A good argument

We’re putting on John Rawls’ veil again today, or thinking about it anyway. He was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.
So, the sporting example we were discussing yesterday: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.
But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument.

A good argument, after all, really isn’t just interrupting and saying no it isn’t/-yes it is/no it isn’t. With the rude and acrimonious election season we’ve just come through, we should give serious thought to how we can elevate our political discourse. The 2014 campaign season will be opening any minute now.

We had a pretty good discussion in EEA yesterday, provoked by Scott’s report on Daniel Quinn‘s call from beyond civilization. “There’s no one right way to live,” but pluralistic “tribalism” doesn’t require relativism: there are still wrong ways to live. But who gets to say precisely what those are?

For instance, Morgan challenges: can’t an environmentally-sensitive Mom raise a large brood without earning or deserving the scorn of environmentalists who still worry about a population bomb and counsel a nuclear family of limited offspring, even maybe just one? (And, as the president said in the wee hours yesterday: “one dog’s probably enough” too.)

Yes and no, I think. Yes, if that Mom does a superlative job of instilling humane eco-sensitivity in all her offspring. No, if we consider the risk of endorsing large families simpliciter, without qualification. Just do the math: if everyone multiplied herself in kind, generation after generation, we’d soon literally overrun the planet. Even if they were all good biotic citizens, this simply wouldn’t be a sustainable model of habitation. The human tribe would implode.

But only one? Two works pretty well, for us, most of the time. Kids and dogs. The one cat’s one too many, though, when he tries (as he is right now) to lay on my keyboard.

So what would Rawls say? Presumably he’d trust his veiled deliberators to strike the right chord between liberty and difference on this, and to allow that we might possibly be able to afford the occasional busload-sized family. One of those extra riders just might turn out to be an outsized contributor to our collective good fortune. Odds are against it, though, so the sensible advisory “rule” (probably shouldn’t be a law) for most of us will be to ditch the bus (mini-van, SUV) and squeeze the kid(s) into the Corolla.

Wasn’t that an amusingly artless rendition of Rawls?

I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.

Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd.”

The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.


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