John Rawls is a political philosopher who began his ruminations on justice and fairness with a simple thought experiment: his philosophy asks people to plan a society beginning with what Rawls calls a veil of ignorance. By this he means, how would you structure a fair and just society if you had no idea where you yourself would be located in that society? You don’t know if you will be rich or poor, educated or illiterate, healthy or ill, strong or weak, intelligent or feeble. Rawls removes personal interest, and simply asks us to define what we mean by fair and just and then to imagine how we would achieve those two outcomes?
Rawls was deeply interested in what psychologists now call ‘cognitive dissonance’ – how do we reconcile two completely contradictory pieces of information in such a way that we do not have to surrender the idea that is most important to us? Rawls called dissonance a reflective equilibrium, but really, it’s the same thing. The Bible, for example, clearly says thou shalt not kill, but then …. Nazis. What are we going to do about Nazis? We have to find a way to kill Nazis without hesitation or remorse, while still agreeing that the Bible is a moral authority whose tenets we ought to follow. For Rawls, all moral reasoning proceeds this way – we try to maintain an equilibrium that allows us to hold fast to our most cherished beliefs, while doing what circumstances and other wretched humans force us to do. We only update our core beliefs when the dissonance makes it impossible to do otherwise.
For Rawls, there are two fundamental questions we have to ask as a society:
- How can we consider our society just and fair if we don’t respect basic property rights? Thomas Sowell asks a version of this same question when he asks “What is your fair share of what someone else has earned?’
- How can we consider our society just and fair if we allow people to live impoverished lives?
The Left and the Right answer those questions in dramatically different ways, largely because of where they imagine themselves to be in the social hierarchy, but also because a hugely important nuance is left out of Rawls philosophy. People who lean Right imagine their work being doled out to others who don’t deserve it, and the people who lean Left imagine themselves the deserving recipient of other’s people’s labor, and all we fight about is who deserves what.
Let’s update Rawls second question:
How can we consider our society just and fair if we allow people to live impoverished lives, through no fault of their own?
That, I think, is the fundamental difference between the Right and the Left. The Right is generous and willing to provide for people whose lives are impoverished through no fault of their own, but they balk at supporting people who make crappy life choices and fail to take advantage of the opportunities society provides. This is why equality of opportunity is so important to people on the Right. The Left is far more generous in terms of what they are willing to define as ‘no fault of your own’, and thus are considerably more focused on equality of outcome.
There are players on both sides who are malevolent and evil, but the majority of human beings are only conflicted on this single issue: what about your impoverished life is actually your own damn fault? Activists stoking racial tensions are really just making the claim that if a black person is leading an impoverished life, this is the fault of white people, and not a consequence of conscious and deliberate choices this person made. Feminists are women who insist, ironically and absolutely, that women are weak and fragile, and any aspect of a woman’s life that is in some way impoverished is the result a much stronger, more capable man impeding her in some way that is not her fault!
All we disagree about is the degree to which we control our own lives.
It’s comforting to say that the problem is simple, but it’s really not. We know that educational achievement gaps for black boys disappear when the boys have white mothers, and this is likely due to parenting practices that involve more conversation and less violence. A little black boy raised by a black mother who doesn’t speak to him and beats the hell out of him – what part of how he turns out is his fault? The Left wants to say none and the Right wants to say all and neither or those answers are fair or complete. No child chooses an abusive mother, but every abusive mother chooses to hit her child.
How do we find the reflective equilibrium there?
The reality of history is that when we turn as a society towards equality of outcome and absolving adults of responsibility and choice while allowing those adults to scapegoat other adults, the consequences cut bloody and deep.
Finland recently abandoned its experiment with a basic income for the poor. It turns out that paying people to lead impoverished lives doesn’t lend itself to a better life for the impoverished. It only entrenches entitlement and resentment. Who knew?
John Rawls knew.
It’s important that we discuss how and why people are impoverished. And we should always lean towards providing people with opportunity and then letting grown-ups lead the lives they want to lead, no matter how impoverished. Every man deserves a fishing pole and a map to the river.
If you choose to trade your pole for vodka and live on what successful fishermen discard, then so be it.
It’s your life.
And your choice.
Lots of love,