Huemer makes an excellent point. The virtue of the original position for Rawls is that “since the differences among the parties are unknown to them, and everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, each is convinced by the same arguments.”

This understanding “rests on a particular diagnosis of the phenomenon of widespread intellectual disagreement: that such disagreement is due entirely to such factors as ignorance, irrationality, and biases created by knowledge of one’s individual characteristics.”

But, Huemer continues, that seems to be obviously false. “Outside political philosophy, philosophers carry on persistent debates in epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics, some of which are millennia old. The partisans in these debates commonly appear equally rational, well informed, and intelligent. None appear to be attempting to tailor their theories to their own circumstances nor to be illicitly relying on personal information about themselves… Anarchists do not disagree with statists because anarchists have some peculiar social position or combination of personal traits that somehow would enable them to prosper in the absence of government while the rest of society fell apart.” (48-50)

I myself am a case in point. In the previous post, I argued that Rawls has misunderstood his own invention or thought experiment of the original position. Nothing like the Rawlsian “interventionist phantasmagoria” follows from it. Instead, laissez-faire capitalism should seem far more attractive to the persons behind the veil of ignorance than any other economic system. And I believed that long before I read The Problem of Political Authority. It’s clear that honest disagreements can persist even without emotions or undue self-interest or sinful desires clouding the mind.

A little earlier in the book, Huemer offers another clever argument. The “hypothetical” social contract theory may propose that “one may coercively impose an arrangement on individuals, provided that the individuals would be unreasonable to reject the arrangement.” (44) He counters with examples that demonstrate otherwise. But the idea is even more hopeless. An “arrangement” is ultimately a preference and as such is a subjective and arbitrary ultimate given. Preferences and values are neither reasonable nor unreasonable. They belong to the will not the intellect. It is neither more nor less reasonable to prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla or vice versa. In this case, there are no “true” values. Who then is to judge whether a rejection of any political system is reasonable or not? Clearly, Smith’s judgement does not determine or invalidate Jones’.

Then “the mere unreasonableness of someone’s rejecting am arrangement does not typically render it morally permissible to coerce that person into accepting the arrangement, nor does it impose on individuals an obligation to accept the arrangement.” (57) Again we can strengthen this conclusion by asking, “Reasonable from whose point of view?” We do not normally have access to God to teach such things with authority.

This argument of course applies specifically to contractual theories, where the agreement itself causes an “arrangement” to acquire force. If we start wondering whose political theory is objectively truest or best, we may no longer be able to call a preference for it “subjective and arbitrary,” but we’ll then also stop using contractarianism, as well.


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