be conditional, and imposes on him no obligation, unless he meet with justice and protection from his sovereign. These advantages the sovereign promises him in return; and if he fail in the execution, he has broken, on his part, the articles of engagement, and has thereby freed his subject from all obligations to allegiance. Such, according to these philosophers, is the foundation of authority in every government, and such the right of resistance possessed by every subject.

But would these reasoners look abroad into the world, they would meet with nothing that, in the least, corresponds to their ideas, or can warrant so refined and philosophical a system. On the contrary, we find every where princes who claim their subjects as their property, and assert their independent right of sovereignty, from conquest or succession. We find also every where subjects who acknowledge this right in their prince, and suppose themselves born under obligations of obedience to a certain sovereign, as much as under the ties of reverence and duty to certain parents. These connexions are always conceived to be equally independent of our consent, in Persia and China; in France and Spain; and even in Holland and England, wherever the doctrines above-mentioned have not been carefully inculcated. Obedience or subjection becomes so familiar, that most men never make any inquiry about its origin or cause, more than about the principle of gravity, resistance, or the most universal laws of nature. Or if curiosity ever move them; as soon as they learn that they themselves and their ancestors have, for several ages, or from time immemorial, been subject to such a form of government or such a family, they immediately acquiesce, and acknowledge their obligation to allegiance. Were you to preach, in most parts of the world, that political connexions are founded altogether on voluntary consent or a mutual promise, the magistrate would soon imprison you as seditious for loosening the ties of obedience; if your friends did not before shut you up as delirious, for advancing such absurdities. It is strange that an act of the mind, which every individual is supposed to have formed, and after he came to the use of reason too, otherwise it could have no authority; that this act, I say, should be so much unknown to all of them, that over the face of the whole earth, there scarcely remain any traces or memory of it.

But the contract, on which government is founded, is said to be the original contract; and consequently may be supposed too old to fall under the knowledge of the present generation. If the agreement, by which savage men first associated and conjoined their force, be here meant, this is acknowledged to be real; but being so ancient, and being obliterated by a thousand changes of government and princes, it cannot now be supposed to retain any authority. If we would say any thing to the purpose, we must assert that every particular government which is lawful, and which imposes any duty of allegiance on the subject, was, at first, founded on consent and a voluntary compact. But, besides that this supposes the consent of the fathers to bind the children, even to the most remote generations (which republican writers will never allow), besides this, I say, it is not justified by history or experience in any age or country of the world.

Almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest, or both, without any presence of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people. When an artful and bold man is placed at the head of an army or faction, it is often easy for him, by employing, sometimes violence, sometimes false presences, to establish his dominion over a people a hundred times more numerous than his partisans. He allows no such open communication, that his enemies can know, with certainty, their number or force. He gives them no leisure to assemble together in a body to oppose him. Even all those who are the instruments of his usurpation may wish his fall; but their ignorance of each other's intention keeps them in awe, and is the sole cause of his security. By such arts as these many governments have been established; and this is all the original contract which they have to boast of.

The face of the earth is continually changing, by the increase of small kingdoms into great empires, by the dissolution of great empires into smaller kingdoms, by the planting of colonies, by the migration of tribes. Is there any thing discoverable in all these events but force and violence? Where is the mutual agreement or voluntary association so much talked of?

Even the smoothest way by which a nation may receive a foreign master, by marriage or a will, is not extremely honourable for the people; but supposes them to be disposed of, like a dowry or a legacy, according to the pleasure or interest of their rulers.

But where no force interposes, and election takes place; what is this election so highly vaunted? It is either the combination of a few great men, who decide for the whole, and will allow of no opposition; or it is the fury of a multitude, that follow a seditious ringleader, who is not known, perhaps, to a dozen among them, and who owes his advancement merely to his own impudence, or to the momentary caprice of his fellows.

Are these disorderly elections, which are rare too, of such mighty authority as to be the only lawful foundation of all government and allegiance?

In reality, there is not a more terrible event than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination or choice of a new establishment depend upon a number, which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people: for it never comes entirely to the whole body of them. Every wise man then wishes to see, at the head of a powerful and obedient army, a general who may speedily seize the prize, and give to the people a master which they are so unfit to choose for themselves. So little correspondent is fact and reality to those philosophical notions.

Let not the establishment at the Revolution deceive us, or make us so much in love with a philosophical origin to government, as to imagine all others monstrous and irregular. Even that event was far from corresponding to these refined ideas. It was only the succession, and that only in the regal part of the government, which was then changed: and it was only the majority of seven hundred, who determined that change for near ten millions. I doubt not, indeed, but the bulk of those ten millions acquiesced willingly in the determination: but was the matter left, in the least, to their choice? Was it not justly supposed to be, from that moment, decided, and every man punished, who refused to submit to the new sovereign? How otherwise could the matter have ever been brought to any issue or conclusion?

The republic of Athens was, I believe, the most extensive democracy that we read of in history: yet if we make the requisite allowances for the women, the slaves, and the strangers, we shall find, that that establishment was not at first made, nor any law ever voted, by a tenth part of those who were bound to pay obedience to it; not to mention the islands and foreign dominions, which the Athenians claimed as theirs by right of conquest. And as it is well known that popular assemblies in that city were always full of license and disorder, not withstanding the institutions and laws by which they were checked; how much more disorderly must they prove, where they form not the established constitution, but meet tumultuously on the dissolution of the ancient government, in order to give rise to a new one? How chimerical must it be to talk of a choice in such circumstances?

The Achæans enjoyed the freest and most perfect democracy of all antiquity; yet they employed force to oblige some cities to enter into their league, as we learn from Polybius.

Harry the IVth and Harry the VIIth of England, had really no title to the throne but a parliamentary election; yet they never would acknowledge it, lest they should thereby weaken their authority. Strange, if the only real foundation of all authority be consent and promise?

It is in vain to say, that all governments are, or should be, at first, founded on popular consent, as much as the necessity of human affairs will admit. This favours entirely my pretension. I maintain, that human affairs will never admit of this consent, seldom of the appearance of it; but that conquest or usurpation, that is, in plain terms, force, by dissolving the ancient governments, is the origin of almost all the new ones which were ever established in the world. And that in the few cases where consent may seem to have taken place, it was commonly so irregular, so confined, or so much intermixed either with fraud or violence, that it cannot have any great authority.

My intention here is not to exclude the consent of the people from being one just foundation of government where it has place. It is surely the best and most sacred of any. I only pretend, that it has very seldom had place in any degree, and never almost in its full extent; and that, therefore, some other foundation of government must also be admitted.

Were all men possessed of so inflexible a regard to justice, that, of themselves, they would totally abstain from the properties of others; they had for ever remained in a state of absolute liberty, without subjection to any magistrate or political society: but this is a state of perfection, of which human nature is justly deemed incapable. Again, were all men possessed of so perfect an understanding as always to know their own interests, no form of government had ever been submitted to but what was established on consent, and was fully canvassed by every member of the society: but this state of perfection is likewise much superior to human nature. Reason, history, and experience shew us, that all political societies have had an origin much less accurate and regular; and were one to choose a period of time when the people's consent was the least regarded in public transactions, it would be precisely on the establishment of a new government. In a settled constitution their inclinations are often consulted; but during the fury of revolutions, conquests, and public convulsions, military force or political craft usually decides the controversy.

When a new government is established, by whatever means, the people are commonly dissatisfied with it, and pay obedience more from fear and necessity, than from any idea of allegiance or of moral obligation. The prince is watchful and jealous, and must carefully guard against every beginning or appearance of insurrection. Time, by degrees, removes all these difficulties, and accustoms the nation to regard, as their lawful or native princes, that family which at first they considered as usurpers or foreign conquerors. In order to found this opinion, they have no recourse to any notion of voluntary consent or promise, which, they know, never was, in this case, either expected or demanded. The original establishment was formed by violence, and submitted to from necessity. The subsequent administration is also supported by power, and acquiesced in by the people, not as a matter of choice, but of obligation. They imagine not that their consent gives their prince a title: but they willingly consent, because they think, that, from long possession, he has acquired a title, independent of their choice or inclination.

Should it be said, that, by living under the dominion of a prince which one might leave, every individual has given a tacit consent to his authority, and promised him obedience; it may be answered, that such an implied consent can only have place where a man imagines that the matter depends on his choice. But where he thinks (as all mankind do who are born under established governments) that, by his birth, he owes allegiance to a certain prince or certain form of government; it would be absurd to infer a consent or choice, which he expressly, in this case, renounces and disclaims.

Can we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives, from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean and perish, the moment he leaves her.

