Rawls in relation to Mill, Sophists, and Nietzsche

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

I’ve been looking at ‘Justice as Fairness’ (1958), ‘Distributive Justice’ (1967) and ‘Distributive Justice: Some Addenda’ (1968) in Collected Papers (1999), as a result of thesis supervision work.

I noticed a Nietzsche moment at the beginning of section IV of ‘Justice as Fairness’. He refers to the ‘Sophist’ idea of justice arising from a balance of power between two hostile parties. He refers this to Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Book II. Glaucon was Plato’s elder brother and is explaining the Sophist view of power, after the Sophist Thrasymachus storms off in Book I. In some ways this is just setting up a position to knock it down, as Socrates quickly does. We do not have to accept Plato’s apparent dismissal, particularly as I believe Plato is more engaged with Sophist thought than his most brutal remarks would suggest,. I don’t think that’s a terribly new or controversial claim, but it’s a good thing not to forget about that aspect of Plato.

Rawls’ interest here is to take the example of justice arising from an egotistical contest. Rawls wants to pull this into the contractual situation where we agree to obey a common authority independent of our particular interests. But, this seems rather fast and I don’t think Rawls refers to this again in A Theory of Justice (1971), which is where he is heading with those earlier papers. The Sophist moment is a Nietzschean moment, in that Nietzsche somewhere refers to justice only being possible between people with equal power. I’m not going to find that quote right now, but I think I will post on it when I stumble across it. The later omission is not surprising, Glaucon’s attempt to stand in for Thrasymachus just comes too close to a way of thinking Rawls does not want to deal with: a way of thinking in which society is in a permanent state of changeable power relations between individuals, and between individuals and the state. This is a disequilibrium, always changing and does not fit in with Rawls’ rationalism. That would be rather like Foucault, as well as like Nietzsche.

The 1968 essay contains references to J.S. Mill at the ends of sections VI and VII. At the end of VI, Rawls sets up an account of Mill as egalitarian by emphasising the equality between individuals in Utilitarian ethics (ethics which derives rules from calculations of the greatest utility for the greatest number). At the end of VII, the strategy kicks in. Rawls now emphasises that in Utilitarianism, Mill refers to the greater concern individuals have for each other over history, a feeling of unity between persons, in the emergence of a society where everyone’s interests have to be consulted. Rawls now takes the jump into claiming that this is his own ‘difference principle’ (economic inequality is only justified if it maximises he income of the poorest in society compared with any other distribution of inequality).

This is too much too claim. Rawls may think Mill’s Utilitarianism leaves the way open for economic egalitarianism, and suspicions about this have certainly disturbed purist free market liberals like Hayek, and the even more purist Mises. But, Mill’s idea of utilitarianism has ideas of ranking of kinds of utility which would prevent state redistribution of income if it interferes with liberty as ‘free trade’, an important idea for Mill. Mill supports a minimum level for the poorest, but not a reduction of inequality except as a secondary effect of the minimum level. Rawls thinks of inequality as something that has to be justified, Mill thinks of interruption to ‘free trade’ (including free markets in general) as a something that has to be justified and usually there is no adequate justification.

These ideas of individuals becoming more interested in each other are nothing to do with egalitarianism. Mill was an enthusiast for Humboldt’ Limits of State Actions (1792), which has a more extreme position that that of Mill with regard to a minimal state. Humboldt thinks of such a minimal state allowing more free interaction between individuals and growing sympathy, than can be achieved by the machine like associations between people resulting from state intervention. Something similar can be found a bit earlier in Adam Smith and David Hume, who thought human society is moving towards greater unity through increasing moral sympathy, together with the work of free trade. Neither thought that would lead to, or should lead to, state directed redistribution of income beyond what is entailed by relief for the poorest. Rawls brings Kant behind the ‘difference principle’ as well as Mill and some similar reservation apply. He is also trying to do something similar with Hume and Smith.

Rawls account of the ‘difference principle’ is itself quite ambiguous, sometimes the need to let the market economy works seems to be a very strong constraint, sometimes equality for its own sake seems to be the really strong constraint imposing a pattern of income distribution in a designed way, difficult to reconcile with the constant change, feedback and unpredictability of the market.

The instability of power relations and income distribution are both troubling for Rawls. His tendency to try and repress them, he economic side in particular, may explain his tendencies to try to deny the recognition of the unpredictability of interactions between individuals, including economic relations.


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