Rawls & Romney.

A noble but awful attempt by Toyama at The Atlantic to bring political philosophy to bear on the Realpolitik of the moment. The question is posed about whether concerns for income inequality are a matter of morals or pure envy – the latter being Romney’s claim – before a lengthy digression into the reasoning of Rawls.

Except it doesn’t really shed much light on his reasoning, instead just announcing the relevance of the Veil of Ignorance thought experiment and deriving ‘truths’ accordingly. I appreciate this is a magazine article, not a philosophical treatise, but you must do better than making outrageously sloppy claims like this:

Together these pieces provide a philosophical foundation for American liberal democracy, and Rawls built an almost airtight logic to justify it.

Oh, please! I’m an avid Rawlsian, but to create the impression that only morons question the validity of his position is simply absurd, and disrespectful to the fact of extreme diversity in philosophical opinion.

The conclusion, of course, is the right one: obviously Rawls does think income inequalities of the Mittian sort would be unjust. But the reasons Toyama cites for Rawls’ thinking this ring totally alien to my ears.

We’ll have to do better than this to convince Americans that libertarianism and meritocracy are flawed. Toyama would have done better to probe the fragile philosophical status of property rights, and talk about determinism to undermine the notion of desert. It is these factors, after all, that drove Rawls away from such theories, and into the realm of Kantian equality that can justify concerns about wealth disparities with reference to more than envy.

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One thought on “Rawls & Romney.

  1. A shame cos the concept of envy in Rawls is a really interesting topic. Toyama gets the essential point that in a Rawlsian world people would have much less reason to feel envious, but here’s a more interesting take on the topic: http://www.springerlink.com/content/p3365r2u347747h2/

    Actually, Rawls’ hostility to envy is similar to most conservatives (though this is more legitimate in the sort of egalitarian society he envisages). Indeed, contrary to what Toyama says, utilitarians have good reason to give moral consideration to feelings of envy, insofar as they cause people suffering. This seems like a good example of the sort of ‘external preference’ that Dworkin criticises them for.

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