March 08, 2005

A Theory of Justice

I have to confess that this blog has been guilty of false advertising. On the masthead, of all the items listed, the one thing I have not talked about is books and it is time to make amends.

But first some background. Last week, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening having an informal conversation with about 20 students in the lobby of Alumni Hall (many thanks to Carolyn, Resident Assistant of Howe for organizing it). The conversation ranged over many topics and inevitably came around to politics. I had expressed my opposition to the attack on Iraq, and Laura (one of my former students) raised the perfectly legitimate question about what we should do about national leaders like Saddam Hussein. Should we just let them be? My response was to say that people and countries need to have some principles on which to act and apply them uniformly so that everyone (without exception) would be governed by the same principles. The justifications given by the Bush administration for the attack on Iraq did not meet those conditions.

But my response did not have a solid theoretical foundation and I am glad to report that a book that I have started reading seems to provide just that.

The book is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, in which the author tries to outline what it would take to create a system that would meet the criteria of justice as fairness. The book was first published in 1971 but I was not aware until very recently of its existence. I now find that it is known by practically everyone and is considered a classic, but as I said elsewhere earlier, my own education was extraordinarily narrow, so it is not surprising that I was unaware of it until now.

Rawls says that everyone has an intuitive sense of justice and fairness and that the problem lies on how to translate that desire into a practical reality. Rawls' book gets off to a great start in laying out the basis for how to create a just society.

"Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, not does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance." (my emphasis)

In other words, we have to decide what is fair before we know where we will fit into society. We have to create rules bearing in mind that we might be born to any of the possible situations that the ensuing structure might create. Right now what we have is 'victor's justice', where the people who have all the power and privilege get to decide how society should be run, and their own role in it, and it should not surprise us that they see a just society as one that gives them a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Rawls argues that if people were to decide how to structure society based on this 'veil of ignorance' premise, they would choose two principles around which to organize things. "[T]he first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate."

Rawl's argument has features similar to that young children use when sharing something, say a pizza or a cookie. The problem is that the person who gets to choose first has an unfair advantage. This problem is overcome by deciding in advance that one person divides the object into two portions while the other person gets first pick, thus ensuring that both people should feel that the ensuing distribution is fair.

(Here is an interesting problem: How can you divide a pizza in three ways so that everyone has the sense that it was a fair distribution? Remember, this should be done without precision measurements. The point is to demonstrate the need to set up structures so that people will feel a sense of fairness, irrespective of their position in the selection order.)

All this great stuff is just in the first chapter. Rawls will presumably flesh out the ideas in the subsequent chapters and I cannot wait to see how it comes out.

I will comment about the ideas in this book in later postings as I read more, because I think the 'veil of ignorance' gives a good framework for understanding how to make judgments about public policy.


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Excerpt: To see me make an ass of myself in discussing the justice of pizza, visit Mano Singham's post on A Theory of Justice.
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Tracked: March 9, 2005 08:48 PM


Mano -

Since this is my first comment at your blog, I'd like to begin by saying, An interesting and thought-provoking post, as usual. Now, to dwell on a relatively unimportant point:

I may have a way to divide a pizza three ways, fairly. The three people each make one diametrical cut, thus dividing the pizza into six parts.

Whoever cut first, picks one slice first, and the cutting order is followed in the order of selection, twice through so that all six slices are selected. Thus, the first person, whose cut by definition split the pizza in half, can negate any unfairness in the cuts of the others by selecting first. In contrast, the third cutter, who has the most power over the equality of the slices, had the least power over his or her own allotment.

I don't think it's a perfect arrangement - it might be unwieldy for a larger pizza - but it does give an incentive to the diners to be even in their cuts, and it keeps any one person from having too much control over his or her allotment.

Spring break's been dull for me, so thank you for giving me something abstract to ponder for a while.

Posted by Dave Mansfield on March 8, 2005 10:52 PM

I apologize for the poor formatting in my comment.

Posted by Dave Mansfield on March 8, 2005 10:54 PM

That's an interesting solution. It is not the one that I had in mind but let's work with it for a bit.

One catch is that it is applicable only for a circular pizza.

The other catch is that it gives the second cutter control over how much the third person gets. If the second cutter makes a cut that results in two tiny slices and two very big slices, then there is no way that the third cutter is ever going to get a fair share. The third cutte'rs fate is in the hands of the second cutter's.

Or am I missing something?

