Justice or Rawls Lives

Michael Sandel has his Harvard University course on Justice  online. It has recording of the lectures, reading lists, and discussion material. (It comes on with a loud audio soundtrack)

Good article about the course – including how he came to teach it and about his critics.

Good line in article – “Campus legend has it that Sandel provided the physical inspiration for Mr. Burns, the villainous nuclear-plant owner on The Simpsons, for which many Harvard graduates have written.”

Amartya Sen, the Noble prize winner in economics, has a similar book out and here is an article about it.

Suppose three children—Anne, Bob, and Carla—quarrel over a flute. Anne says it’s hers because she’s the only one who knows how to play it. Bob counters that he’s the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would at least give him something to play with. Carla reminds Anne and Bob that she built the darn thing, and no sooner did she finish it than the other two started trying to take it away.

When Rawls declared justice “the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought,” and began his painstaking probe of the conditions of just institutions, he re-established a modern tradition dating back to Hobbes: using social-contract theory to articulate ideal forms of social justice, sometimes in quasi-syllogistic form. But there was also a longstanding, skeptical, antisystematic tradition in justice theory. One of the suspenseful aspects of Sen’s book is how its author, personally close to Rawls (who died in 2002) but more expansive and historical in regard to justice, walks a difficult line between the analytic foundationalism Rawls and Nozick practiced and the sensitivity to real-world justice in people’s lives that Sen and Martha Nussbaum argue for and describe as the “capabilities” conception of justice.

Solomon wrote in A Passion for Justice that justice is “a complex set of passions to be cultivated, not an abstract set of principles to be formulated. … Justice begins with compassion and caring, not principles or opinions, but it also involves, right from the start, such ‘negative’ emotions as envy, jealousy, indignation, anger, and resentment, a keen sense of having been personally cheated or neglected, and the desire to get even.” In time, suggested Solomon, “the sense of justice emerges as a generalization and, eventually, a rationalization of a personal sense of injustice.”

Update – Jewish Texts for Social Justice from American Jewish World Service. Let me know what you find in the various categories. Is it all pragmatic? Is there any overall theory? I see that Levinas, Heschel, Soloveitchik are used interchangeably in small snippets.

25 responses to “Justice or Rawls Lives

  1. Do you have an opinion if the abstract sructure of torah is deontological, where the good is defined in terms of the right and the latter is understood in terms of agreements under a veil of ignorance? This was how Kant’s and other social. contact theorists read scripture. This stands in contrast to all neo platonist and neo aristotelian readings where torah is conceived as a means to a summa bonum defined in some independent way.

    IMO Rawlsians provide the deeper and better less forced reading by far .What I find shocking is that a zillion heavy thinkers out there and this basic question is never discussed let alone decided.

  2. Sandel made his fame by rejecting the veil of ignorance. We always have context and values.

    Torah has deontological, idealist, and natural elements. For us, the idea of justice works well for Torah.
    I like Rawls as understood by these thinkers on Justice. I was asked a few years ago by a pre-schooler about fair- and I found that my answer was Rawls 101 for a 5 year old.

    The debates right now are if justice needs truth or an element of idealism- see my posts on Benedict XVI.
    I also find the issues now are the Bauman and Appadurai issues. Torah frames topics as proximal damages and not as global. How do we answer question in a global age.

  3. I’m rowing as fast as I can trying to understand your response here and more generally your posts.

    On the topic at hand, in subsequent works Rawls applies with modifications his principles of justice to justice between nations, and provides a principle when are inequalities between nations are justified. If you accept a Rawlsian solution in the domestic case why is a similar solution irrelevant to a global age?

    I do not understand what your second
    paragraph means, or how it is a response to the issue whether or not the structure of mitzvot is to be understood teleologically in terms of maximization of some value, as the Rambam asserts.

    I am ever more confused whether you have any interest in stopping and talking about one problem in greater detail.

    • I do not understand what your second paragraph means, or how it is a response to the issue whether or not the structure of mitzvot is to be understood teleologically in terms of maximization of some value, as the Rambam asserts.
      I do not think these maters are either/or, I am not choosing Maimonides or Rawls on mizvot. Both have explanatory value and practical value. I probably lean to the good over right side.
      If we have a discussion on this point, we would need to have starting definitions. If one were to create a deontological view of mizvot, what would yours look like? Breuer? Leibowitz? or David Novak? Define yourself and we can take it from there. or if you are creating a completely new deontological position, let me know what elements it has.

