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February 9, 20111 response
People have adduced something like the original position in support of rule utilitarianism. But Rawls believes that this is not the rational agreement to make behind the veil of ignorance. To see why, consider that an agreement to justify the society's institutional arrangements by reference to some standard of utility maximization does not guarantee that utility will actually be maximized. It is notoriously difficult to show in a publicly convincing way which proposed institutional design or which candidate piece of legislation would produce the most utility. So the agreement to make this the common public standard of justice would lead to a lot of division, and people with power would often deceive themselves or try to deceive others that what is best for their own will also maximize utility. Moreover, utilitarianism can notoriously justify very bad outcomes for small groups, who are likely then to lack allegiance to the society's justice standard and social institutions. All these things would be a drag on performance, so-to-speak, and a society that operates under a maximize-utility standard is then quite unlikely to maximize utility.
To protect against these problems, the contractors have reason, Rawls holds, to make a more substantial agreement, one that has more definite content and thus makes it easier for citizens to see whether or not the agreed-upon standard is being upheld. Thus Rawls's proposed first principle requires the society to secure certain basic liberties for all, without exceptions for cases where utility could be increased by infringing a liberty. Why should the parties agree to this? Because by allowing the government to make such exceptions they are likely to lose more utility from governmental mistakes and plain wrongdoing (that can be colored as an honest effort at utility maximization) than they can hope to gain from the exception being correctly used. Did politicians believe they were serving the happiness of Americans generally when they made it very hard for African-Americans to vote? Probably. And even if not, they could easily pretend sincerely to hold this belief.
Rawls had further arguments. The most important of these challenges the utilitarian assumption that all goods and ills are commensurable. Commensurability entails that for any ill, no matter how severe, there is a good and a probability p>0 such that one would be prepared to gamble, that is, to accept a probability p of the ill in exchange for a (1-p) probability of the good. Rawls holds, by contrast, that there are some really terrible ills that one has reason to avert with certainly, if this is possible. An example he gives is the suppression of one's religion. If you agree to the utilitarian standard, then you run a risk that you are religious and your religion is an unpopular minority faith that the majority suppresses by appeal to the general happiness. You can avoid running this risk by agreeing instead to a standard that (like Rawls's) explicitly requires and gives top priority to freedom of religion. If you understand what it means to be committed to a religion, would it not make sense for you to eliminate that risk even if -- the preceding paragraph notwithstanding -- this also reduced your probability-weighted expected happiness?
January 26, 20111 response
January 4, 20111 response
In first approximation, the fair price is the one that would emerge in a well-structured open market if the existing distribution of socio-economic positions were replaced by the one that would exist in the absence of historical wrongs under just social institutions (leaving all else -- and especially the current stage of technological and economic development -- constant).
This answer accepts the libertarian position for the special case of just social institutions but rejects it for conditions of injustice. Stated in this way, most libertarians would agree. They would agree, for example, that transactions in a feudal society (which leaves landless persons no choice but to subject themselves to the authority of a landlord) do not establish fair prices even when buyer and seller agree. Still, libertarians, Rawlsians, socialists, etc., have quite diverse views about what just social institutions would be like. So, while they can all formally accept the answer I have given, they will not thereby be led to the same fair price.
Many libertarians criticize our society for having too much government. According to them, a just society would be one in which the state does not get into education, health-care, social security, and the like, but confines itself to maintaining security through a military and a criminal justice system. In such a libertarian society, inequalities of income and wealth would be much higher than they are in ours because inequalities would accumulate over generations as the children of poor parents cannot even obtain basic health care and basic education. There would then be ample supply of menial labor, and the wages for such labor would be much lower than they actually are in the US. By combining my answer with such a libertarian theory, we thus reach the conclusion that the price for menial labor in the US today is far above what a fair price would be.
A Rawlsian would reach the opposite conclusion. If US citizens had roughly equal opportunities to influence the political process (in Rawls's language: if the fair value of the political liberties were maintained) and if the socio-economic position of the poor were raised as high as is feasible (in Rawls's words: if the Difference Principle were satisfied), then disparities in social starting positions would be much narrower, the supply of menial labor much smaller and the wages for such work substantially higher than they are. So, to avoid taking advantage of injustice, you might have to pay more for menial labor than the going market price (if you subscribe to Rawls's theory of social justice).
Given the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and genocide, pretty much any theory would lead to the conclusion that the price of labor in the poor countries is unfairly low. Some libertarian theories would disagree, however, on the ground that similarly extreme inequalities would have evolved under libertarian global institutional arrangements even if there had never been any force or fraud. Such libertarians would then accept as fair the very low wages for sweatshop work. But they would also acknowledge that grave historical wrongs have played a crucial role in placing many sweatshop workers in a situation where such work is their best option as well as in placing others into affluent conditions with abundant opportunities. These libertarians would then say that, even though the current wages for sweatshop labor are roughly fair, the historical selection of those compelled to do this sort of work is nonetheless unjustifiable.
October 27, 20101 response
The justification goes something like this. The United States is under various current and potential threats from foreign sources. It is the government's responsibility, as a matter of national security, to keep these threats at bay and perhaps to neutralize them. This task can be made easier or much harder by public attitudes within the US itself. The US failed to prevail in the Vietnam War, for example, because many of its citizens were no longer willing to accept the aerial bombardment of villages with napalm and cluster bombs. To effectively safeguard the national security of the United States and to protect its citizens, it is necessary, then, to establish and maintain a widespread willingness among the American people to support US foreign and military policy. This in turn makes it necessary to withhold from the American people, or to sanitize, any information that might adversely affect their support. Concealing war crimes committed by US soldiers, US contractors or US allies is often as important, or more important, to national security than concealing the identity of our intelligence assets. In the long run, we could not maintain our prominent place in world affairs if we had to compete with one hand tied behind our backs: we must be able to conduct our foreign and military policy without disturbance by the American people just as the Chinese are able to conduct their foreign and military policy without disturbance by the Chinese people.
