Sunday, 19 July 2009

More on Political Time in John Rawls

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with Magritte painting, not just the link!

Image is of René Magritte’s painting Time Transfixed (1938)


After writing the post for 18th July, I thought about another way time enters in A Theory of Justice. This is very tied up with Utilitarianism in ethics, and less directly with rational behaviour in economics and more formalised aspects of the social sciences. I need to give an overview of what Rawls is doing with ethics, economics and social science before I return to time. As this makes the post quite long, I will state my conclusion here. Rawls appeals to a pure rationalism outside time as the basis of designing a just society, but must appeal to understandings of rational action developed through repetition over time. This conforms the ineradicability of time in any substantive political theory, and leaves Rawls’ theory in an unstable condition his brand of rationalism cannot welcome.

Rawls on Ethics

Rawls’ political theory is tied up with ethical theory, and rests on a rejection of Utilitarianism, that is the ethical theory according to which goodness is the maximisation of the welfare, happiness, utility of the greatest number. Rawls opposes this from the point of view of Kantian (not necessarily the same as what Kant himself which is the subject of great debate) moral theory which seeks universal rules arising from the status of humans as rational and autonomous individuals. Kantian ethics rests on respect for the autonomy and rationality of human persons and Utilitarian ethics rests on maximising the welfare of humans. Rawls’ argument is not a complete dismissal of Utilitarian ethics, he tries to incorporate it by subordinating it. He argues that Kantian ethics is justified by Utilitarian calculations, and goes it to some detail on this allowing for at least two different forms of Utilitarianism: aggregating welfare of all individuals, calculating the average welfare of all individuals. Rawls does not so much argue that Utilitarianism is wrong as that Kantianism leads to the same results with much greater economy of effort, without having to measure and calculate the welfare consequences of any principle on large groups of people. Kantianism has two main advantages: it simplifies effort, it provides a guiding principle to fill the gap when Utilitarianism cannot decide between two outcomes. This may however be a self-undermining argument. What Rawls is arguing could be expressed as saying that Kantianism provides ‘rules of thumb’ (short, simple rational principles) for guiding rationality which are confirmed by Utilitarian calculations. The trouble with that for Rawls, is that ‘rule of thumb’ is a phrase I’ve borrowed from economists (when addressing a general audience, I cannot claim any technical competence in economics) and just refers to the way that individuals economise on effort when deciding what to buy, or prioritise in some way, by referring to a simple rule guiding choice. Such rules may not look very rational, but certainly economise on effort in making choices, avoiding extremely time and energy consuming searchers for the exactly relevant information for every situation in which we make a choice. The trouble with justifying Kantianism on Utilitarian grounds is that does mean accepting Utilitarianism, and turning Kantianism into an intellectual energy conservation device within Utilitarianism.

Rawls on Social Rationality

What Rawls says about Utilitarianism fits in with the use of economics in a general view of social rationality. Social rationality comes into the Original Position (see post of 18th July) which is a very intellectualist form of rationality, isolated minds designing a society. This is backed up with Utilitarianism, as Rawls confirms the intellectualist argument with an argument about how Utilitarian methods of calculating aggregate and average welfare tend to lead to the same conclusions as the Kantian intellectualist argument. In doing this, Rawls appeals to notions of choice over time. Rational choice is what people choose over time. This is fundamental to economics and to generalised theories of choice across social science in game theory. Go to this search result in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for a relevant series of entries, for further explanation. The important important point for present purposes is that it takes repetition and therefore time for this to be measured, and for behaviour to become more rational. Sections 27 and 28 of A Theory of Justice is the key part of the book on this issue. Rawls does not just append Utilitarian calculations to the Kantian reasoning, his view of the persons in the Original Position is developed with reference to avoiding problems of social rationality. The Original Position excludes people with extreme risk taking tendencies while also stipulating that they should reason on the basis of facts. Rawls argues for the superiority of ‘contractualism’, principles of justice drawn up as the basis of society, partly by arguing that this is superior to Utilitarian calculations lacking principles beyond individual satisfaction and partly by arguing that Utilitarian calculations will support Kantianism when suitably modified. Time and repetition has to come into the calculations of social rationality, as it is repeated situations which enable people to have ‘rules of thumb’ or anything like that.

Equilibrium, Change and Time

The process of balancing and adjusting empirical Utilitarian considerations and theoretical Kantian considerations, is important to Rawls and he labels it ‘reflective equilibrium’. The ‘equilibrium’ is an implicit appeal to the way many economists are seeking to define an equilibrium position were all prices are perfect prices. Rawls refers to a version of this, when he refers to ‘Pareto perfection’, an economic situation in which nothing can be changed without reducing someone’s welfare. Evidently Rawls’ version of justice should give us something like this, if only as an ideal. One reaction some economists have to the goal of equilibrium is that is may distort our understanding of economic reality, because the process in which prices are determined is a constant process in which subjective preferences and information held by different people interact constantly changing prices. On this account, equilibrium refers to a frozen state where information is not changing and subjective preferences are not evolving. Simply equilibrium excludes time from economics. For our purposes, reflective equilibrium, like the Original Position, excludes time from political theory. However, Rawls does not exclude time, because he does appeal to the kind of rationality individuals develop over time through repetition, as with the example of drawing differently coloured balls from two urns in section 28, where rational estimates of the proportions of differently coloured balls requires repeated drawing of balls over time. The consequence is that the ‘reflective equilibrium’ is dependent on a coming together of atemporal rationalism and temporally conditioned rationality. Is this equilibrium or contradiction? In either case, political theory must incorporate time as constitutive of rational actions including social design, We should be suspicious of projects to develop principles of justice on temporal situations like the ‘Original Position’ which claim to be free of historical conditioning.

No comments: