Radical objectivity - a shared goal?
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Below is an extract from Chapter Two. The focus of this is on philosopher John Rawls' vision of a society with equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes. This is used in the rest of the book, both as an ideal that could unite the left, and as a benchmark to measure left populism against.
Part of the ‘Where do we disagree?’ question is to do with the destinations we’re striving to reach. Are left pluralists and left populists trudging towards different castles on different hills? Or are we aiming to get to the same place at a different speed or via a different route?
This essay argues the latter. Hence, before considering where left pluralists and left populists differ (i.e. in the nature of their analyses) we should point out what they share: their leftism. There are basic, shared ideals that run across the left in roughly equal measure. Even when it comes to specific policy issues, the differences aren’t as large as it sometimes seems.[i]
Establishing that this shared commitment to social justice and progressive values exists is vital. It’s the common root, once policies, strategies, perspectives and approaches are set aside. It’s the reason why left-wing populists and pluralists remain, in the UK at any rate, in the same party. Without these shared values, we have little in common.[ii]
Finding a set of shared values is important for another reason. During the rest of the text we need a barometer, when talking about our two conflicting approaches – left pluralism and left populism – to work out which fulfils egalitarian goals. Setting out a common ideal can help, providing a first principle to check against.
Indeed, the true reason for pluralists’ opposition to Corbyn is that, on countless issues, he falls short of the progressive yardstick, through electoral failure and policy dogma. Yet the public basis of criticism too often remains that Corbynism is an unworkable dream, when it should be that left populists are actually the ones failing to meet the left-wing benchmark.[iii]
The role of this chapter is to look at what a common ideal might be. This goal needs to cast a wide net, so as to potentially be enacted via the multitude of ideologies that different progressives advocate. But it must also be specific, so that it goes beyond ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statements of intent. It needs to be ambitious enough that it’s consistent with the ideals of the most radical exponents of the left, but flexible enough to apply in different contexts.
After all, despite being critical of left populism, this essay isn’t opposed to an idealistic view of politics. It’s opposed to the gestures, stances and self-delusions which stop us getting there.
There is a fear of becoming a talking shop by discussing this. So I won’t, in this chapter, sift through the many, narrow strains of socialist and social democratic thought on offer.
In truth, there are a great many ‘-isms’ that could claim to represent a set of first principles. The list of runners and riders would include, in no particular order, Christian socialism, Ordoliberalism, Marxism (and its variants, such as Trotskyism), collective capitalism, guild socialism, Rhine capitalism (and the Nordic Model of the social market economy), syndicalism, mutualism, communitarianism, idealism, Fabianism, utopian socialism, revisionism/reformism, liberal socialism, republicanism, Keynesianism, welfare capitalism, ethical socialism, eco-socialism and other types of Green politics, libertarian socialism, social corporatism, internationalism, anti-imperialism, etc.[iv]
(It’s important to note that the approach I term ‘left pluralism’ is not vying to be one of these ‘-isms’. Left pluralism is a type of mindset, not a doctrine for organising society. In fact, almost any of the ‘-isms’ mentioned could be consistent with the left pluralist analysis – if they avoided Dark Knight, Puppet Master, and Golden Era assumptions).[v]
The problem with the list of ‘-isms’ isn’t that they have nothing to contribute. As long as they sign up to parliamentary democracy, they all sit within Labour’s broad church. The issue is that most of the creeds listed have implications for how you achieve progressive ideals. Many are, therefore, in conflict. Keynesianism, Marxism and Rhine Capitalism, for instance, propose methods that are incompatible.
We need to go back a stage further, drilling deeper into philosophy, to find a shared vision.
For this reason, I use John Rawls’ work on the social contract, in the rest of this argument, as an umbrella philosophy to which many on the left could plausibly subscribe – pluralists and populists included, and disciples of just about all the ‘-isms’ listed above.
The Rawls view was that society should be organised so that it was satisfactory to a rational individual who didn’t know their start in life. Rawls wasn’t the first to talk about justice in terms of a detached perspective.[vi] But he moved the discussion in a more thorough and egalitarian direction.
Although considered outdated by some, Rawls’ writing on social justice is both radical about what a fair, progressive society might look like, and flexible on the question of how you get there. For this reason, the Rawlsian ideal seems like one that everyone from a New Labour disciple like James Purnell to a quasi-Marxist like Chris Williamson could sign up to – even if they diverged almost immediately about how to achieve it. If we arrived at a state of affairs roughly consistent with Rawls’ principles of fairness, many on the left could sleep easy.
Hence, John Rawls’ philosophy is a rough yardstick for progressive values. Although other thinkers have had an impact on my argument – including Anthony Crosland, Jonathan Haidt, Amartya Sen, Steven Pinker and Thomas Piketty – Rawls is the single biggest influence.
Rawls: an explanation
John Rawls (1921-2002) wrote his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, in 1971. The book is one of the most important philosophical contributions of the 20th century. It was followed by Political Liberalism in 1993 and The Law of Peoples in 1997.
Rawls revived the tradition of political philosophy, and provided one of the most powerful rebuffs of utilitarianism, the dominant philosophy of the Victorian age. He re-engaged with the ‘social contract’ and ‘state of nature’ arguments of Locke, Rousseau and Kant.
Rawls’ criticism of utilitarianism (a philosophy which promotes ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’) was that it allows the minority to be punished if the benefit to the majority is big enough. One of the examples Rawls gave was slavery. He pointed out that this obvious moral affront was permitted by utilitarianism – as long as the slave owners and society benefited significantly enough.
Ultimately, Rawls’ philosophy prevents a single group being abandoned by progress or prosperity. It would not, for example, let British seaside towns be left behind by the pace of globalisation, or US inner-city ghettos be created by underinvestment – even if the economic benefits for society made this seem like necessary collateral.
The central tenet of Rawls’ work was the ‘original position’ or ‘veil of ignorance’. This was a thought experiment, where you design the world from the perspective of an unborn child, who doesn’t yet know what position they’ll occupy within society.
The society designed in this state of detachment would be a genuinely fair one, Rawls said – without partisanship, scapegoats, vested interests and double standards. It would stop majorities from subjugating minority interests, and it would allow the economy to grow, as long as the proceeds were split fairly. No rational person, after all, would take the risk, under the veil of ignorance, of grossly unequal or bigoted societies, or of radically different life chances – for fear that they’d draw the short straw and suffer poverty or discrimination.
You’d choose, Rawls argued, with pure logic from behind the veil of ignorance – your judgement clouded neither by altruism or ego. This impartiality would bring about moral ends.[vii]
Rawls set out two principles of social justice as devised behind the veil of ignorance (the second of which has two distinct parts):
The first principle is that basic liberties and rights should be distributed absolutely evenly. As you would not, behind the veil of ignorance, know your gender, your sexuality, your race, your class etc, you’d design a society where you were not prevented by things beyond your control from voting, from avoiding arbitrary imprisonment, from being free to move around or go to school or own property etc.
The second principle is that ‘primary goods’ should be distributed evenly. Primary goods include income and wealth, property, access to information, education, opportunity to fulfil your potential, social efficacy. This means that, not knowing what your own genetic endowments will be (e.g. whether you would be born clever, stupid, artistic, entrepreneurial, strong, weak etc), you would design the society in such a way that: A) There is absolute equality of opportunity to fulfil yourself when it comes to life chances. B) There are fair outcomes. Inequalities of outcome should only exist if they benefit the weakest at least as much as the strongest. This emphasis on fair outcomes was referred to by Rawls as the ‘difference principle’ – an acknowledgement that there are some natural differences between people.
The first principle would come before the second. And the first part of the second principle would come before the second part. Equal rights, equal opportunities, fair outcomes.[viii]
Rawls wasn’t specific about what policies would best fulfil the original position. It would be hard, he suggested, to deliver it via pure communism or unfettered capitalism. But it could be achieved through a socialist economy permitting some competition and innovation, or through a capitalist economy organised in a sustainable, inclusive and egalitarian way.[ix]
As this lack of prescription shows, Rawls was an advocate of ‘liberal neutrality’ – favouring ‘the right’ over ‘the good’. He held no value judgement about what a ‘good society’ looked like, as long as it fulfilled the requirements of social justice. From behind the veil of ignorance, for example, you’d see nothing wrong, in itself, with owning a fleet of sports cars – so long as this didn’t conflict with more pressing social priorities (which is a big ‘if’).[x]
Rawls called the process of sifting priorities like this ‘reflexive equilibrium’. In many ways this is a more detailed enactment of the Nye Bevan view that “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.”
Rawls’ later writing developed the ‘overlapping consensus’ model, whereby people can privately hold and practise world views that are incompatible with the original position, as long as they sign up to a public consensus which allows others to co-exist. For example, a comprehensive religious world view which opposes gay marriage is fine as part of a person’s private philosophy, as long as it isn’t imposed on public policy.[xi]
In essence, Rawls thought you could have a pluralist and diverse ‘live and let live’ society, the important thing being that everyone respected the ‘let live’ part. The structure of this is like a Venn diagram. There may be several different versions of ‘the good society’ around the outside, but the overlapping area in the middle – the public, political consensus – must be shared.
Rawls’ theory offers a way for Labour to stay radical in a 21st Century where the principle divides are no longer between the colonised and the imperialists or between the workers and the ‘boss class’.
A world designed under the veil of ignorance would be much closer to left-wing values than right-wing ones. From the original position, people would probably choose an absolutely equal start in life, meaning private education would be eradicated and inherited wealth heavily taxed. We might choose fully representative democracy (i.e. Proportional Representation) so we had an equal stake in politics. We’d opt for a country more geographically balanced, so living in London didn’t give you the foot-up it currently does – or create an imbalanced housing market. We’d want discrimination of all types outlawed, and we’d want to know that if we made mistakes, prison would rehabilitate not institutionalise us, and society would protect not demonise us. Not knowing what talents we’d be born with, we’d choose a society where we could live with dignity and fulfil ourselves, whatever our natural attributes. We’d plump for free healthcare, full employment, a strong welfare state which helped people find work, a living wage, and ultra-progressive maternity and childcare systems. We’d like to see open borders and the economic divides between countries closed absolutely, so being born in South Sudan offered the same chances as being born in the UK.[xii] We’d push climate change up the agenda, not knowing which generation we’d be born into (and not wanting to suffer from past generations’ excesses).
The veil of ignorance argument makes these things hard to argue with – even if there are compromises and delays necessary in realising each one.
However, Rawls’ ideas are also important because – unlike other theories with a radical end-point – he wasn’t prescriptive or dogmatic. A society devised under the veil of ignorance fulfils many criteria of socialism. But perspective, objectivity and context are the vehicles for getting there. Rawls’ emphasis on the ‘right over the good’ is about a society which will benefit everyone, rather than advancing the cause of one group over another.
This exposition of Rawlsian philosophy may seem like a diversion. In an era of an identity politics, low trust, and globalisation, the ultra-rationalism of A Theory of Justice seems irrelevant. Indeed, Rawls isn’t especially in vogue, and his work is hard to apply to the 21st century. There are several reasons for this.
a) An overly clinical approach
The first point is that there’s something ultra-detached about the Rawls approach – like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. At its core is a rational foetus, devising society with impartial logic, as if by mathematical formula.[xiii]
Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, mentioned in Chapter One, are sometimes critical of Rawls for this reason, suggesting that his rational perspective makes little effort to understand the moral codes of others.[xiv] The original position idea doesn’t tally with how most people engage with the world, or how campaigners seek to persuade people. It never can.[xv] In this age of identity politics, it seems less viable than ever.
