Friday, January 14, 2011

And The Life Of Man, Solitary, Poore, Nasty, Brutish, And Short

I am hostile to the notion of logically deriving an ideal society from first principles. Ideal norms can only be understood by us humans in a context that will evolve over time, not from some timeless, interest-free view from nowhere. Humans, in arguing about society, invariably base themselves on some partial perspective or faction. And to understand how to apply some principle articulated from some interest, one will have to draw on empirical results. (Is this an institutionalist, pragmatic view?)

Perhaps, nevertheless, some (not necessarily inconsistent) norms can be stated in keeping with these ideas. I suggest the following:
  • Human society should be able to reproduce itself (Karl Marx).
  • Unnecessary suffering should be alleviated (Karl Popper).
  • Everybody should have the freedom to develop their capabilities to the best of their abilities (Aristotle, Marx).
Other norms don't seem to be compatible with my views on how to think about political philosophy. "People should be able to keep what they make" is a meaningless norm, maybe common among current intellectually and ethically impoverished mainstream economists.

Robert Nozick, as I understand him, begs a definition of natural rights. And then he argues for the following principles on that basis:
  • A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.
  • A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
  • Unjust acquisitions or transfer should be rectified
He ends up arguing for a more-or-less night-watchman state.

Perhaps these sorry days are ripe for an immanent critique of the idea of equality of opportunity.

I did not manage to mention above the Austrian-school economist Israel Kirzner's defense of returns to entrepeneurship with what he calls a "finders keepers" ethic. I have not read John Rawls.


Emil Bakkum said...

Actually the difference in principles between ideologies is not that large. For instance, in the bolshewist states incomes were distributed according to labor accomplishments. Bolshewism meant little more than the abolishment of income from property. Most societies seem to embrace the meritocracy, and some even go to the extreme of a winner-takes-all attitude. A marked difference between ideologies is the importance, which is attributed to the influence of society. The talents of a person may be attributed to his genes, or to his accidental social environment. In the first case, people may be labeled as superior and inferior. In the second case, each person is just a reflection of society itself.

Magpie said...


It's unfortunate you haven't read Rawls', because for what I've seen, his work seems to be framing the debate to a large extent, at least Down Under.

In a nutshell, Rawls' idea is that people must be equally free and as free as possible, compatible to other people's freedom.

And inequalities are to be accepted, if they result in the greatest benefit for the least advantaged. This is what is commonly referred to as the "Difference Principle".

Here is a link to a brief discussion of Rawls' work itself:

This, at least to me, looks like what you call a first-principles discussion of the notion of inequality. And as you pointed out (and I fully agree), it reflects a partial position.

As you can see in the link below (which provides a useful sample), when framed by Rawls' notions, the debate quickly settles into one of what a fair "inequality threshold" is.

And you will notice that this debate is conducted by those on the safe side of inequality, deciding for those on the wrong side of it. (More on this below).

Which leads me to this: I also agree that the ideal criterion of evaluation should be empirical, which seems implicit in the very notion of the Difference Principle.

However, even when discussed with an honesty most economists seem constitutionally incapable of, the debate tend to degenerate into a quagmire of sorts where one needs to compare an actual state of affairs with a counterfactual.

So the abest rgument we seem to have left, at least as I see it, is that inequality inevitably brings forth unequal access to power and social status. The debate itself (in the instance linked to previously) is a sample of this, as I remarked above.

Robert Vienneau said...

From the secondary literature, I agree on the importance of Rawls to contemporary philosophy.

I don't know that I agree that the difference in ideologies is not that large. I hope at least some of the ideas in my post are consistent with a rejection of meritocracy. Having read some Noam Chomsky, I know some are not happy with meritocracies.

Maybe the range of political philosophy I draw on in the post is too narrow. Other authors I like include Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault. I have not read Habermas, but he seems of interest from what I've read about him.