Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gordon, David. "Going Off the Rawls." THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE July 28, 2008.

Rawls’s stellar reputation stems mainly from one book. When he published A Theory of Justice in 1971, he awoke, like Byron, to find himself famous. Before that, Rawls was well known in philosophy departments as one of the brightest people working in ethics, but he had written only a few articles. People in the field knew he had been composing a major treatise, and when it finally appeared, most reviewers were ecstatic. Stuart Hampshire, writing in the New York Review of Books, called the book the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II. . . . To understand Rawls’s theory, one first needs to grasp what he was reacting against. The dominant approach in pre-Rawls political philosophy was utilitarianism: how can we maximize the satisfaction of people’s preferences? At first sight, utilitarianism seems plausible—what else should we do but try to achieve the most satisfaction possible for everyone?—but the theory has some odd consequences. Why, for example, is rape wrong? A utilitarian would have to answer that the pain to the victim outweighs the pleasure to the rapist. Surely, though, this is not why rape is wrong; the pleasure the rapist gets shouldn’t be counted at all, and the whole thing sounds ridiculous. (By the way, Judge Richard Posner, who might be called Jeremy Bentham redivivus, accepts just this view of rape in his Sex and Reason.) As Rawls pointed out, there is a more general problem that throws utilitarianism into question. Some people’s interests, or even lives, can be sacrificed if doing so will maximize total satisfaction. Suppose executing the Danish cartoonists will appease a Muslim mob, and that doing so increases total satisfaction. A utilitarian would have to endorse the execution. As Rawls says, “there is a sense in which classical utilitarianism fails to take seriously the distinction between persons.” . . . He offers an ingenious substitute for utilitarianism. Instead of directly advancing a theory of his own, Rawls asks what we can do when faced with the fact that people do not agree on a common conception of the good. He answers that even if people do not agree on the good, they can accept a fair procedure for settling what the principles of justice should be. This is key to Rawls’s theory: whatever arises from a fair procedure is just. But what is a fair procedure? Get the answer here: http://www.amconmag.com/article/2008/jul/28/00024/.

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