There are two sub-arguments here. The first is that Rawlsianism may work in theory but is incompatible with human nature – as Marxism has usually proven to be. The second criticism – that of Haidt and others – is that Rawlsianism is at odds with ideological diversity.
The first argument seems spurious. Rawls was flexible about methods and provided enough elasticity for individuals to fulfil themselves however they saw fit. The goal was to allow maximum happiness and freedom for each person, the only caveat being that this couldn’t stop the happiness and freedom of others.
The second argument is more valid. There can be no question that Rawlsianism is a poor comms strategy. Asking people to see things with the impartiality of a rational foetus doesn’t speak to the values which guide many cultures.
Yet the Rawlsian approach is based on a non-judgemental and non-dogmatic route to egalitarianism, and in this respect it’s highly pluralistic (and, in fact, in keeping with the quest for understanding and co-existence proposed by Haidt). No set of values can drive out another.
This doesn’t change the fact it’s a hard sell. And I’m not suggesting we should take to the doorsteps with copies of A Theory of Justice under our arms, nor even that we should pursue Rawls’ writing to the letter. I’m just proposing that, if we’re looking for a castle on the hill that can unite the pluralist and populist left, a Rawlsian ideal – flexible and impartial but egalitarian and radical – is a good start-point.
b) The lack of ‘a good society’ ideal
Rawls’ ‘liberal neutrality’ is an issue for some. He’s seen as doing too little to prescribe a ‘good society’, rather than just a ‘right society’. This argument tends to come from a communitarian perspective,[xvi] and there’s truth in it. The danger is that Rawlsianism becomes an atomised creed, based on contractual relationships, not social bonds.
However, Rawls’ emphasis on moral ends by non-moral means is also one of the reasons he’s important. His ‘good society’ comes through a hesitance to assign greater morality to some over others.[xvii] His ‘liberal neutral’ approach means saying someone can fly a St George’s flag above their house or an LGBT rainbow flag, and incur no judgement either way, as long as they do no harm. It allows the boy racers, the students of Proust, and the owners of Golden Jubilee commemoration mugs to all have a place in society – so long as they respect each other. And it asks that the government’s policies reflect this.
To me, this comes close to a good society ideal in itself, and reflects the sort of ‘each to their own’ tolerance that people in the average pub of café have for each other. The sources of right-wing populism often come not from a sense that everyone should be following the Royal Wedding or supporting England, but from a sense – real or imagined – that those who do so are looked down upon.
With this said, it’s true that, for a Rawls-style of politics to be successful, the reciprocity at its core needs to gather widespread support and understanding. So far, his ideas have mainly been used to think about how the state redistributes, not about civil society.
As one left-of-centre writer put it in 2010, there needs to be a shift from ‘what they owe us’ to ‘what we owe each other’.[xviii] After all, low levels of trust at present are often despite improvements to quality-of-life. (In local government, this is known as the ‘performance paradox’: services improve but trust falls, thanks to the clinical, ‘top-down’ way in which improvements are delivered).[xix] Only when supported by engagement, reciprocity and transparency can Rawlsianism make a difference.
c) The absence of an answer to globalisation
Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice in a pre-globalised era. His ideas relied on a single political sphere – i.e a single society, ruled by a single government. Globalisation has introduced a situation where individuals operate across multiple spheres. So, a globalised world makes for a poor platform for Rawlsian policies in action.
Rawls’ later efforts to engage with globalisation left some disappointed. He argued that a nation needed to first strive towards internal fairness, and then redistribute globally. In practice, sorting out your own backyard before turning outwards isn’t compatible with the globalisation process, the consequences of which influence on what’s going on in your own nation.
