Rawls and Climate

“It is uncertain whether man will not use  his powers to destroy himself, and others, and the whole of nature.” Kant, Lectures on Ethics,  circa 1775

Rich countries are changing the climate. Poor countries are feeling the heat. How much should we care about people most vulnerable to climate change? NYT’s Michelle Alexander thinks John Rawls provides an answer https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/opinion/climate-change-politics-john-rawls.html  but BQTA contributor Carter Gillies is not so sure.

Alexander imagines how the most advantaged would feel if they were reincarnated as one of the people they took advantage of.

Maybe Bull Connor — that white supremacist Alabama politician who ordered that black schoolchildren protesting segregation be attacked with police dogs and fire hoses — has already been born again as a black child in a neighborhood lacking jobs and decent schools but filled with police officers who shoot first and ask questions later. Maybe he’s now subjected to the very forms of bigotry, terror and structural racism that he once gleefully inflicted on others.

Better still if black Bull Connor could remember his former racist self. The point is that instead of being who you are, you could have been anyone in the world. What makes your current viewpoint and attitudes more valid than anyone else’s?

In his landmark 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice,” the political philosopher John Rawls urged his audience to imagine a wild scene: A group of people gathered to design their own future society behind “a veil of ignorance.” No one knows his or her place in society, class position or social status, “nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength and the like.” As Rawls put it, “If a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew he was poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle.” If denied basic information about one’s circumstances, Rawls predicted that important social goods, such as rights and liberties, power and opportunities, income and wealth, and conditions for self-respect would be “distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these values is to everyone’s advantage.”

Back then, I was struck by how closely Rawls’s views mirrored my own. I now believe, however, that the veil of ignorance is quite distorted in an important respect. Rawls’s veil encourages us to imagine a scenario in which we’re equally likely to be rich or poor or born with natural talents or limitations. But the truth is, if we’re reborn in 50 years, there’s only a small chance that any of us would be rich or benefit from white privilege.

Rawls meant that we should imagine a scenario in which it’s equally likely that we could be anyone, not just who we actually are. Alexander is right that the probabilities need to be taken into consideration.

Almost half the world — more than three billion people — live on less than $2.50 per day. At least 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 per day. Less than 7 percent of the world’s population has a college degree. The vast majority of the earth’s population is nonwhite, and roughly half are women. Unless radical change sweeps the globe, the chances are high that any of us would come back as a nonwhite woman living on less than $2.50 per day. And given what we now know about climate change, the chances are very good that we would find ourselves suffering as a result of natural disasters — hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts and floods — and enduring water and food shortages and refugee crises.

This month, the world’s leading climate scientists released a report warning of catastrophic consequences as soon as 2040 if global warming increases at its current rate. Democratic politicians expressed alarm, yet many continue to accept campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry that is responsible for such a large percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine that our elected officials would be so indifferent if they knew climate scientists were foretelling a future that they would have to live without any of the privileges they now enjoy.

Rawls was right: True morality becomes possible only when we step outside the box of our perceived self-interest and care for others as much as we care for ourselves. But rather than imagining a scenario in which we’re entirely ignorant of what the future holds, perhaps we ought to imagine that we, personally, will be born again into the world that we are creating today through our collective and individual choices.

Who among us would fail to question capitalism or to demand a political system free from corporate cash if we knew that we’d likely live our next life as a person of color, earning less than $2.50 a day, in some part of the world ravaged by climate change while private corporations earn billions building prisons, detention centers and border walls for profit?

Not I. And I’m willing to bet, neither would you. We don’t have to believe in reincarnation to fight for a world that we’d actually want to be born into.

Michelle Alexander became a New York Times columnist in 2018. She is a civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”



BQTA contributor Carter Gillies takes issue with the idea of “true morality”.

I was probably 7 or 8 when I realized that being born a certain way (white, middle class, and male in my case) was the luck of the draw, and every racist I came across would feel very different in the shoes of the people they were disparaging. It seems so obvious, really. Forget reincarnation and the veil of ignorance, just recognizing the contingency behind some of our presumptions seems a huge step forward.

One difficulty that may not be so easy to resolve is that in a world of difference, it is one thing to say that intolerance is a big mistake, and another to say that differences can and maybe should be celebrated. While things could have been different— Bull Conner born a poor black girl— and that we should therefore have more sensitivity and sympathy towards others, it is another to say that we as we are now are worth something, that the differences in us are meaningful and valuable. Not only is there nothing especially wrong with being born a different color skin or gender, for instance, but those differences can be celebrated in their own right. 

