“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.

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What “A Theory of Justice” needs is a little “Slaves of the Volcano God”

I am following through on my resolution to read John Rawls’s magisterial A Theory of Justice.  But I’ve gotta say that it doesn’t have a lot of laughs.  Approximately zero laughs so far.  Nowhere near as many, in other words, as you’ll find in my friend Craig Shaw Gardner’s Slaves of the Volcano God.  I’m even using my valuable Slaves of the Volcano God bookmark to mark my place in A Theory of Justice, in hopes that some of Gardner’s humor will rub off.  No such luck.  (Of course, if what you’re looking for is political philosophy, I’m pretty sure you won’t find much in Slaves of the Volcano God.)

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By the way, something else that could have used a few laughs is Manchester By The Sea.  Casey Affleck is good in it, I guess, but mostly what he does is mope.  Maybe he’ll get an Oscar for moping.  (His big scene with Michelle Williams, though, is epically good.)

If you’ve already read Slaves of the Volcano God and still need some laughs (don’t we all?), you should try Gardner’s new novel, Temporary Monsters

Free will and good writing

I’m probably more interested in free will than you are, presumably for reasons I have no control over.

I don’t believe in free will.  Or, more precisely, I can figure out how it could possibly work.  I read Daniel Dennett’s pro-free-will book Freedom Evolves, and I couldn’t really follow his arguments.  I read Sam Harris’s anti-free-will book Free Will, and it seemed admirably clear.  Is it clearer because Harris is a better writer, or because the case against free will is simply easier to make?

Now Dennett has published a rejoinder to Harris’s book, and Harris has published a rejoinder to Dennett’s rejoinder. Yikes!  The heart of Dennett’s argument, I think, is that of course the naive folk interpretation of free will is wrong, but there is this other kind of free will that’s really real.  This seems to me to be the kind of move that sophisticated religious people like Karen Armstrong make.  Of course the Bible isn’t literally true; everyone knows that.  Instead, atheists need to grapple with my own numinous, apophatic, transcendent view of God.  Except this ends up being so numinous that there’s nothing to grapple with.

Similarly, Dennett’s view of the pernicious effects of an anti-free-will stance remind me of the “belief in belief” point of view that some smart people have about religion.  Of course you and I know better than to take religion seriously, but we have to be quiet about this, because religion is necessary to keep the great unwashed from losing their morality.

Anyway, here is a taste of Harris’s prose:

Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future (e.g. deterrence, rehabilitation, keeping dangerous people off our streets). The notion of moral responsibility, therefore, is forward-looking. But it is also paradoxical. People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave. For instance, when Tiger Woods misses a three-foot putt, there is a much greater temptation to say that he really should have made it than there is in the case of an average golfer. But Woods’s failure is actually more anomalous. Something must have gone wrong if a person of his ability missed so easy a putt. And he wouldn’t stand to benefit (much) from being admonished to try harder in the future. So in some ways, holding a person responsible for his failures seems to make even less sense the more worthy of responsibility he becomes in the conventional sense.

Jerry Coyne is another clear writer who is not afraid to speak his mind.  Here is his utterly expected view of the debate.  (He could not have written otherwise.)

In which I review “Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story” using upgoer5

This is the book I’m talking about. And this explains the words I’m using (and not using). Why am I doing this? Because this is my writing place!

Why is the world here? Why is there something instead of nothing? We’ve talked about this before. In this book, a man goes around talking to men (they are all men) who have thought a lot about this question. They all have different ideas.

Some people believe that God made everything. But then who made God? Where did God come from? Is God just “there”? Where is “there”? And why is God the way He is and not some other way?

Some people think that something just pops out of nothing. But if this is possible, why is it possible? Why is the way things are exactly this way and not some other way?

Some people believe there are many, many worlds — many “everythings” — and each one may have a different way that things are. Maybe everything that could be, is. But why? Why isn’t there just nothing, which is the most simple way for things to be?

Some people think this has something to do with us, and the way we can think. Maybe there is something instead of nothing just so we can be here. Some other people think this idea is really stupid.

The man writes about what these people look like and where they live. He eats with many of them and he talks about what they eat. Most of them know each other; none of them agree with each other.

In the book, he also talks about his dog dying and then his mother dying. This makes him sad and it made me sad, but I’m not sure what this has to do with why there is something instead of nothing.

In the end, I don’t think he knows the answer to this question. And we don’t, either. Probably we will never know. Should that make us sad?