What if the prince forbid his subjects to quit his dominions; as in Tiberius's time, it was regarded as a crime in a Roman knight that he had attempted to fly to the Parthians, in order to escape the tyranny of that emperor? [1] Or as the ancient Muscovites prohibited all travelling under pain of death? And did a prince observe, that many of his subjects were seized with the frenzy of migrating to foreign countries, he would, doubtless, with great reason and justice, restrain them, in order to prevent the depopulation of his own kingdom. Would he forfeit the allegiance of all his subjects by so wise and reasonable a law? Yet the freedom of their choice is surely, in that case, ravished from them.

A company of men, who should leave their native country, in order to people some uninhabited region, might dream of recovering their native freedom; but they would soon find, that their prince still laid claim to them, and called them his subjects, even in their new settlement. And in this he would but act conformably to the common ideas of mankind.

The truest tacit consent of this kind that is ever observed, is when a foreigner settles in any country, and is beforehand acquainted with the prince, and government, and laws, to which he must submit: yet is his allegiance, though more voluntary, much less expected or depended on, than that of a natural born subject. On the contrary, his native prince still asserts a claim to him. And if he punish not the renegade, where he seizes him in war with his new prince's commission; this clemency is not founded on the municipal law, which in all countries condemns the prisoner; but on the consent of princes, who have agreed to this indulgence, in order to prevent reprisals.

Did one generation of men go off the stage at once, and another succeed, as is the case with silkworms and butterflies, the new race, if they had sense enough to choose their government, which surely is never the case with men, might voluntarily, and by general consent, establish their own form of civil polity, without any regard to the laws or precedents which prevailed among their ancestors. But as human society is in perpetual flux, one man every hour going out of the world, another coming into it, it is necessary, in order to preserve stability in government, that the new brood should conform themselves to the established constitution, and nearly follow the path which their fathers, treading in the footsteps of theirs, had marked out to them. Some innovations must necessarily have place in every human institution; and it is happy where the enlightened genius of the age give these a direction to the side of reason, liberty, and justice: but violent innovations no individual is entitled to make: they are even dangerous to be attempted by the legislature: more ill than good is ever to be expected from them: and if history affords examples to the contrary, they are not to be drawn into precedent, and are only to be regarded as proofs, that the science of politics affords few rules, which will not admit of some exception, and which may not sometimes be controlled by fortune and accident. The violent innovations in the reign of Henry VIII. proceeded from an imperious monarch, seconded by the appearance of legislative authority: those in the reign of Charles I. were derived from faction and fanaticism; and both of them have proved happy in the issue. But even the former were long the source of many disorders, and still more dangers; and if the measures of allegiance were to be taken from the latter, a total anarchy must have place in human society, and a final period at once be put to every government.

Suppose that an usurper, after having banished his lawful prince and royal family, should establish his dominion for ten or a dozen years in any country, and should preserve so exact a discipline in his troops, and so regular a disposition in his garrisons that no insurrection had ever been raised, or even murmur heard against his administration: can it be asserted that the people, who in their hearts abhor his treason, have tacitly consented to his authority, and promised him allegiance, merely because, from necessity, they live under his dominion? Suppose again their native prince restored, by means of an army, which he levies in foreign countries: they receive him with joy and exultation, and shew plainly with what reluctance they had submitted to any other yoke. I may now ask, upon what foundation the prince's title stands? Not on popular consent surely: for though the people willingly acquiesce in his authority, they never imagine that their consent made him sovereign. They consent; because they apprehend him to be already by birth, their lawful sovereign. And as to that tacit consent, which may now be inferred from their living under his dominion, this is no more than what they formerly gave to the tyrant and usurper.

When we assert, that all lawful government arises from the consent of the people, we certainly do them a great deal more honour than they deserve, or even expect and desire from us. After the Roman dominions became too unwieldy for the republic to govern them, the people over the whole known world were extremely grateful to Augustus for that authority which, by violence, he had established over them; and they shewed an equal disposition to submit to the successor whom he left them by his last will and testament. It was afterwards their misfortune, that there never was, in one family, any long regular succession; but that their line of princes was continually broken, either by private assassinations or public rebellions. The prætorian bands, on the failure of every family, set up one emperor; the legions in the East a second; those in Germany, perhaps a third; and the sword alone could decide the controversy. The condition of the people in that mighty monarchy was to be lamented, not because the choice of the emperor was never left to them, for that was impracticable, but because they never fell under any succession of masters who might regularly follow each other. As to the violence, and wars, and bloodshed, occasioned by every new settlement, these were not blameable because they were inevitable.

The house of Lancaster ruled in this island about sixty years; yet the partisans of the white rose seemed daily to multiply in England. The present establishment has taken place during a still longer period. Have all views of right in another family been utterly extinguished, even though scarce any man now alive had arrived at the years of discretion when it was expelled, or could have consented to its dominion, or have promised it allegiance? -- a sufficient indication, surely, of the general sentiment of mankind on this head. For we blame not the partisans of the abdicated family merely on account of the long time during which they have preserved their imaginary loyalty. We blame them for adhering to a family which we affirm has been justly expelled, and which, from the moment the new settlement took place, had forfeited all title to authority.

But would we have a more regular, at least a more philosophical, refutation of this principle of an original contract, or popular consent, perhaps the following observations may suffice.

All moral duties may be divided into two kinds. The first are those to which men are impelled by a natural instinct or immediate propensity which operates on them, independent of all ideas of obligation, and of all views either to public or private utility. Of this nature are love of children, gratitude to benefactors, pity to the unfortunate. When we reflect on the advantage which results to society from such humane instincts, we pay them the just tribute of moral approbation and esteem: but the person actuated by them feels their power and influence antecedent to any such reflection.

The second kind of moral duties are such as are not supported by any original instinct of nature, but are performed entirely from a sense of obligation, when we consider the necessities of human society, and the impossibility of supporting it, if these duties were neglected. It is thus justice, or a regard to the property of others, fidelity, or the observance of promises, become obligatory, and acquire an authority over mankind. For as it is evident that every man loves himself better than any other person, he is naturally impelled to extend his acquisitions as much as possible; and nothing can restrain him in this propensity but reflection and experience, by which he learns the pernicious effects of that license, and the total dissolution of society which must ensue from it. His original inclination, therefore, or instinct, is here checked and restrained by a subsequent judgment or observation.

The case is precisely the same with the political or civil duty of allegiance as with the natural duties of justice and fidelity. Our primary instincts lead us either to indulge ourselves in unlimited freedom, or to seek dominion over others; and it is reflection only which engages us to sacrifice such strong passions to the interests of peace and public order. A small degree of experience and observation suffices to teach us, that society cannot possibly be maintained without the authority of magistrates, and that this authority must soon fall into contempt where exact obedience is not paid to it. The observation of these general and obvious interests is the source of all allegiance, and of that moral obligation which we attribute to it.

What necessity, therefore, is there to found the duty of allegiance or obedience to magistrates on that of fidelity or a regard to promises, and to suppose, that it is the consent of each individual which subjects him to government, when it appears that both allegiance and fidelity stand precisely on the same foundation, and are both submitted to by mankind, on account of the apparent interests and necessities of human society? We are bound to obey our sovereign, it is said, because we have given a tacit promise to that purpose. But why are we bound to observe our promise? It must here be asserted, that the commerce and intercourse of mankind, which are of such mighty advantage, can have no security where men pay no regard to their engagements. In like manner, may it be said that men could not live at all in society, at least in a civilized society, without laws, and magistrates, and judges, to prevent the encroachments of the strong upon the weak, of the violent upon the just and equitable. The obligation to allegiance being of like force and authority with the obligation to fidelity, we gain nothing by resolving the one into the other. The general interests or necessities of society are sufficient to establish both.

If the reason be asked of that obedience, which we are bound to pay to government, I readily answer, Because society could not otherwise subsist; and this answer is clear and intelligible to all mankind. Your answer is, Because we should keep our word. But besides, that no body, till trained in a philosophical system, can either comprehend or relish this answer; besides this, I say, you find yourself embarrassed when it is asked, Why we are bound to keep our word? Nor can you give any answer but what would, immediately, without any circuit, have accounted for our obligation to allegiance.

But to whom is allegiance due? And who is our lawful sovereign? This question is often the most difficult of any, and liable to infinite discussions. When people are so happy that they can answer, Our present sovereign, who inherits, in a direct line, from ancestors that have governed us for many ages, this answer admits of no reply, even though historians, in tracing up to the remotest antiquity the origin of that royal family, may find, as commonly happens, that its first authority was derived from usurpation and violence. It is confessed that private justice, or the abstinence from the properties of others, is a most cardinal virtue. Yet reason tells us that there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice. The necessities of human society, neither in private nor public life, will allow of such an accurate inquiry; and there is no virtue or moral duty but what may, with facility, be refined away, if we indulge a false philosophy in sifting and scrutinizing it, by every captious rule of logic, in every light or position in which it may be placed.

