The Utilitarian Calculus and Rawls

I appreciate Will’s taking the time to explain his position in even more detail, and he clearly has an exceptional grasp of Rawls’ position and its implications.  I may not be as eloquent at explaining Rawls’ position, but I’m pretty sure I do in fact understand it, and I reject his premises, his arguments, and his conclusions. Also, I’m afraid, in so far as Will’s views reflect Rawls’, I reject his as well. 

Phrases like “equal freedom,” “concern for persons,” and “optimally well-ordered society” have an enticing ring to them, but what do they really mean?   “Will writes:  His [Rawls’] libertarian First Principle of justice–basically Spencer’s principle of equal freedom–embodies this concern for persons.”  He goes on, “An optimally well-ordered society is one whose members positively affirm and are motivated to comply voluntarily with its principles of association. A society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the least well-off, who will then have little reason to voluntarily comply with its fundamental rules, and this can have a devastating destabilizing effect on the social order. An unstable society–one out of dynamic equilibrium–is not well-ordered, and therefore cannot be just.”  What a beautiful image –A society of equal freedom where everyone voluntarily agreeing to care for others and work together to optimize a well-ordered society.  Beautiful yes, but totally unrealistic.

I apologize for my crassness, but such utopian images make my skin crawl. If a group of people who shared Rawls’ or Will’s vision went off and started their own community on their own island, that would be fine with me, but that isn’t what Rawls’ has in mind, and I don’t think that is what Will is saying either.   Rawls’ believes he is elucidating the rational underpinnings of our existing social order.  Will agrees with Rawls but believes Rawl’s theory logically leads to a more “libertarian” vision than Rawls himself envisioned.  I respectfully disagree on all counts.

First, dreaming up utopias is fine, but trying to implement them is not.  Can you think of any utopian dreams which when implemented didn’t involve coercing those who didn’t quite get the idea?  I gave up on the notion of utopia building when I realized my personal utopia would have a population of one. 

Second, all appeals to utilitarian principles are essentially flawed because of our inability to agree on, rank, or calculate the goods in question.  What do the worst off need – equal freedom, food, money, shelter, respect?  Who decides?  My feeling is that people can really only decide those things for themselves, not for others.

Third, the goal should not be to create a society that provides for the worst off – it should be to create a society where everyone, the worst off, as well as all others, have the most say possible in determining their own fate in accordance with their own image of the good, not anyone else’s.

Fourth, we don’t want total chaos, but I don’t see “an optimally well-ordered society” as a worthy goal if it means restricting individuals in their various pursuits of happiness.  It is historically evident that homogeneous societies are more stable, more peaceful, function more smoothly, and have lower crime rates than heterogeneous societies, so the choices are 1) create homogeneous societies, or 2) accept and deal as best we can with the strife inherent in allowing diversity in a pluralistic society.  Government attempts to create homogeneous societies have generally been disastrous, but individuals associating with others like them voluntarily seems a viable solution, at least on the small scale.

Finally, I will tip my hand on what I see as a just society, not my ideal society, but one that I believe is realistically possible, and not too bad given the alternatives.  Of the choices listed in the above paragraph, I choose the second.  It would be boring to live in a homogeneous society.  I like the idea of a pluralistic society where people pursue many different visions of happiness, and I am more than willing to deal with the political and social strife inherent in such a system. Actually, I can’t image trading it for any single vision of the good – that is unless I can convince at least a handful of people to invest in my own personal utopia, but so far no luck on that front.