Reading Huemer reminded me of my notes on Rawls and Cohen. Again, if I were behind the veil of ignorance, thinking about what sort of society I’d want to live in, it would occur to me that since I can’t influence who I personally will be incarnated as (as rich or poor, healthy or sick, smart or dumb), I would focus on making the overall society as efficient as possible. This means in particular not its “total happiness” at any given moment, but the speed (and acceleration, etc.) at which this total happiness increases with time.

But that society is precisely libertarian laissez-faire capitalism.

Rawls seems to think differently. He’d rather live in a society where the “morally arbitrary” distinctions between persons, such as the quality of their families or IQs are erased. In practice, that would mean that the accidentally better-off shall toil thanklessly for the benefit of the worse-off. Rawls concedes that there can be “incentives” for the more talented so as to elicit the appropriate effort from them which would regretfully cause society to deviate from perfect equality. Cohen asks why, if justice is our ideal, any incentives are necessary. People should work as hard as they can only to give up the fruits of their labors to the poor out of a sense of moral duty. Perhaps we can even have full-featured capitalism, as long as all consumer goods are distributed equally.

In response, I argue that people act for ends. They perceive future pleasures; choose between them; choose between various means to attain these ends, and act with a hope of bettering their lot. “Moral duty” is not in the equation at all. One is never content with merely following the moral law, for a stone or any other inanimate object, too, is perfectly righteous in this sense. One follows the law for the sake of physical or spiritual survival. But he seeks happiness by working to satisfy his various desires and succeed in his pursuits.

In that case, a man must be ruthlessly brainwashed from childhood in order to forget his own ends and work like an automaton only to have his product confiscated. But what if he wakes up from this nightmare and thinks for himself? That’s presumably where the “incentives” would come in. What if he, responding to the tax laws, refuses to work? Then he must be enslaved and forced to work under threat of the whip. And what if he tries to run away to free himself? Then he must be killed, lest other slaves mutiny, as well.

We can see that Cohen is a murderer of both mind and body. Hs soul is his own business. But murdering talented people does not benefit the worse off, as Rawls himself acknowledges. Nor does enslaving them, since slave labor is extremely unproductive. Nor, in the final analysis, does treating them as tax-serfs. Up we go in this manner until we reach libertarian unhampered free enterprise system as the pinnacle of human social evolution.

This, I think, is what really follows from Rawls’ “original position.”


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