      If you accept a Rawlsian solution in the domestic case why is a similar solution irrelevant to a global age?
      Because agency is removed when we are immersed in the market. When I already have a house of goods made in China, when dont I buy Chinese goods? How do I know all the steps involved? And there are elements of willful and benign ignorance.How many hrs a day do I have to scrutinize world affairs before buying in Banana Republic, Walmart, or Pier One? Rawls works when I know what is involved- I can make a decision for fairness. What if I cannot know about the products? Or what if there is no product but I may be an accountant or teacher for someone involved in an unjust globalization practice, where do i draw the line? How much detail can I know about a global mutual fund, even with the prospectus?
      Right now this blog is for stray things that come my way as I write about Judiasm and Other Religions. I have no animus for anything specific, if someone bites- that is good. If not, then I have already found this helpful for collecting fragments of my own thoughts.

  4. Societal just distributions of income and wealth need not go hand in hand with hecsherim on individual companies. A society could be just , ie equal opportunity , a tax system in accordance with the difference principal while individual companies might be exploiting their workers, even if we confine ourselves to the domestic case. A just society would strive to eliminate various forms of exploitation, though what counts as exploitation is not always clear. I fail to see why allowing for global trade raises new issues. Classic capitalist societies also imported items that were produced by colonies and countries with basic structures that were unjust. What’s new?

    I mean deontology the way Rawls defined contractualism as a type of deontological theory in contrast to teleological and consequential principles such as utilitarianism. The term deontolgy is also used in contemporary moral philosophy to denote non consequentialist ideas about abortion , the trolley car problem, etc. . I was not thinking of those views. I certainly don’t mean it in Leibowitz’s or Breuer’s sense which if Rawls is correct are based on misreadings of Kant. I am not familiar with Novak’s views.

    I’ll say it differently and stop. When people ask for taamei hamitzvot , a Jewish social contract theorist might not appeal to ikrim, but think of mitzvot and Sinai as a hypothetical outcome of an agreement under some set of initial conditions. I think a case can be made that implicit in the mitzvot are attempts to minimize the loss in the event one ends up at the bottom of the social ladder. It is not a system of winner take all, and a Rawlsian perspective explains why.

    • Classic capitalist societies also imported items that were produced by colonies and countries with basic structures that were unjust. What’s new?
      The indirect problem- It is the Dow chemical in vietnam problem, do I support them in other products? Can I do computer work for them?
      It is the scale of the problem- do i not buy imports?
      It is the simultaneous lack of knowledge of how things are made oversea with the pictures of massacres in those same countries.
      It is the greater role genocide is playing in the world.
      It is the problem that exploitation is made possible not at the plantation level in the third world but by a number’s cruncher in the US. Somewhat akin to the fact that control of people in Auschwitz was done by IBM in the US. Now, whenever we read the papers and see exploitation and atrocities, local companies in the US were involved. It is not the opposite of classic opinions but the need to formulate them in these situations.

      I think a case can be made that implicit in the mitzvot are attempts to minimize the loss in the event one ends up at the bottom of the social ladder. It is not a system of winner take all, and a Rawlsian perspective explains why.

      Separate this into a separate comment and explain your position to me. How do mizvot minimize loss? What are the wins and losses? Are the mizvot responsible or the tight knit community? I am intrigued but am not completely following.

  5. In Rawls a just society is one where the basic structure is in accordance with the principles chosen under some hypothetical set of conditions. Included in the conditions is a veil of ignorance not knowing if one will be rich or poor an aristocrat of a day laborer. Rawls considers varios game theoretic strategies, each being associated with a different distribution. He argue in favor of mini max, minimizing the maximum loss which ends up being the qq

  6. what does that have to do with mizvot?