The veil of ignorance diminishes that if it doesn’t erase it. Reincarnation just side steps the issue. I don’t buy that these moves end up in anything like ‘true morality’. Alexander puts it, “True morality becomes possible only when we step outside the box of our perceived self-interest and care for others as much as we care for ourselves.” The “as much as” seems to get things hung up. Where, on earth, did that come from? Where, ever, does it have a home?

I have always liked this Bernard Williams quote.

We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life.  It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we cannot care equally about all the suffering in the world: it is a condition of our existence and our sanity.  Equally, it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns, including our own, by criteria derived from nowhere.  We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror.  We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent… But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise.

Part of our sanity as humans comes from the limits of what we are able to care about. This seems an important rejoinder to Rawls.

Not sure if Rawls expanded the veil of ignorance to include the viewpoint of cows and other ‘meat’ animals. Or cockroaches and fleas. The idea of reincarnation at least often (in Buddhism, for example) extends that far from the human tree. 

If ‘true morality’ is only a purely human concern, then it seems we have license to do with the rest of the world what we will. A veil of ignorance that does not include the wider interests of other species in being alive on this planet is merely a human informed ignorance. If ‘true morality’ depends on true ignorance, then we undercut it by importing purely human interests. Maybe the idea of ‘true morality’ is itself unsustainable? In Alexander’s framing, it also seems self-sabotaging, inconclusive, and particularly naive. 

We don’t need fantastical thought experiments to recognize that different interests have different agendas, or to have a more humble attitude towards our own. Nothing that strips away what it means to be human can reasonably comment on what it means to be human. And either morality IS something human and describes what it is humans do, or it is not, and what it means to be human can be universally legislated by, as Williams scathingly puts it, “criteria derived from nowhere”. That latter alternative seems a horrible mistake and a presumption of overstimulated rationality.

But at least the author is throwing out a challenge to our obnoxious tribalism. Trust humans to overdo even good things


GNS responds.

Carter’s Bernard Williams quote is highly relevant. Alexander’s column, which is beautifully written, says

Rawls was right: True morality becomes possible only when we step outside the box of our perceived self-interest and care for others as much as we care for ourselves.

But surely it’s not possible to care for everyone in the world as much as we care about our family, our friends, ourselves. BW: “It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we cannot care equally about all the suffering in the world: it is a condition of our existence and our sanity.”

Carter seems to suggest that therefore objective morality of any kind is an illusion, since it would require us to care about everyone–and every species–equally.

Rawls’ objective was “justice as fairness”, which is slightly different from morality. What would a society look like if we got together and planned it without knowing what our role in it would be? It would need to be fair for everyone, because we could end up being anyone.

It’s like two kids sharing one piece of cake: the first kid cuts it in two and the other picks the slice that looks larger to him. The first kid can’t complain because he did the cutting. He cut under the “veil of ignorance”, not knowing which slice he would end up with.

We’re looking for a just society, not applying a utilitarian calculus to decide what to do in our situation now, which BW would say puts an unrealistic strain on human nature.

Maybe the NYT is really talking more about social justice than morality. Try this: 

Rawls was right: True justice becomes possible only when we step outside the box of our perceived self-interest and value the interests of others as much as we value our own.

Still objectionable? This is supposed to be the basic idea of fair public policy or a fair sport. All players in the game get treated equally: each “as much as” any other. Is fairness always a criterion “derived from nowhere”? Maybe it should be.

The cake cutting example does not depend on “the peculiarities of the human enterprise.”  Other species, aliens, androids, any entities who want cake– all could use the same system to cut the cake. The logic of fairness is wider than any purely human concerns.

Carter is right that “Nothing that strips away what it means to be human can reasonably comment on what it means to be human.” But here we are not talking about what it means to be human, we are talking about what it means to be just. To get that, we strip away our human particularities, because justice is blind and cannot see them. Or so we suppose. (It rarely works perfectly in practice.)

The umpire calling balls and strikes is supposed to think only about how the pitch traveled relative to the strike zone. Not about what he knows about the character of the pitcher or the hitter, or any other human peculiarities of the players, the crowd, himself, or anyone else. To consider any human interests  would be unfair. What he knows about the people involved he should forget. Better if he is truly ignorant.

To use Carter’s terminology, true justice depends on true ignorance and we undercut it by importing purely human concerns.


What kind of reincarnation can Whitey Bulger look forward to? He was found beaten to death yesterday in a West Virginia prison.



Carter Gillies rejoins the debate to talk sports.

You are right that the difference between justice and morality needs to be observed. 

Interesting aside: Dan Kaufman had an interesting post on his blog about ‘Sex and Sports’. https://theelectricagora.com/2018/10/22/sex-and-sports/  In it, the idea of fairness was in the crosshairs.

