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Brand v. Rawls

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The inclusion of Russell Brand on Prospect’s annual list of ‘world thinkers’ has been met with predictable outrage and ridicule. The Guardian said that his ‘presence looks designed to be provocative’. Reviewing Brand’s book Revolution for Prospect a few months ago, Robin McGhee attacked ‘Brand’s political stupidity’. At the same time, the Telegraph said that ‘Russell Brand’s politics are staggeringly stupid.’ The Spectator called him ‘an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance’. In the Observer, Nick Cohen once derided Brand’s ‘slack-jawed inability to answer simple questions’. Nathasha Lennard in Vice said she didn’t ‘think Brand is totally idiotic. But, to be clear, he is an idiot.’

If there’s one thing Brand is not, however, it’s stupid: that much should be obvious from watching or reading him, unless you think that having an Essex accent and taking the piss are signs of stupidity. The claim must then be that it is Brand’s ideas that are stupid, ignorant, childish, and dangerously so. Serious political issues are at stake here, after all. So what would a proper contribution to thinking about politics look like – the kind of contribution that would impress academics and influence ‘policymakers’ instead of attracting the derision of journalists?

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that a just society is one in which things are as equal as possible without making everyone worse off. How equal is that, you might wonder? Answer: we’ll consult an economist and get back to you. How will production be organised so that this all works (whatever ‘this’ turns out to be)? Again, we’ll have to consult the empirical social and economic sciences, but probably some scheme of private ownership of the means of production, a market system for exchange, plus an elected government to enforce it all and do a bit of redistribution (don’t ask how much). Most Anglophone political philosophers since Rawls have thought of their task as being to decide which principles of justice should regulate a society that is assumed from the outset to include these basic ingredients.

What’s missing from this picture? The short answer is politics. Students of political philosophy these days can very easily graduate without ever having encountered the concept of a theory of transition: how does/could/should social change come about? Also missing are questions of the way societies work and develop over time: what is the relative significance of such factors as class, nationality, religion, sex, individual action and sheer chance in determining what happens? Those are empirical questions for the relevant experts – economists and social scientists. Political philosophers have their own area of expertise: the clarification of concepts and the discovery of normative truths. This week, the philosophy faculty at Cambridge cut its courses on Marxism and power.

So one way we can tell that Brand isn’t a real political philosopher is that he doesn’t shy away from empirical claims, not least that our current economic and political system is wrecking the planet and causing misery and death on a vast scale. His main aim, though, is not to tell people anything they don’t already know, but to get them to see what they already know in a different light. To that end, he deploys an array of studiedly ostentatious and half-comical (but at the same time quite serious) images and analogies, such as asking what you’d do if your vacuum cleaner went beserk and subjected you to perpetual economic slavery: ‘You’d throw it out the fucking window.’ Beyond that, Brand insists that a different world is possible, and that bringing it about requires a revolution – preferably non-violent, and at all costs non-authoritarian and non-hierarchical.

He also makes the point that a huge amount of justificatory work is done by the claim – tacit or explicit – that there is no alternative to the economic and political framework now in place:

We’re told there’s nothing we can do about it, that this is ‘the way things are’. Naturally, of course, that verdict emanates from the elite institutions, organisations and individuals that benefit from things being ‘the way they are’.

As Brand understands, the incessant demand for criticism to be ‘constructive’ is another way of defending the status quo; there’s no logical reason why not being able to outline a better system should invalidate your objections to the current one. Brecht, in ‘The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House’, imagined a group of people who were about to be burned alive but refused to go outside because they didn’t know what the weather was like. As Brand said to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last year, ‘Don’t ask me to sit here in an interview with you in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system. I’m merely pointing out that the current…’ At which point Paxman interrupted to demand once again that Brand devise a global utopian system in a bloody hotel room. Just as important, it isn’t the job of any individual critic or commentator to say how society ought to be organised, because that is the collective business of the people who come together to bring about the kind of society they want to live in.

