Monday, 14 September 2015

ToJ, 1: The Role of Justice


I shall slightly depart from the order in which Rawls sets things out, to explain his distinction between the "concept" of justice, and "conceptions" of justice. The concept of justice is precisely that: justice. A conception of justice is a particular interpretation of justice, a set of principles which a person believes to define justice.

Rawls begins by setting out what he takes to be the concept of justice. He sees it as being a way of distributing the gains which arise from co-operation between different individuals within a society.

In Rawls' view, a society must not only be just - that is, governed by a conception of justice - but it must be "well-ordered": the members of the society should agree upon this conception of justice, and should for the most part follow it. Furthermore, this agreement should be a matter of common knowledge: everyone not only agrees to this conception, but is aware that everyone else does. The point of being well-ordered is that conflicts between members will inevitably occur over precisely how the benefits of cooperation ought to be in a particular instance. By having a commonly agreed and enforced conception of justice, there is a rulebook which can be consulted in order to resolve such conflicts.

While being well-ordered is a goal of the first importance for a society, it ought to achieve other things besides this. Rawls singles out the issues of coordination, efficiency, and stability. People ought to be able to achieve their plans without coming into conflict; the people in the society ought achieve their individual goals as far as is possible; and when society is successful regarding these goals, it ought to maintain the institutions which allow for this success.


"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought." pp.3

"Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override." pp.3

"The rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests." pp.4

"Let as assume... that a society is a more or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one another recognise certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part act in accordance with them." pp.4

"Although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share," pp.4

"Those who hold different conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and  when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life." pp.5

"The plans of individuals need to be fitted together so that their activities are compatible with each other and they can all be carried through without anyone's legitimate expectations being severely disappointed." pp.5


Rawls' account of the nature of justice is rich, and he describes it in great detail to the point of tortuousness. Questions worthy of consideration include:

-Are there any moral claims prior to entering into society? If there are, what happens to them when one joins a society?
-How relevant are the different features of society that he mentions?

  • Self sufficiency seems more like a way of defining the scope of society than as being of moral relevance. But if this is so, can he resist the claim that we live in a global, rather than local or national, society?
-See Heath, J. "The Benefits of Co-operation." Should different benefits be governed by different principles of justice?

-Hayekian thoughts about spontaneous order. How important is coordination as a concern of political relevance?
-"Legitimate expectations". Is there a way to define "legitimate" expectations without presupposing moral answers that Rawls is trying to provide?

-We might expect the society to revise its conception of justice over time. Even if the conception of justice does not change, the institutions required in order to achieve justice almost certainly will. How does this mesh with stability?

-Is the requirement to know, let alone accept, a particular conception of justice rather demanding upon the average person? I believe Rawls is following Bernard Williams' criticism of "Government House utilitarianism", in which a small elite know the rules by which society is run but most people are given a different justification. Perhaps Williams' argument has some force, but there is also something to be said for being able to get on with your life without having to wonder whether you are complicit in injustice. We outsource questions like "what should the interest rate be" to experts, so why not moral questions?

-Usual questions regarding contractualist morality: is there any morality prior to the contract, and does the duty to obey the contract presuppose pre-contractual duties to follow agreements?

-Surely it is massively unrealistic to expect agreement upon one conception? (Of course, Rawls realised this; hence Political Liberalism).

Sunday, 13 September 2015

ToJ, Preface


Rawls believes that a key purpose of ethics is to explain our intuitions. This is to be done by devising a grand, overarching theory of morality which explains why certain behaviours are good while others are bad, and seeing how well the theory corresponds with the complete set of our intuitions.

Utilitarianism is one such system. Indeed, Rawls sees it as the only presently existing system. The problem is that there are a number of cases where utilitarianism is rather unintuitive. The usual response to this has been to reject the need for a unifying system, and instead go by pure intuitionism. Rawls, however, wants to create an entire edifice as an alternative to utilitarianism, which he believe does a better job of capturing our intuitions.

In order to create this alternative, he borrows ideas he likes from many places. He sees his role as being not so much as an originator of ideas, as a combiner and unifier of other people's ideas.


"The great utilitarians... were social theorists and economists of the first rank; and the moral doctrine they worked out was framed to meet the needs of their wider interests and to fit into a comprehensive scheme. Those who criticised them often did so on a much narrower front... They failed, I believe, to construct a workable and systematic moral conception to oppose it." (pp.xvii)

"An important test of a theory of justice is how well it introduces order and system into our considered judgements over a wide range of questions." (pp.xix)


Rawl's view that ethical theory should unify our intuitions is illuminating, but not uncontroversial. What it does mean, however, is that Rawls is staking his theory upon its conformity to intuitions in "a wide range of questions." It is important to note he says "a wide range", but not "all" questions.

Why might it be useful to have a unifying theory? There are two obvious answers. First, our intuitions do not cover every case. In such uncharted waters we will need a system of morality in order to work out right from wrong. Secondly, our intuitions are useful but they are not infallible. Centuries ago, slavery was seen as good and natural, for example.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Poor Economics Foreword and Ch. 1: Think Again, Again

Over the summer I am intending to read and review various books, listed here. The first is Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, which discusses third-world poverty, various measures which have have taken in attempts to reduce poverty, and assesses what has worked and what hasn't.

