John Rawls and his lectures / by Simmon Li

Slowly reading through his lectures this holiday season. I want to have a place to put highlights, expect more updates.

"Two things, it seems, make an important difference in what ideas citizens have when they first come to politics: one is the nature of the political system in which they grow up; the other is the content of the background culture, how far it acquaints them with democratic political ideas and leads them to reflect on their meaning." ((Rawls, John. Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, p7))

The state of political discourse makes me wonder if the dismantling of liberal arts was really such a good thing.

Hobbes and his system of political philosophy as interpreted by Rawls

Rawls focuses on Hobbes' The Leviathan and removes his political philosophy from the theological framework of the whole work arguing that the fundamental laws of nature can also be ascertained by good reason. Because the laws of nature can be found by good reason, the theological underpinnings of the work matter not. This is because the theological requirements of "salvation" are in line with the rational and reasonable principles of "civil society" and so it is possible to secularize Hobbes' conception of morality, as the structure and content of the system remain unchanged. The fundamental condition of humans is the state of nature, which necessarily is a state of war. Some observations regarding this position: 1) Humans are all mentally and naturally equally endowed, 2) there is a constant scarcity of resources that affects everyone, 3) self-interest is the driver to action, 4) human nature is predisposed to mistrust: this can be seen in actions that people undertake even when in the aegis of the leviathan, and 5) human nature is not strictly rational. The state of war does not necessarily mean fighting, but because you have to account for the possibility of someone else looking out exclusively for their own survival and pleasure at your expense, you are necessarily in the state of war. The state of nature is a hypothetical state in which, without "the Leviathan", man would lapse into. Hobbes' idea of the social contract is what allows such a Leviathan to exist. Each human, being a rational actor, allows the sovereign of the Leviathan to assume some rights on his behalf in order to live in the reasonable principles (the so called Laws of Nature). The principles are reasonable, in that they promote what Rawls calls fair social cooperation (which encompasses not only the rational principles of self-interest, but also concepts of reciprocity and constraints) versus principles that are rational, socially co-ordinated action (self interest is the only qualifier). For example, it is rational for me to maximize my own chance of survival, and is it reasonable for me to do so while constraining myself so as to not affect adversely another person in the state of leviathan. Because the only two stable states of relationship are the state of nature, or the state of leviathan, it is preferable to remain in the state of leviathan (or peace). The key challenge becomes lifting out of the state of nature into the state of leviathan. To this end, the sovereign may come about in two ways: 1) by conquest or acquisition or 2) the social contract. The social contract affects the underlying conditions which makes agreement to the social contract rational. The sovereign, given authorization by the rational actors through a collective, rational social contract with each other, becomes the ultimate authority. As the sovereign is authorized to make laws, all the laws it makes are necessarily just; however, its authority rests on the authorization of the social contact though Hobbes holds that an ineffective sovereign is still preferable to the state of nature.

Locke and his philosophical approach to the state as interpreted by Rawls

Central to Locke's view of the state is his conception of fundamental natural law. The concept basically boils down to the conservation of men and the society of men. The fundamental law of nature applies in all states of society. Here we move onto Locke's conception of the states of man. His natural state, in contrast to Hobbes', is one of equality. The idea of negative and positive rights can vaguely be discerned here. In Locke's state of nature, negative rights are ascribed. A person, being rational, has the ability to do anything without consulting another man, less he violates the negative right of another. In this way, Locke uses his idea of the social contract as a contract between each of these free men to form a state. Like Hobbes' the contract is not between the people and the government, but rather between the people themselves, which enables a government. Unlike Hobbes' Locke's government is not a monarchy or absolute. The power of the government is based on the trust of the people to serve the public good. In this sense, the government is legitimate. Should the government fail to act for the public good and preservation of property, etc, then the government becomes illegitimate and the power is returned to the people. Locke's contract is realized by ideal history, which brings to front three principles that can be derived from fundamental natural law: the justice principle, the charity principle, and the principle of reasonable opportunity. These three pinciples amount to positive rights that he views as conducive to the most important law of nature: the preservation of man and the society of men. Also, Locke addresses the idea of express vs tacit consent in terms of agreement to the social contract. The idea being, until there is an explicit event in which consent is given (pledge of allegiance was the example), a person lives in a place under tacit consent. While they remain as a part of the state, the consent binds them, but should they move they will not be bound to the contract anymore. Rawls then embarks on a thought experiment to see how, within Locke's framework, it is possible to have a class-based state that requires land ownership to vote. In the end, it comes down to and agreement between the parties that such an arrangement is to the advantage of everyone. In this way, he dismisses the argument that those that don't own land are not party to the rational contract.