Would it really help if Brand made his arguments in a different way? If instead of throwing hoovers out the window, he talked about ‘the functional explanation of forms of thought in terms of their tendency to reinforce certain socially dominant interests’? Wouldn’t he then be told that he hadn’t earned the right to talk like that, and should stick to his role as an amusing and mildly disreputable entertainer? Brand may be a particularly visible and articulate target, but he is essentially being given the message as millions of ordinary citizens: stay in your box.

Comments on “Brand v. Rawls”

  1. Geoff Roberts says:

    What were Fool’s words in ‘King Lear’?
    He that has and a little tiny wit–
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,–
    Must make content with his fortunes fit,
    For the rain it raineth every day.
    Sounds as if Brand has adopted the pose of the Fool, telling it how he sees in riddles, parables, paradoxes. I haven’t read his list yet but the method is a good one, when we get instant judgments on any issue you care to name from experts who have never heard of Chomsky and never read a sentence by Marx. I think he’s on to something.

  2. sol_adelman says:

    Great post. There seems to be absolute rage these days at any public figure who dares to articulate views to the left of those of Peter Mandelson; and especially if they speak with an accent that should never be heard in British public life. Here’s to the rascal prince raising awareness among the younger generations for years to come.

  3. zeleny says:

    Lorna Finlayson grossly mischaracterizes the difference principle of John Rawls, which requires social and economic inequalities to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society, not to the greatest aggregate benefit of the society at large, as implied by her description of a just society as “one in which things are as equal as possible without making everyone worse off”.

  4. SpinningHugo says:

    “In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that a just society is one in which things are as equal as possible without making everyone worse off. ”

    Lorna Finlayson is a post doc in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

  5. mototom says:

    Brand is an outsider, and refuses to indulge in the dominant discourse – that in itself is an ideological act.

    The chattering liberals are all well and good, but Brand helps makes a difference – see New Era Estate.

    He’s a post-modern Tariq Ali.

  6. “What’s missing from this picture? The short answer is politics. Students of political philosophy these days can very easily graduate without ever having encountered the concept of a theory of transition.”

    “the concept of a theory”: a phrase only doubly[!] removed from politics as act, as thing.

    Philosophical empiricism is rationalism, tout court. The theory of politics is not the practice. Politicians and comedians are empiricists; philosophers prefer ideas. Ideas are clean and everyone knows what cleanliness is next to. They’re also blind to subtext. The subtext to the socialism of Oxbridge dons is in the ironic commentary of their servants, in notebooks and home movies that historians will find and read, or watch on youtube. Historians are empiricists. In daily life all are: philosophers lie first to themselves.

    Our “intellectual class” has begun to note the simplistic politics of the culture of “geeks” and “nerds”, as based on a horror of ambiguity. Years after the short vogue for “post autistic economics” maybe it’s time they understood what it means that our readers of Plato and Rawls are readers of Asimov and Tolkien, while politicians and lawyers read Shakespeare and watch our actors and comedians bring characters to life in a mockery of “the law of non-contradiction” that equals the mockery we make of it every day of our lives. Ask a lawyer about Rawls and he’ll laugh: “Lawyers are tradespeople!” Lawyers are empiricists.

    Comedians have been mocking pedants since before homo-sapiens ruled the earth, but we live in an age when readers of Plato call readers of Aristophanes “anti-intellectual”. Compared to Euripides, Plato was an illustrator. Illustration is art without thought to subtext; art and “literary” fiction is made to accommodate it: it includes both the pedant and his servant. Moralists from Plato to Stalin are horrified by it.

    We live in an age of rump Modernism lead less by the children of Marx and Coca Cola than of Max Weber and Winnie the Pooh.

  7. Paul_S says:

    My colleague Dr. Finlayson’s blog piece cannot, I am afraid, pass without some comment. Partly this is because much of what she argues is dubious, or flatly false. Partly it is because others of us working in the field of political philosophy at the University of Cambridge would like to preserve our collective reputation as people who can, at the very least, do the basics. This makes for less oratorically spectacular grandstanding than Finlayson achieves. But there are principles worth standing up for, even if they make one unfashionable, perhaps even boring.