  7. (Sorry I deleted the rest accidentally. I continue)… which ends up for Rawls to be the welfare state plus those inequalities justified by trickle down effects. Torah seems to have a weaker view…tzedakah, maser awni , peah and the treatment of the underprivileged gerim, leviim argues for a welfare net, while yovel should be seen as a return to some egalitarian base line every fifty years. Since justice is only one virtue in a rightly ordered society, one then can go on and use the same apparatus for other virtues like rule of law, peace and order. Thus the many commandments regarding murder, theft , rape , torts etc.

    When it come to bain adam lamakom either we must add additional goods, (besides the basic goods of wealth, income, rights, obligations and opportunities,) like devikut etc; OR we must add the condition that the contractees worry that the Sinai position of wandering in the desert surrounded by hostile nations and the Egyptian experience of being a colonized minority might remain a recurring feature of existence going forward. The bain adam lamakom mitzvot that are constitutive of the society are designed to enable the Israelites and their successors to live as a nation alone, and resist the hegemonic attempts of the host cultures, sometimes with a Christian face, sometimes with a Muslim face to swallow the Jews into some larger totality.

    Rawls in his book on the history of moral philosophy and elsewhere reads Kant as a social contract theorist. He thus follows a tradition that sees the structure of the laws of morality as congruent with the Law of the OT. Leibowitz and Co never get past Kant’s second critique. They disregard the Anthropology and other late works where he actually tries to state the individual rules. The two readings couldn’t be more different. On a Rawlsian reading, mitzvot are the result of an agreement based on rational considerations under conditions of uncertainty. For Leibowitz mitzvot are heteronymous all the way down, and are of value because it is good for man to follow a set of rules of heteronymous origin.

  8. OK- some preliminary questions:
    Are these mizvot that ensure justice as defined by Bible, talmud, or halakhah?
    Torah seems to have a weaker view- Then is it still Rawls? I would take the position of land owner or baal habayit as opposed to worker in Hazal.
    “return to some egalitarian base.” – this seems to be a jump in explanation.
    What do you do with the supply side and nationalist readings of these laws?

  9. You write like the Rogatchover and you want me to spell out a sketch to the last nekuda. lol.

    I go back to my first comment…there is a Rawlsian way of reading kabalas hatorah. I hope that point is clearer. How to do this in detail presents standard Rawlsian issues…what kind of knowledge can we attribute to those in the original position? Do they know that God exists? Rawls would say no. To be honest I do not know how to proceed. I do not know how to be blend an atemporal ahistorical position with a reading of torah that developed over time.

    But armed with this Rawlsian picture it is much easier not to be preoccupied with the typical hashkafah issue that Sinai is not factual or historical, an issue that seems to weigh heavily on the minds of many.

    It also gives a deeper meaning to RYBS thesis that torah is synthetic a priori. We can now read this as meaning more than a preconceived set of blinkers. Torah is a priori because it is the rational outcome of a hypothetical thought experiment, maybe not the details, which might have conventional or historically shaped features, but the general schema of how to combine tzedek , community,and certain ideals that define the good.

    Btw Halbertal’s book on why the poor of your city are morally prior, contrary to utitarian calculations that looks only at the total or average makes sense only against a Rawlsian background.

  10. It also gives a deeper meaning to RYBS thesis that torah is synthetic a priori.

    Wouldnt this be Immanuel Kant’s theory?

  11. evanstonjew
    I am out and busy today. I will get back to you later.

  12. chakira..Kant asked “How are synthetic a priori truths possible?” meaning how can we know sentences that are about the world without observation. Kant gives a very long winded answer to the effect that we necessarily impose certain forms on the world. RYBS in Ish Halacha hitches a ride on this famous name and says that when a talmudist experiences the world as when he sees a sunrise or sunset in halachic terms , he utilizes synthetic a priori truths. But all that comes to is that armed with halachot he tends to see empirical events as associated with relevant halachot . The way he knows these rules to be true is by looking them up in a book and believing they are true.

    I say if there is a unique a priori event , namely the ‘deduction’ of mitzvot from a set of intuitively plausible initial conditions then there is something to this RJBS claim that mitzvot are known a priori..

  13. Please explain more what value RJBS adds over the classic Kantian claim. I do not really see it, except maybe that he uses the specific term “Halakha.”

    Maybe you mean since you would expect that a Halakhist would say that he has access to the noumenal world? I am confused.