However, while it’s true that the globalisation process has made Rawls’ ideal harder to achieve, this doesn’t mean that basic veil of ignorance principles are any less desirable. We don’t need to agree with every element of his writing. His lack of answers to an interdependent world doesn’t make the goals of rational objectivity and radical fairness any less valid.
Left populism and Rawls
I’ve looked at Rawls early on because, when thinking through a left-wing narrative which includes a finish point – rather than a process of perpetual dissent – his original position is the thing I keep returning to.
There will never be full agreement about the methods, policy and strategy that will achieve our aims. And there will be disagreements about what Labour’s goal should be; as the array of ‘-isms’ listed above shows, there are differences in what people mean by social justice.
But the veil of ignorance provides a common denominator: a question you can ask about any society which progressives arrive at. Are there, in a basic sense, equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes? Is the society devoid of interests and partisanships, as if devised from the original position? There’s never been a society that completely fulfilled these things. But if we’re moving towards it then we’re on the right track.
Thus, Rawls gives us a guiding (and uniting) principle, towards which different parts of the left – with their conflicting views about means of delivery – can strive. He presents a philosophy based on logic, objectivity and putting yourself in others’ shoes; one which is pluralist in several key ways.
a) Rawls and partisanship
Rawls’ decision to prioritise the ‘right’ over the ‘good’ means that, according to his approach, the political spectrum isn’t a moral spectrum. Some interpretations may be more ‘right’ than others – i.e. more consistent with objective fairness – and a few can immediately be dismissed as wrong. But Rawls’ theory isn’t based on saying one ideal is inherently more virtuous. It says we achieve social justice by seeing beyond our own perspective – not by being ever more ardent.[xx]
Moreover, Rawls’ ‘overlapping consensus’ model guards against the inexorabilities thrown up by a singular view. It isn’t about side-taking. This is robustly plural, meaning no ‘Out-group’ or scapegoat can be created; no singular view can undermine the rights of another.[xxi]
If you were designing a society from behind the veil of ignorance, you’d want to know that if you were born with business acumen you could fulfil yourself. But you’d also want to ensure this didn’t ‘pull the ladder up’ or grind down others – who you could just as easily be born as. Likewise, you’d want enough trade union strength that you were protected at work. But your support for unions wouldn’t be limitless, because you’d know you might also depend on public services.
So, while the Rawls theory of justice would certainly advance the cause of progressives, it wouldn’t – prizing objectivity above all else – take the part of the left as a matter of course. It would preclude the majoritarian, ‘means justifies the ends’ positions which left populists often fall into.[xxii]
b) Rawls and government
The economist Will Hutton described, in a 2013 article, “the decay of power” at the hands of populism. Hutton reminds us that those in power are in a position of unprecedented weakness – not unparalleled strength:[xxiii]
power devolves to myriad new forces that often exercise [it] with narrow obsessions in mind. Who now speaks for the whole? Who keeps a macro view, mediating competing interests and conflicts and has the courage to make decisions based on a strategic view of all our interests, not just sectional ones?
The mindset implicit in Rawls’ philosophy begins to answer these questions, with the veil of ignorance offered up as an alternative to the righteous clarity of a single viewpoint.[xxiv] In an era when each faction is convinced of their rightness, Rawls’ focus on detachment is vital.[xxv]
For the left this is especially important. Rawls’ emphasis on neutrality encourages us to weigh up competing needs, putting ourselves in the shoes of a government acting as fair arbitrator. This cuts through oppositionist or populist assumptions.
Indeed, Rawls’ theory is an answer to the age-old choice between ‘power and principles’. This dilemma is often played out between those who say following the electorate is necessary to enact your principles, and those who ask how far we take this.
The utilitarian arguments which Rawls attacked could justify almost any concession to the popular will, as long as it was supported by the majority. For instance, if enough people would be made happier and better off by the deportation all immigrants, it would be the right thing to do.
