The Deflationary Rawls

— It's a piece of received wisdom the John Rawls saved substantive political philosophy from the all-dissolving acid of positivism. However, I'm beginning to believe that Rawls is closer in sensibility to the positivists, who banished metaphysics from ethics and reduced all normative language to emotive exhortation, than most commentators have seen. I see Rawls as a sort of post-positivist, not unlike his colleague Quine, combined with a bit of late Wittgensteinian sensibility acquired from his teacher Norman Malcolm.

Rawls normative metaphysics is very sparse indeed. He does not believe in moral properties, or any capacity to track objective moral truth. Rawls begins instead with moral conceptions, systems of beliefs about value, personhood, and social order. And Rawls is not concerned with the veracity of the elements of moral conceptions. He is simply concerned to tease out the structure of various moral conceptions–that's the work of “moral theory” as opposed to a comprehensive moral philosophy–and to analyze various formal properties of moral conceptions once their implicit logic is refined through a process of reflective equilabration. (The most he ever commits to by way of objective moral truth is that if it happened to turn out that all of our moral conceptions had a common core at the ideal limit of wide reflective equilibrium (which we will never achieve), then it may make sense to treat the common core as objective moral truth.) The point of a moral theory is, in the first instance, to characterize the moral sensibility of agents within a particular society. Here is a Wittgensteinian point. People are already acting within systems of norms, we already have a form of moral life, and that shapes our actions and determines macro-level patterns of activity. There is no point arguing whether our moral conception is true is a correspondence sense. Suppose we find out that it is not. What does this change? Social life will not therefore grind to a halt. We will simply go on as before.

The best we can do is to figure out what “going on as before” really means–to attempt to refine the logic implicit in our forms of life to create an ideal of social order that will seem authoritative to us by our own lights. Our de facto, pre-reflective patterns of activity may contain pragmatically inconsistent elements that will ultimately undermine the stability of the very ideals to which we already subscribe, and so it is worthwhile to regiment and refine our conceptions. But we cannot go too far afield. Moral conceptions, such as utilitarianism, that are too remote from our habituated moral sensibilities will not sustain our allegiance and compliance (we DO NOT think of ourselves as containers of utility; we DO care about the distribution of goods), will thus prove unstable, and are, therefore, usuitable as ideals with which to regulate social reform.

So, despite all the praise heaped upon Rawls for bringing back substantive moral and political theory, his own theory is amazingly deflationary–so much so that it is very hard to find the substance. Insofar as Rawls work is really substantive, all the substance comes from his clearly deeply felt commitment to Kantian ideals of the person. But this is precisely what Rawls had to jettison in his later phase, when he sees that all this substance is in principle inconsisent with his deflationary theory of justification based in the stability of refined moral conceptions. Once Rawls sees his way to the fact of pluralism in moral conceptions, he is faced with the problem of establishing compliance, and thus stability, given heterogeneity in moral conceptions. Thus only the normative substance that all reasonable overall conceptions could independently endorse is allowed to remain. This overlap in conceptions provides the substance of a fairly neutral “political” liberalism.

This suggests to me a project like that of the later “minimalist” Chomsky. What is the minimal set of substantive principles necessary to produce willing compliance and thus stability (for the right reasons) in a pluralistic society? Next question: Is Rawls characterization of political liberalism bigger or smaller than the minimal set?


— If you are so inclined, please send a donation to Wikipedia to help them raise money for new hardware. In my opinion, Wikipedia is among the most impressive open source efforts on the web. Because it's a Wiki encyclopedia, anyone at any time can modify an entry. You'd think some of it would turn out to be trash, but quite the opposite. Wikipedia has developed a solid community of volunteers who write, edit and police entries, and the trend so far has been one of improving quality, drawing on the distributed expertise of folks all over the net.

Wikipedia was founded by some old friends of mine, and I participated early on several years ago. It's fun to go back and look at entries you wrote, and see how they have and haven't changed. Once they get the server problems taken care of, I think I might get back in there. Nozick needs a lot of work, as does Gauthier. And Rawls, although much better, could use some help. And contractarianism is just some of Larry Sanger's old lecture notes. I encourage you to look at things you consider yourself in expert in, and see if you can improve on what's there.


