Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

February 10, 2008

On Basic Morality

Filed under: culture — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 1:38 pm

“A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls is as good a presentation as any on basic moral truisms.

The predominant reason for rejecting Rawls’ conclusion is not the argument, which is good and sound, but rather its consequences.

In the book, Rawls uses a rhetorical device known as the “veil on ignorance.”  His aim is to “nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural  circumstances to their own advantage.” (pg 136 – A Theory of Justice)  In short, it is provide circumstances in which we are not hypocrites and honestly apply the standards we apply to other people to ourselves.

At the end of the day, justice and honesty is about applying the same standard to everyone, including ourselves.  I’m not saying that this is easy.  However, it is blindingly clear that in some instances we don’t even try.  For example, if one advocates particularly harsh punishment of an individual to set as a warning for others, that isn’t justice.  It is intimidation.  It is authoritarianism to enforce fearful obedience.  It is the tool of the thug.  It has no place in a society that proclaims the only legitimate forms of power is by the consent of the governed.

Another moral truism is that we are only responsible for our own actions and their predictable consequences.  Therefore, it is also unjust to punish someone for the crimes of others.  However, we should also act on the principles of solidarity.  If we notice injustice in the world, if we are doing it, we should stop.  If we notice someone else doing it, we should try to stop them.  However, when we attempt to stop injustice by other parties, history has shown we must be especially cautious.  We must take time to ensure and reflect we are applying the same standard to everyone.

Consequently, our moral reasoning is plagued by a veil of selective ignorance, in which evidence that does not conform to the desired world-view or is otherwise inconvenient is ignored.  However, in order to be fair, all the evidence must be judged according to the same standard.  In fact, according to Rawls’ theory of justice, that is precisely what justice is: fairness.


  1. I am glad that others like John Rawls, too.

    His real target nations should be the convoluted regions of the planet, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Middle East, Iran, Indonesia etc.

    The best ally of John Rawls could be Ferenc Deak 1803-1976.

    He was an advocate of social justice, civil society. He is among the few leaders who could show up a positive result.

    Can we target Iraq for the Rawls theory?

    Comment by Protest I — February 19, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  2. Hi Protest,

    Can we target Iraq for a Rawlsian society? Well, who are we? Speaking for myself, I’m in no position to greatly influence U.S. government policy on Iraq. Even if a Democrat is elected, I doubt if the change in policy would be that sweeping or radical. I think in realistic terms the alternatives are the Republican platform: stay in Iraq until it is a proper client-state versus the Democratic platform: try to make it a client state, but if it continues to be this costly, leave.

    I would also be nervous of imposing a Rawlsian society in Iraq. Any just social system is based on the voluntary consent of its members. In that regard, the only justifiable way of establishing the Rawlsian society is through mass democratic action. In that role, all we could do is recommend and aid, but I think the basic groundwork is currently missing from Iraq. In all fairness, I feel the groundwork is also missing in the United States. However, the U.S. occupation of Iraq up to this point has spent any amount of social order and political capital needed to build up a Rawlsian society and if there is anything Iraq deserves first and foremost, it is sovereignty.

    As far as target nations are concerned, I think you have the causality backwards. It isn’t like well-meaning technocrats and elites sit around and decide what the “best” and most “just” forms of social and political institutions are, then implement them. The usual interest of the elites and their enablers is simply to maintain power and their status, often times try to expand it. Any real change that removes power from the elites takes place through popular struggle and revolution. Leaders of these popular movements draw upon the ideas that are currently available. One of them might be Rawls. Revolutions are most likely to take place where the greatest amount of economic injustice exists and a region that has a history of popular movements in the culture to draw upon. Eastern Europe and Latin America would be a good bet. The Middle East, however, has some sizeable disadvantages. I won’t even venture a guess for elsewhere in the world.

    Ferenc Deak sounds like an interesting figure. However, with George W. Bush in charge, I don’t think this has been an era of diplomacy and consensus, and it will take a while to get through what George W. Bush has ushered in.

    Comment by codesmithy — February 20, 2008 @ 7:13 am

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