Friday, November 20, 2009

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls

A thorough and intellectually sophisticated argument for a notion of justice based on what reasonable people would supposedly agree to given equal bargaining positions (It is also the reformation of his concept of Justice as Fairness). It is difficult to offer a meaningful review without going on for pages, but as I don’t want to do that so I’ll attempt a brief account of the work and my experience with it and then link to other, more informative resources.

I had heard of Rawls and his landmark A Theory of Justice for years and had always been interested in learning more about it. At 500 pages or so, I would wonder if I really needed that degree of exploration. Consequently, when I found out that the Restatement was only about 200 pages and served to update his view whilst addressing criticisms from Theory (and other essays); I thought I’d give it a try. It was dense, informative and quite dry. This should have been unsurprising as there is very little narrative in the book and it takes the structure of sections being presented as 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, all the way up to 60.4. At times I actually resented the book as I just wanted it to be done so I could read something more accessible or fun. Fortunately(?) my ‘ought-self’ persevered and I finished the book and now have a greater (but by no means deep) understanding of Rawls and his idea of justice as fairness.

Why I was so interested in A Theory of Justice is that I had found the main concept – a veil of ignorance – to be a fascinating one. If you want greater fairness have people decide upon the structure of society but without knowing their place in that society. The deciding people would have equal positions, both in debate and possible outcome. Consequently, self-interest would take over and we’d have more fairness.

Apparently, this wasn’t quite accurate. There is a veil of ignorance, but the set up of the ‘original position’ is different. There are representatives of various groups who are to follow moral and logical arguments to ensure fairness for their group. Additionally, emotions such as greed, spite and envy are not supposed to feature prominently in the representatives while they deliberate. While the book does argue decently for this point, I think human nature is far too flawed. As the original position is a thought experiment, it seems to make more sense to hijack the deeply ingrained self-interested tendency of people and have fairness fall out of someone trying to be selfish for every person in all their various societal positions.

Justice as Fairness attempts to provide a moral/logical argument about how to structure a political society. It is supposed to be what a reasonable person would agree to, and/or what a group of reasonable people would put forth. Rawls repeatedly (almost excessively) emphasizes that is a political doctrine not an overarching philosophical or moral system (this was primarily to address criticisms of Theory). Alternatively, I did enjoy when Rawls repeatedly mentioned the concept of “reasonable pluralism.” Reasonable pluralism “is the fact of profound and irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world, and in their views of the moral and aesthetic values to be sought in human life.” (1.3) Of course, it appears Rawls hopes that reasonable people would agree to the validity of reasonable pluralism (if they didn’t, would they prove his point?) and from then on, also with all the various arguments about how certain rights and freedoms should be fundamental and that only certain (rational) ways of discussion should be permitted for the representatives.

I applaud the idea of trying to argue for an abstract concept of justice of which reasonable people would supposedly agree. Alternatively, the practical realities of the world seem so vastly removed from this abstraction that the entire enterprise can be called into question (just watch Question Period or a debate on the House floor in the US congress). It makes me think there should be greater resources put into research, analysis and programs that might actually help the world (for that reason I might like Sen’s new book more)

Other bits
-I was reminded of the foundational importance of general rights and freedoms.
-I appreciated that Rawls described how those with native endowments that make them more likely to succeed just lucked out. Does one morally deserve something for which they had no contribution? That said, Rawls does believe a society must take into account that those with native endowments will, on average, succeed more often, and that this is acceptable.
-The difference principle - “The difference principle permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society”
-That utilitarians have to address the idea of pleasures from cruelty.
-That in ancient Greece 90% of the population was excluded from fully participating in the society.

Justice as Fairness is an impressive work. It was not meant to be a light read and it was not. I am happy to have read it but I was not happy while reading it. Read it if you think it will be your thing. Perhaps at a different period in my life I will be less impatient, but for the moment, I acquired what I desired: a greater understanding of Rawls’ beliefs, the veil of ignorance and political theory in general.

Chapter 1
John Rawls in Wikipedia
NY Times review
Mises Review

Monday, November 16, 2009

Child Mortality Declines but WWII is Still Happening

(Below you shall find an op-ed I submitted to three newspapers. Since they didn't accept it, I thought I'd post it here.)