The questions with regard to private property have filled infinite volumes of law and philosophy, if in both we add the commentators to the original text; and in the end, we may safely pronounce, that many of the rules there established are uncertain, ambiguous, and arbitrary. The like opinion may be formed with regard to the succession and rights of princes, and forms of government. Several cases no doubt occur, especially in the infancy of any constitution, which admit of no determination from the laws of justice and equity; and our historian Rapin pretends, that the controversy between Edward the Third and Philip de Valois was of this nature, and could be decided only by an appeal to heaven, that is, by war and violence.

Who shall tell me, whether Germanicus or Drusus ought to have succeeded to Tiberius, had he died while they were both alive, without naming any of them for his successor? Ought the right of adoption to be received as equivalent to that of blood, in a nation where it had the same effect in private families, and had already, in two instances, taken place in the public? Ought Germanicus to be esteemed the elder son, because he was born before Drusus; or the younger, because he was adopted after the birth of his brother? Ought the right of the elder to be regarded in a nation, where he had no advantage in the succession of private families? Ought the Roman empire at that time to be deemed hereditary, because of two examples; or ought it, even so early, to be regarded as belonging to the stronger, or to the present possessor, as being founded on so recent an usurpation?

Commodus mounted the throne after a pretty long succession of excellent emperors, who had acquired their title, not by birth, or public election, but by the fictitious rite of adoption. That bloody debauchee being murdered by a conspiracy, suddenly formed between his wench and her gallant, who happened at that time to be Prætorian Præfect; these immediately deliberated about choosing a master to human kind, to speak in the style of those ages; and they cast their eyes on Pertinax. Before the tyrant's death was known, the Præfect went secretly to that senator, who, on the appearance of the soldiers, imagined that his execution had been ordered by Commodus. He was immediately saluted emperor by the officer and his attendants, cheerfully proclaimed by the populace, unwillingly submitted to by the guards, formally recognized by the senate, and passively received by the provinces and armies of the empire.

The discontent of the Prætorian bands broke out in a sudden sedition, which occasioned the murder of that excellent prince; and the world being now without a master, and without government, the guards thought proper to set the empire formally to sale. Julian, the purchaser, was proclaimed by the soldiers, recognized by the senate, and submitted to by the people; and must also have been submitted to by the provinces, had not the envy of the legions begotten opposition and resistance. Pescennius Niger in Syria elected himself emperor, gained the tumultuary consent of his army, and was attended with the secret good-will of the senate and people of Rome. Albinus in Britain found an equal right to set up his claim; but Severus, who governed Pannonia, prevailed in the end above both of them. That able politician and warrior, finding his own birth and dignity too much inferior to the imperial crown, professed, at first, an intention only of revenging the death of Pertinax. He marched as general into Italy, defeated Julian, and, without our being able to fix any precise commencement even of the soldiers' consent, he was from necessity acknowledged emperor by the senate and people, and fully established in his violent authority, by subduing Niger and Albinus.

Inter hæc Gordianus Cæsar (says Capitolinus, speaking of another period) sublatus a militibus. Imperator est appellatus, quia non erat alius in præsenti. It is to be remarked, that Gordian was a boy of fourteen years of age.

Frequent instances of a like nature occur in the history of the emperors; in that of Alexander's successors; and of many other countries: nor can any thing be more unhappy than a despotic government of this kind; where the succession is disjointed and irregular, and must be determined, on every vacancy, by force or election. In a free government, the matter is often unavoidable, and is also much less dangerous. The interests of liberty may there frequently lead the people, in their own defence, to alter the succession of the crown. And the constitution, being compounded of parts, may still maintain a sufficient stability, by resting on the aristocratical or democratical members, though the monarchical be altered, from time to time, in order to accommodate it to the former.

In an absolute government, when there is no legal prince who has a title to the throne, it may safely be determined to belong to the first occupant. Instances of this kind are but too frequent, especially in the eastern monarchies. When any race of princes expires, the will or destination of the last sovereign will be regarded as a title. Thus the edict of Louis the XIVth, who called the bastard princes to the succession in case of the failure of all the legitimate princes, would, in such an event, have some authority. [2] Thus the will of Charles the Second disposed of the whole Spanish monarchy. The cession of the ancient proprietor, especially when joined to conquest, is likewise deemed a good title. The general obligation, which binds us to government, is the interest and necessities of society; and this obligation is very strong. The determination of it to this or that particular prince, or form of government, is frequently more uncertain and dubious. Present possession has considerable authority in these cases, and greater than in private property; because of the disorders which attend all revolutions and changes of government.

We shall only observe, before we conclude, that though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard, by which any controversy can ever be decided. And nothing is a clearer proof, that a theory of this kind is erroneous, than to find, that it leads to paradoxes repugnant to the common sentiments of mankind, and to the practice and opinion of all nations and all ages. The doctrine, which founds all lawful government on an original contract, or consent of the people, is plainly of this kind; nor has the most noted of its partisans, in prosecution of it, scrupled to affirm, that absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil government at all; [3] and that the supreme power in a state cannot take from any man, by taxes and impositions, any part of his property, without his own consent or that of his representatives. [4] What authority any moral reasoning can have, which leads into opinions so wide of the general practice of mankind, in every place but this single kingdom, it is easy to determine.

The only passage I meet with in antiquity, where the obligation of obedience to government is ascribed to a promise, is in Plato's Crito; where Socrates refuses to escape from prison, because he had tacitly promised to obey the laws. Thus he builds a Tory consequence of passive obedience on a Whig foundation of the original contract.

New discoveries are not to be expected in these matters. If scarce any man, till very lately, ever imagined that government was founded on compact, it is certain that it cannot, in general, have any such foundation.

The crime of rebellion among the ancients was commonly expressed by the terms neoterizein, nouaV reV moliri.


1. Tacit. Ann. vi. cap. 14.

2. It is remarkable, that in the remonstrance of the Duke of Bourbon and the legitimate princes, against this destination of Louis the XIVth, the doctrine of the original contract is insisted on even in that absolute government. The French nation, say they, choosing Hugh Capet and his posterity to rule over them and their posterity, where the former line fails, there is a tacit right reserved to choose a new royal family; and this right is invaded by calling the bastard princes to the throne, without the consent of the nation. But the Comte de Boulainvilliers, who wrote in defence of the bastard princes, ridicules this notion of an original contract, especially when applied to Hugh Capet; who mounted the throne, says he, by the same arts which have ever been employed by all conquerors and usurpers. He got his title, indeed, recognized by the states after he had put himself in possession: but is this a choice or contract? The Comte de Boulainvilliers, we may observe, was a noted republican; but being a man of learning, and very conversant in history, he knew that the people were almost never consulted in these revolutions and new establishments, and that time alone bestowed right and authority on what was commonly at first founded on force and violence. See Etat de la France, vol. iii.

3. See Locke on Government, chap. vii. 5 90.

4. Ibid., chap. xi. 55 138, 139, 140.


Posted by DeLong at June 26, 2004 07:04 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

Prof. DeLong --

For some reason the rest of this post is not available; I keep getting errors about 001093.html being broken.

This is fascinating, of course.

Posted by: Jim D on June 26, 2004 07:52 PM

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Rawls' arguments are important because he introduces the notion of a morally absolute equation into an area that has routinely been hampered by moral relativism.

Of the many things the right warns against, few are worth listening to. The rise of moral relativism is one that should be listened to. There is no ethical system based on logic alone that cannot be subverted. The best of them, such as utilitarianism, end up being used as tools to excuse injustice.

The belief that there is an eternal, transcendent principle called justice is essential for any genuinely functional ethical system. Rawls may be sloppy in explaining it, as no doubt am I, but the basic idea will stand when the rest is dust. It stands, because without it, Mankind cannot.

Posted by: Charles on June 26, 2004 08:00 PM

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Charles:

The "in your heart you know he's right/in yer guts you know he's nuts" rule is probably the most important moral tool that we have.

Logic is a very important thing, but if you can't get over it and just do what your intuition says to do, you're lost.

Posted by: Jim D on June 26, 2004 08:27 PM

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I'm sorry Charles but David Hume is the giant here and Rawls, the pipsqueak. You are torturing us ( I mean me) with this:
"There is no ethical system based on logic alone that cannot be subverted."
followed directly with this ( that very logical basis):
"The belief that there is an eternal, transcendent principle called justice is essential for any genuinely functional ethical system."
Grab your copy of The Treatise and dive in before it's too late.

