Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Rawlsianism, Utilitarianism, and the Asymmetric Use of Extraordinary Counterexamples

In my book Unequivocal Justice, I document how Rawls repeatedly employs a form of asymmetric idealization. He compares an ideal political sector to a nonideal nonpolitical sector and, unsurprisingly, ends up endorsing a rather large regulatory and redistributive state. But Rawlsians are guilty of another kind of asymmetry which is just as bad.

First, they’ll make use of extraordinary counterexamples to object to rival views (e.g. utility monsters, rogue transplant surgeons, people getting electrocuted during the World Cup, etc). Then, they’ll be challenged with extraordinary (or even not-so-extraordinary) examples to their own view. For instance, the difference principle would oblige us to channel all of society’s resources to one severely sick person if that were required to maximize the material well-being of the worst off. Similarly, the lexical priority of Rawls's first principle implies that we may not sacrifice a trivial amount of free speech for a monumental amount of wealth and income. When confronted with these objections, Rawls and Rawlsians retreat to the “Well, my theory isn’t meant to apply to these sorts of unusual cases.” But this is an utterly inadequate response. (Imagine if a utilitarian replied, “Well, my theory isn’t meant to apply to unusual cases like utility monsters.”) You can’t make use of extraordinary counterexamples to object to competing views and then stipulate them away in your own case. (I say more about this worry here.)