O Fortuna: Foucault, Rawls, Habermas, Nussbaum

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

In Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault is concerned, amongst other things, with the way that the early modern state tries to master fortune and chance. I’m not sure if Foucault quotes Machiavelli’s rather notorious suggestion in The Prince that fortune is a woman who needs to be beaten, but he brings The Prince (but unfortunately not The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy) into his discussion on the early modern state, and the issue of the state controlling chance is a persistent one. As Foucault suggests in Lecture II, there is a tendency from the Renaissance to Napoleonic times, to think of nature and history containing uncontrollable fortune of a rather personified, something that could be traced back to earlier ideas of a wheel of fortune. and the work of the fates.

Yesterday I posted on Foucault and the Physiocrats, which really approaches the issue of new attitude to fortune, fate and chance, in which allowing the market to work ends the repetition of famines which had seemed like the results of harsh fortune. Chance of one kind is limited by allowing chance of another kind.

A contrast can be made with John Rawls’ concern with minimising chance in A Theory of Justice. Chance is limited in these ways, and possibly more: the initial situation and veil of ignorance attempt to eliminate chance from the rational design of principles of justice; theoretical equilibrium between intuitions and reasoning aims to ensure that the optimal principles will be revealed; the attitude to inequality is that it should be compensated and eliminated where it is the result of chance, which must be an unfair outcome.

I would not want to reject all that Rawls says, but this urge to minimise and eliminate chance is unsatisfactory for various reasons, including the way it must allow extremes of state intervention in the emergent outcomes of market, and other voluntary, networks of actions and decisions. There could be a strong case for wanting to modify some outcomes, some kind of state supported social minimum is something I would support, but Rawls’ approach inevitably leads to a gigantic and ramifying apparatus of intervention and rectification from above.

It is is important that Jürgen Habermas, though more Marxist than Rawls in his formation, shows concern with this possibility, though not while discussing Rawls. I don’t see that Habermas has a solution, but at least he recognises the problem.

Martha Nussbaum’s case is interesting here. She pushes further than Rawls in an interventionist rectifying direction than Rawls, or further than Rawls mentions in A Theory of Justice where Rawls is trying to accommodate neutral comparison between many designs for justice. In that respect, Rawls does allow chance in, through accepting many possible outcomes of the initial position.

However, in Nussbaum’s ethics, certainly as presented in The Fragility of Goodness, she is very concerned with arguing that strong rational control of chance is not the best option for ethics as it lacks sensitivity to chance and the passions. Something argued largely against Plato, or some moments in Plato, with reference to Aristotle, tragedy, poetry and some moments in Plato.

As far as I can see Nussbaum has failed to apply the lessons of her ethics to her political theory. I think she would probably reply that the complex kind of welfarist interventionism she favours is necessary to respond to the complexity of different kinds of human, and human situation, and she would want to add the complexity of allowing for animal rights as well.

I claim that Nussbaum has overlooked the dangers of too much control of chance in the socio-political sphere. It would be a good idea to reflect on what she has written with regard to her ethics, and with regard to Habermas and Foucault.

O Fortuna. Not in the rigid sense of fortune as an agent, but in the sense of pure chance and indeterminacy in the natural and social universes.


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