So far in discussing other philosophers' works, I've ended up spending a lot of time dealing with my universal definition of good, which allows an objective critique of the beliefs espoused by those philosophers. Once the long-term survival of life is established as the ultimate goal that all moral actions must work towards, all the ends of other philosophical systems are easy to evaluate as to whether or not they are likely to meet that goal. Whenever means to those ends are uncertain, I've advocated humility about our ignorance because our predictive knowledge is only ever probable, and so an emphasis on virtues is needed then while conducting limited trials to determine the best paths to follow. In reality, that's just a simple principle for a field which still requires much careful examination—i.e. determining how to act in specific situations when only a large, vague, and general goal is known. When individual instances are looked at, whose rights need to be upheld? Whose can ever be trampled? Or just temporarily set aside? These are the beginnings of deep questions about justice in society—a field much explored by Rawls as a theoretician and Chomsky as a public agitator.
John Rawls developed definitions for terms that have come to dominate philosophers' discussion of justice. Terms such as: justice as fairness; original position; reflective equilibrium; overlapping consensus; public reason; and the veil of ignorance. I'll get to the details behind some of these terms below, but Rawls' overriding beliefs are best captured by these quotes from him:
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory, however elegant and economical, must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise, laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.
Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many.
It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper. To each according to his threat advantage does not count as a principle of justice. Inequalities are permissible when they maximize, or at least all contribute to, the long term expectations of the least fortunate group in society.
Chomsky—a man with one biography aptly titled A Life of Dissent--has been advocating for this kind of Rawlsian justice for decades. He rose to prominence as a linguistics pioneer, but he became a public intellectual when he published an essay in the New York Review of Books that strongly criticised America's involvement in the Vietnam war. Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of violence of the state in general, capitalism, the United States, nuclear weapons, France, the media, Israel, intelligence agencies, both Iraq wars, the education system, propaganda, and corporations. It has become common to talk about economic inequality and corporate oligarchy in America today, but in 1973 Chomsky was already out in front of this issue.
Just as I'm opposed to political fascism, I'm opposed to economic fascism. I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it's pointless to talk about democracy.
Reading Chomsky's lengthy wikiquote page is like reading a canary in the coal mines singing out a heartfelt warning for many of our modern illnesses. He's not been a dispassionate theorist developing definitions of principles about why political philosophy is the way it is, or should be the way it should be, but his passionate diatribes have over time clearly outlined the theories that guide him. I can't go through them all, and he may not be fair on every issue, but his bias, like Rawls', is always on the side of justice for the least fortunate. And that's a good place to be in a species that needs a cooperative society to survive and thrive. Let's get straight to my analysis of these two philosophers, before a quick wrap-up.
John Rawls (1921-2002 CE) was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. His magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), was hailed at the time of its publication as the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II, and is now regarded as one of the primary texts in political philosophy.
Needs to Adapt
The “original position” is Rawls’ thought experiment to replace the imagery of a savage state of nature from prior political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. In it, parties select principles that will determine the basic structure of the society they will live in. This choice is made from behind a “veil of ignorance,” which would deprive participants of information about their particular characteristics: his or her ethnicity, social status, gender, and conception of the good (an individual's idea of how to lead a good life). This forces participants to select principles impartially and rationally. The original position is designed to reflect what principles of justice would be manifest in a society premised on free and fair cooperation between citizens, including respect for liberty, and an interest in reciprocity. The veil of ignorance may lead to mutual respect for others, but why resort to ignorance when knowledge gets you to the right answer? The survival of life as the principle conception of the good is universal and leads to the right outcomes for how to design a cooperative society focused on the long-term.
Rawls’ theory of justice is described: Justice as Fairness. It comprises two main principles of Liberty and Equality; the second is subdivided into Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle. The first and most important principle, Liberty, states that every individual has an equal right to basic liberties. Basic liberties are inalienable: no government can amend, infringe, or remove them from individuals. Rawls claimed, however, that certain rights and freedoms are more important or basic than others. For example, Rawls believed that personal property - personal belongings, a home - constitutes a basic liberty, but an absolute right to unlimited private property is not. The Equality Principle is the component of Justice as Fairness establishing distributive justice. Rawls presents it as follows: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. The Difference Principle regulates inequalities: it only permits inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off. By guaranteeing the worst-off in society a fair deal, Rawls compensates for naturally occurring inequalities (talents that one is born with, such as a capacity for sport). Rights and liberties do not arise from nature. Ask the zebra, hyena, or omega member of a pack. Only the state grants liberties, but it must grant them equally to maintain a cooperative society, and it must optimize those liberties to maximize the ability of the species to survive. To maintain the ethic of cooperation, every member of society must contribute to it, and every member must be taken care of. Every member of society must recognize the support that society and the history of mankind has given them. Then, distributive justice will divide the benefits of society form each according to their talents to each according to their effort. Inequalities will arise due to the distribution of talent and effort, but must be confined to orders of magnitude that are sustainable to members of a cooperative and just society. The worst-off will therefore receive the bulk of largesse from the rest of society, but the best-off will have the freedom to pursue their passions, the just rewards for their contributions, the satisfaction of pulling society forward towards continued survival, and the comfort that they have not separated themselves from the pack.