    I will pass over the question of whether Russell Brand is an idiot (although previous actions may lead us to believe that more than his Essex accent informs such conclusions*), and move straight to Rawls. Finlayson writes, “In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that a just society is one in which things are as equal as possible without making everyone worse off”. This is an error so glaring one would not permit even a first year undergraduate to make it. Rawls’s claim is actually that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are…to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” (A Theory of Justice, p. 83). There difference between what Finlayson says Rawls says, and what Rawls actually says, is enormous.

    Finlayson’s principle is a vaguely-specified sort of egalitarianism: we can equalize stuff, so long as we don’t all end up worse off than we would otherwise have been. Rawls’s principle (the ‘difference principle’, as it is known to scholars) is – by contemporary real-world standards, at least – a radical egalitarian constraint on how a just society must be ordered. It is intended to apply specifically to what Rawls called “the basic structure of society”, by which he meant those institutions that most radically influence our life opportunities and outcomes (think: universities, large businesses, civil service, etc). Rawls’s position is that the only departures from equality that can be licensed** are those ones that benefit those at the bottom of the social pile. To emphasise what this would mean in practice: Rawls himself ruled even the welfare state capitalisms of the pre Reagan-Thatcher years to be insufficiently egalitarian, because they fell short of his stipulation. Our present form of society is nowhere near meeting the mark. More bluntly: were we living in a society ordered by Rawls’s principles, rather than the deeply inegalitarian one we actually inhabit, Russell Brand would have a heck of a lot less to (justifiably) complain about.

    Finlayson proceeds as though Rawls’s political philosophy – and by extension, the rest of the Anglophone academy – is simply hollow, because it delegates some of the questions regarding ‘what is to be done?’ to experts in other fields. I fail to see how this is in itself objectionable. Why should philosophers presume to know more about welfare economics than welfare economists? Why should they not take the advice of experts at appropriate points, in service of the goal of a more equal and just society? The world is a complex place, and a division of labour helps to tackle some of that complexity. What does Finlayson suggest instead – that Rawls become an economist? That hardly seems, ahem, realistic.

    Finlayson’s real charge, however, is that what is absent from Rawls’s political philosophy is ‘politics’. But nobody properly acquainted with what Rawls actually said can reasonably hold this view. The basic truth is that Rawls was centrally animated by precisely the fact that because we cannot all agree on what is morally right, we must use the coercive apparatus of the state to enforce some decisions over others. Our task as honest political agents is to try and decide how and when we are justified in coercing others, if at all. If that is not a description of political philosophy, I don’t know what is. Now, for what it’s worth, I think that Rawls’s answer fails, and does so at a very deep level. But that level is far beneath a trite quip that he somehow didn’t know what politics was, even if his vision of how that plays out differs from Finlayson’s or mine.

    As for Finlayson’s claim that the Cambridge Faculty of Philosophy recently “cut” its courses on Marxism and Power, this is at best only partially true. What has actually happened is that the material from those courses has been integrated into other syllabi, meaning it is in fact more broadly accessible to students than it was in the past, when undergraduates had to specifically specialize in order to cover such topics. Despite much recent online agitation, the picture is nowhere near as simplistic or ideologically lop-sided as Finlayson implies.

    Finlayson moves on to claim that criticism need not be constructive to be valid. In itself this is fair enough: it’s most certainly true, at least as things stand. The problem is that it doesn’t carry any meaningful bite beyond that. Neither I, nor anybody else, would deny Brand’s (or Finlayson’s) basic coherence in criticizing present structures simply because they lack some worked-out alternative. The problem is that when all one ever gets is unconstructive criticism, and nothing to put in the place of what is being criticized, the justifiable tendency is to switch off. And those of us (and they will likely be many) who switch off are not committing any important failing. We are just deciding that in the absence of something more helpful, criticism is uninteresting. This problem will tend to get exponentially worse when the underlying critical analysis is bad. Finlayson may disagree regarding Brand’s capacity as a thinker, but in my book, believing that the complex confluence of economic, historical, political and social forces that constitute modern capitalism can be helpfully understood by analogy with a demented vacuum cleaner is not insightful.

