Friday, August 28, 2009

Rawls and Economics

I bet Rawls doesn't often get mentioned in philosophy of science circles. But here goes. A strain of argument in a recent review by Michael Rosen of G.A. Cohen's (idealistic) criticism of Rawls, reminded me of the importance of Rawls' engagement with economics in the 50s and 60s--the crucial years in which *A Theory of Justice* got developed. (Interestingly, some of the most immediate and insightful responses to TJ came from economists like Arrow, Harsany, Buchanan.) Rawls is deeply enmeshed in the language of welfare economics, but he engages rather broadly with moral aspects of economics and he admits he uses economics to illustrate several of his main claims. Contemporary Rawlsians have tended to move away this engagement with the practice of political economy (and science more generally). Anyway, let me turn this into a question: does anybody know of any good secondary literature on Rawls and the Economists (broadly conceived)?


  1. If you'll permit a few words from outside the community of philosophers of science...:

    First, there's a nice introduction to Rawls and econcomics generally in Hausman and McPherson's Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy (2006 ed.).

    Although perhaps not precisely what you're looking for, Ian Shapiro discusses Rawls as a "liberal who has read Pigou and Keynes seriously," in The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory (1986). And I think S.M. Amadae's Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold war Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (2003) would be of interest, at least insofar as it discusses some of the economists you mention in conjunction with Rawls's eventual rejection of the "rational choice" approach, in her words: "in the long run it seems that Rawls rejected not only the strategy of basing his arguments on the fundamental axioms of rational choice theory, but also the entire rational choice project as a worthwhile basis for a theory of justice" (one reason why '[c]ontemporary Rawlsians have tended to move away [from] this engagement with the practice of political economy;' another reason can be inferred from Deirdre--formally Donald--McCloskey's works, especially, The Rhetoric of Economics [1985] and Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics [1994]).

    Again by my dim lights, one of the foremost economists of our time continues to engage the work of Rawls (so the converse: the economist relying on the philosopher, as Sen himself frequently acknowledges). See, for instance, Rationality and Freedom (2002) and his latest book, The Idea of Justice (2009). While not "secondary literature," two economists who engage Rawls (both directly and otherwise) on several fronts are John E. Roemer and Partha Dasgupta. Finally, a sophisticated Marxist critique of Rawls's version of "fair capitalism" is found in David Schweickart's Against Capitalism (1996).

    One last thought: insofar as "political economy" is held to be neo-classical and capitalist in provenance or formulation and thereby thought to exclude Marxian economists (of course some Marxists avail themselves of rational choice methodology), contemporary Rawlsians are perhaps more inclined to identify with the "liberal socialism" that Rawls speaks favorably of in his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Samuel Freeman, ed.), 2007. Indeed, as Samuel Freeman writes, "it is on the basis of the historical tendencies of laissez-faire capitalism and welfare-state capitalism that Rawls conjectures that both property-owning democracy and liberal (or 'market-') socialism would be preferred to them under the difference principle."

  2. I believe John Quiggan (University of Queensland) has written on the subject, but I'm having difficulty bringing up anything except for blog posts on Google. Might be worth looking into, or a quick email.

  3. Here's Quiggin's homepage (with links to all of his work):

  4. Patrick, thank you for all your references. I have been long familiar with Amadea's work (while we were PhD students we we were accidentally seated next to each other on a plane); meeting her changed my life.
    I am unsure how Deirdre's work illuminates the Rawlsian move away from economics. Can you say more?
    Ian Shapiro's remark is close to what I had in mind in posting this blog; it's clear that Rawls had read Pigou very carefully and also Frank Knight (among several others of an older generation). I have some economist friends who bought Rawls' annotated copies of economics classics (which had been initially discarded by his literary executors!)

    I could not find any Quiggin/Rawls connection.
    Yes, lots of economists continue to engage with Rawls (especially TJ). What got me thinking about this is the assymetry--Rawlsian philosophers are less inclined to engage back.

