Message in a Bottle

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Will the real John Rawls please stand up?

Brad de Long thinks that Rawls somewhat contractarian argument doesn't work:
Indeed. I never understood the cult of Rawls. His arguments seemed to me to have only one thing going for them at Harvard around 1980: they were less sloppy, more careful, and informed by a much less niggardly will than those of Robert "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" Nozick. I didn't understand why Rawls's arguments were supposed to be so powerful. And the thought of majoring in political philosophy in Rawls's shadow seemed distinctly unappetizing.

Perhaps my problem was that I read Hume's "Of the Original Contract" when I was too young. I found Hume's arguments unanswerable: given that the questions of whether one has an obligation to fulfill various political and personal contracts are so knotty, it seemed simply absurd to try to base all political obligation on one's being a supposed party to a contract that one never even made. I could never even figure out how Rawls could flower in the shadow of Hume.

He follows by "quoting" the complete text by Hume. The impatient reader may consult this shortened version of the somewhat lengthy argument: "What contract? I haven't signed anything!". The problem isn't that Brad de Long read Hume, his problem is not having read Rawls. What Rawls did was essentially desingning a clever counterfactual thought experiment in which people would choose, not biased in any way, moral out of being rational, not out of being nice. A contract made under such circumstances would serve as good moral system and can therefore be used to justify moral rules. The details of the experiment are explained here by Fred D'Agostino.