— This is a beautiful expression of the human spirit:

I first became interested in male lactation in 1978 after reading Dana Raphael's book, The Tender Gift: Breastfeeding. Although Raphael only dealt with the subject briefly, she did say that men can and have produced milk after stimulating their nipples.

My husband, David, and I were intrigued with the idea. We had just had our first unassisted homebirth and were excited about applying our positive thinking techniques to other aspects of our lives. Although Raphael had written about milk production through nipple stimulation, perhaps, we thought, David could do it simply through suggestion. He began telling himself that he would lactate, and within a week, one of his breasts swelled up and milk began dripping out. When we excitedly showed my father (a physician) David's breast he said, “Obviously there's something physiologically wrong with David.” The fact that David had willed himself to do this, did not impress him. We knew, however, that this was yet another example of the power of the mind.

Oh, please do enjoy the rest.

Deliberation Day

— A year or so ago, I took a great course on democracy with my advisor Chris Morris. Toward the end of the term we went through some works on “deliberative democracy.” The deliberative camp colors themselves as adversaries of social choice theorists who emphasize the rationality of voter ignorance, the impossibility of constructing an unambiguous “will of the people” through voting mechanisms (different voting mechanisms give different results and none is the “right” result), and the manipulability of the democratic process by special interests. The deliberative democrats hold onto a strongly procedural conception of the legitimacy of government, democracy being the legitimating procedure. Against the social choice theorists, they argue that democracy is not simply a matter of adding up people's raw preferences and weighing them against each other. Rather, the ideal of democracy is one in which communities of citizens engage each other in conversations that shape their preferences. The expression of deliberatively shaped preferences through the democratic processes is what is supposed to give democratically chosen institutions a special sort of authority over us. Trouble is, just as social choice theorists would predict, we squander so much time working, shopping, and filching music from the internet that we leave little for mutually tailoring our policy preferences through painfully earnest civic deliberation. Solution? Deliberation Day!

Deliberation Day is the brainchild of professors Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. “Deliberation Day will, of course, be expensive,” they tell us. So what can we expect to get out of it? (Will there be presents?)

Well, Ackerman and Fishkin think voter ignorance is a huge problem, and it is, sort of. And they think paying folks $150 to spend two days in a middle school gym to talk it out with the neighbors will have a transformative effect on American politics. Our Deliberation Day gift is an informed electorate, and more enlightened and just policy. I'm doubtful. I think I want what we'll likely get about as much as I want some shitloaf fruitcake.

They cite experiments of Fishkin's in “deliberative polling” that show that people change their policy preferences after these little forums.

The research that has come out of deliberative polls suggests not only that participants change their political attitudes but that these changes are driven by better information. It suggests not only that these changed attitudes generate different voting intentions but that these preferences become more public-spirited and collectively consistent. These changes occur throughout the population and aren't limited to the more educated. Finally, deliberation is intrinsically satisfying once people are given a serious chance to engage with one another in an appropriate setting.

OK. I'm setting aside the imporant matter of how much these changes matter, given the overall structure of the system. So, that aside, is there any reason to expect an actual Deliberation Day to look like Fishkin's experiments? I can't think of any. The fact that his test polls are not actually a part of the institutionalized political process undoubtedly lends these mock proceedings with an unrealistically civil and pleasant tenor. Why not be nice? Nothing's at stake. However, instead of realizing the dream of ideal deliberation among inquiring citizens, a real, institutionalized Deliberation Day would quickly degenerate into a shrill cacophony of ideological strife.

Here's how they set the thing up:

In preparation for the event, the participants receive briefing materials to lay the groundwork for the discussion. These materials are typically supervised for balance and accuracy by an advisory board of relevant experts and stakeholders. On arrival, the participants are randomly assigned to small groups with trained moderators. When they meet, they not only discuss the general issue but try to identify key questions that merit further exploration.

It is simply incoceivable that this process would not become a quickly politicized Pelennor Fields of ideology. Fundamentalist conservatives, leftist activists, and party operatives will battle to the death over control of the preparation of “briefing materials,” over the constitution of the “advisory board of relevant experts and stakeholders,” and over the training of “moderators.” The Day itself will become one of mobilizing ideological interest groups to dominate the local forum, and discussion itself will devolve into heated argument between activists will incomensurable conceptions of the world. I can imagine few for whom this would be worth two days and $150. And as the Day becomes overrun by people with already deeply entrenched preferences hoping to propagandize or otherwise “raise the consciousness” of the masses, the people most likely to change their minds on the basis of informed conversation will stay away.