Much of the book relies on a simple modelling idea. The assumption (which is often relaxed to go into greater detail) is that the greatest determinant of future income is present income. This can be represented by graphs such as the following:

These graphs plot present income (X-axis) against future income (Y-axis), with the black line representing equality between the two and the red line representing the path that incomes actually take. The key intuition here is that one will reach equilibrium where the red and black lines meet, that if the red line is above the black line then income increases over time and if the red line is below the black line then income decreases over time.

The graph on the left, the "inverted L-shape graph" represents a conventional picture of development in which, left to themselves, economies will tend to grow. One view of development is that this is how things tend to be, and the existence of poverty is largely due to interfering and corrupt governments preventing growth from happening.

An alternative view, represented by the "S-shape graph" on the right, suggests that there are "poverty traps" where, if a developing country were that bit richer, it would embark upon a path of growth, but for the moment growth is prevented by obstacles which could be overcome through outside investment. This is much of the idea behind programs like Jeffrey Sachs' Millenium Villages, which hope to provide sufficient wealth so as to push developing countries on to the growth path.

The foreword, aside from roughly describing the structure of the book, talks briefly about the authors' experience of writing the book, and gives a brief picture of what poverty looks like. When they speak of the global poor, they speak of people living on the equivalent (PPP) of 99 cents per day. Most of these people struggle to read, if they can read at all, which makes it difficult to buy certain products - how is one to judge health insurance when one has little or no way of obtaining further information about a disease with a long and unpronounceable name?

Chapter 1 gives a brief characterisation of two contrasting views on foreign aid - that typified by Jeffrey Sach, as outlined above, which believes that foreign aid can kick-start the local economy, and an opposing view held by figures such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo. They argue that aid in fact harms the recipients by corrupting local institutions and creating a lobby of aid agencies, and that the best thing that could happen would the emergence of genuine free markets. If these sound like left-wing and right-wing positions, that's because in general they are. They also seek to be universal proclamations about what aid will always or nearly always do, this book proclaims its intention to look at individual instances of aid and whether they have helped.

After this, it outlines a basic moral case for wanting to help the third world. In addition to referencing Peter Singer's Drowning Child Analogy, they mention Amartya Sen's view of poverty as a waste of talent. They then observe that the more controversial debate is what we actually can do. They don't say much, but my way of putting it would be that (1) ought entails can; hence (2) if we cannot relieve global poverty, we are under no obligation to do so.  For this reason, the moral case for foreign aid is dependent upon us being able to actually help the people in receipt of aid.

Next, it suggests that there are complex issues which can only be answered by careful gathering and analysis of data. They give the example of insecticide-treated bed nets, which are tremendously effective as a way of reducing malaria. Is the best way to distribute these to give them away, or to sell them? If we sell them, should we do so at cost or subsidise them? In case it seems obviously better to give them away, remember that this costs money, and (at least in theory) it is always better, rather than just giving bed nets away, to give away enough money to buy bed nets and to sell them. This allows aid recipients to buy other things which they may consider a higher priority than a bed net.

There are other arguments against just giving the nets away; some think that, if the nets are given away for free, they will not be valued and so will not be used or will be misused. A (in my opinion more plausibly true) argument is that, if people become used to receiving bed nets for free, then in the future they will refuse to pay for nets and so well-functioning markets could be ruined.

These are claims to be empirically investigated, and so Banerjee and Duflo then briefly go into the methodology used. To answer this particular question, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were carried out in which individuals were randomly selected to receive different levels of subsidy to buy bed nets, and their behaviour in response recorded.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

ASU Ch.3: Moral Constraints and the State, part one

Main threads:

  • A discussion of the idea of the ultra-minimal state, a variation on the minimal state
  • A discussion of the difference between end goals and side constraints. This is in response to a charge of hypocrisy: proponents of an ultra-minimal state seek to avoid rights violations in most cases, but seem to be happy with certain rights violations. Nozick shows that this is not so.
  • A discussion of the nature of side constraints, and how they apply to rights.
  • A reiteration of how far the theory has so far gone, and a recognition of certain problems which will at some point need to be resolved.
  • A discussion of animal rights

ASU Ch. 2: The State of Nature

There are four threads to this chapter.

  1. A brief explanation of John Locke's view of the state of nature
  2. Nozick's own views on the state of nature, leading to his conclusion that a dominant Rights Protection Association (RPA) would emerge.
  3. A discussion of "Invisible Hand explanations". The term invisible hand is, of course, taken from Adam Smith and Nozick applies it in a broad sense, including to his own explanation of the emergence of the state.
  4. An explanation of why Nozick does not believe the dominant RPA constitutes a State.

Friday, 17 January 2014

ASU Ch.1: Why State of Nature theory?

Nozick makes two key arguments in this chapter:
  1. It should be assumed that in the state of nature people "satisfy moral constraints and generally act as they ought."
  2. If a state would arise from the state of nature without violating any rights then this can justify an existing state, even if the way in which the actual state came to be bears no resemblance to the way a non-rights-violating state would emerge.

Anarchy, State and Utopia

I started this blog with the intention of reading through John Rawls' A Theory of Justice and blogging my notes on it. I got through the first chapter or so, but concluded that I would not be able to get through it before the exam for which it might be useful without ignoring all other revision. I have reverted the notes I had on to draft posts, and will hope to get back to ToJ reasonably soon. In the mean time, I will instead be making notes on Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia.