“Natural liberty,” Cohen writes, “is rejected [by Rawls] because it fails to resist the morally arbitrary.” (93fn) This is because it is unjust to “permit distributive shares to be improperly influenced by natural and social contingencies so arbitrary from a moral point of view.” (92)
Let’s use an example. A person is doing website programming in VB.NET. He is stuck, not knowing how to solve a certain problem, and so he starts looking all over the web for solutions. Lo and behold, he finds help in less than 2 minutes. Isn’t that great? “No!” says Rawls. Our programmer did not deserve his happiness. What about others who were unlucky in their searches? What of those who tried programming and found it too difficult? Won’t they feel bad? The programmer found pleasure because of something that is morally arbitrary. This is a moral outrage; it cannot be tolerated.
You see where I am going with this. Luck may be arbitrary and irrelevant morally, but it is not arbitrary and irrelevant for human action. It is not arbitrary and irrelevant for successful human action. It is true that humans have duties. But human life is not exhausted by moral duties. Reward may indeed be a fitting crowning of righteousness and exactness in fulfilling one’s duties. But “there is in the world of reality no mythical agency that rewards or punishes,” says Mises (HA, 846), referring to action attempted to reach a goal. Speaking of a particular kind of action, he writes: “Entrepreneurial profit is not a ‘reward’ granted by the customer to the supplier who served him better than the sluggish routinists; it is the result of the eagerness of the buyers to outbid others who are equally anxious to acquire a share of the limited supply.” (300) So, there are both things one ought to do and things one is free to do, and for the latter luck is perfectly great. In fact, let’s have as much luck as possible for people, so that their plans, made within law, succeed! Who cares how luck is “distributed”? What could possibly be wrong with good luck?
Rawls and Cohen (R&C) are metaphysically obtuse. The world is clearly suffused with randomness. Randomly generated: human beings and their inborn endowments and talents, geographic environments from savanna to tundra, locations of various natural resources, the particular families, communities, and states that individuals are born into, opportunities people encounter with random capacities for seizing them, friends and associates, situations of being in the right / wrong place at the right / wrong time, calamities and misfortunes; and just plain luck are what human lives are defined by.
R&C are defending “a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in the quest for … economic advantage.” (quoted in RJaE, 104) This is quite absurd. Randomness is such a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of this universe that it must be considered an essential aspect of the divine design. Humans are explicitly required to make lemonade out of their particular lemons. Moreover, this design is arguably wise, such that it is blasphemy to murmur against God for an alleged injustice. R&C call the features of a person’s life randomly assigned “morally” arbitrary. They may be from the point of view of the conception of justice that demands perfect equality. But what if that conception is wrong? In any case, there is far more to life than “morality.” Unique individuals have to make the best of their unique positions, including pursue economic advantages.
R&C’s desire to moderate the effects of randomness is futile: randomness is far stronger that they.
Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. It may be proper to reward responsibility, but the success of freely chosen actions is its own reward. R&C fail to come to grips with the reality of human life, wherein there is a never-ending search for happiness, dampened only in some areas by duties which one must unfailingly carry out. But human beings are not duty-doing machines. The society chosen in the original position would be one in which not only merit is honored and rewarded but also there is greatest possible success which social cooperation can furnish. For everyone behind the veil of ignorance has a vested interest in living not only in a just society but also in a successful one, that is, in one with the highest possible rate at which the productivity of human effort and capital accumulation increase, luck or no luck. In other words, success as such does not need to be justified before the moral law; it is entirely self-justifying. (Particular actions have to be checked against the moral law but not the legitimacy of acting as such.) And success consists almost entirely in making smart use of the resources at hand, including and especially those that are randomly produced.
In the movie Troy, there is the following dialog:
Achilles: Play your tricks on me. But not on my cousin.
Odysseus: You have your swords. I have my tricks. We play with the toys the gods give us.
The human pursuit of happiness consists in random agents exploiting and shaping random environments, indeed arbitrary “morally” but not physically, in regard to narrow happiness. There is no reasonable sense in which any aspect of this activity is “unjust.”