Judge Posner, in his concise, spot-on critique spies what he thinks is the underlying motivation of Deliberation Day:

I think that what motivates many deliberative democrats is not a love of democracy or a faith in the people, but a desire to change specific political outcomes, which they believe they could do through argument, if only anyone could be persuaded to listen, because they are masters of argumentation. I infer this secret agenda from the fact that most proponents of deliberative democracy advocate aggressive judicial review, which removes many issues from democratic control; are coy about indicating what policies they dislike but would accept; and are uncommonly fond of subjecting U.S. citizens to control by international organizations of questionable, and often of no, democratic pedigree. I sense a power grab by the articulate class whose comparative advantage is—deliberation.

I think there's more than a little something to this. And this is precisely why Deliberation Day, if it should be realized, will simply become one more battleground of ideology and special interest. It is hard to believe that deliberative democrats are interested in the expression of deliberative preferences per se, rather than the expression of their deliberative preferences. Else, why is it that deliberative democrats are almost uniformly soft-socialist welfare state liberals? Where are the conservative and libertarian deliberativists?

While I don't think it's all in bad faith, I think Fishkin and Ackerman at least hope that their people can control the process–control the briefing materials, the advisory boards, the moderators, etc.–and thereby induce preferences and votes that align with their own. I conjecture that they're frustrated at the left's failure to produce a more Swedish America, not to mention the failure of the people to demand it (it's for them, don't they see?), and so why not give this a try? At some level, I think they really must think that if people only understood, we'd all think more like Fishkin and Ackerman. But at another level, I think Posner must be right.

This really isn't about a just procedure that confers legitimacy on whatever outcomes it produces. There is little reason to believe that a real Deliberation Day will nudge people toward more informed and reasoned preferences. It's hard not to see talk of deliberative democratic procedure as rhetorical veneer over ideological realpolitik. If social conservatives effectively co-opted Deliberation Day and “deliberated” their way to huge majorities in favor of the abolition of abortion, the Defense of Marriage Amendment, or the privatization of social security, I don't think the Ackermans and Fishkins of the world would rest content knowing that the deliberative will of the people, and thus justice, was done.

[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]

Moral Competence, Compliance and Rawlsian Ideal Theory

— I'm in the midst of writing a fairly difficult paper on ideal and non-ideal theory in Rawls's moral & political theory, my ideas are rather inchoate, and I want to think “out loud” in hope of clarifying my understanding and maybe getting some useful pointers by those who know this stuff better than me. If you're not one of those people, be warned. I give thus one a black diamond.

Ideal theory produces the principles of justice that the “artificial agents” occupying the “original position” would choose acting as trustees for the”citizens of a well-ordered society.” Now, there is quite a cast of characters in Rawlsian constructivism. The citizens of a well-ordered society are not you and me. They too, like the ciphers in the original position, are artificial agents, or “agents of construction,” which is to say, strictly delineated characters of imagination. The citizens of a well ordered society (let me just call them Citizens) are characterized by a conception of the “moral person,” which is different from a theory of human nature. Moral persons (and thus Citizens) are taken to be possessed of a “sense of justice” that disposes them to comply with the principles of justice, whatever those might be, and to have a conception of their own good. And they are conceived as “free and equal” (about which I won't say anything here).

Now, the structure of justification for Rawlsian theory is quite complicated, and I don't believe I've nailed it down to my satisfaction. For instance, the agents in the OP are subject to “reasonable” constraints on the choice of principles. These constraints are justified by reference to the imputed properties of Citizens. But why characterize the citizens like this. Because so characterized, the agents in the original position, subject to reasonable constraints, acting as representatives of the Citizens, choose principles of justice that produce a well-ordered society for the Citizens. And, so, why care about this? So far, we haven't said anything about the actual world. This is a toy world, a figment of the imagination. Why do these principles have a claim on us? Well, they do in case they are in “reflective equilibrium” with our “considered judgments.” Now these are our actual considered judgments–the judgments of you and me. OK, and why does this have any justificatory force?