    Yes, if my vacuum cleaner enslaved me, I’d throw it out of a window. Unfortunately, not only is liberal capitalist society not a vacuum cleaner, but recent history teaches us is that attempts to throw capitalism out of the window result in mass suffering and death, rather than emancipation and rainbows. One of modernity’s most consistent patterns is that political revolutions issue first in blood-letting, second in tyranny (the Arab Spring, anyone?) People who call airily for ‘revolution’, intoxicated by the romance of that word, deserve the ire that political sociologist Max Weber heaped upon them: they are ‘windbags who do not fully realise what they take upon themselves’.

    Our present state of society is deeply, deeply flawed. Neo-liberalism’s zombified hold on our political and economic institutions is resulting in much needless, avoidable, suffering. There is a great deal to be depressed and angry about. But there are better and worse places to direct that anger. Directing it at Rawls – a fierce critic of contemporary inequality and injustice –is, at the very least, a decidedly bizarre response. Not even bothering to check what he actually said is something else again.

    Dr Paul Sagar,

    King’s College, Cambridge

    *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Russell_Brand_Show_prank_telephone_calls_row

    **technical note: when some other, prior, constraints have also been met, which are there to protect liberty and fair equality opportunity for e.g. race and gender

    • I wasn’t going to do this again, but I’ve found a way to keep it so simple it’s hard to resist.

      Paul Sagar: “One of modernity’s most consistent patterns is that political revolutions issue first in blood-letting, second in tyranny (the Arab Spring, anyone?)”

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/04/why-egypt-didnt-follow-tunisias-path/

      “The Tunisian “success story,” then, is not that all sides wanted democracy, but rather that all sides had no choice but to settle for democracy.”

      The origin of secular government and toleration, in the past and present is not reason but necessity. Philosophers don’t invent or discover, they codify, or at their best are among the first, along with poets and playwrights, to observe and record. Your defense of philosophy against modern extremism ignores the fact that philosophies -ideas as ideals- are the foundation of extremism. The first claim of modernism was the an end of history and of a need for historians. History is context. With that in mind, it means less that the author of the piece in the Washington Post is a PhD candidate at Princeton than that he’s a member of a rising bourgeoisie. He’s discovered what others have forgotten.

    • SpinningHugo says:

      Paul_S

      Quite so.

    • streetsj says:

      Is our society “deeply, deeply flawed”? Not perfect, of course; and still recovering from an economic crisis. If you were in the bottom 10% which period would you prefer to live in?

    • Jack_S says:

      Given that you’re sufficiently pompous as to wave your philosophy credentials around in order to object to a brief line in a blog, one would think you’d know better than to stray so blithely into other disciplines. Suffice to say anyone daft enough to boldly assert that revolutions consistently result in blood-letting and tyranny is best off staying out of history.

      Certainly, I’d be fascinated to learn which “liberal capitalist societies” (Tsarist Russia? Kuomintang China? Batista’s Cuba?) you think were overthrown by social revolution in the modern world. Equally interesting would be to learn where exactly it is that you think many modern democracies came from, if not a “political revolution”? Did they all drop from the sky?

    • AlexNunns says:

      Dr Paul Sagar,

      It is curious to write such a long post accusing Dr. Finlayson of misrepresenting Rawls while you simultaneously misrepresent Brand.

      If you want to get a basic comprehension of what Brand actually thinks, try this review: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/smelling-salts-for-the-left-russell-brands-revolution/

      You are right on the “boring” thing, though.

    • Wernard Billiams says:

      You presume to defend Cambridge from reputational damage you think incurred from Finlayson’s inability to ‘do the basics’. Your objections are (A) that Finlayson mistakes her object of criticism so fundamentally as to not even warrant analogy to a ‘first year undergraduate’, (B) that she espouses a vein of political realism which you find particularly egregious. As it turns out, A is mistaken, for a distribution to the benefit of the least advantaged, and one maximising equality while not making everyone worse off, words the same principle alternatively: both license, ceteris paribus, the betterment of the least-advantaged invariably, and the worsening of the most-advantaged when to the betterment of the least-advantaged (mutually excluding all possible distributive moves). So, the reputational injury from which you guard Cambridge is B. Suffice it to say that if we all thought claims derived from disciplinary positions we thought objectionable were sufficient to castigate their author for doing damage to their employer, academia would not get far at all. In any case, one would think that in actual cases of reputational damage employers would be capable of judging for themselves. And since we know Finlayson is working mostly from Geuss, and that Geuss rose to Professorship at Cambridge, we can be rest assured that Cambridge will not think itself damaged. All this being so, you might give pause to consider whether you ought to be a little more dialogic in the future; for the benefit of all parties.

