Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Rawls Street

Steven V. Mazie over at the Stone today talks about how `those' Occupiers ought to read and discuss Rawls. First, as an associate professor, I'm fairly certain he's one of us 99%ers. Second, `we' do. I agree that more of us should; Rawls shaped contemporary moral and political philosophy and has much to say on political equality and distributive justice. For those that are not familiar, however, I'd like to offer a few points of clarification.

He writes, "Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts." This is part of a section of the article that is purportedly representing Rawls' view. But that was not Rawls' view.

It is not that individuals that work harder deserve a greater share of resources. After all, Rawls explicitly says that one does not deserve one's natural endowments. One's work ethic is one such character trait. It may be caused simply by good genes and/or the right sort of environment: in short, luck.

It's also not that individuals ought to expect greater reward for their efforts. The only proper motivation for individuals, on Rawls' view, is to uphold and affirm the principles of justice (including the difference principle). They believe that we ought to make the worst off as best off as we can (with some important restrictions.)

It is rather that, for whichever reason we might end up with an inequality, it can be justified (preferred to other distributions) because it benefits the worst off. If anyone can object to inequality, it's those disfavored by that inequality. Ex hypothesi, those very same worst off are better off than they would be under any other distribution. The fact that they are better off gives them a reason to prefer the unequal distribution.


Of course, it would be irrational for an individual to prefer a distribution where she gets $101, and another gets $1 trillion, than one in which both parties get $100. And this is where the restrictions become important.

The principles of justice are lexically ordered. The first principle requires that all citizens are to have the most extensive set of basic liberties compatible with the same set of liberties for all others. This includes the political liberties. If the level of resource inequality interferes with equal liberties, then it is prohibited.

This is clearly the case in the United States today. Money has a corrupting influence on political power in ways that undermine our status as free and equal citizens.

The second principle contains the difference principle: that inequalities must be arranged such that they are to the benefit of the worst off. But, it also insists that such inequalities must be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Of course, the wealthy today are at a substantial advantage. Working and middle class children are more likely to become less wealthy than their parents than to stay the same, much less rise above: the United States is one of the worst countries recently measured in a study of intergenerational income mobility.

Rawls is explicitly concerned with substantive, not formal (i.e., legal) equality of opportunity. So, it is not sufficient that the law does not expressly forbid members of a certain class (e.g., women, minorities) to occupy the favorable positions. They must actually be able to obtain the position. Suppose that some trinket is a necessary item for a favorable position. Then contenders must all have the means to acquire the trinket.

I take it that what is obvious to everyone protesting is that the inequality does not meet these conditions. Substantial resource inequality is incompatible with full social and political equality. The widespread sentiment is that the country is being run for and by the fortunate few.

What Mazie says, however, is that "inequality becomes injustice when the cooperative nature of society breaks down and a significant segment of the population finds itself unable to thrive, despite its best efforts."

This is incorrect as applied to the present United States, as is implied in the paragraph. These inequalities are unjust because they violate the two principles of justice. That is, it is obvious that:

1. Resource inequality undermines political equality.
2. Inequalities are not attached to social positions and offices open to all.
3. It is false that the worst off could not do better on a different distribution.

Mazie instructs us to focus our efforts on arguing over the finer points of Rawls rather than engaging in "intellectually bankrupt rhetoric", whatever that is supposed to mean. I'm happy to take him up on that aspect of the challenge, at least (cross-posted here).

Bizarrely, he claims that occupiers are focused on hatred of the rich, rather than frustrated at policies and institutions. Mazie, I see your "Eat the Rich" sign and raise you a "Down with Self-Settled Asset Trusts".

Mazie suggests some ways that we can move toward a more just society, and I am wholeheartedly inclined to agree: "structural changes in campaign financing, the banking system, and the tax code".

Mazie concludes by observing that a political movement is more likely to be successful if it does not focus on bettering the worst off, so we should plump for Rawls' more 'inclusive' formulation of the difference principle.

There are separable questions here:

1. What justice demands.
2. How we can achieve a more just society.

I take it that the point of the exercise is to see that the basic structure of our society is highly unjust already. That's something that is detrimental to all of us. It rightly unsettles most Americans that we are not free and equal citizens: this is a much vaunted and cherished political ideal.