Well, we are alleged to have a sense of justice, too. Now insofar as our sense of justice plays a justificatory role in Rawls's theory, it is that a sense of justice is a part of our best theory of human nature. You and I aren't part of a model, so we aren't subject to the stipulations of the model conception of the moral person. Indeed, Rawls's model conception of the moral person is an acceptable part of the larger modeling device only if it agrees with our real-world considered judgments about our moral personhood. And it can't be just that our actual conception of ourselves as persons is such that we conceive of ourselves as having a sense of justice. We must actually have one. So, again, why the judgments that express our putative sense of justice supposed to be authoritative?

Rawls suggests that, as a first approximation, the function of a theory of justice is to describe our native sense of justice. And he compares the sense of justice to the Chomskyan capacity of syntactic competence. According to Chomsky, we have a native capacity to judge the grammaticality of utterances in the natural languages in which we have been brought up. The aim of a theory of syntax is to systematize native speakers’ intuitive judgments of grammaticality through a (hopefully minimal) set of principles that would predict these judgments. Ideally, this systematization mirrors the set of principles that is psychologically realized in language users and generates their competence.

OK, sorry. That's tough going. Now, some philosophers, namely Susan Dwyer, have run with the analogy to Chomskyan linguistic competence, further developing Rawls's intriguing idea of a sense of justice as a part of a broader moral competence characteristic of human nature. Now Susan wrote a paper on this, which I read a few years back, but no longer have access to, so I'm not addressing it. [Whoops! Just found it! But I haven't re-read it yet.] There's a damn good chance she addresses/answers/refutes everything I say. But for now, I'mimaginingg it so I can explore the analogy to linguistic competence in connection to the function our sense of justice is supposed to play in the justification of principles of justice derived from the Rawlsian construction device.

This takes me back to the distinction betweenn ideal and non-ideal theory. In ideal theory, we stipulate “perfect compliance” with principles in order to visualize what a fictive, ideal well-ordered society looks like. Perfect compliance is ensured within the model by the sense of justice of Citizens, which disposes them to adhere to the principles, and common knowledge among Citizens that all possess such a sense of justice.

Now, the fact that we do not inhabit an ideal well-ordered society implies one or more of a few things. Either our sense of justice is not quite that of the Citizens, i.e., is non-ideal, or our sense of justice is not fully realized, or it is fully realized but we make constant performance errors, or we lack common knowledge of our sense of justice.

On either of the first two options, the analogy with linguistic competence fails. Take the first. It's puzzling how ideal linguistic competence could differ from our actual linguistic competence. What would ideal linguistic competence be, other than actual competence. Competence with a more computationally efficient UG? Maybe competence in a Begriffschrift, a logically perfect, non-ambiguous language? But that's more than anything about semantics, while linguistic competence is about grammar. Take the second. Every cognitively normal person above a certain age has full linguistic competence. We can all generate and comprehend grammatical sentences of our native languages without fail, barring performance errors (which we make when we are slip up when we are tired, drunk, get confused, or whatever.) No special environmental conditions are necessary to develop linguistic competence, and Rawls stipulates that the every person past a certain age under normal social circumstances develops a sense of justice.

How about the third option: systematic performance errors. Well, this is weird idea. How could you tell what is and isn't a performance error if performance errors are systematic, much less develop a theory that there is an underlying “moral grammar” at all.

So then, the fourth: no common knowledge. This analogy straightforwardly fails. Common knowledge of linguistic competence is what makes communication possible.

Thus, the analogy, if we take it fairly literally, is not so good. If it was REALLY good, we wouldn't NEED a theory of justice, because we would already be living it, which we manifestly aren't. Let us suppose that there is universal agreement on certain very general moral principles, and this agreement is an expression of our native moral competence. Still, the persistent fact of moral disagreements so deep that people will kill each other over them, and the pervasiveness of gross injustice, suggests that the natural expression of our moral competence leaves us far far short of well-ordered societies.

In any case, I think the first hypothesis is most likely to be true. We have some sort of moral competence, and some sort of sense of justice is part of it, but it is not ideal in the sense that it disposes us to perfectly comply with the principles of justice. OK! But then we are forced to worry how we can justify the elements of the construction procedure that produce Rawls'sprincipless. If the theory of justice is supposed to characterize OUR sense of justice, then why suppose that our considered judgments would endorse the principles when they are the product of a construction procedure in which the stimpulation of a sense of justice unlike our own plays a prominent role?

