Saturday, September 19, 2015

Who is John Rawls?

My apologies to fans of Ayn Rand for stealing a favorite line of theirs ("Who is John Galt?").  I couldn't help myself.

Most of us, I think, choose our political party because of how we perceive our identity.  For example, if you’re black, you vote Democratic and you don’t have to think hard about it.  Similarly, if you are gay, Jewish, secular, poor, Latino/Latina, a Union member, a government employee or a teacher, you vote Democratic without having to think hard about it, because that is what your group does.  On the other hand, if you are wealthy, a small businessman or woman, evangelical Christian, country, a farmer, a cop or military, you vote Republican without having to give it much thought because that is what your group does.

I am not saying that voting your identity (called “identity politics”) is a bad thing, I am saying there is a better thing; and that better thing is voting for a better America.

“But when I, a black man, vote Democratic, I AM voting for a better America, an America where I am not judged because of the color of my skin.”  There is no denying the fierce logic that compels each group to vote for a better America as they see things through their group’s eyes.

However, imagine that you were not born YOU!  Imagine the moment before you were born.  All you know is that you will NOT be born as YOU.  You may be born white or black, brilliant or just average (odds are you will be born average), male or female, gay or straight, in a big city or the back country, into a rich or poor family (poor much more likely than rich), educated family or not, religious or secular.  You get the picture: you do not know the circumstances of your birth, neither your DNA nor your environment.  Now: design a government, a government that you will be OK living with no matter who you turn out to be.  For example, no way you would design a government with an all-powerful KING, because in all likelihood you would be born a serf and have to lead a life as a peasant along with everyone else you knew.  In all likelihood, you would design some kind of democracy because everyone would share power in the government.  But saying that you would design a democracy does not complete your job, because there are a million choices that a democracy makes and I want you to think about them.

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John Rawls with Theory of Justice
Ever since Plato’s Republic, one of the great questions that philosophers like to tackle is: what is justice? Or, what kind of state is a just state, what kind of government is best for human society?  John Rawls (1921 – 2002) was an academic philosopher who taught philosophy at Harvard for forty years.  Among those who studied moral philosophy or political philosophy, he is very well-known.  But he is not well-known to the American public at large.

Rawls did not attempt to answer the question before us directly; instead, he proposed a way for us to think about the question.  He asked us to put ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” (you do not know who you will be or what your natal circumstances will be when you are born into the world), and that is what I described in my imagine moment two paragraphs ago.

Thinking this way, you would not design a society where Christian values dominated the law, because you might not be born Christian and you might be put off by the notion that you had to convert in order to take full advantage of your society’s benefits or in order to avoid spending an eternity in Hell for that matter.  You would not design a society where only heterosexuals could marry because you might be born gay.  You would not design a society with low taxes for the rich as you would probably end up having to make up the tax revenue shortfall.  You would not design a society that imprisoned drug users because you would have to pay the taxes that kept unhappy people incarcerated.  You get the picture.

Democrats like to urge voters to vote their economics, as they believe that most will vote Democratic if they do that.  Republicans like to urge voters to vote their moral values, as they believe that most will vote Republican if they do that.  John Rawls asks you to check your identity and your circumstances at the door, and to invent a better society that will benefit everyone.  What do you think?