I take it his point was that we must find some common ground on which to motivate coordination of the 99%. He thinks that requires moving to the inclusive formulation, but I don't see how that follows. If we take Rawls' argument seriously, we should all be motivated to make the necessary changes to the basic structure to ensure that we really do live in a society worth pledging allegiance to, with "liberty and justice for all."



    “To act for liberty, to become a revolutionary, this is to act on the plane of jurisprudence. To call out to justice -- justice does not exist, and human rights do not exist. What counts is jurisprudence: *that* is the invention of rights, invention of the law. So those who are content to remind us of human rights, and recite lists of human rights -- they are idiots. It's not a question of applying human rights. It is one of inventing jurisprudences where, in each case, this or that will no longer be possible. And that's something quite different.” Gilles Deleuze

  2. It might also behoove Mazie to read beyond Theory of Justice. In Justice as Fairness, if I remember correctly, Rawls rules out welfare-state capitalism as a system compatible with justice (in favor of property owning democracy or democratic socialism, neither of which fits the current US system).

  3. I like the suggestion, by both authors to use Rawls as an important figure in assembling an agenda for The Occupy Movement. They may have different inflection points, but that is ok. This is the sort of deliberation that is useful to sustain a movement for a long time after the cameras leave Zuccotti Park and the Twitterverse click "unfollow". However, I would introduce Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas and Cornel West as the backbone of any manifesto, with Rawls as a secondary source. These advocates of using public space as means to transformative change may have more to say about using the platforms of The Occupy Movement more effectively, especially at the community level. There is already evidence available that this movement has a more immediate opportunity to galvanize leadership at the local and community level. In fact, why is laying out demands to federal policy makers truly necessary. Shouldn't The Occupy Movement look to the people resources it has already amassed in communities where there are occupations? In general, it does not follow that our faith in public servants, which was lost long ago, should be restored because there is a national election in 12 months. I would propose developing local agenda’s for improving small business opportunities now. Sure, there are longer-term issues involving the state of participatory democracy, education, corporatism and economic redistribution in America--those issues should not come off the table. I just see the dialogue being more robust when many more people have jobs than do now.

  4. I want to add a note of caution re: interpreting Rawls. I agree wholeheartedly that the claim that "Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts" is at odds w/ Rawls account. However, so too is the claim that "The only proper motivation for individuals, on Rawls' view, is to uphold and affirm the principles of justice (including the difference principle)."

    Individuals qua individuals have many motivations for their actions, and I'm not sure that this need even be one of them. After all, our comprehensive conception of the good need not include anything explicitly political. As long as it is *compatible* with supporting a just basic structure, we need not, I think, explicitly embrace such a motivation as individuals. When we try instead to consider our role, not as individuals but rather as representative free and equal political persons, then we need to acknowledge the force of the two principles.

    This matters, because if in fact as individuals we had as our motivation the improvement of the lot of the least well off, society would not require nearly as many inequalities as it in fact does require. Inequalities, for Rawls, are in part a bribe to those people with natural talents and abilities that can be harnessed for social good. In that sense, it is true that people that are talented and hardworking are right to expect greater rewards, NOT because they deserve those rewards in any real sense, but because those rewards are necessary to encourage them to develop those talents and abilities.

    This is one reason why arguments surrounding the psychological effects of different marginal tax rates are relevant. If in fact it were true that raising the top marginal tax rate from 25% to, say, 45% would mean that people who would have e.g. started successful companies refrain from doing so because it isn't "worth it" to them anymore, this would be an argument (though not a decisive one) against doing so. But if in fact, as seems vastly more plausible, no one is going to revise their plans for forming a company because after the first $200,000/yr, they will "only" take home 45% of the next million rather than 25%.

    Indeed, given the extent to which "large scale" growth of companies has as much to do with luck as with skill, I don't think it is plausible that anyone makes a *decision* to become a billion-dollar company as opposed to a 100-million dollar company. And that matters, because that implies that even a marginal rate of 80% on income after a few tens of millions.

  5. Hi Jonathan,

    I take the point that my comment was poorly worded. However, Rawls does mean to argue that individuals recognize, uphold, and affirm the principles of justice and just institutions:

    "When the basic structure of society is publicly known to satisfy its principles for an extended period of time, those subject to these arrangements tend to develop a desire to act in accordance with these principles and to do their part in institutions which exemplify them. A conception of justice is stable when the public recognition of its realization by the social system tends to bring about the corresponding sense of justice." (Rawls, TOJ, 1st ed, section 29, page 177).