Rawls says in several places that coming up a theory of justice is not an epistemic problem, because there is no objective moral order out there to discover. It may be true that there is no independent moral order, but it there's still an epistemic problem in determining what our sense of justice actually amounts to, and what conception of the person, and so on, it would endorse. If the strict analogy to linguistic competence is tight, then the theorist can take her own intuitions as evidence of the structure of our underlying moral competence. But the linguistic analogy is not tight, if it applies at all. So the theorist cannot assume that the intuitions she shares with her colleagues and students in the seminar room are representative. We'll have to look out the window. But this makeseverythingg REAL hard! We can't build a construction device without model conceptions. And we can't justify using this model conception rather than that unless we can test it against real people's sense of justice. And then the back and forth between judgments of particular cases and judgments about the acceptability of general principles derived from the construction device is bound to take a damn long time, and a lot of NSF grants.

Now, the later “political” Rawls modified his model conception of the well-ordered society to include reasonable but ineradicable pluralism of “comprehensive conceptions.” A comprehensive conception is like, say, Catholicism, Islam, or Kantian secular liberalism, or any such big theory that tells you all about your place in the universe, your nature as the kind of being you are, and so forth. Rawls thinks he needs to do this in order to ensure a kind of stability for a well ordered society. Unless the principles are those that anyone with a reasonable comprehensive conception could endorse, you won't get compliance with the principles, and the institutions composing the basic structure of society will be unstable. So the principles can't be rooted in any one comprehensive conception, but must be found in a some “political conception” consistent with the various reasonable big conceptions. Now, this is INSIDE the model conception of the well-ordered society. Why is Rawls modifying the model conception this way?

Before, the stipulation that the sense of justice of Citizens ensured perfect compliance was more or less enough to get the required stability. I think that Rawls was seeing that acomprehensivee conception is to a sense of justice something like what a natural language is to linguistic competence. And he's trying to create Esperanto. Our sense of justice is expressed THROUGH our comprehensive conceptions, and this causes our patterns of moral activity to take various not always fully consistent forms. When I'm talking to a Catholic conservative or a socialist, I feel quite like we're speaking different languages. Rawls sees this as an intrinsic aspect of the human condition under fairly liberal conditions. Compliance and stability based on a single comprehensive conception can only be maintained by the forced imposition of that conception by the coercive power of the state, which is flatly incompatible with liberal aspirations. So this feature of the real world, reasonable pluralism, has to be moved inside the model conception in order to jibe adequately and gain the assent of real folks whose sense of justice is expressed through a comprehensive conception.

So Rawls's hope is that the various reasonable comprehensive conceptions overlap to enough to sustain agreement. This still assumes that there is a universal sense of justice that is expressed neutrally enough in our considered judgments to endorse model conceptions that produce these “political” principles of justice. Maybe. But one wonders to what extent Rawls's model conception of the “moral person,” say, can be justified by a neutrally expressed moral competence, as opposed to a comprehensive conception-laden competence (based in Kant, say).

Furthermore, the fact that late Rawls moves the pluralism inside the model conception of the well-ordered society shows that he takes problems of compliance and stability seriously. Rawls notes that the theory of human nature constrains the conception of the person used inside the construction device. I imagine this works in rather the way that permanent features of social life, such as pluralism, constrain the conception of the well-ordered society. Are there also aspects of the theory of human nature that need to be made internal to Rawls's conception of the moral person in order to take compliance and stability problems fully seriously? Given the difference between the sense of justice of fictive moral persons and the sense of justice of real people, won't we need to move more features of real moral competence inside the conception of the moral person in order to produce principles of justice that would be endorsed by real people? And if we do this, what's the princinpled basis for stopping at some point before ideal and non-ideal theory collapse into one?

OK. That was rambling. And a horrifying, cryptic piece of writing if you don't already know what I'm trying to talk about. Sorry. But I find it useful to brain dump into the blog. So now tell me where to look in the vast unexplored (by me) territory of Rawls secondary literature in order to correct my mistakes and sort all this. Or just give it to me straight out. Thanks!