Posted by: calmo on June 26, 2004 08:31 PM

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Rawls is "shrill"? His arguments "have only one thing going for them"? Hmm...

Posted by: contrapositive on June 26, 2004 08:53 PM

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Nozick actually wrote "Anarchy, State, Utopia" in response to Rawls "Theory of Justice".

Posted by: Michael Greinecker on June 26, 2004 09:56 PM

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I think that it is very difficult to formulate theories of government, and I don't see where Hume's explanatory theories are so much better than Rawls. Doesn't Hume have a kind of vague utilitarian theory of government? Doesn't Hume thinks that originally there were small societies that were ruled by voluntary public convention? And that the more "useful" conventions tended to win out. But why cannot a convention be viewed as an implicit contract or agreement?

Original contract people say there was an original agreement, perhaps implicit, that was required to keep life from being extremely brutal, nasty and short. That sounds like a utilitarian argument to me. Why are people so upset by "nasty, brutal and short"? And as an explanation of anything it is just as vague as Hume. If I am a big aggressive charismatic and very optimistic type who thinks I can beat everyone up and recruit a squad of sycophantic goons, well, I am sure that MY life will not be brutal nasty and short, so I should I give a fig for any social contract?

It seems to me that the main difference is that original contract people try to whip up a natural law or ethical imperative, while Hume just sees empirical patterns.

And Hume seems to depart from his utilitarianism when he needs to reaffirm his natural conservatism. So governments exist and continue as long as they are useful and beneficial enough to gain popular support. But he also says that any violent (which I think means "rapid" and "radical") is harmful, and obedience to convention in itself is important for any government to continue. But that is different from asserting that the conventions exist and can continue because they are useful.

And couldn't a clever chap make as much fun of how to determine the "usefulness" of a social system, as Hume makes of the idea of an original contract?

I think the foundation of social reality is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery. So Hume and Rawls, and even Nozick are fun to read, but is any of it really convincing? I don't think so.

But then I am rusty. I just reread the Original Contract on the internet, and it is the first time I have read this kind of grand political philosophy in years. So, hey, I am an ultra pipsqueak here. But I will listen to anyone from the Hume team who wants to argue.

Posted by: jml on June 26, 2004 09:56 PM

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Well: to Charles: Rawls does not claim absolute validity for his theory. To Dr. DeLong: Hume's arguments work against any view that holds that our political obligations are based on an actual contract. What you write above suggests that you might think that Rawls has such a view. But he doesn't. He's quite clear that the contract is hypothetical. This gets out of objections like: how do we know that there was such a contract, or what its terms were? Why should be be bound by it, since we weren't there? Etc. Obviously, it does this by introducing a huge new objection, namely: if the whole contract is imaginary, why on earth should we be bound by it? Why not imagine a different contract, in which everyone agrees to obey me in all things? (Bow before Hilzoy! Bow before Hilzoy NOW!!!) If, as seems obvious, my ability to imagine this contract doesn't imply any obligations on your part, why does Rawls think that his ability to imagine the Original Position does?

His answer is that the conditions in the OP reflect conditions we do accept as governing arguments about justice. If you and I were arguing about whether some arrangement is just, and I say: well, it benefits ME, that's not an argument for the claim that it is just. This is (oversimplifying a bit) why parties to the OP do not know who they are: arguments based on who they are are (according to us) not sound, and the fact that parties to the OP do not know who they are is supposed to model that fact. The other features of the OP are likewise supposed to model our convictions about arguments for justice.

Suppose you accepted the convictions in question, and the claim that the OP correctly models them: then, Rawls says, you should regard yourself as bound by the decision reached by the parties to it. This is not the sort of argument that Hume attacked, nor (as best I can see) do his arguments tell against it.

Shrill and sloppy are about the last words you'd want to use to describe Rawls. And about Matthew's idea that he should have kept on revising it: he worked on it for about twenty years before he published it. One can disagree with the arguments, and lots of people do. But whatever it is, it's not sloppy, or rushed into print for the sake of getting a provocative thesis out there.

Posted by: hilzoy on June 26, 2004 10:18 PM

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I have a different conception of the human mind than that of Hume, calmo. Consider the passage "Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality. therefore, are not conclusions of our reason." (Treatise III:I)

This conception of the mind separates reason from feeling and denies the capacity of the intellect to transform the morality of a human being. Yet I think of that generation of white southerners who allowed and helped the New South to emerge. The instincts that had been inculcated into them from birth screamed that their skin color made them the rulers. Yet because their intellects informed them that science had discovered no fundamental difference between the races, they tamed those emotions and transformed themselves and (with substantial help from African Americans and northeners) the South.

Is the intellect then so feeble as Hume imagines? I do not think so. I see the mind as being far more integrated than Hume does, and that strength arises from all corners. (Then again, Hume also *waffles*, saying "...reason, in a strict and philosophical sense, can have influence on our conduct only after two ways: Either when it excites a passion ... or when it discovers the connexion of causes and effects, so as to afford us means of exerting any passion..." He did just say that it was incapable of exciting passions and now he says it can.)

Or again, he says, "From all this it follows, that we have no real or universal motive for observing the laws of equity, but the very equity and merit of that observance; and as no action can be equitable or meritorious, where it cannot arise from some separate motive, there is here an evident sophistry and reasoning in a circle. Unless, therefore, we will allow, that nature has established a sophistry, and rendered it necessary and unavoidable, we must allow, that the sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature, but arises artificially, though necessarily from education, and human conventions." (III:II) Then he waffles and says, "To avoid giving offence, I must here observe, that when I deny justice to be a natural virtue, I make use of the word, natural, only as opposed to artificial. In another sense of the word; as no principle of the human mind is more natural than a sense of virtue; so no virtue is more natural than justice."

Thus he argues that because human beings are inclined to educate themselves and develop conventions, they tend to develop a sense of justice. And here the argument stumbles. Highly educated people, people well informed of conventions, are capable of acting most unjustly.

And here again, "In vain should we expect to find, in uncultivated nature, a remedy to this inconvenience; or hope for any inartificial principle of the human mind, which might controul those partial affections, and make us overcome the temptations arising from our circumstances. The idea of justice can never serve to this purpose, or be taken for a natural principle, capable of inspiring men with an equitable conduct towards each other. That virtue, as it is now understood. would never have been dreamed of among rude and savage men." (III:II) And yet from what I can tell, a sense of justice arose as one of the earliest and most basic concepts of human civilization. We find it in the emergence of laws, which insist that human beings not be treated differently from one another. Two thousand years ago, we find it in a more highly developed form, in the Golden Rule, which insists that not only must we treat people equally, but with the same love we give ourselves. Yet probably these ideas originate in pre-history.

And so I come around to this: The intellect can move people to act justly. Yet the intellect can be highly-developed among the unjust. Therefore, the intellect is not divorced from the rest of the mind, and the rest of the mind includes a sense of justice, better developed in some of us than in others. Perhaps justice is hardwired into us through a sense of empathy, but in any case, it is an essential aspect of being human. If we try to found an ethical system on any principle other than justice as a natural and indwelling element of human nature, we construct a logical edifice that cannot be maintained. By calling justice unnatural, Hume has done that.

I don't want to present myself as a Hume scholar, which I *surely* am not. This visit to The Treatise was my first. What I am is a student of the human mind who scratched the surface of Hume's writing and found an arid and unsatisfactory soil. I find that Rawls, though he may be less elegant as a thinker, is closer to truth.

As with all philosophical inquiry, YMMV.

Posted by: charles on June 26, 2004 10:25 PM

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"his thought-provoking work out there in the press, attracting decades worth of criticisms, counter-criticisms, suggestions for improvement, and so forth, thus becoming the major figure in postwar political philosophy." What's wrong with that ?

Posted by: Hans Rudolf Suter on June 26, 2004 10:55 PM

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I wish I could think and express myself on this topic as well as hilzoy (I BOW to hilzoy!!). I think he is absolutely correct. Rawls argument is offering an thought experiment and intellectual construct that forces us to think consistently about one notion of justice.

Unless you are a hog-wild Platonist who believes that our pre-exsiting souls sat in council before undergoing the amnesia of birth, it is hard to consider the original position as anything other than a thought experiment.

It is not nearly so clear what original contract is supposed to be.

Posted by: jml on June 26, 2004 11:42 PM

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I had the same reaction to you, Brad, when I read Hume for the first time: that's to say, I wondered why contemporary and subsequent generations of philosophers even bothered. (My interest was more on epistemology than political philosophy, but I do find reading Hume on pretty much anything a 'well, that's pretty much it' experience.)