  14. Chakira…This is my understanding of the issue. Kant asks how can we know synthetic a priori sentences like 2+2=4 are true? How can we knowsuch arithmetic truths when knowledge of these sentences are not based on experience?

    RJBS is not talking of such truths. Shabus begins at sundown is either a convention created by rabbis , not a truth discovered by the rabbis, or it is known because the rabbi read this in a book and believes the author of the book knows because of a chain of mesorah going back to Sinai. Moses knew when Shabus begins because God told him, and either God decided this or looked into a pre existent torah. All these possibilities are not a priori. The sentence “Frum Jews believe shabus begins at sundown” is a truth about what Jews believe and is not at all puzzling.

    So unless there is some a priori deduction involved even in the most general way, saying shekiah is an apriori concept comes to no more than saying we apply cetain contingent perhaps constructed concepts to the world, no more puzzling than saying a red light means stop.

    RJBS doesn’t say a talmudist has direct access to the noumenal world, nor does Kant.

  15. I wasnt claiming that RYBS says that Halakhist has access to the nouminal, just asking if that was the hava amina here (we would expect a Rabbi to say X, but RYBS says Y). It seems like that was the hava amina, so thanks for clarifying.

  16. Ok- so let me try and understand you. Torah is to be accepted as a Rawlsian vision of fairness and justice. We accept the Torah the way one accept the outcome of a Rawlsian first position.

    If so, the question is not God, rather:Why? For Leibowitz and Goldman, the goal is to preserve God despite modern life. For Soloveitchik, the goal is the redeemed existence away from the material animal life to the rational ordering of a moral order, and then a further redemption into the religious order. If the purpose here the need for ethics? Do you have a religious ethics and do not see a purpose in autonomous ethics? Are you possibly solving the problem of heteronomy by moving away from faith as a justification and toward the rational decision of the original position?

    It also seems that you are defining Jewish justice, since you quote RYBS, as the halakhic realm. So the Biblical agriculture laws are not your criteria but the halkhic system.

    Halbertal is already accepting Hartman and post Rawls: Sandel, Dworken, and others. We are constructing a Rawls insight because we want a living covenant- a construction, not an ahistoric dialectic view of relgion.

    I am slightly surprised that you did not play your rawls ideas off of the Sagi presentation of his 4 thinkers.

  17. This is getting tangled and here is not the place. Bekitzur there is a Rawlsian idea of reflective equilibrium. (See 3jews4opinions for a clever application.)We start with intuitions and try to develop principles adjusting each until we are in a stable place.These principles are then understood as the outcome of a hypothetical agreement under certain conditions,a black box as it were. We try to create a black box which generates principles that end up in synch with our intuitions. And if we modify our intuitions then principles might need to be changed as well as the black box. My main point is the mitzvot, now taking the place of intuitions are to be understood in terms of general principles which are a result of some a priori agreement. This is an explanation, a way of understanding the deep structure of torah, not a prescription that we should accept Rawls specific ideas about justice.

    God is not critical for principles of the right except maybe as a law enforcer/accountant. God may be part of our understanding of the good and the good life, which first of all must be commensurate with the principles of justice. A Rawlsian approach to God and the good life involves questions such as whether a rational life plan would include spirituality as a goal, how such a goal fits in with the other virtues and how religion can support a just and therefore liberal society and avoid intolerance.It’s a parsha all its own.

    Thomas Nagel and Gil Harman reprinted an unknown undergrad essay of Rawls on religion in the TLS around two years ago. It is remarble how his future mature ideas are already implicit in his thinking. Worth reading.

  18. So let me see if I get you yet.
    You are saying that Rawls has explanatory power for our age, the set up of his approach can help us construct a meaningful understanding of the mizvot system.
    Our mizvah intuitions play the role of his ethical intuitions.
    If I am correct so far,
    then can you explain further- Rawls actually wants you to return to the black box point to make a decision. How does this play itself out in making Jewish decisions?
    Do we start at this intuition point because we are spectral Jews?

  19. “If I am correct so far”…let’s say yes.

