almost 10 years on 2009-01-04


a sunday pause for a few quick and dirty thoughts on social philosophy

this morning in the gym i watched michael sandel's "justice" lecture #16 on john rawls (available at  as an undergrad, i remember having largely disliked rawls. when we studied "justice as fairness" i took fundamental issue with his suppositions of what people would choose under veil of ignorance (based on its grounding in minimax theory, and presupposition of risk aversion)...  but that said, i haven't studied his theory in a while and am not sharp enough on the finer points to be confident in playing ball at that level right now.

what really struck me, and what is worth noting, is that watching sandel's lecture i felt for the first time that rawls is starting to seem like a quaint antique of slower and more stable age. 

his theory can't functionally account for our exponential world in which impact and change is ever more rapid, long ranging, and difficult to "value".

rawls states "in justice as fairness men agree to share one anther's fate.  in designing institutions they undertake to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit".  my fundamental issues with rawls now stem from the fact that i am not exactly sure how we should be defining and thinking about the basic ideas of "men" and "common" -

for the first time in history we are facing environmental and technological issues which could drastically change or destroy society in a matter of decades via a thousand cuts.  these challenges are not at all like the threat of nuclear annihilation, which was always a game of a limited set of state actors - instead these challenges are ones which we all collectively face together based on millions of independent decisions by independent but fundamentally bound individuals and organizations.  should we be thinking about our commitments to just our contemporary "men", or for humanity for the next 100 years, or for the next 1000 years?  should we be thinking about the "common" benefit this year, this century, or for the next fifty generations?  rawls doesn't help here at all, and without any answers on these more fundamental questions it makes his entire framework rather useless.

these types of questions didn't matter very much historically because we as a society couldn't do all that much that would have 100 or 1000 year impact.  we could talk about formats for or conceptions of maximizing utility on a bounded basis because our impact and the capital we built or destroyed as a civilization didn't last that long in any meaningful way.  however, the more our actions today have serious impacts in the very long term the more we have to re-define what we mean by maximizing and sharing wealth, utility, etc. 

are we maximizing for today or tomorrow, or 10,000 years from now?  what, if anything, can we agree is 'utility' in the long run?  what decay rate should we be applying to future human utility streams? 

in an exponential world all of these problems become much more tangible and immediately relevant, and if we can't 'agree' we are going to have to re-evaluate.

i am picking on rawls specifically because he deploys many many devices which are particularly problematic in this new very-long-term framework.  applying any of his philosophy relies upon society making centralized and unitary decisions regarding the value/worth/etc of individual actions and activities.  to know how much to tax a given person society needs to centrally make a value judgment on that person's contributions.  this simply doesn't work in the modern framework, because the value of given contributions, etc. are getting ever more complicated and hard to agree upon. 

when i was in college i remember being highly seduced by the clean and clear social theory of locke, but being forced to recognize that his work was a simplistic relic of an earlier time.  as humanity became more and more interdependent and interconnected most of his theory lost any sort of real world relevance, because there was no longer such thing as actions that truly existed in a vacuum.  as our actions no longer just impact each other in the immediate or temporal space, but infinitely into the future rawls theory also seems like a relic (whether or not you agree with it).

so, what is left?  i am not sure.  i am sure there are a lot of thinkers/approaches i have not yet been exposed to, but for now i am stuck re-considering my opinion of philosophical frameworks that don't rely on socially coordinated ends based reasoning.


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