Hume and his response to the idea of social contracts

Rawls goes through Hume's essay Of the Original Contract and draws some insights. By addressing Hume and this essay, Rawls introduces the basic ideas of utilitarianism. The essay itself is systematic in that it addresses the shortcomings of the original contract (mostly Locke's conception of it). The idea of consent, Hume rejects on the grounds that if a contract is so far removed generationally, then it doesn't hold. Here, Rawls points out that Hume fails to make the distinction between Locke's tacit and express consent. The second aspect Rawls covers starts to get into the substance of Hume. He posses a question: both Locke and Hume seem to espouse a similar point, that government exists to make sure society is preserved. Locke's is specifically "the preservation of man and his community" while Hume's principle of utility is "the greatest common good". In the end, they both yield (ideally) the same thing. Rawls challenges us to think if they do, indeed, select the same type of regime. Rawls then moves to sharpen Hume's idea of utility, and then moves on to talk about Hume's critque of the contract. Hume, Rawls says, is more interested in how people arrive at conceptions of right or wrong. By using the principle of utility and the judicious spectator (ie, we judge actions by projecting the principle of utility to a third party). Also, Rawls explains Hume's conception of justice, which consists of three parts: property, transfer, and contracts. Hume, Rawls says, is interested in explaining property in a way consistent with utilitarianism. These rules of property are derived from reason, are publicly recognized as rational, and are consistent. Therefore, all parties continue by it because it is of the greatest social good or utility.

Rousseau's conception of the social compact

Rousseau's conception of the social contract is different in Hobbes and Locke. His contract is for an idealized society, and not so much for justifying a certain action or behaviour. Rawls starts by laying out Rousseau's argument that is found in the discourses. More or less, Rousseau feels that society is what has corrupted man, and that the essential nature of man is good. The idea of the general will is very important to Rousseau. It is important to keep in mind that this is an idealized society we're talking about, as well, the compact isn't an explicitly signed and agreed upon thing. More or less, it is something that emerges from the social and economic background that people experience. Here we can talk about Rousseau's stages of "society" so to speak. He believes that social institutions are the source of corruption in man. Through his conception of the social compact, or contract, he seeks to form an imaginary state of society in which equality is balanced between the two extremes. On one hand, there can not be complete equality (as there is no natural equality, as he defines it), but on the other hand, there should not be only inequality. Rousseau's idea of the society then is set to this premise. Very one involved in such a society is an equal citizen. Each person becomes socially interdependent (but not dependant on a particular other). Everyone, in this sense, becomes interconnected. Rousseau believes that only in this state of being is man fully realized and free. By giving up our natural equality, we gain civil equality and moral equality. Because we have these basics of self-love (for my own physical being, and for the equal standing in social situations), everyone sees that being in a social situation like this is our best solution. However, the second kind of self-love is very easily corrupted, and we then want domination over others. In other words, we have private interests. What balances this out in society is the idea of the general will, or general interests. The idea of a general will helps to balance out the concept of individual wills. In answering questions about the general will (ie, where it comes from, what is the content?) we can see that the general will is related fundamentally to the nature of man that Rousseau thinks. Because, when we consult a law using our general will, we conceive of ourself as part of its subject, we tend towards equality. Rousseau's legislator is an interesting part of his thought. I'm not exactly sure (I have to read the original material) how the legislator fits in to all of this, other than to explain the initial transition to such a social compact. The legislator is not the ultimate power, but rather, seems to me to be a facilitator in the law making process.