    “Rawls actually wants you to return to the black box point to make a decision.”…you mean if we took this Rawlsian derech would we judge issues from a veil of ignorance, armed with limited knowledge etc…I would say yes, that would be helpful. Imagine dealing with feminist issues not knowing how you will end up male or female.Clearly on the conservative view there is no equality of opportunity. Rawls restricts all knowledge in the original position to non metaphysical knowledge, and he gives arguments. No one can argue for policy X simply because Hashem told him or or RJBS said so in his drasha on the 2 accounts of how Chava was created. So without utilizing metaphysics or authority there would have to be empirically based, readily agreed upon reasons to discriminate against women. Maybe there are, but in a Jewish context, thinking this way is progress. This approach doesn’t necessarily generate unique answers, but in requiring principles as the basis of rules, and a deduction for the principles it brings out more clearly how these things are not isolated. Bringing out what is involved in thinking patriarchally is already helpful, since so much of the oppression hangs on obscurantist arguments.

    I am happy you mentioned my favorite buzz word ‘specters’. Irrelevant here, but I have some thoughts on your Fackenheim post involving the issue of being haunted by specters. If it is ok with you I would like to explain it a bit in greater detail. I could send you an email , or post it as a comment.

    • “So without utilizing metaphysics or authority there would have to be empirically based, readily agreed upon reasons”

      What would be the theoretical objections to your position? What would we need to overcome, as a theory of halakah, to make yours a viable system. I am not asking inertia or sociological objection and of cource I know most people look for authority and metaphysics.
      But what are the theoretical issues. For example, how do the textual sources influence the decision? What do you do when the textual sources do not offer any fair solution?
      What do you offer in a practical sense over Halbertal?

      Definitely make comment here and not by email. People are still sending me emails and Facebook messages, even after I asked to put comments here.
      Also- you refered to a comment you made on another blog- can you either cite it or give the url?

  20. I meant to say Bruce and a commenter wrote about reflective equilibrium in a Jewish context and in a novel way :

    Halbertal in the book I read tries to explain why we are entitled to give precedence to our own over humanity, even when on a utilitarian and even Christian principles we should consider where we can do most good. It is one more blow against the Pauline ideal of there being neither Jew or Greek inside the unified all encompaasing church. Rawls handles this in a natural way by first considering justice within a nation and only then going on to talk how justice between nations or global justice requires modifications of the initial principles. The killer application is justice between generations, and there I loose touch with the literature.

    You know Reform Jews these days are all effectively Rawlsians. Many have heard the ideas, and except for some country club Republicans most endorse stronger redistributions when the trickle down effects are marginal. Our parents to the extent they supported the New Deal and certainly the old Jewish left and the Labor Zionists are all in synch with this philosophy. What Rawls accomplished is take a bunch of ideas, none of which are totally convincing and put it together as a whole . In the beginning he spoke of strong proofs. Later he spoke of a balance of considerations.

  21. After all that you just change discussion midstream.
    You were presenting your Rawls views of halakhah and orthodoxy. You were explaining why it would be a good approach, then you switch gears and tell me about a third party called Reform Jews and your understanding-projection on them.
    You were explaining why this is a meaningful taamei hamizvot for you and why this is a useful way to make halakhic decisions, then you lost the train of thought.

  22. I gave you what I got. I gave a way of understanding mitzvot, and a schema for deciding larger issues like feminism. I could also run the same argument on whether it is rational to ask of all Jews that they emigrate to Israel. But to ask me to decide on individual halachot and in an Orthodox context no less is asking too much. This was never intended as an algorithm for generating rules.

    Again, in response to how much weight to give to textual sources when they define practises that are clearly Rawlsian unjust by todays conceptions of reality, for example slavery, the answer is I don’t know. I would go with Rawls, but what Orthodox rabbis would say and do is usualy up for grabs.

    An excellent example is taxes and the infamous Rabbi Cohen. On a Rawlsian philosophy there is a duty of fair play that rules out shirkers. End of story. There was a lot of talk about chilul hasem, which is actually a very weak reason for prohibiting stealing on taxes. I wrote up the Rawlsian reason, some agreed, and by the next day it was chilul hashem 24×7 all over again.

    And finally are there Jewish institutions, mitzvot that fail Rawlsian standards of fairness the answer is undoubtedly yes. It’s a problem.

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