    "Political Economy" probably predates liberalism (probably has its origins in Mercantile thought). I use it to include Marxist thought (if only to emphasize that economics is always political). (Of course, genuine Marxists have only contempt for "Liberal Socialists"!) But I don't mind showing my skeptical Liberal inclinations sometimes.

  5. Eric,

    What a wonderful story about Sonja! I know her only through correspondence and am quite fond of her work.

    With regard to McCloskey, I was simply thinking that insofar as economists indulge in a "scientistic" or mathematical rhetoric (or unnecessary and labored formalism) of the kind she criticizes in making their arguments, Rawlsian inspired philosophers would be that much more disinclined to engage them (if only as an artifact of professional socialization or the disciplinary division of academic labor).

    I myself wasn't familiar with any Rawls/Quiggin connection but provided the link as a courtesy to Matt.

    As to the last parenthetical comment: I'm not sure what counts as a "genuine Marxist" (labels here get notoriously slippery, imprecise and ideological) but if "Liberal Socialism" means something on the order of "market socialism," I don't think many Marxists have contempt for it, especially the so-called analytical Marxists, like Cohen and especially Elster and Roemer. To be sure, Cohen expressed his dissatisfaction with the reduction of socialism to a "market" definition of same (as did Michael Harrington in his last book), but he also wrote that "as far as political programmes are concerned, market socialism is probably a good idea" (in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, 1995: 257). The fact that "market socialism" remains something of a debate among Marxists (cf., in addition to David Miller, et al., cf. Diane Elson's 'Market Socialism or Socialization of the Market,' New Left Review, 172 (November/December 1988): 3-44) shows at least an ambivalence toward, if not an appreciation of, some aspects of Liberalism. What is more, and perhaps I'm unjustly letting my own views stand in for others here, but I think there are not a few genuine Marxists (as I like to fancy myself) who have (whatever Marx thought about such things) a genuine appreciation for political democracy of Liberal vintage such that if "Liberal Socialism" denotes a belief in the necessity and virtues of democratic theory and praxis, then that's fine with us.

    Incidentally (or not), there's another Marxian philosopher who engaged Rawls in intriguing ways, namely R.G. Peffer in Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990).

  6. Eric,

    I meant to ask if you think that what Rosen refers to as "Cohen's utopian political ideals" implies the latter's lack of engagement with political economy (Cohen of course is not a 'Rawlsian' but Rawls's work, as Nozick's earlier, no doubt preoccupied him), and thus that Rosen's avowed "realism" is by definition indicative of a willingness to directly engage works of political economy.

    I think Rosen's preference for a "realistic" theory reflects a misunderstanding of the function of utopian political thought for Cohen, which I suspect is close to that outlined by William Galston in Justice and the Human Good (1980). I would argue rather that Cohen's political ideals are pefectly compatible with (and show an appreciation of) the fact that "social and altruistic motivation is limited." It's only that in the case of Cohen, those limitations are not static or set in stone and thus human beings are "perfectible" in the Godwinian sense, so that there may be improvement, however incremental or episodic, as it were, in the degree or nature of such motivation. In other words, human nature is open-ended....

    (For those uncertain of the reference to Rosen, his review is in the Times Literary Supplement: "Sensible, but is it just?" (August 21 & 28 2009.)

  7. At the risk of wearing out my welcome:

    The reference to Galston may be bit obscure so I've placed below the material I had in mind:

    Utopian thought performs three related political functions. First, it guides our deliberation, whether in devising courses of action or in choosing among exogenously defined alternatives with which we are confronted. Second, it justifies our actions; the grounds of action are reasons that others ought to accept and—given openness and the freedom to reflect—can be led to accept. Third, it serves as the basis for the evaluation of existing institutions and practices. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which the completed ideal is deployed in Plato’s memorable critique of imperfect regimes. [....]

    Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:

    First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.

    Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.

    Third, utopias exist in speech; they are “cities of words.” This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This “counterfactuality” of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.

    Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.

    Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.

    Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstances. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….] Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.

  8. Dear Patrick, these issues are moving away from general philosophy of science. So let me just limit my response to answer your question about Rosen: I have no idea what Rosen's own substantive views on "realism" are, but the hints that he provided in the review, reminded me of the turn away from economics among later Rawls and his followers.