The Rawls approach, on the other hand, seeks to guarantee everyone’s needs are met – as long as they don’t harm others’. It doesn’t look to impose a minority interpretation of ‘the good’ on an unwilling population (where, for example, businesses are pointlessly banned or the flying of the national flag is censored for no reason). But it simultaneously limits how far the left should go in meeting the will of the people.
c) Rawls and change
Finally, Rawls’ philosophy is fluid, responding to how the world is adapting, rather than clinging to a specific doctrine.
It recognises that criteria of the original position can be fulfilled in different ways, in different economic circumstances and at different points in history. It can be done in nations that have different raw materials, different histories, different economies and different cultures. In other words, the routes to Rawlsianism are never the same. And, while his answers to the globalisation challenges might be insufficient, his liberal neutral approach lets us navigate a way through.
Radical but not extreme
In a 1985 essay, Rawls sought to clarify what he’d meant in A Theory of Justice. He wrote that[xxvi]
There are periods … in the history of any society during which certain fundamental questions give rise to sharp and divisive political controversy, and it seems difficult, if not impossible, to find any shared basis of political agreement.
This analysis certainly applies to politics in the 2010s, and to the way populist movements prevent the “fair system of social cooperation” which Rawls believed was essential to democracy.[xxvii]
He went on to say that the role of a political philosopher was to
examine whether some underlying basis of agreement can be uncovered and a mutually acceptable way of resolving these questions publicly established. Or if these questions cannot be fully settled … perhaps the divergence of opinion can be narrowed sufficiently so that political cooperation on a basis of mutual respect can still be maintained.
In writing this, Rawls presented his theory “not as a conception of justice that is true, but [as] one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens.”[xxviii]
This is central to the way I’m using Rawls’ work. His views about what a fair society would look like are important. But just as vital is his focus on flexibility, rationality and impartiality as means of getting there: on objectivity, not vehemence.[xxix]
Indeed, Rawls’ concept of ‘the right’ over ‘the good’ is probably the most relevant part of his theory – in that it recognises that we can, none of us, see past our own hump. Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment was intended to act as “a means of public reflection and self-clarification,” to help us arrive at “a clear and uncluttered view of what justice requires.”[xxx]
So, while Rawls offers a radically fair destination, he champions a means of seeing our way through to it which doesn’t rely on hating an ‘Out-group’, or fearing a big bad wolf, or resurrecting policy solutions. This offers the basis for a pluralist approach, based on compromise but not concession; on ideals but not ideology. It provides a chance for radicalism to flourish without extremism blossoming alongside it.
I won’t go further into the finer points of A Theory of Justice. I’m aware that there are different views about what a society created behind the veil of ignorance looks like. And I know there are ways the original position analysis can be altered to include communitarian elements, or to respond to globalisation.
However, even Rawls’ critics seem to agree with his basic premise: that whatever principles are ultimately applied need to be applied universally, to everyone – and that moving beyond partisan and majoritarian perspectives is essential to progress.
[i] ‘Blairite’ MP Chuka Umunna has pointed out, in exchanges with Corbynite commentators, that the type of regulated capitalism he supports is actually fairly similar to that advocated by the likes of Paul Mason. Other commentators have also noted that the actual policy differences between Corbyn’s manifesto and those of the Miliband era are minimal: “There hasn’t been the kind of ceremonial torching of Labour history and traditions that both sides sometimes like to suggest has occurred,” writes Helen Lewis.
[ii] Suggestions that Labour and Tory moderates unite stem from the feeling that differences in interpretation have become unbridgeable. Perhaps, some left pluralists wonder, they have more in common with pluralists on the other side than with populists who share their values.
[iii] There are exceptions to this, such as journalist John Rentoul, who has provocatively sought to play Corbyn supporters at their own game, criticising the populist left for being right-wing, or the academic Glen O’Hara, who complains that Corbyn’s Labour have given up on redistribution.
