Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is Smithian Justice Related to Rawls?

Richard A. Epstein (14 October) in Forbes.com HERE:
writes a most interesting piece on “The Risk-Free World Of John Rawls” and I recommend that you follow the link.

At the broadest conceptual level, Rawls is a modern disciple of Adam Smith. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote that matters of justice can only be resolved if people distance themselves from their own positions in particular disputes. Smith therefore sought to take the posture of an "impartial spectator." In time, this view evolved into Rawls' famous pronouncement in A Theory of Justice that the soundness of social institutions should be tested from "behind a veil of ignorance," where, again, people are ignorant of their particular role in society.
As an abstract proposition, this approach offers solid theoretical foundations for Nozick's libertarian orientation. Strong competitive markets do not favor one individual over another. They work well to harness individual self-interest to generate massive amounts of wealth, widely distributed in society, through voluntary transactions. Behind the veil, rational people should the support of strong and transparent markets as their first order of business. [Is there a word missing in this sentence?]

Nozick could be faulted for not understanding how to create the needed social infrastructure to support these transactions. But Rawls made a far greater blunder when he posited that individuals behind the veil of ignorance would not be acquisitive ("self-interest" is not an entry in the index to his book) but would be highly risk-averse. This assumption makes entrepreneurial activities take a back seat to the "difference principle," which looks to help the worst off in society first.”

I am currently reading Moral Sentiments (again, of course) as preparatory work for my next project, a critique of the oft-asserted view, or presumptive claim, that Adam Smith was ‘thoroughly religious’, ‘a Christian’, or a ‘Deist (I finished re-reading David Hume’s posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779, edited by Norman K. Smith, Bobs-Merrill, yesterday on the same mission; I first read the Dialogues in 1965 when I purchased a copy in Edinburgh, without appreciating its content.

The assertion by Richard Epstein that Adam Smith wrote that ‘justice can only be resolved if people distance themselves from their own positions in particular disputes’ is not something that I immediately recognize as Smith’s viewpoint about justice, nor as an instance of the 'impartial spectator' at work.

If corrected I would be as much obliged to a reader as embarrassed. From this tentative perspective, I can see a tiny glimmer of light in relating Rawls to Smith through a distant lineage, but I remain convinced the lineage is more tenuous than of substance.

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Blogger Simon Halliday said...

The best description I could find about the 'impartial spectator was as follows (I admit this was page-flicking through my copy of TMS):
"The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it. And, in the same manner, we either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, according as we feel that, when we place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view it, as it were, with his eyes and from his station, we either can or cannot entirely enter into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives which influenced it. We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavouring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them. Whatever judgment we can form concerning them, accordingly, must always bear some secret reference, either to what are, or to what, upon a certain condition, would be, or to what, we imagine, ought to be the judgment of others. We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it." (TMS, Glasgow Edition, III,i, 2)

Whereas, behind the veil of ignorance,
"It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of his psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism." (Rawls, 2005, A Theory of Justice, Original Edition, p.137, my emphasis).

Hence, Epstein has ignored how Rawls has defined the veil of ignorance as a condition for which individuals do not know their own propensity towards risky behaviour. Furthermore, Rawls makes the point that, "[I]t is clear that since the differences among the parties are unknown to them, and everyone is equally rational and similarly situated, each is convinced by the same arguments." (ibid, p.139)

The distinction, to me, is that Smith imparts all knowledge of the individuals to the impartial spectator, their class, intelligence, level of wealth, etc, whereas Rawls argues for a position for all that is prior to any knowledge of such things, or for which all individuals are agnostic of what their own eventual position will be. This distinction is profound - for Smith the important point is to have an impartial spectator given the circumstances as they are. For Rawls, the point is to have the veil of ignorance before any abilities, or circumstances, etc are realised. The result being that I think the connection he argues for is, in fact, tenuous.

4:07 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you. It is what I expected from my readings of Moral Sentiments on the Impartial Spectator and on Justice.

When writing my post I did not have time to break off from what I was doing - compiling exam questions and solutions for the MBA exams I continue to write for my former day job - so asked for help from anybody close to the issues.

By the way, I have booked my flights and hotel for the EAEPE conference in Rome. My paper is now uploaded to the EAEPE website.


5:21 pm  
Blogger michael webster said...

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has good observation about Rawls and Ideal Spectator Theories.

Crudely, Rawls hoped to avoid these difficulties by reversing the moves of the spectator theorist. Instead of augmenting the information available to choosers, Rawls deliberately impoverished it.

Instead of requiring choosers to be impartial, he required them to be purely self-interested--though, of course, in an extended sense; his choosers act to advance the interests of their principals.

And by requiring unanimity among the various trustees or agents, Rawls ensured that individuals’ interests are not sacrificed to that of the collective; each individual can veto, through h/er agent/trustee, any social settlement that isn't adequately respectful of h/er individuality.

The veil of ignorance is of importance in this context. It ensures impartiality, despite the self-interestedness of the choosers, by preventing them, through lack of knowledge, from choosing in accordance with partial perspectives that might be favored by their principals.

My agent A cannot hold out for some social settlement that favors people with those characteristics; s/he doesn't know what they are. S/he will therefore have to protect my interests, as s/he must as their trustee, only by holding out for a social settlement in which no one's interests are given short shrift.

H/er impartiality is a product of h/er self-interestedness plus h/er ignorance. And the latter, crucial to this procedure, is a product of the veil of ignorance.

1:15 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thank you for your insightful comment on the supposed link between Adam Smith's notion of an impartial spectator and Rawl's notion of jutice.

If that is the basis of the alleged connection as stated, then I can safely confirm my initial reaction to the connection that it is spurious.

If the content of an impartial spectator is replaced with a different content there is no meaningful connection.

Much the same applies in the use by Adam Smith use of a metaphor - the invisible hand, for instance - and what is attributed to the metaphor by 20th century economists, well beyond any meaning or implication in anything Adam Smith wrote.

The impartial spectator, as Smith expressed it, was not self interested - it was impartial - and whatever else in Rawl's ideas had merit, as his theory stands it had nothing to do with Adam Smith.

I shall bear these points in mind as I re-read Moral Sentiments closely in my current project to evaluate to what extent Smith was a Deist.


6:57 am  

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