    If you wish to discuss the other issues (on the role of utopian thought) more fully, you can email me (

  9. For correspondence between Rawls and Buchanan, see *The Street Porter and the Philosopher:
    Conversations on Analytical Egalitarianism,*
    Sandra J. Peart and David M. Levy, editors, (2008) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Shameless self-promotion: I have a short piece in the volume, "The Measure of Real Price: Adam Smith's Science of Equity"

  10. I wrote a little bit about Rawls in my 1991 book on Generalized Expected utility theory, and in some more recent papers, but only a little. My main point can be summed up in a couple of paras, about the way Rawls links social choice and choice under uncertainty. If cut & paste weren't disabled I'd copy it here.

    John Q

  11. If you email ( me your cut & paste job I can post it for you.

  12. John Quiggin writes me via email:
    "There is a natural analogy between risky distributions of income or goods over possible states of nature and unequal distributions of income or goods between individuals. Harsanyi (1953) treats the two situations as being part of the same problem and derives (expected) utilitarianism as the optimal social response. Rawls (1971), using the device of a ‘veil of ignorance’, where individuals choose social structures without knowing their own social position, derives the ‘difference principle as the basis of his theory of justice.
    Rawls’ difference principle, in which social structures are compared on the basis of the welfare they allocate to the worst-off members of society was developed as an alternative to utilitarianism. However, just as in Harsanyi’s analysis, Rawls’ conclusions about the justice of a social structure are derived from consideration of individual choices under uncertainty. Ebert (1988) observes that, in place of expected utility, Rawls’ model of choice under uncertainty may be interpreted as a form of rank-dependent utility (Quiggin 1982, Yaari 1987) in which a high weight is placed on the worst possible outcome."

  13. It is interesting that it looks as Rawls is also relying on Frank Knight in his response to utiliararianism.

  14. Quiggin responds to my previous post:
    A closely related analysis applies to Rawls appeal to Frank Knight's characterization of uncertainty as a situation in which probabilities are unknown. The most popular economic analysis of this kind of problem is the "multiple priors" model of Gilboa and Schmeidler, and the preferred model of preferences is of the maxmin form. Under plausible assumptions, maxmin EU is equivalent to rank-dependent utility under uncertainty, so an argument like that of Ebert is applicable with modest adjustments.

    Going beyond unknown probabilities, an important stream of current economic research on uncertainty deals with the case of incomplete awareness, based on the observation that boundedly rational humans cannot possibly consider all states of nature that might be relevant to a given problem. In this case, decision theoretic models based on expected utility and its generalizations must be replaced or supplemented by heuristics. Much the same point applies to the kind of reflective equilibrium proposed by Rawls. No matter how much time and intellectual ability is applied to reflection, it is impossible to consider everything relevant to a social outcome, so a rule of justice such as the difference principle must be considered, to some extent, as a heuristic rather than as an optimal choice.

  15. There is a somewhat popular critique of Rawls equilibrium theory of science in Stephen Hawking, "Black Holes and Baby Universes." Alvin Plantinga critiques several of Rawls' ideas in papers collected here:

    I know of only one book that very specifically engages with Rawls' general philosophy of science from a friendly perspective, and that is Alfred Whiteheads, "A Philosopher Looks at Science."

    Derrida of course attacked Rawls all the time, but no one can consider Derrida a serious philosopher of science.

    Oh and let's not forget Noam Chomsky:
    He discusses Rawls work in moral psychology, a precursor to evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser.

    "Inquiry into the moral faculty in these terms was undertaken by the leading American moral and political philosopher of the late 20th century, John Rawls, who relied explicitly on the analogy of two linguistic theories that were being developed in the 1960s..." etc.

  16. I doubt Hawking mentions Rawls in his book (just checked the index to no avail online).
    Moreover, Whitehead was dead by the time Rawls started publishing.
    I'll be curious to learn of Derrida's engagement with Rawls, but I agree that belongs on a different blog.

  17. Interesting... Very interesting..