[iv] Ethical socialism, the concept most famously advocated by RH Tawney, stands out amongst these. It describes a type of socialism built on a core set of ethics and values rather than on an economic doctrine. It thus contains a greater degree of flexibility about the methods used, and a more constructive approach to working with capitalism. Many former Labour Prime Ministers have described themselves as ethical socialists.
[v] The authors of the 1978-1991 magazine Marxism Today, for example, explicitly set out to avoid binary thinking, opposition for its own sake, and narratives which denied change was happening. Most authors were self-proclaimed communists, but their views are far more consistent with left pluralism than with left populism. In a famous essay re-published by the journal, Eric Hobsbawm argued for a reality check: “We, as Marxists, must do what Marx would certainly have done: to recognise the novel situation in which we find ourselves, to analyse it realistically and concretely, to analyse the reasons, historical and otherwise, for the failures as well as the successes of the labour movement, and to formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done.” He was coming from a position you’d characterise as ‘far left’ (in that he was a Marxist), but he nevertheless sought clear analysis over conspiracy theories and war metaphors. See ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ Eric Hobsbawm, Marxism Today, September, 1978.
[vii] An everyday parallel would be the ‘cut and choose’ approach: your two children both want the last slice of cake, and to avoid argument you ask one to cut the slice into two pieces and the other to choose which piece they want. The cutter makes the division as fairly as possible, because they know they won’t get to choose which of the slices they get.
[viii] “Shared agreement…would produce a well-ordered society,” Norman Daniels explains, “governed by principles guaranteeing equal basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and the requirement that inequalities be arranged to make those who are worst off as well off as possible.” – see Daniels, Norman, “Reflective Equilibrium”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
[ix] He was less keen on a form of capitalism where primary goods were distributed retrospectively – through the benefits system, for example, or regional grants – as this would not fully achieve equality of self-respect or genuine autonomy. This, it could be argued, would be Rawls’ most significant critique of New Labour.
[x] Likewise, Rawls might see no in-built immorality in a parent wanting to leave money to their offspring. For an individual with different life experiences, after all, the ‘moral’ thing might be to look after your family at all costs, with minimising your inheritance tax deemed an ethical act. We cannot, without occupying the mind of this other person, regard ourselves as more moral than them. Yet the minimisation of inheritance tax would arguably be given a low priority from behind the veil of ignorance. You’d be tempted, while in the original position, by the idea of a large inheritance. But, knowing you’d more likely be born a member of a poorer family, you’d probably opt for the money to be invested back into society, on a more even basis.
[xi] Norman Daniels explains this as follows: “A shared political conception is a point of convergence among otherwise different comprehensive world views… Groups sharing [competing] comprehensive views modify the content of their comprehensive views over time in order to cooperate within shared democratic institutions.” Daniels, Norman, “Reflective Equilibrium”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed).
[xiii] To give one example, Rawls’ theory says less talented people shouldn’t mind more talented people – doctors, for example – being paid more, as long as the less talented, benefited from the doctor’s skillset. Rawls argued that “the main psychological root of our liability to envy is a lack of self-confidence in our own worth combined with a sense of impotence.” However, a psychological phenomenon like the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people overestimate their intelligence, casts major doubt over this assumption.
[xiv] Professor Drew Westen notes that advocates of liberalism “tend to be intellectual. They like to read and think. They thrive on policy debates, arguments, statistics, and getting the facts right. All that is well and good, but it can be self-destructive politically … because moral condescension registers with voters.” This “renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail.”
[xv] Haidt claims Rawls is “creating clever justifications for moral intuitions” and criticises him for “simply making assertions about what people want or what seems ‘reasonable’.” See The Righteous Mind, p.38. Indeed, research has in some cases suggested that people would be less egalitarian than Rawls had presumed from behind the veil of ignorance – see ‘Choices of Principles of Distributive Justice in Experimental Groups’, American Journal of Political Science, Frohlich Oppenheimer & Eavey, 31(3):606-636, 1987.