Posted by Mano Singham on March 9, 2005 09:19 AM

I hadn't considered non-circular pizzas, although that's an interesting point.

The second cutter had an incentive not to cut unfairly; the third cutter could bisect the two very large pieces, resulting in a pizza with four large slices and two small slices. Due to the picking order, the second cutter would most likely end up with a small slice, unless the first cutter wanted a small slice.

Posted by Dave Mansfield on March 9, 2005 10:24 AM

But isn't it true that whatever happens, the first cutter is guaranteed never to have less than 1/3 the pizza, irrespective of how the other two cutters cut it? And that the first cutter is guaranteed to have at least as much or more than either of the other two cutters?

So there is a decided advantage to being the first cutter in this situation, because you are exempt from the vagaries that the other two are subjected to.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 9, 2005 12:41 PM

It's been a very long time since I read Rawls, but if we are to approach the pizza with the same notion that the rules of fairness are determined before they are applied, then perhaps no one chooses his/her own slice. If each of the three takes one full cross cut, thus creating 6 pieces as Dave suggests, then perhaps each person must then choose one piece for each of others. If one knows that the others will be choosing his or her slices then it is imperative to cut as accurately as possible.

This is assuming that fairness=equality. In a family of three, for example, a 6'4" professional athlete father, a medium-sized office-working mother, and a four-year-old daughter, perhaps it is more fair (to their individual dietary needs) for dad to get three slices, mom 2 slices, and child one slice.

In a system of justice created behind a veil of ignorance, this type of distribution might have been planned for as something still considered fair even if it is not "literally equal."

Whereas under a utilitarian form of pizza distribution we might each be given pre-cut slices based on the average caloric need of the individuals in the pizza-eating society. Or we may limit pizza consumption to certain classes based on the overall greater good. But I think I'll stop now before I stretch the mozzarella too far.

Posted by cool on March 9, 2005 02:14 PM

That is true that we are thinking here in terms of fairness=equality. It makes for a simpler problem! But Rawls does not take an extreme view that everyone must necessarily haev equal shares. I think he recognizes that that may not be the most just distribution as you family example illustrates. I think that is why he has the second principle.

I also think, in my reading of Rawls so far, that he is not a fan of utilitarianism and sees his model as a better alternative to it.

But to come back to the equal pizza problem, your idea of selecting pieces for others is really interesting. But I think we would need a more explicit set of directions for how each person A,B,C does the cutting and distribution before I could judge if it meets the criterion of fairness.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 9, 2005 03:50 PM

Yes, I think I recall that Rawls was trying to find something better than utilitarianism as well.

Regarding the pizza problem, I wonder how much the personalities and relationships between the pizza cutters affect the outcome. If the rules are for each person to cut the entire pie in half until we have a total of 6 fairly even pieces, then for each person to pick two pieces and hand one each to each of the other two people, and each person tries to abide by the rules, then we should have a fairly even distribution.

But if two people don't like the third they could purposefully slice unevenly, quickly grab the tiny pieces and pawn them off on the third person. If we can't assume that each will behave honorably, then I think we need more precise rules, such as the order of slice distribution that Dave mentioned. If after the three slices have been made the three people distribute one slice each in the same order in which they made the cuts, and make sure that no one is given a second slice until each has received a first slice, then they may be forced to slice equally. (Or better yet, the order could be selected at random each time)

Regarding the geometry (for a round pizza) we should come out with three possible outcomes: 6 equal slices; 2 smaller & 4 larger (not necessarily even); or 4 smaller and 2 larger. (I know I'm oversimplifying the math)

If these are the possibilities then at least two people will receive at least one smaller slice unless the the slices are even. If each person wants to maximize his pizza potential then he should cut accurately, as none can count on being the one to get two bigger pieces.

Alas this is all dependent on the pizza eaters being the type of people to actually think about possible outcomes before making a decision, and from what I see in the news, such people are far too rare. (Voting against one's own self-interest comes to mind)

Posted by cool on March 9, 2005 04:33 PM

I took a very interesting class this fall (Religion, Liberalism & Democracy), in which we read excerpts from Rawls which definitely left me wanting to read through ToJ when I have more time!

I believe that the child's method of sharing a pizza (one cuts, the other chooses) is a highly instructive analogy for the veil of ignorance, but is not itself a "just" system.