  8. Paul Sagar,
    “Intellectual history” and the history of “political thought” are the history of ideas. History itself more than anything is the history of acts.

    http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23014-money-and-the-early-greek-mind-homer-philosophy-tragedy/

    When a philosopher reviews a book by historian, the question is: who wins?

    —Overall, Seaford’s book is interesting, insightful, and combines expertise in ancient sources with careful reasoning. It certainly offers an invaluable discussion of the origins and cultural contexts of early Greek philosophy. But Seaford’s concern with the historical explanations of Greek philosophy suggests that his book may not appeal to scholars interested exclusively in the philosophical content and argumentation of Presocratic texts. The author often explicitly minimizes intellectual explanations of a philosopher’s views in favor of socio-political, religious, and psychological factors (219; 253–4; 273). In fact, he insists that comprehending the relevant cultural factors is necessary for understanding Presocratic metaphysics. We must, he maintains, avoid treating ancient philosophy as if it were created in a “historical vacuum” (10), even if this threatens most Presocratic scholars’ “control of their subject and the autonomy of ’doing philosophy’“—

    Rawls made a career out of “doing philosophy”

  9. CORRECTED VERSION FINAL of post. Typing mistakeS removed:

    If Paul Sagar is right about Rawls, then he couldn’t be more wrong about Russell Brand. The absurdly elitist tone and content of Sagar’s response is symptomatic of what’s wrong about the way Oxbridge does politics, the malaise at the heart of Lorna Finlayson’s initial post.

    Sagar shows no signs of having engaged sufficiently with Brand’s work to give a cogent critique of it, and is content to smear it in passing. Using a sub-tabloid “scandal” from 2008 to do this won’t wash. Sagar writes:

    “I will pass over the question of whether Russell Brand is an idiot (although previous actions may lead us to believe that more than his Essex accent informs such conclusions*), and move straight to Rawls”,

    the asterisk directing us to an account of a prank phone call incident Brand was involved in. “May lead us” – what the f. is that “us” doing in that sentence? If Sagar feels he must represent the correct representation of Rawls in Cambridge, then he should be honest enough to say who he’s speaking for, & forego his urge to universalise his sententiousness.

    Sagar wants to discredit Brand as someone who produces “unconstructive criticism”, whose “underlying critical analysis is bad”, and to this end chooses to miss the point regarding Brand’s vacuum cleaner analogy. Brand doesn’t use the vacuum cleaner to explain the complexity of modern capitalism; he uses this and other striking visual metaphors as rhetorical shock tactics. He wants to shake up an audience who’ve been given, from early childhood, a clear message that they’ll never understand complexity, an audience who finds it hard to wean themselves off the diet of non-news produced daily in the BBC’s and Daily Mail’s “information” factories.

    Or take Brand’s metaphor for the massive expansion in the production & consumption of pornography: “huge icebergs of porn floating on Wi-Fi through our living rooms.” This metaphor by itself isn’t intended as a critical tool to decipher porn’s place in contemporary capitalism — Brand’s core audience might not have got that far yet. He first wants to do the incredibly constructive work of getting people to have a night off from clicking & jerking off, in which they may start to think instead.

    It’s hard to decipher anything constructive in Sagar’s contribution, which reads as an apology for Rawls, statism and the technocrats, albeit issued with a disclaimer: “Now, for what it’s worth, I think that Rawls’ answer fails, and does so at a very deep level.” For what it’s worth: while Sagar’s summary of Rawls’ theory is plausible, he says nothing on the fact that there’s never been a time in history in which all major UK & US political parties have been further from policy making founded in Rawls’ philosophy than now. Presumably Sagar feels no responsibility whatsoever for this issue.