    Jerry Cohen famously critiqued Rawls along the lines that you are arguing: that if the rich were motivated to help the worst off, then there would be no inequalities in fact. If they are capable of working harder without an incentive, then the inequality is not *necessary* to benefit the worst off. Therefore all inequalities are unjust. Sam Scheffler has an interesting counterexample. If motivations are not entirely under conscious control (for example, a runner that need competition to push to her best race time) then some inequalities may be necessary.

  6. Hi all,

    Thanks, Jen, for this response to my post. Yep, I’m a proud 99%er. It’s gratifying to see others taking up the charge of parsing Rawls for the street. I agree with some of what you say, but I do take strong issue with two points:

    FIRST, I stand by my line, “Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts.” This was indeed Rawls’s view, as the difference principle implies⎯those with a higher index of primary goods hold those goods legally and with a clear conscience, as long as the two principles of justice are satisfied⎯and as a reading of sect. 20 of Justice as Fairness: A Briefer Restatement (2001) will confirm.

    In that section, you’ll find Rawls’s sensible claim that we do not deserve our native endowments. You’ll also find his disavowal of any conception of moral desert: he did not want to build a controversial moral idea into a political conception of justice that acknowledges “reasonable pluralism.” But you will also find Rawls’s theory of legitimate expectations that lies behind the sentence from my post:

    “These expectations and entitlements are specified by the public rules of the scheme of social cooperation. Suppose, for example, that these rules include provisions for agreements about wages and salaries…based on an index of the firm’s market performance…Then those who make and honor these agreements have, by definition, a legitimate expectation of receiving the agreed amounts at the agreed times. What individuals do depends on what the rules and agreements say they would be entitled to; what individuals are entitled to depends on what they do” (p. 72).

    My gloss on that idea might be less precise than it could be (I was trying to write something semi-readable, and not just for Rawls junkies) but it is in line with Rawls’s view: if you play by society’s rules and do work that merits higher pay, you are entitled to that pay.

    SECOND, and related, Jonathan is quite right about the motivation point. Rawls does not require citizens to eat, drink and breathe principles of justice. Such a moral psychology is clearly implausible: even St. Augustine had impure thoughts (and dreams) after his conversion. Rawls does hold, as you say, that citizens will become more than grudging participants in their polity. They will develop principle-dependent and conception-dependent desires to act reasonably, civilly, neighborly. But this doesn’t nullify their private interests. Remember that for Rawls, citizens are conceived as having two moral powers: the first is a sense of justice, and the second is a capacity for a conception of the good life. It is no sin, for Rawls, to pursue the life you want to live as long as you fit yourself into a framework in which your fellows can do the same.

    - Steven Mazie

    p.s. Daniel Levine is quite right to note Rawls’s preference for a “property-owning democracy” to “welfare-state capitalism,” a distinction he develops in the 2001 book. A property-owning democracy “disperses the ownership of wealth and capital…to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy, and indirectly, political life as well” (p. 139). The 1 percent, anyone?

  7. Steven, I'm delighted to have you join us for this conversation, as much as I was delighted to see a post on Rawls in the NYT. Thanks for both.

    I generally agree with your reading of JAF, in that Rawls would hold that individuals are legally entitled to their earnings if they are earned through a perfectly just system.

    However, the sentence as phrased in the article is ambiguous. It implies that the reason that the rewards are legitimate is because the individuals who receive them are more motivated and harder working. That is what I mean to deny: they are legitimate because they are necessary to benefit the worst off.

    I also would deny that individuals ought to expect greater rewards simply because they are more motivated and harder working. There's nothing about the motivation that grounds the expectation or legitimacy of greater rewards.

    My own sentence was also poorly phrased, as you and Jonathan have pointed out. I meant that for Rawls, the only obligations of *justice* that individuals hold is to "affirm and uphold" just institutions. This is what I meant by appropriate motivation (in regards to justice). Certainly Rawls (and any sane person) would agree that individuals have complex psychological motivational sets, including, say, the motivation to secure primary goods for oneself.

  8. "It is no sin, for Rawls, to pursue the life you want to live as long as you fit yourself into a framework in which your fellows can do the same."