To be sure, I do not agree with this line of argument. But it is widely accepted among those in power and even by many ordinary citizens. So it's interesting to ask yourself: what if anything is wrong with a people democratically authorizing its government to withhold, at its discretion, any information about its foreign activities whose release it judges likely to have adverse consequences for national security? Would it merely be foolish to give such far-reaching authorization to a government? Or would it be morally wrong by abnegating our inalienable responsibility to monitor and constrain the enormous power our government is wielding abroad in our name?
Here are a few things you might want to look at.
In 1997, the InterAction Council drafted a Universal
Declaration of Human Responsibilities, see www.interactioncouncil.org/
In 2002 the Fundacion Valencia Tercer Milenio published a Declaration of Responsibilities and Human Duties, available at http://globalization.icaap.org/content/v2.2/declare.html
Somewhat more detailed and useful are some of the General Comments produced under the auspices of the United Nations (see http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/gencomm/econ.htm). As one example, see General Comment 14 on the human right to the highest attainable standard of health.
Onora O'Neill has long written about the need to achieve greater clarity on who is required by human rights to do what for whom. See her books Towards Justice and Virtue and Bounds of Justice.
And, if it's permissible, I'd also mention my own book World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms.
November 3, 20101 response
I don't think there's a named fallacy here, but I do think the principle proposed by Person 2 is unsound. If this principle were sound, then it would be impermissible to remain childless even in a world as overpopulated as ours.
The principle can be revised to be more plausible. When many people in some group are making a morally motivated effort to achieve a certain good that would not exist (or to avert a certain harm that would not be averted) without their effort, then one has moral reason to do one's fair share if one is a member of this group. This sort of principle against free-riding on the moral efforts of others can explain why one should generally vote and do so conscientiously -- at least unless one has conclusive reason to judge that enough others are already acting and that one's own effort will therefore add nothing to the outcome.
But there is also a more direct explanation of why one ought to vote. As philosopher Derek Parfit has argued, the extremely low probability of one vote affecting the outcome is compensated by the extremely large moral importance of the outcome. Thus Person 1 would likely concede that one ought to vote in "small" elections where one's vote may very well affect the outcome, e.g. in the mayoral election of one's tiny home village -- with 62 other voters, say. In this case, the probability that one will cast a deciding vote is a whopping 10 percent.
I derive this percentage as follows. With 63 people voting, there are 63!/(32!*31!) voting patterns where one side wins by one vote and an equal number of voting patterns where the other side wins by one vote. I divide this sum by the total number of voting patterns -- 2^63 -- to estimate the percentage or probability of "extremely close" outcomes. I then multiply by 32/63 to reflect the fact that only 32 out of the 63 people voting have actually cast decisive votes. More generally, for any odd-numbered electorate of 2n+1 voters, the probability that any given vote will be deciding is (2n)!/(n!^2*2^2n).
Now suppose you live in a town with four times as many other voters: 248. Do you now have less reason to vote? You'll be less likely to affect the outcome. But the outcome also matters more from a moral point of view -- nearly four times as much, I would think, because the new mayor will be seriously affecting the lives of nearly four (249/63 times) time as many people as in the first scenario.
While Parfit concluded that a
morally motivated person has as much reason to vote in a larger election
as in a smaller one, I can strengthen his conclusion by showing that the moral reason for voting
actually becomes ever more weighty as the size of the electorate
increases. This is so on the assumption that the importance of voting is proportional to the expected impact of the vote, that is, to the magnitude of the impact of the outcome multiplied by the probability of casting a deciding vote. The former of these factors is proportional to the size of the electorate. The latter of these factors is roughly proportional to squareroot (1/n). Thus, in the village of 249 voters, the probability of casting the deciding vote is still 5.06 percent, about half of 10.09 percent rather than merely a quarter. The expected impact as defined then goes up roughly with the square root of the size of the electorate. A public-spirited voter, then, who considers equally the impact of the vote upon all citizens, arguably has, other things being equal, more reason to vote the larger the election in which s/he is eligible to vote.
Here are the numbers from a quick spreadsheet calculation, showing the number of voters (yourself included), the probability of casting a deciding vote, and the expected impact (probability of casting a deciding vote multiplied by the overall number of voters):
We see here that the probability of casting a deciding vote declines roughly with the square root of the size of the electorate. Assuming that the moral importance of the outcome increases roughly with the size of the electorate, we can conclude that the expected moral impact (and hence the strength of the moral reason in favor) of voting increases roughly with the square root of the size of the electorate.
In a US election, you might have about 120 million votes cast, so here your probability of casting a deciding vote is about 0.0073% (keeping the electorate constant, we can expect one in 6850 US elections to be decided by one vote) and the expected impact of your vote (continuous with the above calculation) is about 8740. Note that, if your vote is deciding in such an election, then a lot of other votes are also, like yours, deciding votes: in the simple case I have been discussing (assuming only two choices and leaving aside complications such as the US Electoral College), you would be one of 60,000,001 people each of whom was needed to outvote 60,000,000 others.
September 23, 20101 response
Peter S. Fosl
September 15, 20101 response
September 8, 20101 response
September 8, 20101 response
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