    And how should Rawls’ & other political-philosophies — which Sagar maintains are what we really should be bothering about — spread from the ivory towers, when Sagar & others are simultaneously keeping such a proprietal & elitist grip on them? Sagar warns his 1st year political-philosophy students not to write about Rawls in exams*, stating: “none of you have ever studied Rawls at degree level. This means you’re not equipped to discuss him or his ideas.” If the 0.01% who’ve made it to first year politics at Cambridge aren’t yet qualified to talk about Rawls, I can only conclude that Sagar is happy that 99.99% of the rest of US will, in his eyes, never qualify to indulge in that pastime.

    This is political-philosophy produced by and for elites, ignorant of voices from outside that closed circle. Lorna Finlayson should cut her losses with such a bunch, & take the syllabus of the axed Cambridge philosophy faculty course on Marxism and power to an open-access community college. There knowledge transfer might not just lead to further accumulation & commoditization of knowledge; but in small & unseen ways to societal change.

    * See Sagar: https://prsagar.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/exam-guide-first-years.pdf

    • Phil Edwards says:

      From your description Brand sounds like an agitator, a polemicist, a political performer, a provocateur, or what have you – like Mark Thomas with less focus but more style. He doesn’t sound like a thinker – in fact, your argument seems to be that it would be wrong and unfair to judge him as a thinker; he’s good at what he does, but that’s not what he’s doing.

      So he doesn’t belong on a list of ‘world thinkers’, unless ‘world’ is a very different qualifier than I thought.

  10. SpinningHugo says:

    1. ‘Using a sub-tabloid “scandal”’

    Wasn’t it a tabloid scandal?

    2. I would have thought that Sagar’s tip number 14 in that examination advice was sensible. If you don’t actually know anything about Rawls, best not to write about him (see above for a startling demonstration of that truth).

  11. Paul_S says:

    Yes, thanks Hugo. I’m perfectly happy for second and third years to discuss Rawls, i.e. after they’ve studied his ideas. If Rawls was on the first year course, answers referring to him would be fine. As it of course is for second and third years.

  12. “…after they’ve studied his ideas.” Ideas are not politics, or are not as Raymond Geuss would say, “real politics”.
    And since only philosophers (philosophy professors) are deemed capable of replying to philosophers, here’s another:
    http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/2010/05/memoir-volume-two-hapter-three-ninth.html
    “On September 17, 1969 I sent a letter to eleven senior members of the philosophy profession, asking them to serve as co-signers with me on a motion to be presented to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the APA, calling for the establishment of a Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. Alice Ambrose and Morris Lazerowitz [who were husband and wife] came on board, as did Justus Buchler [whose wife taught philosophy], and Sue Larson and Mary Mothersill, both of Barnard. Maurice Mandelbaum, who along with Lewis White Beck had read my Kant manuscript for Harvard, was sympathetic, but pointed out that as the incoming APA president, if he signed he would be in the position of petitioning himself. A good point. The great Classicist Gregory Vlastos also said yes, as did Ruth Marcus, whom I knew from my Chicago days, when she was at Northwestern. Morty White was supportive, but declined to sign for fear that if the motion passed, he would be expected to serve on the committee, something he said he could not do because of writing obligations. That left Jack Rawls, who declined to sign. In retrospect, this does not surprise me. Although Jack was on his way to becoming the world’s leading expert on justice, he never seemed to be there when action was needed.”

  13. Republicanism is a virtue ethic, and virtue ethics exists only as practice; as theory alone it’s useless.

    “Liberalism is amenable to fans of science since it can claim reasonably or not to be without priors. Republicanism is a virtue ethic and priors are explicit: burdens precede freedoms, making hypocrisy more difficult to hide, from yourself at least.”

    Liberal objectivity: “If her interests have the same value as his, then my interests must have the same value as yours.” The opposite of virtue. Liberal individualism excuses Rawls’ behavior, and dumbs us down.
    The quotes above are mine, for lack of anything better.

  14. ed strong says:

    Russell Brand is a celebrity. He’s a commodity. He’s sold as a rebel/agitator. You can buy a ‘russell brand che guevara t shirt’. Put that into Google image. Congratulate the PR outfit behind the name but don’t even begin to take him seriously.