Posted by: nick on June 26, 2004 11:46 PM

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Hume's hoary old criticism of the notion of a social contract badly missed the point. The point is not that a social contract is an agreement actually in force that specifies and grounds our actual social practices. (And there would be a circularity here: if the supposed social contract were the source of our norms, what is the source of the norm that one must obey contracts?) A social contract theory is a counterfactual, whose fiction serves to illuminate and criticize another counterfactual: the nature and basis of social obligation. "Suppose there is such a social contract in place; observe how badly we observe the contract." The fiction serves to bring out the alienations concealed in supposedly factual social agreements, so as to evoke and bring to consciousness the underlying normative resources for more genuine agreements, including perhaps the pre-contractual basis for a norm about contracts.

Posted by: john c. halasz on June 27, 2004 03:11 AM

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Just to go back to the original candidate for a social contract theory, that of Hobbes, in invoking the violence and fearfulness of the "state of nature"- (Did Hobbes actually observe such a "state of nature"? No, it was sheer Calvinist angst, a dread already latent in existing social relations.)- Hobbes sought to bring about a recognition of the basis of authority: the need for men to protect themselves from themselves. Social contract theories ask one to look into their funhouse mirrors and see if one can recognize oneself in them.

Posted by: john c. halasz on June 27, 2004 03:35 AM

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Charles calls it "... an eternal, transcendent principle called justice ..."

Jim D calls it "... intuition ..."

But as Hume points out: "We shall only observe ... that though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard, by which any controversy can ever be decided."

When two people differ as to what ‘justice’ is, or which ‘intuition’ is correct, then those differences must be adjudicated. I can find nothing more ‘relative’ than the differing standards of human justice, or different intuitions (looked at through the ages, or in one age across societies).

So where does morality come from? The best answer I’ve found is given by evolutionary psychology. Try Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal”.


Posted by: skip on June 27, 2004 04:39 AM

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Sigh. This is one of the most misunderstood things about Rawls. Rawls in no way is arguing that there ever was such a social contract, rendering Hume (and the communitarians') point irrelevant. The original position is a heuristic we use when defining what our principles of justice are. It is just a part of the process of reflective equilibrium. Rawls, particularly in his later work (Political Liberalism) is concerned with the character of democratic discourse, i.e. what sort of arguments are to be permitted in a just democratic society.

And I've heard a lot about Hume, but what about Kant? His work was in part a reaction to Hume's critique that still allows us to develop a notion of objective justice. And this is particularly salient given Kant's influence on Rawls. Of couse, Kant is notoriously difficult to read.....

Posted by: Publius on June 27, 2004 05:02 AM

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Re: "Rawls in no way is arguing that there ever was such a social contract, rendering Hume (and the communitarians') point irrelevant. The original position is a heuristic we use when defining what our principles of justice are.:

But why would this heuristic be an interesting one to use?

Posted by: Brad DeLong on June 27, 2004 06:29 AM

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"But why would this heuristic be an interesting one to use?"

I tried to say something about this above. This time I'll just quote Rawls: "It is natural to ask why, if this agreement is never actually entered into, we should take any interest in these principles, moral or otherwise. The answer is that the conditions embodied in the description of the original position are ones that we do in fact accept. Or if we do not, then perhaps we can be persuaded to do so by philosophical reflection. Each aspect of the contractual situation can be given supporting grounds. Thus what we shall do is to collect together into one conception a number of conditions on principles that we are ready upon due consideration to recognize as reasonable. These constraints express what we are prepared to regard as limits on fair terms of social cooperation." (TJ, p. 21)

If (a) we do in fact accept these conditions, and (b) they are accurately modelled by the OP, then we should accept the conclusions reached in the OP, since they follow from views we actually hold.

Posted by: hilzoy on June 27, 2004 06:43 AM

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Many people have posted most of what I’d want to say about this (the idea that Rawls is “shrill” or “sloppy” is, to say the least, a bit silly, and needs to be backed up, that Ygelisia doesn’t know much about the history of Theory of Justice, and especially that anyone who understood either Hume’s “OTOC” and Rawls’s “TJ” would understand that Hume’s arguments don’t really reach Rawls, that Rawls was clearly aware of Hume’s views (he’d lectured on them for years, after all), and so not make the rather stupid mistake of thinking that Hume’s attack on Locke would also suffice for an attack on Rawls.)
I’ll add just one more point: Yegelisia says that every years thousands of undergraduates notice “pretty dubious” arguments and “obvious flaws”. I’m sure he thinks he did as an undergrad, too. Mostly this confirms what I’ve long thought- that Ygelisia is a bad guide to philosophy and political theory, as he’s not really risen above his undergrad level understanding of it. I’ve TA’d for classes (at Penn, so not w/ stupid kids) where both TJ and OTOC are read and talked about. Lots of kids in the class think they notice “obvious” flaws in both works. They are almost always wrong, and their thinking this is almost always due to not understanding the work in question. There’s good reason to think the same applied to Ygelisia. Maybe he should read it again, more closely. The same goes for Brad, if he really thinks OTOC is such that it refutes even parts of TJ- obviously you didn’t understand either work. Finally, I don’t understand why people read Ygelisia. He has no particular knowledge base, but just spews off what he’s thinking. He’s little more than a somewhat more literate gossip columnist

Posted by: Matt on June 27, 2004 07:13 AM

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hilzoy, i assume if i or you do not naturally
fall in the we that force is used for compliance?
Or is it possible to fall outside the we and
that is the support for enforcing involuntary
compliance?

Posted by: jeremy on June 27, 2004 08:41 AM

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Charles (non Hume scholar)
Me too. Even worse (better?): non scholar. But the (I mean my) torture is there nonetheless and worse with the intervening (scholarly and not-so-scholarly) posts. Am I in a position to interpret Hume for you or anyone else here? Nope. Can I guide you in any way in your interests "of the human mind"? I suppose I would have stopped posting if I thought this was just a typing exercise. Allow me these *few* words -in the event that the last is true.
Philosophy (for me, and I want to drag as many others, kicking and screaming in here as well but some absolutely refuse and persue other disreputable interests --like economics only to rue the day...) is not difficult in the sense that say, Publius can say "Kant is difficult". No, it's difficult because one has to wade past all the bethumpery to start swimming. Easy to get misled in this game.( Philosophy as Misledhoodity). Easy to get mired in scholarly ( I mean largely self-serving)debates. Easy to reduce a genuine interest/issue to a beauty contest.
I am near the end of my tether here. 'There are few other texts worth reading as much as Hume's Human Nature.' is the substance I'd like to impart, but fear that to some, this will be seen as merely casting a vote in the beauty pagent.
Charles reading this work and preferring (so far) Rawls encourages me to revisit an old favorite. Thank you for that.

Posted by: calmo on June 27, 2004 08:57 AM

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I'm happy to oblige in this small way, calmo, but I really wish you-- and indeed all of those who argue in favor of Hume-- would comment on what struck me as the slipperiness and inconstancy of his arguments in The Treatise.

Is the intellect so feeble that it cannot move human beings to action? Does it work only by arousing the passions? Is justice natural to Mankind or is it natural only in the sense that a desire for what Hume claims are the real foundations of justice such as education and convention is innate? The quotes, which are in my previous post, are the sort of thing that sour me on philophical reading.

One point raised by skip should be addressed: That what is considered just varies widely by era and by geography. What I would point out is that those notions are converging and converging in a predictable manner. The standard that all people should be treated equally, without regard to race, gender or social status, has been accepted through much of the world, defended only by reactionary movements such as Wahabism and other forms of fundamentalism.

I therefore see no contradiction in saying that a sense of justice is innate and accepting that conceptions of its fulfillment have varied.

Posted by: Charles on June 27, 2004 09:56 AM

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Jeremy: you writ: "hilzoy, i assume if i or you do not naturally
fall in the we that force is used for compliance?" Actually, no. The outcome of the original position is not a government, but two principles which Rawls argues that we should use to assess the justice of social institutions. He is not trying to force you to assess the justice of social institutions at all, let alone in this way, but to persuade you that your own commitments would lead you to do so.

Charles: I don't want to get into a Hume digression, but: Hume thinks that the mind has enormous impact on our actions. What he denies is that reason can. This is mostly due to his notion of reason, which is quite narrow, not to any doubt that thinking about things can alter our conduct.