The Natural Order of Sexuality, as if Nature Mattered

— OK, Jennifer Roback Morse is full of shit, and the National Review continues to demonstrate its status as a go-to source for scientific illiteracy.

Morse deigns to relate to us the “natural, organic purposes of sexual activity.” They are: reproduction and spousal unity. Well, OK. A more accurate term for “spousal unity” is “pair-bonding.” You can't expect to taken seriously when you come right out of the gate, in a paragraph on natural purposes yadda yadda, implying the naturalness and non-historical character of the social institutions we associate with “spouses.” But yes. Pair bonding. That's a function of sex.

In the next paragraph she name checks “evolutionary psychology” as if she's read and comprehended some.

Evolutionary psychology observes the survival value to spousal cooperation. Males and females who attach themselves to each other, have a better chance of seeing their offspring survive long enough to produce grandchildren. Science can now tell us how the hormones released during sex help to create emotional bonds between the partners.

Yes. And science can now tell us so much more. Such as the fact that promiscuity and exotic patterns of sexual relations are damn natural, too.

A Google search on “female promiscuity evolutionary” brings up such informative gems as this article, from which Morse might discover that

Less than 50 years ago, Canela women, who live in Amazonian Brazil, enjoyed the delights of as many as 40 men one after another in festive rituals. When it was time to have a child, they'd select their favorite dozen or so lovers to help their husband with the all-important task. Even today, when the dalliances of married Barí ladies in Columbia and Venezuela result in a child, they proudly announce the long list of probable fathers.

Further down, we get more technical meat:

Physiological data supports the theory that women have been sleeping around for centuries. For starters, men have evolved to compete in their partner's reproductive tract. Human males have large testicles that manufacture plenty of semen, especially when they reunite with their wives after separation. Their sperm includes coil-tailed versions that block instead of carry the ball.


Modern relationships are not all that different. High infidelity, remarriage and divorce rates may have less to do with modernity than with our collective sexual past. “It makes the variation we're seeing in modern society so much more understandable,” Hawkes says.

If the anthropologists are right, monogamy may well be counter-evolutionary or an adaptation to modern life. Or perhaps the nuclear family has always been more of an ideal than a reality.

That was the FIRST ARTICLE to come up in my search. But of course, it's AlterNet, so Roback Morse surely couldn't have trusted the science.

Now, for some reason, Roback Morse found it worth the keystrokes to tell us that “As far as I know, humans are the only animals that copulate face to face. Shakespeare described the sexual act as “making the two-backed beast.”

She doesn't know very far! A Google search on “face face copulation animal” [it takes, like, 20 seconds, Jennifer!] brings up, for instance, this page which tells us that “Orangutans engage in human like activities like face-to-face copulation, comprehension of speech, tool manufacturing, and imitation.”

Better yet, here's one with illustrations.

“During copulation sharks meet face to face. As seen in this picture the male inserts one of his claspers into the cloaca of the female.”

Apparently the Stitchbird does it, too.

Again, from the AlterNet article, this amusing bit:

“This model of the death-do-us-part, missionary-position couple is just a tiny part of human history,” says anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who has spent years studying the foraging habits of the Aché, a Paraguayan people, and the North Tanzanaian tribe Hadza, who also celebrate a rich love life. “The patterns of human sexuality are so much more variable.”

It would be too easy to go on about the stockpile of errors that is Roback Morse's essay. Let it suffice to point out the extremely ambitious nature of her ignorance. If you're going to write such portentous things as, “Many people celebrate the uncoupling of sexual activity from both of its natural functions, procreation and spousal unity. But by doing so, we have capsized the whole natural order of sexuality,” then you might want to know some small thing about the natural order of sexuality. It's unecessary to know a damn thing about biology or anthropology to discover that Roback Morse has NO IDEA what she is talking about. Google! Yet she has the gall, the temerity, the ova to assume an air of authority as she extrapolates her ignorance into an argument for using the law to reinforce the marginalization of homsexual fidelity.

In the process of wrapping it up, she writes:

Human sexuality has a specific nature, regardless of what we believe or say about it. We are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome, if we work with our biology rather than against it. We will be happier if we face reality on its own terms.

Indeed. Now, go read a book or shut the fuck up.