The Later Rawls for Economists in 500 Words

I like economists, and I like trying to talk philosophy with them, even though they often find it boring and irritating. And they don’t like Rawls, but they tend to only know parts of A Theory of Justice. You know what part I mean – the rational choice stuff that they think is too simple and all wrong (and, honestly, isn’t the best).

What I’d like to do today is outline, in a simplistic and outrageously rough way, the later Rawls for economists, the Rawls I like most. Here’s the basic idea. In TJ, Rawls argued that people should be able to endorse complying with just institutions as good for them. But he later said he assumed too much agreement on the good life: people’s utility functions were modeled too similarly. So in Political Liberalism, Rawls lets peoples’ utility functions vary a lot. Now, these aren’t just any utility functions; they include the satisfaction one gets from getting one’s way morally and politically. So the utility functions contain moral commitments. Economists don’t like that, but utility analysis is pretty devoid of psychological content in itself, so there’s no reason it can’t be applied in the way I suggest.

Rawls’s goal, then, is to show that his conception of justice is a Pareto improvement vis-a-vis other conceptions of justice, especially illiberal ones, at least for the utility functions of a limited class of persons who are reasonable. Economists, you can understand reasonable people as those who play assurance games when they could play prisoner’s dilemmas.

So an overlapping consensus is just a bargaining point between people with heterogeneous utility functions, but among people who play assurance games, so the bargain can seem reciprocal and not based on mere threat advantage.

In short, a public justification for a law obtains when the law is an improvement in utility for each reasonable utility function and worse for none. Public justification is a Pareto concept.

Public reasoning, on the other hand, is about signaling. See, we might not know if some law or policy is publicly justified, so we need a way to convey that to others. Rawls thought we could talk in terms of shared values, or give arguments derived from what we agree on, and that way we could convince each other a public justification obtains. When a public justification obtains, it becomes common knowledge through signaling, and a publicity condition is met. Then people can see a point in complying with the relevant legal requirements. It is better for them to comply, they know it is better for others to comply, and they know that they and others are prepared to cooperate so long as others do.

The result is a well-ordered society, one where a conception of justice is stable, based on the moral considerations that comprise each person’s utility function. Reasonable people are often defined as prepared to comply with the rules, which is why Political Liberalism can be seen as a kind of ideal theory, for better or worse.

The Mortara Argument Against Integralism

In this post, I offer the simplest compelling argument against Catholic Integralism that I know of. It is based on the Mortara Case, where Pope Pius IX, as sovereign of the papal states, removed Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy, from his Jewish family. Pius IX did so because he discovered that the boy had been illicitly baptized by the family’s Catholic servant. The child, by law, was owed a Catholic education, and Pius IX saw to that himself, raising Mortara as his own. Some integralists say Pius IX acted permissibly; everyone else disagrees. So here’s the argument.

The Mortara Argument (Against Integralism)

  1. If integralism is true, Pope Pius IX was morally permitted to remove Edgardo Mortara from his parents.
  2. But Pius IX was not morally permitted to remove Edgardo Mortara from his parents.
  3. Therefore, integralism is false.

Defense of premise 1

Pius IX was, by integralist standards (and perhaps by others), the legitimate sovereign of the papal states, and as such, had a duty to prepare his subjects for eternal beatitude. The moral law forbids forced baptism, but once it occurs, the baptized are under the jurisdiction of the Church and are owed the gifts of the Church, which includes a Catholic education. Being Jewish, the Mortara family was likely to deprive their child of this great good, so Pius IX was morally and legally bound to intervene.

Further evidence for premise 1 is that I don’t know any integralists who argue that Pius IX acted wrongly. And you would think that if there were at least some way to show that integralism does not have this implication, that we’d have seen the argument by now. I have read a ton of integralist publications and I just haven’t seen it. So it seems to me integralists accept premise 1, and that’s further reason to think 1 is true.

Defense of Premise 2

Everyone but integralists accept it, including all non-integralist Catholics I know of. I assume this includes at least the last five popes, and probably all living cardinals, and maybe all living bishops in the Catholic Church. That is, the wise within the Catholic Church agree with premise 2, as does seemingly everyone else outside the Catholic Church.