Posted by: hilzoy on June 27, 2004 10:03 AM

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Discussions of Justice are always very confusing (to me) because there I never quite see what the "possible states of justice" are. To give a specific example: Sentence 1 of "Theory of Justice" begins
"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is to systems of thought."
Now truth has never been defined per-se (although Tarski came pretty close to saying about as much as you can say about in a formal sense) but at least there are lots ways of thinking about worlds in which truth-values of assertions are different.

About the closest thing corresponding to "possible worlds" theories of truth in this abstract semantic sense, in the social sciences (that I know of) are "models of social choice" (some of which are likely to be excoriated here anyway, partly because of the nature of some of the earlier models and also because of an aversion to formal models).

In understanding what is, we should understand what might be. In understanding what should be, we might also first begin by understanding what might be.

Posted by: CSTAR on June 27, 2004 10:48 AM

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Thanks, hilzoy. I thought that an unrealistically narrow definition of reason by Hume might be why he concluded that it had no force to spur action. But it still seems to me that he contradicts himself.

Posted by: Charles on June 27, 2004 03:04 PM

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pages 19 to 102 of Rawls "Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy" is a summary of a close reading of Hume. 53+ especially: it refutes the sloppy (most likely second hand) reading of Rawls and clarifies the discussion about Hume above.


Available for free online, assuming the reader doesn't find the "sample" text in the background too annoying:

http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/RAWLEC.html

Posted by: Shai on June 27, 2004 09:15 PM

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Rawls' entire argument is a ridiculous bait and switch. The "original position" argument serves only to conceal the ludicrous assumptions he has to make to support his form of egalitarianism (the idea that the goal of an ethical society should be to produce the most wellbeing for its least well off members). He does this by defining "rational self interest" in a way completely alien to how rational self interest has been conceived by everyone else talking about the term and to how actual people act when pursuing their self interest. Specifically he assumes that rationally self interested beings are the most paranoid risk-minimizers possible, caring only about the worst thing that could possibly happen to them and trying to make it less bad.

The original position argument is a rhetorical device that serves to distract attention from this ludicrous assumption. Most people who read Rawls seem to come to the impression that his argument is based on the original position and that if you accept the basic concept of an original position where people don't know what their positions in the world or even their talents will be, then what they would support is a Rawlsian society. This red herring thus gets people arguing over whether an original position style "hypothetical contract" is a meaningful argument.

However, what the original position actually gives you with a normal conception of rational self-interest, rather than Rawls' highly odd version, is simply utilitarianism. Rationally self-interested individuals in the original position should desire a society that maximizes the expected utility of the average person, because that gives them the biggest chance of winning out. If they're somewhat risk-seeking or risk-averse you would get policies skewed a bit differently, but you certainly wouldn't get Rawlsian egalitarianism.

If Rawls had actually made it clear that he was starting with a very unusual definition of self interest and that his argument totally depended on it, that argument never would have become famous. But by emphasizing the rhetorical device of the original position to direct attention away from the crucial assumption underlying the argument, he provided an interesting-sounding case for extreme egalitarianism. And the benefit of extreme egalitarianism from the POV of left wing philosophers is that while utilitarianism makes the benefits of egalitarianism an empirical question - you have to actually make the case that some egalitarian policy will in fact increase the general welfare - Rawlsian egalitarianism bypasses that whole thorny issue and just says right off that egalitarianism is morally required based on how the ethical system itself is set up.

I vehemently disagree with that position, being a utilitaran, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of people attracted to it circa 1980 when in empirical terms, right wing economists had for years been making a strong push to claim that on "utilitarian" grounds (actually the economists' utilitarianism based within their efficient market theories, having a very strained relationship to actual wellbeing), egalitarianism was quite a bad idea. Over the past 25 years this idea has been savaged by empirical science and lost a lot of favor among the economics profession itself. But back then, egalitarians would have had a lot of "incentive" to come up with a rationale for their ideas that didn't depend on trying to beat the right on empirical grounds.

I've always thought that utilitarianism's number one prolem among philosophers is that it is highly empirical, but modern academic philosophers are not empirical at all. The original utilitarians like Bentham and Mill were renaissance men - philosophers, political activists, and playing roles in the development of the social sciences of their day (especially the origins of political economy, now economics). Modern philosophers on the other hand are usually complete outsiders to science and even to politics. So they're simply not qualified to win arguments with scientists or policy wonks on empirical grounds. Their only tool is reasoning from elementary principles and basic social intuitions - a strategy which requires new theories of justice for every new argument, not a recognition that we've had the best theory of justice for centuries and should be moving more toward studying the practice. A good example is the one modern philosopher bigger in the public eye than John Rawls - Peter Singer, the utilitarian animal rights activist. As far as philosophical theory goes Singer didn't tread much new ground. He didn't come up with a new theory of justice. But he managed to make a decent argument (one I don't wholly agree with but he has some fundamentally good points) that animals should be treated as having some subset of the rights that humans do because of clearly shared features of the mind, based entirely on theories of justice and general intuitions that are already widely accepted. And even Singer is working within the limitations of academic philosophy - his arguments rest on things like the details of comparative neurology between species, but as far as I can tell he hasn't really made a point of learning the relevant neuroscience.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on June 28, 2004 12:16 AM

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But given that inequality does in itself produce negative consequences (from the social, e.g. homicide rates, to the physical, e.g. stress and psychological e.g. esteem), then wouldn't a utilitarian position need to give some regard to egalitarianism, as the worse off would lose extra utility over and above that which is allocated to them, and therefore not be maximising utility in a real sense? Isn't that part of what the Rawlsian position is doing, considering the implications of inequality on utility?

Posted by: Alex Fradera on June 28, 2004 06:03 AM

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'The "original position" argument serves only to conceal the ludicrous assumptions he has to make to support his form of egalitarianism (the idea that the goal of an ethical society should be to produce the most wellbeing for its least well off members). He does this by defining "rational self interest" in a way completely alien to how rational self interest has been conceived by everyone else talking about the term and to how actual people act when pursuing their self interest. Specifically he assumes that rationally self interested beings are the most paranoid risk-minimizers possible, caring only about the worst thing that could possibly happen to them and trying to make it less bad.'

I have to say that when I read things like this I can't tell whether the author has simply not bothered to read Rawls, or has read him in an environment desinged to systematically misrepresent him. The incredibly clever thing about Rawls's theory is that its presuppositions are bland and something-close-to-consensual. If he is in error, it is because he argues invalidly from these assumptions. But the assumptions are innocent (the 'fundamental intuitive ideas'). And he is absolutely clear that the maximin decision rule is to be used only in the very special circumstances described by the OP (in which the stakes are extremely high, and in which the decisionmaker is a trustee of soemone else's interests). All this is easier to see in Justice as Fairness, but its there in TJ for people who care to read.

Posted by: harry on June 28, 2004 06:43 AM

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In re "But given that inequality does in itself produce negative consequences (from the social, e.g. homicide rates, to the physical, e.g. stress and psychological e.g. esteem), then wouldn't a utilitarian position need to give some regard to egalitarianism, as the worse off would lose extra utility over and above that which is allocated to them, and therefore not be maximising utility in a real sense? Isn't that part of what the Rawlsian position is doing, considering the implications of inequality on utility?"

Rawls' is meant to be a semi-consequentialist argument. Harsanyi begining in 1953 onward tries to formulate a utilitarian variant of the equality argument. Rawls gives credit for this in TOJ.

Nor is it clear that utilitarianism "wouldn't get Rawlsian egalitarianism." Harsanyi's 1977 argued that a ultilitarian choice between social systems should be made "under the assumption that, in either system, he would have the same probability of occupying any one of the available social positions." (Rational Behavior and Bargaining Equilibrium in Games and Social Situations.)

But part of the various confusions may stem from Rawls trying to occupy this weird middle ground. Roughly speaking, we can think of 4 types of social contract arguments--varying on 2 dimensions. One is whether the contract is historical (e.g., Locke) or hypothetical (e.g., Hobbes, Rousseau, Nozick, Rawls). The other is whether our adherence to it is motivated by morality (e.g., Locke, Rousseau, Nozick) or prudence (e.g., Hobbes). Rawls' is clearly a hypothetical contract but he seems to go back and forth on whether we should be motivated by prudence or by morality. It almost as if he suggests that the first move (decision of principles) is prudence (by a risk-averse agent) but that we should adhere to it out of morality (in a Kantian, stick to those principles that I will to be universal sort of way). A spilt reasoning is not unknown. The rule-ultiltarians (Harrod, e.g.) suggested long ago that the best set-up may be one in which institutions are structured along utilitarian principles but agents who live under them adhere to Kantian ones.

Again, this may make for confusion but it doesn't seem to stem from an "unusual definition of self interest".

