November 29, 2002
FAREWELL TO AN ENEMY OF FREEDOM:Philosopher Rawls taught us to be thankful for luck
(By Matthew Miller, 11/30/02, Boston Globe)
The way to create the rules for a just society, Rawls argues, is to first imagine everyone in an ''original position'' behind a prebirth ''veil of ignorance,'' where no one knows what their own traits will be - whether they will be rich or poor, beautiful or plain, smart or less so, talented or not, healthy or disabled. Only in this situation - where people don't know what place they are destined to occupy in society - can we see what kind of social order they would agree in advance was fair.
Rawls uses this thought experiment to focus our thinking on the central role he sees luck playing in life. There's the prebirth lottery that hands out brains, beauty, talent, and inherited wealth. There's a post-birth lottery that (via family) bequeaths values and schooling. ''The institutions of society favor certain starting places over others,'' Rawls writes. ''Yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert.''
Rawls's point: The vast inequalities of wealth and position we observe stem primarily from advantages for which people can't take credit.
Having, at the time of his death, angered several people by pointing out that Stephen Jay Gould?s defense of evolution and opposition to sociobiology required him to be a hypocrite, I?m not anxious to disrespect John Rawls upon his passing. But there?s been a surprising--to me at least--amount of positive commentary about him in the past few days, even from folks who disagreed with him on ideological matters. But no matter how decent a man he may have been personally and no matter how much we may mourn his passing, I see no way around the central fact that his distributionist theory of justice sought to deny human freedom and that, to arrive at the theory, he had to deny thousands of years of Judeo-Christian understanding of human nature. Now, the preference for equal distribution (what I?ve elsewhere called economic security) over a necessarily unequal freedom, is a perfectly honorable intellectual and position to take, but it is the antithesis of what we as Americans believe in. It is the philosophy that underlies totalitarian government--else how achieve the absolutely equal redistribution? I guess I find it odd that conservatives would be so laudatory of a man who dedicated his life to an attack on freedom, who denied the intellectual tradition that gave birth to our Republic and whose utopian day-dreaming has had a pernicious effect on the American Left, causing them to believe there was a plausible basis for their egalitarianism.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 29, 2002 8:22 PM