“A Theory of Justice” and me

One of my post-election vows was to read A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.  I just wanted to commend myself on my good work in completing this task.  It only took me five months!  I have to say that it wasn’t easy.  The book is 514 pages worth of dense, arid political philosophy that I am ill-equipped to judge.  And yet…

I keep thinking about Rawls’s concept of the veil of ignorance:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

Isn’t that the way we should think about all social policy?  Imagine that you don’t know if you’re white or black, rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick, talented or mediocre, a Muslim or a Catholic or an atheist.  How would you think about immigration policy, about health care, about taxes? The veil of ignorance doesn’t give you answers, but it encourages you to ask the right questions.

Free Will and the Immigration Debate

I keep meaning to post about free will.  Everybody loves posts about free will!   Obama’s recent decision about immigration finally prompted me to come up with something.  So this is about politics as much as it’s about free will.

I have never really understood free will.  Where does this freedom come from, if we don’t postulate a soul or some other non-material entity that has no basis in science?  If everything is deterministic (except for some stuff down at the quantum level), where does the freedom come from?  I’ve read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and I don’t really get it.  It seems to me that he comes up with a kind of free will by redefining what free will means away from what everyone thinks it means.

So I don’t see how we can have free will. And if free will doesn’t exist, where does responsibility come from?  And similarly, where does merit come from?  In what way do we deserve what we have — or not deserve what we don’t have?

A point Michael Sandel made in his course (and book) Justice brought this home to me in a personal way.  Sandel gives the Justice course every couple of years to hundreds of Harvard students. In the course, he talks to the students about the concept of “moral desert”.  And he brings up the issue of admission to Harvard.  These kids have gotten into Harvard because they’re smart and talented.  Well, OK, there are plenty of kids who are smart and talented.  But the kids who got in worked hard and studied hard and accomplished amazing things with their talents.  Isn’t that the difference?  Well, OK, but — at this point Sandel asks for a show of hands: how many of the kids in the audience were the first-born in their families?

Every time he gives the course, an astonishing number raise their hands.  So, what do we make of this?  Being the first-born helps you get into Harvard.  But no one chooses their birth order.  He quotes John Rawls (another Harvard philosopher): “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.”

I graduated from Harvard.  Yay for me!  But I have never been able to figure out why this should say anything good (or bad) about me.  I didn’t make myself intelligent; I didn’t make myself hard-working — I just always seemed to be that way.  I wasn’t the first-born in my family, but I certainly got plenty of support and encouragement in my studies.  If I had wanted to make different choices along the way, could I have?  I have no idea.  But I suspect not — I am who I am.

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to immigration.  The immigration debate always seems to me to circle around moral desert and, ultimately, about free will and determinism.  What do we who were born in America deserve because we were born here?  Beats me.  It just seems to me that we are awfully lucky, the way I was lucky in my parents and my genes and my upbringing.  Do the immigrants who are here illegally deserve to be thrown out?  They’ve broken the law!  But the kids covered by Obama’s decision haven’t exactly broken the law — they’re just here, where life has put them.  They can no more change who they are than I can change who I am.  We can make the case that throwing them out will help the economy or reduce the need for bilingual education or whatnot– at the expense of untold human suffering, of course.  But I think that case is far from clear.

Anyway, as a reward for reading this drivel, here is the great Bonnie Raitt singing “Luck of the Draw.”  (She too attended Harvard for a while.)