Posted by: Robin on June 28, 2004 08:12 AM

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Robin: you write that Rawls "seems to go back and forth on whether we should be motivated by prudence or by morality.". I don't think that this is right. The argument for Rawls' view as a whole, including the structure of the original position, is not based on prudence. The parties to the original position, however, are supposed to decide on principles based on their own self-interest. These are two totally different things.

To use one of Rawls' own analogies, consider trying to divide a cake fairly by letting one person cut the cake and everyone else choose slices first. This procedure only works on the assumption that people will try to get the biggest slice -- if various people started to say, "oh, undeserving little me doesn't need any cake at all", the whole procedure would be screwed up, and it would be possible for the cake-slicer to try to game the system by taking advantage of other people's unselfishness. So if you were trying to design a fair cake-division procedure along these lines, you'd probably stipulate that everyone go for the biggest piece. You would, in other words, stipulate that people be selfish in order to design a procedure that arrived at fair results. But this stipulation only holds within the procedure, as kids generally know: they know that it's OK to try to choose the biggest piece, but not OK to say "well, since you've stipulated that I am motivated by the desire to get as much cake as possible, I will now grab the cake, run into the bathroom, lock the door behind me, and eat the whole thing myself."

Posted by: hilzoy on June 28, 2004 08:58 AM

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"I have to say that when I read things like this I can't tell whether the author has simply not bothered to read Rawls, or has read him in an environment desinged to systematically misrepresent him. The incredibly clever thing about Rawls's theory is that its presuppositions are bland and something-close-to-consensual. If he is in error, it is because he argues invalidly from these assumptions. But the assumptions are innocent (the 'fundamental intuitive ideas'). And he is absolutely clear that the maximin decision rule is to be used only in the very special circumstances described by the OP (in which the stakes are extremely high, and in which the decisionmaker is a trustee of soemone else's interests). All this is easier to see in Justice as Fairness, but its there in TJ for people who care to read."

This is simply another bit of the sleight of hand - the maximin rule is utterly ridiculous (and fundamental to his argument), but it's only supposed to be used in the original position because if you try to apply it to the real world it instantly becomes apparent how thoroughly ridiculous it is.

Rawls' assumptions are not "innocent" - the use of "maximin" (maximally paranoid risk aversion) is a fundamental aspect of his argument and utterly changes the results of the argument from being an argument which would favor utilitarianism to being an argument which favors an odd kind of egalitarianism . It's utilitarianism which is well known for being derivable from a few generally accepted assumptions such as bayesian rationality and giving equal moral weight to the wellbeing of all people.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on June 28, 2004 09:07 AM

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Hilzoy, what distinguishes prudence rrom enlightened self-interest?

It seems that prudence (enlightened self-interest of egoistic, risk averse individual confronting a equiprobable chance of occupying social positions) is used to generate the principles from the orginal position. The claim that we understand the content of selfish actions in context seems just trivally true--motivations plus constraints shape outcome just seems to be the core of folk psychology explanations. Morality appears to be what is to make agents adhere to the principles, or rather sustain the institutions shaped by the principles of justice.

Posted by: Robin on June 28, 2004 09:39 AM

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Ian, I agree that the maximin rule is adhoc and that whether the contractors in the original position would accept utilitarianism is unclear. However, Rawls advances another argument against utilitarianism.

You may already be familiar with this one, but to recap: utilitarianism holds that society should seek to maximize some measure such as happiness or satisfaction. Because utilitarianism aims to maximizes the sum of utility over an entire society, it prefers whichever distribution maximizes utility. However, the distribution that maximizes utility may do so by distributing benefits and burdens in a way that seems to violate our understanding of justice.

One other note: I think this discussion is focusing too exclusively on OP at the expensive of ignoring Rawls' other arguments for his conclusions. As Brian Barry notes in his study of Rawls' theory, Rawls advances a variety of arguments to defend each claim he makes, some of which involve the OP and some of which don't. It is important to realize that the OP falls short of constituting the whole of Rawls' case for egalitarianism and the difference principle.

Posted by: Javier on June 28, 2004 12:26 PM

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First of all can I say how gratifying it is to read a debate of this caliber on a political blog? Even though I disagree with a lot of what is being said, it still demonstrates that bloggers are capable of high-quality intellectual discussion.

Second, I have a blog of my own dealing with the theoretical implications of current events, but I'm at a loss on how to get anyone to read it....

Anyway, the reason that the original position is not a "bait and switch" nor maximin a "ridiculous assumption" is the same reason that utilitarianism is an unacceptable moral position. The problem with utilitarianism is that it does not take seriously the separateness of persons- it is willing to sacrifice the interests of some people to the interests of all. Of course, those "some people" tend to be from ethnic or religious minorities, or the poor. The original position, by abstracting from us our knowledge of our own place in society (race, gender, class) or our belief system (religion), embodies the notion of impartiality. But doing so would also make us afraid that we might end up one of the untouchables who would be sacrificed. So we go with maximin to avoid that fate. And we make sure that any maldistributions benefits not just the whole of society, but those who have generally gotten the least out of that society, hence the difference principle.

Of course, utilitarianism also runs into tremendous difficulties because of expensive tastes and the tamed housewife syndrome, both of which exacerbate its distributional inequalities. Which is why every attempt to salvage utilitarianism as an attractive moral doctrine has been a total failure.

Posted by: Publius on June 28, 2004 12:28 PM

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Publius -- giving us the url might be a start :)

Posted by: hilzoy on June 28, 2004 01:32 PM

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'This is simply another bit of the sleight of hand - the maximin rule is utterly ridiculous (and fundamental to his argument), but it's only supposed to be used in the original position because if you try to apply it to the real world it instantly becomes apparent how thoroughly ridiculous it is.'

If you go over to Chris Bertram's follow-up of Brad's post, you'll find an articulate account of why the OP matter's normatively. Not that Hilzoy hasn't already explained perfectly well above, but I presume that you have read Hilzoy's comments.

BTW, I should have said that I am not persuaded that the maximin rule is the right rule in the OP -- I don't find Rawls's argument convincing. But the right rule -- satismin -- still would yeild something very close to the difference principle, if not the difference pricniple itself (see Joshua Cohen's best article, 'Democratic Equality' in ETHICS 1989 for an argument that the maximin rule is not necessary to yeild the difference principle).

Again, have the people saying that the maxmin rule is wrong, ridiculous, ad hoc, etc, actually read the argument for it? Or is this just received unwisdom from superficial teaching? It would be much more interesting to have an argument about Rawls's actual thinking...

Posted by: harry on June 28, 2004 02:03 PM

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Harry, "ad hoc" was too strong. I simply don't find Rawls arguments for the maximin convincing. I think the maximin rule only makes sense if we assume that the contractors are highly risk adverse and deny them information about probabilities. I believe that in fact the contractors would seek to maximize their utility by gauging the probabilities of various outcomes and using those probabilities to judge their expected utility. This doesn't mean that they wouldn't agree upon the difference principle, only that the maximin criterion won't do the trick. I believe that John Roemer has argued something along these lines.

However, I admit that I don't know much about this area and I haven't read the Cohen article.

Posted by: Javier on June 28, 2004 04:03 PM

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"You may already be familiar with this one, but to recap: utilitarianism holds that society should seek to maximize some measure such as happiness or satisfaction. Because utilitarianism aims to maximizes the sum of utility over an entire society, it prefers whichever distribution maximizes utility. However, the distribution that maximizes utility may do so by distributing benefits and burdens in a way that seems to violate our understanding of justice."

Ah, yes. Start out by assuming that utilitarianism is false, and then by a long chain of argument show that utilitarianism is false.

This is an example of Rawls and most ethical philosophers having an extremely different approach to ethics than that used by most utilitarians. The approach of most ethical philosophers is to accept a collection of "moral intuitions" and fairly specific principles, and then try and come up with a set of rules that more or less captures those intuitions and principles. Failing to agree with strong moral intuitions is generally considered an argument against an ethical theory.

The utilitarian position is more typically one of deriving ethics from a set of very basic general principles, and if the results don't always agree with intuition then so much the worse for intuition. The only distributional justice assumption in utilitarianism is that the wellbeing of all people is equal. Measuring it against any other egalitarian justice criteria is precisely equivalent to saying that you never bought its starting assumptions. (However, saying this directly makes for an extremely short book/paper so philosphers such as Rawls will go through a long chain of reasoning to show in some precise way how utilitarian results disagree with their assumptions).

"Anyway, the reason that the original position is not a "bait and switch" nor maximin a "ridiculous assumption" is the same reason that utilitarianism is an unacceptable moral position. The problem with utilitarianism is that it does not take seriously the separateness of persons- it is willing to sacrifice the interests of some people to the interests of all."

