A Theory of Justice, a compromised state, and the possibility of a broken world

Today it is cold in Mexico, and I am teaching social contract theory to a class of relatively engaged students. By relatively engaged, I mean as interested as one can expect of students forced to study philosophy and relate it to the ethics of their daily life. So as we go through Hobbes and Locke in a way that relates it to Mexican children, I am stuck thinking about my some of my younger students.

My students are relatively affluent kids in Northern Mexico: children of doctors, small business owners, ranch owners, etc. They are, on average, paler and more educated. They speak fluent English. While not truly part of a the elite in Mexico, which can reach US levels of affluence, the distance between them and the average person can be massive, with some costs not being strongly lower than US averages but with average income here being move than half that of the US in converted value.

Yet, my privileged students, particularly the younger ones, manifest some of the traits I saw in impoverished schools: issues with long term self-control and with acting out in sometimes verbally violent ways. They are not poor nor are they particularly malicious kids. They are not unmotivated entirely either. In some ways, in the context of contemporary Mexico, they are ideal students and yet they have some of the problems linked with poverty.

This, I think, does get to social contract theory in their daily lives, as I teach it to them in this Mexican curriculum-required course. I live in a state in Northern Mexico where a nacro-gang war has terrorized all levels of society, but particularly the upper middle class and the poor have been most effected. Kidnapping and car-jacking are common, and while this has calmed in the past years, one particular cartel was notorious for using terror tactics on the population as a whole. While I am not a psychologist, but as a sufferer myself, I can say that the younger children seem to have something akin to PTSD.

It is easily to write-off the profundity of such a situation with such a label, but it also gives me a way to understand the situation. Furthermore, the state in Mexico, like many Latin states, have never been able to do much about it: whether it is from government corruption, the impact of the US dominating the region, the decentralized and yet overly centralized state apparatus left from Spanish colonialism, I do not have the background to say.

So when we talked about social contract, my older ethics students responded strongly: “there is no tacit contract, mister,” one said, after realizing the concept of tactic, “they do not keep their end of the deal, and we do not either.”

Smart kids, no? When you listen, you often see they are. So I started thinking about this. As a poet and writer by profession who was conversely taught both critical theory and the basics of analytical philosophy, I am often of two minds about these sorts of problems. One, it to try to distill the emotional impulse in a way that asks hard questions but can fall into sloppy categories, and two, to break into down into rigid categories but perhaps over generalize, or write in unclear sentences to handle all the caveats I want to add to the statement.

Thinking specifically about Rawls theory of justice and thought experiment about the veil of ignorance leading to a relatively egalitarian principle. The limits of a state like Mexico does not disprove any transcendental claim of logic here: the violation of the principle in practice does not disprove the logic of a principle. This, however, did have me thinking about why my students responded so negatively to Rawls.

They also responded strongly negatively to Kant–even in my abbreviated and largely joke laden presentation. They see the assumption of transcendental logic as almost farcical. Now, I do not think this is a valid philosophical argument either, but perhaps there are philosophical arguments get to why this may be the case for a traumatized society.

In light of the upcoming PEL discussion of Rawls theory of justice and the reaction of my students, I turned to thinking about Rawl’s theory of justice more deeply, basically the principle that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” and that society should be designed in such a way that any inequality is justified by benefit to all assuming that we are all ignorant of our possible position in society.

So how is this related to the compromise state that my students experience? I think Tim Mulgan’s paper and podcast talk at the Aristotelian Society on “Ethics for Possible People” cuts to the heart of the matter. According to Mulgan, all one has to do to complicate Rawls’ principle is imagine a “broken world” where there are still functioning human societies slightly above subsistence for most of the members of that society, but not much above that level of development due to resource exhaustion or long-term ecological calamity. Mulgan’s calls this a viable–if contingent–possible future in which the assumptions of the abundance that underpins a Rawlsian social contract become highly limited and the transcendental logic under-girding . The resource constraints makes meeting any positive rights impossible for all while not violating negative rights would lead to hyper-exploitation of most of the population. It’s a dystopian thought experiment; however, it is not an apocalyptic one. There are still some resources to be had to enable some people at least a few hours to think about justice, and its lack.

There are two reasons I find Mulgan’s talk so interesting in relationship to Rawlsian theories of justice: human rights are based on abundant material basis for social relationships, and that liberal neutrality often cannot account for the possibility of possible or future people. The limits imposed by possible real people in scenarios created by our current liberal neutrality to individual preference becomes highly problematic. Even if I am fair to the living of the present, what could this mean for the people of the future. Rawls’ theory of justice does not seem to account for this notion as the future people cannot have responsibility for the past in the same way the present population can have responsibility for the future. Mulgan posits the necessity of considering such things as survival lotteries to ensure such notions of fairness after an environmental collapse in a “broken world.” Only then could we even begin to hold to the principles take as given in Rawls’ framework. He posits that perhaps we must consider implementing such things now to ensure the possibly of future people having some sort of fair chance at a just society. If we take his premises as given, this may be one of the most pressing issues of our time.

This easily brings up dystopic notions that we have seen in recent literature such as Margaret Atwood‘s MadAddam Trilogy, in which an engineered population die-off is required for different use of genetic engineering to enable human flourishing in a future “broken” world. While Rawls’ theory does not have to account for such possibilities given its reliance on transcendental logic means it does not require one to be able practically implement the principle in all instances, the practicality of such a principle and its answer to other forms of ethics become very hard to discern.

If Atwood’s novel is an indication of the shift of public perception on the topic, we may have to re-conceive the “veil of ignorance” in a way that accounts for such states of being and possible futures. To go back to my students, to convince them of the usefulness of some sort of universal theory of justice, we must think about the real limits of these questions to any transcendental logic. We may say that such limitations are not the point, but political philosophy seems to be made or broken by its extreme test cases.

Originally posted here.


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