Saturday, March 29, 2014

You’ll Never Find…Anarchy, State and Utopia

It is Saturday, at the noon hour.  I was supposed to be writing this blog post from a hotel room in lovely downtown Salisbury, Maryland….a mere 45-minutes from the gentle salt water breezes that, at this very moment, are failing to dissipate the heavy fog enveloping Ocean City.

Alas, a confederacy of circumstances is keeping me holed up at the Home Office, well to the west of the Bay Bridge.

I have been thinking about Rawls lately, not the singer (Lou) but the political philosopher (John).  A true heavy-hitter in the field, his thoughts on justice and governance were, and continue to be, enormously influential.  Some of his key constructs, such as the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” require a bit of explanation:

“The original position is a central feature of John Rawls's social contract account of justice, “justice as fairness,” set forth in A Theory of Justice (TJ). It is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice.

The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances. They do know of certain fundamental interests they all have, plus general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.

The parties in the original position are presented with a list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy, and are assigned the task of choosing from among these alternatives the conception of justice that best advances their interests in establishing conditions that enable them to effectively pursue their final ends and fundamental interests.

Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are the two principles of justice. The first principle guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good. The second principle provides fair equality of educational and employment opportunities enabling all to fairly compete for powers and prerogatives of office; and it secures for all a guaranteed minimum of the all-purpose means (including income and wealth) that individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.” [Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

So what does this mean? In simple terms, this thought exercise should remove one from their personal notions of self-interest.  If you didn’t know who you might be, or where you might end up in a society, you are less likely to design a society whereby the rights of the have-nots or of particular minorities receive a lesser degree of protection compared to the haves or of any particular majority.  It is intended to promote a rational discussion of fairness, and how such principles could be used to inform and undergird a fair system of government.

It is also an excellent and practical means for detecting hypocrisy (or other defects) among political candidates.  All you need to do is ask yourself, or them directly:

“Would you hold the same position if [Population X] constituted a majority in the United States?”  Or, even more to the point, “Would you espouse such beliefs if you, yourself had Characteristic Y and not Z?”

His ideas can be employed to help provide another way of viewing those who seek public office, and of evaluating the platforms for which they advocate.  This approach offers another way of cutting through the rhetorical mists, to go deeper than a surface examination of the Issue Stances to ascertain the true beliefs (or lack thereof) of a political candidate.

If nothing else, asking such questions might enliven some candidate forums.  Lord knows they can be dreary affairs.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

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