Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Of Rawls and galaxy clusters

Not long ago in calendar time, though something like an eon ago in blogosphere time, a commenter on a Crooked Timber thread asked why Rawls limited his theory of justice to humans.  Why, this commenter wondered, are only humans deliberating in the hypothetical original position, behind the 'veil of ignorance'?  Why not, say, non-human animals, or even "clusters of galaxies"?  At the time I responded sharply and rather impolitely and got into a spat (a 'flame war', in blog-speak), rather than trying to answer calmly.  This post is my  belated attempt at a calm answer.  (Note: My knowledge of Rawls comes mainly from the original edition of A Theory of Justice (1971) [hereafter TJ], which is what I cite here.  Rawls revised or changed his views on some points after the first edition of TJ, but I don't think he changed his views on the point that is germane here.)

Rawls makes clear in TJ that, following Hume, he assumes as one of the background conditions of his project the presence of "the circumstances of justice," that is, the objective and subjective circumstances "under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary" (p.126).  The key conditions are that individuals "have different ends and purposes" that lead them "to make conflicting claims on the natural and social resources available," which resources are assumed to be moderately scarce (p.127).  I think  Rawls sees t
hese conditions as having characterized most (if not all) societies, including the relatively affluent Western societies of the mid-twentieth century.

It's this emphasis on the Humean "circumstances of justice" that underlies Rawls's position that his theory is "a theory of human justice" (p.257, italics added).  The theory does not apply to non-human entities or non-human societies that may not be subject to the constraints imposed by the circumstances of justice.  Rawls writes (p.257):
...I have assumed all along that the parties [in the original position] know that they are subject to the conditions of human life.  Being in the circumstances of justice, they are situated in the world with other men who likewise face limitations of moderate scarcity and competing claims.  Human freedom is to be regulated by principles chosen in the light of these natural restrictions.  Thus justice as fairness is a theory of human justice and among its premises are the elementary facts about persons and their place in nature.  The freedom of pure intelligences not subject to these constraints, and the freedom of God, are outside the scope of the theory.
And presumably for much the same reasons, galaxy clusters are also outside the scope of Rawls's theory.

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