The term “reflective equilibrium” was coined by Rawls as a method for arriving at the content of the principles of justice. Reflective equilibrium is a state of balance or coherence among a set of beliefs arrived at by a process of deliberative mutual adjustment among general principles and particular judgments. Rawls argues that human beings have a "sense of justice" that is both a source of moral judgment and moral motivation. In Rawls's theory, we begin with "considered judgments" that arise from the sense of justice. These may be judgments about general moral principles (of any level of generality) or specific moral cases. If our judgments conflict in some way, we proceed by adjusting our various beliefs until they are in equilibrium, which is to say that they are stable, not in conflict, and provide consistent practical guidance. Rawls argues that a set of moral beliefs in ideal reflective equilibrium describes or characterizes the underlying principles of the human sense of justice. Rawls is merely describing a scientific method of hypothesis testing that will arrive at the truth about justice. This is the way all truths are arrived at. Thus, the ideal reflective equilibrium is achieved when the basis for justice is understood - the need for life to survive in the long-term. Humans have a “sense of justice” but it is in conflict when it must decide between short-term emotions or long-term reason. Reason must prevail over sense.
Overlapping consensus is a term coined by Rawls to refer to how supporters of different comprehensive doctrines can agree on a specific form of political organization. These doctrines can include religion, political ideology, or morals. However, Rawls is clear that such political agreement is narrow and focused on justice. This consensus is reached, in part, by avoiding the deepest arguments in religion and philosophy. The deepest arguments in religion and philosophy have left us with the deepest divides between factions of humanity. In order to cooperate fully and promote the long-term survival of the species, these divides must be bridged by knowledge uncovered through science and reason. The universal need for the survival of life is the universal basis for arriving at consensus. Because our knowledge is imperfect, people will still disagree about the correct course of action even if they come at the problem with the same underlying view of reality. It is these realms where caution is needed, diversity is valued, and limited trial and error should govern the competition of ideas until broader consensus is reached.
Noam Chomsky (1928- CE) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer. Chomsky is well known in the academic and scientific community as one of the fathers of modern linguistics. Since the 1960s, he has become known more widely as a political dissident, an anarchist, and a libertarian socialist intellectual. Chomsky is often viewed as a notable figure in contemporary philosophy.
Chomsky’s Principles and Parameters approach (P&P) make strong claims regarding universal grammar: that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches. In this view, a child learning a language need only acquire the necessary lexical items (words, grammatical morphemes, and idioms), and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples. The similar steps followed by children all across the world when learning languages, and the fact that children make certain characteristic errors as they learn their first language, whereas other seemingly logical kinds of errors never occur, are pointed to as motivation for innateness. Proponents of this view also argue that the pace at which children learn languages is inexplicably rapid, unless children have an innate ability to learn languages. Experiments that raise animals in human environments also show that compared to them, humans certainly have an innate ability to grasp and produce language. It is another refutation of the blank slate theory of humans, and another confirmation of the “nature x nurture” explanation of human behavior. (While we are on the subject, I would make a small addition to linguistics: a two-by-two matrix analysis of the four elements of language. Language is either input or output and it can be done fast or slow. Fast input is listening; slow input is reading. Fast output is speaking; slow output is writing. Learn the fast to go fast. Practice the slow to go fast well. As infants or beginners, we must learn fast to join the conversation at all, but we remain prone to errors for life until we concentrate on the slow.)
Needs to Adapt
Chomsky constructed a model that attempts to explain a perceived systemic bias of the mass media in terms of structural economic causes rather than a conspiracy of people. He argues the bias derives from five filters that all published news must pass through, which combine to systematically distort news coverage. The first filter, ownership, notes that most major media outlets are owned by large corporations. The second, funding, notes that the outlets derive the majority of their funding from advertising, not readers. Thus, since they are profit-oriented businesses selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers), the model expects them to publish news that reflects the desires and values of those businesses. In addition, the news media are dependent on government institutions and major businesses with strong biases as sources (the third filter) for much of their information. Flak, the fourth filter, refers to the various pressure groups that attack the media for supposed bias. Norms, the fifth filter, refer to the common conceptions shared by those in the profession of journalism. The model describes how the media form a decentralized and non-conspiratorial but nonetheless very powerful propaganda system, that is able to mobilize an élite consensus, frame public debate within élite perspectives and at the same time give the appearance of democratic consent. While these biases do exist, this analysis misses the roles that competition and evolution play in the media industry. News outlets must compete with each other for consumers. When consumers are educated and seek the truth, unbiased news outlets will win and survive. When consumers don’t care, are simply looking for entertainment, or seek to confirm their biases, then surviving news outlets will reflect these interests. In our pluralistic world, we see all of these forms of news. But we need knowledge to survive! Citizens must seek it and demand it.
These are great topics that deserve much more attention. As I said above, these kinds of explorations of justice are concerned with finding the best ways to act in specific situations when only a large, vague, and general goal is known. With that in mind, the next big series I intend to blog about are the "100 thought experiments for the armchair philosopher" in Julian Baggini's book The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, which promises to get into lots of specific details for consideration from the evolutionary philosophy perspective that I've been diligently laying out. But first, I have one more set of French continental philosophers to dismiss. Stay tuned for that...
* The other five of the top-seven vote getters for most impressive philosophers were Bernard Williams, David Lewis, Derek Parfit, Thomas Nagel, and Ronald Dworkin.