Beyond testimonial evidence, and mere moral intuitions, what’s the reason that removing Mortara was wrong? Well, the goods of family life together are very great, and the Mortara family was gravely damaged and its members gravely psychologically harmed. On top of that, it seems unjust to take children from their parents because parents have a natural right to raise their children in accord with their faith, within some reasonable limits. Further, Pius IX’s reasoning does not satisfy the Golden Rule. It would not be acceptable for a Jewish state to treat a Catholic family as Pius IX treated the Mortaras. He did not treat the Mortaras as he would be treated.

But even if you can’t expressly state the explanation of the wrongness of the act, the deep set nature of the intuition that Pius IX acted wrongly is itself evidence that the act was wrong. We all have a faculty of moral intuition that either perceives the moral truth or is a summary of our reasoning in that direction, and the deliverance of that faculty is clear.

Reject Integralism Before Rejecting Premise 2

I think the intuition grounding premise 2 is so deep set that we are rationally entitled to reject the weakest premise in any argument that Pius IX’s acts were morally permissible. That is, just about any rational person should take the modus tollens and simply reject the weakest premises in the best arguments for integralism. It seems like any reasonable person would be rationally entitled, if not rationally required, to do so.

The only exception is if you think integralism is Catholic dogma, in which case you have to accept that Pius IX acted permissibly or abandon your entire faith. But if I were Catholic and found myself believing integralism is Catholic dogma, I would do everything I rationally could to avoid it. Anyone should be extremely hesitant to accept that Pius IX acted permissibly.

So, there’s the argument. It is valid, and the case for the two premises is very strong. This won’t move integralists, I realize. But I do think they have a burden of explaining why we should reject moral commonsense, even the commonsense of Catholic Christians.

The Common Good Doesn’t Help Us Decide

Integralists and their fellow travelers continue to drive much online discussion in legal and political theory. They propose what many have proposed in the past, that social institutions be structured so as to promote the common good. They have a very specific conception of the common good, but most of the negative online responses to their proposal haven’t focused on their having the wrong conception of the common good, but on basing institutional structures on the common good of any variety.

There are two sources of skepticism. The most common objection is that there is no common good or we can’t know it, and so attempts to base institutions around the common good are really just masks for the will to power.

Another objection is pragmatic: power corrupts, and we shouldn’t empower political institutions in particular to promote the common good.

My preferred objection, advanced in Must Politics Be War?, is that, while we can know the common good, and in some cases think that political institutions could promote it, free, equal, and reasonable people disagree about what the common good is, and so imposing one view of the common good on others is likely to undermine the basis for social trust and respect for diverse persons in large-scale societies where people have come to trust each other.

But let’s suppose all these objections fail. Assume that there is a common good, we know what it is, we can overcome pragmatic objections, and that we should promote the true good even if some reasonable people are mistaken about it. Shouldn’t we then base society on the common good?

Perhaps. But a problem looms. The common good is supposed to be distinct from the aggregate good. It isn’t just the sum of the good of each person. This is how defenders of the common good avoid consequentialism and the perverse trade-offs that consequentialism allows. But that means there is some principle internal to the concept of the common good that forbids certain kinds of treatment of individual persons that would or could maximize the aggregate good.

In my view, those principles are grounded in the dignity of the person and the norms implicit in the kinds of relationships we want to have with other persons, in particular the moral relationships of love, friendship, and trust. These are what Jerry Gaus has called principle-grounded values. To be a good friend, and so to achieve the good of friendship, friends must be honest with one another. Honesty becomes a kind of deontic reason: if we value friendship, then we are prohibited from deceiving our friends, at least in the normal course of our friendship. So we can only get the teleological value if we follow the deontic principle.

I think the common good is itself a principle-grounded value. The common good is a kind of close social relation, and it is partly constituted by principles prohibiting treating others in certain ways even if doing so would result in more good. That means to fully specify the common good, we may have to articulate a series of rights claims. But we can’t appeal to the common good to ground those rights, since that would put the cart before the horse.

So I think the common good is not a master normative concept. It certainly has some of its own content, but we cannot fully specify the common good without reference to deontic constraints.

In Must Politics Be War? I argued that a principle of public justification captures the series of deontic reasons that we must be responsive to in order to maintain relations of social trust. But if we adopt a principle of public justification, then we must respect traditional liberal rights, because only liberal institutions can be publicly justified. I may be wrong about the details – I probably am! – but we must do that careful work before we can appeal to the common good. And so the common good doesn’t really help us to decide between liberal and non-liberal arrangements.