    Who are "my fellows" is not exactly unproblematic. Frankly, it just looks like you're pushing back the debate from "what is justice" to "to whom do I owe justice". The most common answer I get is "those who are in your society". But that simply pushes back the question to "who is in my society", and, no, that's not an easy question.

  9. I would be ecstatic about living in a property-owning democracy, albeit, one that actively and robustly exclue those who are not robust contributors to that democracy.

  10. Jen: point well taken.

    Joel: by "fellows" I meant fellow citizens, not fellow investors or fellow country club members.

    For more on all this, have a look at my rejoinder to Will Wilkinson's reply to my original post, just published on

    It's nice to see this discussion becoming richer and more widely distributed!

  11. Who determines the criteria for "fellow citizen"? The fact that someone happens to reside in some politically-drawn boundary line that is a historical incidence of power politics? If your answer is "yes" then you have capitulated to the notion that "might makes right". I am, formally speaking, labeled a "citizen of the United States". I assure you that I do not consider the majority of individuals residing in said political boundaries to be my fellow citizens, and the only reason they are my "fellow citizens" is due to the fact that I am subject to state violence if I don't participate in that body-politic.

    Again, to take the current state of political boundaries and claim that they dictate the boundaries of my citizen-duties is to claim that morality is a product of the application of force. Fine, but that simple tells me that if I can get enough guns behind me then I have achieved the status of moral arbiter.

    Is that really your position?

  12. Consider the following claim: I owe fairness to everyone existing (even potentially existing?) with no distinction between persons.

    If you say that claim is true, then all political distinctions are, by definition, unfair and, thus, unjust. If false, then you require a principle of discrimination to distinguish differences in owed fairness.

    However, the historical accident of living in the same political jurisdiction as another is NOT a principle. Claiming that I owe something to someone because of a historical accident is arguing from convenience, not from principle

  13. HI Joel,

    I'm not sure how familiar you are with Rawls, so I apologize if I am rehearsing arguments that you already know.

    For criteria of fellow citizen: Rawls assumes in ATOJ that it is a domestic theory. The basic structure is conceived as a basic structure of a relatively closed society. Thus, the society must be justified to all those who are members of it. But you might think that this is problematic, for a number of reasons:

    1. The argument from global justice:
    One line of objection to Rawls is that the country of your birth is just as contingent and morally arbitrary, if not more so, as the other features that Rawls excludes, such as one's natural endowments. Moreover, the cosmopolitans claim, we have something roughly akin to a global 'basic structure' that has effects 'profound and present from the start'. So, the principles of justice should apply globally.

    The 'statists' reply that there is no global basic structure that is perfectly analogous to the one that Rawls uses to ground the principles of justice. Therefore, the principles of justice apply domestically, and then there are other principles that apply at the international level. Rawls himself took the latter position in the Law of Peoples, which I find highly unsatisfying for a number of reasons. For a closer look at a cosmopolitan view, the foundational text of that movement is probably Chuck Beitz' 'Political Theory and International Relations'.

    2. Immigration, Noncitizens
    The basic structure applies coercive force to individuals within the political boundaries of a country who are not citizens. There's a worry about appropriate representation in the original position, and the kind of immigration policy that a just country should have. This gets complicated fast.

    We always find ourselves already in the world, enmeshed in a web of relations and obligations from before our birth. You might think that you have obligations towards your family, even though you didn't choose them. Similarly, if you stand in a certain relationship to someone, you might think that you owe them obligations that obtain from that relationship (for instance, spousal obligations). The question then, is how strong such obligations are and to what extent such obligations countervail obligations that we owe to persons qua members of the moral community.

    I take it that your final objection addresses this last point: do we really have obligations to fellow citizens of a blatantly unjust society?

    My own view is that we do have obligations to one another to fight for justice. I think that this obligation is stronger to those with whom one will be subject to a coercive institutional structure. The coercive power of a domestic state is typically stronger than that of international institutions. However, this is not to say that we owe nothing to our fellow global residents. Quite the contrary. I think that it is fairly clear that, although we have nothing that quite approaches the level of a global basic structure, it is sufficient to warrant additional moral obligations above what we owe to them qua members of the moral community.

    For an example of what I mean: I think that we owe starving people assistance, regardless of whether there is some institutional trade arrangement or not. However, given that we live in a highly interconnected social, political, and economic structure, we also have obligations to ensure that just trade arrangements and other international institutional structures are in place.