Sunday, August 14, 2011

Procedural fairness alone can be deeply empty

I was talking here about liberalism, in the classical theoretical sense, taking a wrong turn.

For the broad mainstream of liberalism, the whole point is to eliminate consideration of purpose or ends. Ends are seen as incommensurate, a matter of individual choice alone. They are a "do your own thing" matter rather than an commonly agreed values or goals.

And of course it is a commendable vision. The roots of much of our enlightenment, and later the origin of liberal thinking lie in the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, as the wars of religion devastated northern Europe. A large fraction of the population of Germany was killed. No wonder there was a legacy of distrust for fighting over creed or religion or opinion. Better leave people to decide their own ultimate truths and purposes than destroy countless cities and lay waste the countryside.

And I have deep sympathy for Isaiah Berlin's warnings against utopian thinking, as in Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty - perfect consistent worlds which end up killing millions.

But liberalism has ended up in a dead end, fixated on process and procedure, to the exclusion of all ends - perhaps save alone for the left a residual hankering after equality.

Take the famous "original position", in the seminal work of liberal political theory in the last fifty years, John Rawls A Theory of Justice: Original Edition. It strips away all individuality and purpose. You choose the form of society before you know what position you will occupy in it. You have no history, no personality, no identity.

That "fairness" - procedural fairness - matters more than substantive individual or substantive societies or substantive purpose. The only real purpose is maximin calculation - you are likely to be better off if there is some measure of equality. Inequality is only permitted to raise the level of the least well-off by allowing markets and incentives to work.

In choosing to allow for any purpose we often in effect choose no purpose.

There needs to be some halfway house between ultimate incommensurable ends and contemporary liberalism's legalistic procedural thinness. There is a long history of other aims, such as virtue, honor, happiness.

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