If I were to make a list of all-time silliest arguments against utilitarianism, this would be near the top. The very essence of morality is making tradeoffs between the interests of different people. Morality happens when I can't do whatever the heck I want because it will hurt somebody else, or violate some rule, or whatever. Every ethical system makes tradeoffs between the interests of people. Utilitarianism says that in doing so, the interests of different people should be given equal weight with each other. Rawlsian egalitarianism says all that really matters is improving the worst-case outcome. Rules-based moralities say that level of wellbeing itself doesn't matter, what matters is that tradeoffs be made according to certain rules. It is impossible to construct a moral system that does not "sacrifice the interests of some people to the interests of all". Every time there is a situation in which people have a conflict of interest, and therefore it's at all meaningful to call it a moral dilemma, all possible solutions will resolve the conflict of interest to the detriment of one or more parties involved.

"Of course, those "some people" tend to be from ethnic or religious minorities, or the poor."

What the heck are you talking about? Utilitarianism is fundamentally about the interests of everyone having equal weight - regardless of race, sex, creed, position in the income distribution, and so on. And if you look at what positions have been advocated by the major utilitarian thinkers, they tend to be extremely cosmopolitan and egalitarian. In the 19th century, for example, Mill and other noted utilitarians were advocates for the total equality of women, and today the most well-known utilitarian is Peter Singer, an advocate of extending many "human" rights to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on June 28, 2004 07:37 PM

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"However, what the original position actually gives you with a normal conception of rational self-interest, rather than Rawls' highly odd version, is simply utilitarianism. Rationally self-interested individuals in the original position should desire a society that maximizes the expected utility of the average person, because that gives them the biggest chance of winning out. If they're somewhat risk-seeking or risk-averse you would get policies skewed a bit differently, but you certainly wouldn't get Rawlsian egalitarianism."

Not true. The utility information employed in the argument doesn´t suffice to establish utilitarianism. The whole issue is surveyed in John Roemers "Theories of Distributive Justice".

Posted by: Michael Greinecker on June 29, 2004 06:06 AM

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"Not true. The utility information employed in the argument doesn´t suffice to establish utilitarianism."

In the Rawlsian original position, the decision makers are supposed to know the basic realities of human life and human societies, just absolutely nothing about what position they personally would occupy in the society (so they can only assume that they have an equal chance of being put into any of the positions). This means two things. This means that their expected utility is exactly equivalent to the utilitarian sum of utility across the whole society. It also means that they know enough about the real world to have some basic ideas about practical government and social organization. Therefore the result (if they are anything like conventionally "rationally self interested" agents) is that they should select the social order which they believe, in practice, would maximize utility. In great contrast to the Rawlsian "minimize how badly off the very worst off are" scenario (which is supported neither by rational self-interest, nor by a basic knowledge of how human societies and the world works).

Note that no knowledge of human nature or the real world whatsoever is necessary to get the agents deciding in a utilitarian manner. The moment you say they're rationally self-interested but lack information on who they will be, that automatically means they should use utilitarian decision making. More or less additional information simply changes what the inputs to that decision making are - how much do they know what average human desires are vs. how much do they have to guess, how much do they know about real world systems of government vs. how much do they have to theorize, etc.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on June 29, 2004 09:06 AM

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I´m sorry, but it simply doesn´t work that way. The information necessary to have a well defined decision problem in the OP doesn´t suffice for establishing utilitarianism. The so called "proof" of what you are stating due to Harsanyi is flawed. Sen and others have shown that the informational requirements of utilitarianism are strictly higher than the ones needed for the decision problem in the original position.

Posted by: Michael Greinecker on June 29, 2004 01:45 PM

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"Sen and others have shown that the informational requirements of utilitarianism are strictly higher than the ones needed for the decision problem in the original position."

The information requirements for utilitarianism are zero. The assumptions which utilitarianism is founded on do not in any way depend for their validity on how much information is available to make decisions with - they are about what framework should be used to evaluate whatever information does happen to be available. If extremely little information is available, then what you essentially get is probabilistic guesswork, with utilitarianism providing the formal guide on how to choose guessing strategies.

It's been a while since I read anything by Amartya Sen, but IIRC he wrote primarily as an economist criticizing the use of "utilitarianism" in economics. I put the word in quotes because the economist's "utilitarianism" is based on "utility" not simply as a word for measurable subjective wellbeing, but as a very specific economic term of art that carries a large amount of baggage from the assumptions of economic theories. The economist's utility function is treated as highly restricted - utility is viewed primarily in terms of things that one might come to personally possess. And utility is "measured" not in any direct way but by evaluating choices made in a free market. Economists even use ordinal rather than cardinal utility - in their models, you can't make any utility comparison between people of the form "right now person X has twice the utility of person Y". To make a long story short, utilitarianism as a philosophy outside of economics doesn't have any of this baggage (and is fundamentally based on the concept of making interpersonal utility comparisons, which economists reject).

IIRC, Sen basically made an argument that economists' use of "utilitarianism" to argue for market optimums was flawed because the choices people make are highly constrained by their circumstances. A poor person might work quite hard to be able to eat at McDonalds, but never eat at a fancy restaurant, while a rich person would do the opposite. An economist might claim that these choices tell you a lot about the utility of those involved, like for some reason cheap unhealthy meals are very high-utility for poor people. Sen would say that these market choices don't tell you much about how well people are really doing because there are too many extenuating circumstances (level of income, social order, and so forth) which constrain their choices, may create perverse incentives, etc. Therefore he prefers more objective measures of wellbeing such as lifespan and health (he uses the fancy term "functionalities", basically capabilities to do more things).

The important thing to recognize is that all of Sen's critiques of "utilitarianism" in this vein have absolutely nothing to with criticizing the philosophy of utilitarianism. Ever since Bentham, the main view of utilitarians is that utility is the idea of a more-or-less-measurable subjective wellbeing. Not possessions, not choice between products in a market, but how well overall a person is doing, from the perspective of all their own preferences, values, and feelings. Economists rejected this sort of utility because it is a fuzzy empirical thing that doesn't have a precise mathematical form, and decided to try and approach the issue very indirectly through consumer preferences. Sen prefers another indirect method, "functionalities". The result is effectively an internecine argument within economics over particular ways to try to decide what utility is in practice. Sen says, for example, that freedom should count as part of wellbeing, but the _economic_ utility function doesn't take that into account while his "functionalities" idea does. The non-economic utilitarian may simply point out with some amusement that if freedom contributes to wellbeing, then by definition a proper utilitarian theory must take that into account, and it simply means the economist's utility function isn't a proper utilitarian theory.

(Actually, I think I'm being somewhat overly friendly to Sen with this explanation; I read "Utilitarianism and Beyond" which he edited some time ago, and remember his introduction to it as being spectacularly silly).

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on June 29, 2004 08:04 PM

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"The information requirements for utilitarianism are zero."

So if you want to judge wether situation A is better than situation B or not on utilitarian grounds, you don´t need any knowledge about A and B? That´s a strange view, to say the least. I doubt this is what you´ve meant, but I can´t make sense of your statement.

"I put the word in quotes because the economist's "utilitarianism" is based on "utility" not simply as a word for measurable subjective wellbeing, but as a very specific economic term of art that carries a large amount of baggage from the assumptions of economic theories."

When economists talk about utilitarianism they mean exactly measurable subjective well-being. And in order to maximize the sum of utilities you can´t do with usual cardinal or ordinal utility functions, you have to use what are called cardinally unit comparable utility functions. You don´t need them to talk about rational behavior in the OP. If you want to say that a person is twice as well off as another person, you need even more information.

But since you aren´t talking about the economists approach to utilitarianism, please tell me what you´ve meant when you wrote:

"However, what the original position actually gives you with a normal conception of rational self-interest, rather than Rawls' highly odd version, is simply utilitarianism. Rationally self-interested individuals in the original position should desire a society that maximizes the expected utility of the average person, because that gives them the biggest chance of winning out."

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Anyone reading Yglesia and taking him seriously are in serious need of further developing their critical apparatus. The man is an empty, rumbling bag. In this instance, he probably thought back to a night in college, where he and his beer drinking buddies dumped on Rawls and laughed their silly heads off second-guessing the logical fallacies in the work.

At any rate, one of the problems of critical thought lies in the fact that people do not take the time to critically pause. As evinced by hilzoy above excoriating Publius above for not supplying a link to his blog. A moment of critical pause would have had hilzoy try clicking on Publius' name before poking fun at the man for not supplying a link.

The same problem fills "academic" debate. We are so filled with our agendae that we miss the now.

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