One thing I pointed out in the comments was that while it makes sense to preserve athletic events specifically for women in order to give them the space to express themselves, we need to not set them up to compete with larger stronger male athletes. So the idea of fairness is NOT always something that we aim at in sports. Jonathan Haidt makes the distinction between fairness as equality and fairness as proportionality, but neither of these ways of thinking about it align with the occasional purposefulness of making sporting competition ‘unequal’ or segregated. In other words, ‘fairness’ is not always essential to our interests. The veil of ignorance is no help in deciding this, because we are specifically NOT always aiming at equal treatment or proportional treatment. We give some their own space and exclude others from competing with them. And this is often the best we can do.

And therefore it seems possible that justice also can’t simply be about ‘fairness’ or the veil of ignorance, since there are at least sometimes competing interests that preclude fairness and demand we treat some groups differently. It simply matters the way one is born into the world.

Another side to this is that we sometimes intentionally stack the odds, and that this is actually a preferred condition of some sporting events. I looked back in the history of sports to gladiatorial contests where the loser also lost their lives (seems a bit unfair), but also that contestants were not opposed on equal footing. Different weapons, two against five, chariots against people on their feet, lions against unarmed folk, etc., etc. I also suggested that contemporary sports like fishing were unfair, or hunting, maybe best exemplified by the tradition of chasing a poor half starved fox across the countryside by a pack of dogs and an assortment of people on horseback. There are also less ‘fringe’ examples of college football and basketball scheduling ‘cupcakes’ to pad the wins in their season. Or the soccer Cup tournaments in various countries where lower division barely professional teams get to make a run at competing against the top level teams with millionaire athletes….. David versus Goliath were ever the way sports have been conducted.

In other other words, we have a serious interest in not always being fair. What does that say about the limits of justice? What does it reflect on the limits of morality?


BQTA contributor Rick Lenon is worried about income inequality and meritocracy.

I got into it in the first place because it seemed like part of the problem was growing inequality, and the stagnant or worsening quality of life among those left behind.  The Left’s response has been all about fairness; that many who are doing well don’t deserve their position, and many who aren’t deserve better.  Equal opportunity and education are then the answers. 

I read a lot about this, in preparation for a talk I gave about it last January.  The conclusion I came to is that the more important problem is not fairness, it’s the relationship between the meritocracy and those who are not so designated.  Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy” 1958, was not at all sanguine about the prospect of a fair meritocracy.  What if the meritocracy knows it’s deserving, and that those beneath them are not?  And the people excluded also know they deserve no better? 

The current meritocracy does seem more confident that it deserves its status, and I can make what I think is a strong case that they’re largely justified.  The most difficult question is, what should happen next? 

But putting that aside for the moment, I got into this from thinking about income inequality.  We have a meritocracy of something between 10 and 20% that’s pulling away, and everyone left behind is losing out; net worth stable or falling, job security decreasing, kids back home smoking dope in the basement, credit card debt, etc. 

One question that arises is, why does it have to be 80-20?  I was assuming that the mechanics of the current economy were to blame.  Work that can be done with a high school diploma or less just doesn’t offer the rewards it once did, because of globalization, outsourcing, automation, etc.  Competition for positions in the 20% is getting increasingly fierce.  Intelligence, discipline, and credentials all matter much more than they once did. 

But earlier this week it finally occurred to me that position in a status hierarchy is more of a goal for humans in general, than a side effect of any particular economic system or circumstance.  Observations: there are always status hierarchies; much of what happens in education is sorting, rather than preparation for subsequent function; the precision of the sorting is much greater than the accuracy of its predictions subsequent functioning.  Harvard could probably get 3 classes from its applicant pool, that would all perform as well subsequently.  But a 780 beats a 775.

If humans have an irresistible need to claim status, what then?  Can we let them have the status, if they don’t demand the privilege?   

Even more important for the body politic than the desire to rise in the hierarchy  is resentment generated in people who see themselves falling behind.  Worse yet, being overtaken.  Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her book about her research in Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), recounted people upset by seeing others “cutting in line.”  Expectations in their parents’ days were that their lives would continue to gradually improve.  That’s not happening anymore.  But blacks there are clearly doing better than they were back then.  Still not as well as whites, but better.  

And Asians displacing everyone else.  They are 5.6% of the population, over 40% at UCLA and Berkeley, 27% at Stanford… 

One of my favorite stories told around the time in the Soviet Union when collective farms that were struggling were sabotaging neighboring farms that were doing better.   … God appears before a Russian peasant, tells him he’s been really good, will grant him any wish; and his neighbor twice as much of whatever it might be.  Peasant agonizes… smiles.  “Take out one of my eyes.”  

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