[xvi] Jonathan Rutherford and Henning Meyer suggest Rawls misses something culturally – see ‘The Future of European Social Democracy: Building the Good Society’, Henning Meyer, Jonathan Rutherford, Palgrave Macmillan, p.42 – and political philosophers like Michael Sandel have made the point in a much deeper way. Most notable among these is Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. More recently, Sandel has emphasised the role of a ‘good life’ ideal in tackling right-wing populism: “Liberal neutrality flattens questions of meaning, identity and purpose into questions of fairness. It therefore misses the anger and resentment that animate the populist revolt; it lacks the moral, rhetorical and sympathetic resources to understand the cultural estrangement, even humiliation, that many working-class and middle-class voters feel; and it ignores the meritocratic hubris of elites.”
[xvii] “Rawls wrote that “One of the deepest distinctions between political conceptions of justice is between those that allow for a plurality of opposing and even incommensurable conceptions of the good and those that hold that there is but one conception of the good which is to be recognized by all persons.” See ‘Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical’, John Rawls, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3, (Summer, 1985), p.248.
[xx] He wrote that “citizens are to recognize that the weight of their claims is not given by the strength and psychological intensity of their wants and desires (as opposed to their needs and requirements as citizens), even when their wants and desires are rational from their point of view.” ‘Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical’, p.246.
[xxi] Rawls was keen to point out that his theory was not a set of “comprehensive moral ideals,” and, in fact, complained that, too often “liberalism itself becomes a sectarian doctrine.” ‘Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical’, p.246.
[xxii] It could be argued, more generally, that Rawlsian thinking wouldn’t permit a rhetorical division between ‘the 99%’ and ‘the 1%’. Rawls theory of justice would, of course, say that a 1% of the global population owning 50% of the world’s wealth was unacceptable. But it might also say that blaming everything on the immorality of a handful of people is a fairly utilitarian approach.
[xxiii] ‘Power is fragmenting. But what is the true cost to democracy?’ Will Hutton, Guardian, 2013.
[xxiv] This righteous clarity is a big problem with activists’ preference for ‘direct democracy’ over ‘representative’ democracy. As academic Armine Ishkanian has pointed out, the activist conception of democracy involves a “more demanding idea of what democracy should mean.” While this is a laudable aim – and the goal should be a greater consultation of the population at every level – in its current form it simply means privileging the most passionate voices. Hence, until an understanding of prioritisation is incorporated within it, ‘direct democracy’ will simply mean “inclusive aspirations and exclusive tendencies” – and will be undermined by a failure to see that the goals of activists are not always the goals of the population at large.
[xxv] 2017 research looked at framing fairness in three ways: on the basis of a) ‘charity’, b) ‘reciprocity’ and c) ‘impartiality’. It explored which of these made people most willing to embrace redistributive policies, and found out that “Impartiality stood apart; it was rated as easiest to judge as ‘doing the right thing,’ unemotional, unmotivated by the unique states of recipients, based on standard procedures, and by far the most fair… A policy that exhibits impartial even-handedness in a caring way – that aims to bring everyone up to a level playing field and doesn’t intend to leave anybody in the dust – may be most effectively understood as ‘fair,’ and importantly, ‘good,’ by the broadest audience.” See What Counts as "Fair" and What Makes People Care? Laura Niemi, Psychology Today, June 2017.
[xxviii] He added that “we must apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself. The hope is that … existing differences between contending political views can at least be moderated, even if not entirely removed, so that social cooperation on the basis of mutual respect can be maintained.” ‘Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical’, p.230-231.
[xxix] After Labour lost the 2017 Copeland by-election, for instance (the first loss of a by-election seat by an opposition party for 30 years), Corbyn was asked if he’d ever “looked in the mirror” and examined whether his policies might explain Labour’s unpopularity. His blunt response – “No: thank you for your question” – was revealing, suggesting a preference for vehemence over objectivity.