    In the land of promotion marketing is king.

    Perhaps this blog post was set up by one of Brand’s manipulators with the connivance of the LRB. Big increase in blog visitors looking for ‘brand’ stories.

  15. Botherous says:

    Finlayson’s principle is a vaguely-specified sort of egalitarianism: we can equalize stuff, so long as we don’t all end up worse off than we would otherwise have been. Rawls’s principle (the ‘difference principle’, as it is known to scholars) is – by contemporary real-world standards, at least – a radical egalitarian constraint on how a just society must be ordered.

    Finlayson’s paraphrase, while casually worded, is substantively equivalent to Rawls’s original formulation. That is, a given distribution pattern is preferable under Finlayson’s criterion iff it is preferable under Rawls’s criterion.
    Take two distributions of resources, A and B, where B is more equal than A. That B is “more equal” than A means at least one of two things must be the case: The least advantaged (henceforth, “the poor”) in B have absolutely more than the poor in A; or everyone but the poor have absolutely less in A than the non-poor in B.

    So, how to tell if B is to be preferred to A? First, suppose the poor in B are better off than those in A. Therefore, not everyone is worse off, society is more equal, and Finlayson’s criterion is met. B is also clearly to the benefit of the poor, so Rawls’s criterion is met. Note that it does not matter whether the non-poor are better or worse off in this case.

    Now, suppose in B the non-poor are worse-off than the non-poor in A. The poor are either worse-off, better-off, or neither worse- nor better-off in B. If they are worse-off, then everyone is worse-off, so Finlayson’s criterion is not met. Likewise, this arrangement is to the detriment of the poor, so Rawls’s criterion is not met.
    If the poor are better off, then not everyone is worse-off and Findlayson’s criterion is met. The arrangement is to the benefit of the poor, so Rawls’s criterion is met.
    An edge case is that in which the poor are neither worse- nor better-off. On the reasonable assumption that greater equality is a material benefit to the poor, Rawls and Finlayson are in agreement that this, too, is an improved state.

    Perhaps Dr. Finlayson’s paraphrase of Rawls is not as explicit or transparent as the original, but only a gross misreading could lead one to call it “an error so glaring one would not permit even a first year undergraduate to make it.”

  16. allthethingsyouare says:

    Not sure if I agree with the view that there is a substantive equivalence of the paraphrase and the difference principle (DP).

    Every change mandated by the DP will also be mandated by the paraphrase – I accept that. This is because the DP always makes someone better off and so it satisfies the condition of the paraphrase – namely, that not everyone is worse off.

    But is every change mandated by the paraphrase mandated by the DP? The trouble is that the paraphrase allows us to make some number of the worst off even more worse off, so long as some of the worst off stay at the same level, if that will significantly reduce overall inequality – by reducing the allocation of goods at the top. But the DP never allows that: it doesn’t allow you to make the worst off any more worse off (even if you keep some at the same level). [E.g. the paraphrase would prefer distribution A [5, 5, 1] to distribution B [12, 5, 5], with the numbers referring, say, to individual utilities; in distribution B, the worst off have 5 each, in distribution A, they have 5 and 1, and there’s less inequality between groups. Moreover, in distribution A it is not true that everyone is worse off than in distribution B, albeit that the sum of utility is less]. So the trouble with the paraphrase is that it’s too permissive.

    Not sure, though – happy to be corrected.

    In any event, I agree that the error (if it is one) is hardly an error ‘so glaring one would not permit even a first year undergraduate to make it’.

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    • Stu Bry on Sorry Not Sorry: Labour did not win this election but have a realistic path to a majority in the next one whenever that may be. They have also taken away the Tory majo...
    • kadinsky on Sorry Not Sorry: It's the strategies of his PLP critics that ought to be examined and questioned. If they hadn't monstered him for two years Labor would likely be in g...
    • woll on Sorry Not Sorry: A little self-righteous? Corbyn did better than expected but did not win or come near winning, against a very poor Tory campaign. In addition, in vari...

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