According to a recent UNICEF report, there is some cause for celebration. Last year was the first time on record that the global annual number of children who die before the age of five was less than 9 million. While 12.5 million children under five were dying in 1990, the number in 2008 was estimated to be 8.8 million. The decrease means that “10,000 fewer children are dying every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman.

Moreover, this trend is accelerating. As stated in the report, “the average rate of decline from 2000 to 2008 is 2.3 per cent, compared to a 1.4 per cent average decline from 1990 to 2000.” Consequently, fewer children are dying and this amount is getting even smaller over time.
Much of these gains have been achieved through increases in immunization, access to insecticide-treated bed nets, and Vitamin A supplements. Such measures can reduce the effects of malaria and other viruses, increase the ability to fight infections, and improve maternal health – a key factor in the health of the child.

Despite these positive developments, the scale of these deaths remains staggering. Nearly 9 million children under the age of five are still dying every year. It seems inconceivable that anyone would fail to consider this state of affairs as horrendous or challenge the idea that something must be done to stop millions of children from dying unnecessarily. Unfortunately, despite the frequent claims of outrage, the actions taken to address this horror are severely lacking.

The two leading causes of child mortality are still pneumonia and diarrhea. Both can be treated with vaccinations and antibiotics to prevent or stop the viral and bacterial invaders that are causing lung inflammation or the severe loss of fluids. The cure for many types of diarrhea often requires only the replacement of lost fluid and salts. This solution appears to be as easy as it is difficult to mobilize resources that would allow action. Yet, there was a different time when the scale of death was the same but resources were easily mobilized.

Sixty years ago, the world saw the birth of a tragedy on a similar scale – the second “great” war that destroyed lives and nations. With a total loss of life in the range of 55 million people over a six year period, it surely represents one of the most terrible calamities in the twentieth century. But that loss of life is precisely what the world continues to experience, every six years, in countries around the world. Unlike WWII, however, the vast majority of these deaths result from entirely preventable causes, and all of the victims are children.

The above comparison is not meant to minimize the deep sacrifices and incredible determination of countries and peoples during WWII to fight against injustice to make a better world, but to suggest that similar effort and determination is required to address the present horror that is unfolding all around us.

WWII continues to be recognized as an appalling situation: there are memorials, commemorations and overt discussions of the evil exhibited. Alternatively, children unnecessarily perish on the same scale, day after day, year after year, and it goes by almost entirely unnoticed.

It does not have to be like this, however. UNICEF and other organizations have a multitude of programs that are combating child mortality and every day improved treatments, such as vaccines against pneumococcal pneumonia, are being deployed to save additional lives. Widespread child mortality is an evil that can be countered; all that is lacking are the resources and the determination of individuals around the world.

It is within your power to help; go to and realize that giving mere dollars will allow you to provide life-saving antibiotics or clean drinking water and help stop the carnage that is plaguing the world’s children. Learn more, tell your friends, and get involved in helping to end this ongoing calamity.

It is a terrible thing for people to kill each other with all manner of weaponry; it is a truly tragic thing to stand by while little children needlessly die when it is so easy to help.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins

This is an excellent compendium of the evidence for evolution. It would be a great book for those who have little exposure to, or understanding of, the mountain of information that supports the theory of evolution. That said, the intended audience is mainly for those who believe in the theory but find themselves ill-equipped when they engage in discussions about evolution.

Dawkins covers the difference between theory and “theory,” common descent, fossils, embryology, molecular evidence and the unintelligence of many “designs.” Although it was useful, informative and intermittently interesting, I did sometimes find it a bit dry and less compelling (likely because much of it was review). Alternatively, I quite enjoyed the final third of the book and consider it the best part. That is where Dawkins examined the many poorly designed parts of organisms and how all the evidence points to a process that generally adds upon and adapts existing structures instead of wholly replacing them (as it would be unlikely evolutionarily). In the final chapter, Dawkins takes the part of the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species and breaks it down and elaborates. I liked the idea and it was well executed.

It is a saddening thing that so many deny or are uninformed about the richness and beauty of both our natural world and the idea of evolution.