The method has some characteristics of a Rawlsian system: the rules are predetermined, and both parties, operating under a veil of ignorance (particularly if we assume that the roles of divider and chooser will be assigned by a game of Ro-Sham-Bo rather than predetermined as part of the rules), agree that the rules are fair. Particularly Rawlsian is that what is gauranteed is not equality (in the sense of parity), but equality of opportunity (both children have an equal chance to get to choose the larger piece), and this is what Rawls labels Justice.

However, in attempting to extend the analogy to three or more people, we run into problems: as noted above, the first-cut, first-choice method gaurantees the first actor no less than a "fair share," and provides perverse incentive to the second-cutter (by making the thinnest cut possible, (s)he benefits at the expense of the third-cutter). Perhaps the system would be more just (and closer to the ideal 2-person model) if the third cutter was the first chooser? As it turns out, this is nominally more just but it still leaves injustices.

This is not simply a flaw in how we have arranged the roles, but reveals the fundamental problem with the method: no matter how we order things, the justice of the method is based in balancing injustices - the reason the two children agree beforehand is that they perceive fairness in the fact that the one who cuts does not get to also choose.

The child's intuitive sense of fairness overlooks a fundamental flaw: the chooser is gauranteed no less than an equal share, but what is worse, the cutter's reward is directly proportional to their own ability (to cut a pizza perfectly evenly). Creeping elitism, made plain when we extend the analogy to 3 who wish to share the pizza, let alone 270 million.

Rawls' veil of ignorance is meant to be used as a thought experiment, to test the justice of a particular system of government, but it is not "the test" of whether or not the system is just. My understanding is that Rawls' later writings responded directly to criticisms of his theory of justice that erroneously mistook the veil for the system itself.

Rawls' ultimate point is that if 270 million people wish to divide a pizza equitably, they will find the most just system to be one of liberal democracy.

(Didn't mean to write this much, but its a very interesting discussion. btw, I'm a longtime friend of your cousin(?) Ismael, and his mother Shanti pointed me to your blog. Glad she did :D)

Posted by sam on March 9, 2005 04:40 PM

Addressing Heidi's point, I think the idea is that we need a system which doesn't depend on the honor or intentions of the participants to work. All that is required is the willingness to abide by the rules of the system once it is set up in advance.

I haven't come anywhere close to the end of Rawls' book, but I have the latest edition which may take into account the issues raised by Sam's post.

I agree with Sam that in the two-child case, it is better to be the chooser than the cutter. But that advantage can be eliminated.

After all it is not necessary that it be a single cut. If the cutter's skill is not very good and makes a lousy first cut, the rules still allow him/her to keep trimming here and there until he/she is satisied that he/she would be satisfied with either portion. It is only after that that the other child gets to choose.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 9, 2005 04:53 PM

Regarding Sam's point the pizza scenario may or may not be "just" depending on the rules, but I wonder if "fair" and "just" can be equated?

In our current judiciary system they are not. Sometimes the application of fairness may prevent true justice, as in when a criminal defendant who is actually guilty is acquitted because of evidentiary rules that guarantee a "fair" trial. We accept this in our current system because it theoretically offers us the same protections should a true innocent be brought to trial.

But rather than wanderering farther off onto this tangent, I think I'll skibble up the hill and try to ascertain in what room, on what shelf I may have hidden my copy of T of J.

Posted by cool on March 9, 2005 06:13 PM

I dug up the course materials from the fall. The Rawls reading was The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good (1988). I quote below the footnote on which I based my belief that Rawls had modified his ideas from ToJ in response to criticisms, and readily acknowledge that reading a 25 page article narrowly focused on Rawls' conceptions of political justice, the good and the right in no way gives me any authority to speak to the content or intention of Theory.

"This idea of the good [that goodness as rationality is taken for granted by any political conception of justice -- sam] is set out most fully in A Theory of Justice . . . there are several ways in which I would now revise the presentation of goodness as rationality; perhaps the most important would be to make sure that it is understood as part of a political conception of justice viewed as a form of political liberalism, and not as part of a comprehensive moral doctrine. The distinction between a comprehensive doctrine and a political conception is absent from Theory . . . Charles Larmore in his Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 118-30, is quite correct in vigorously criticizing the ambiguity of Theory on this fundamental matter."

If it is indeed true that the distinction between political and comprehensive conceptions of the good is entirely lacking from Theory (and I have no reason to doubt Rawls on his own self-criticism), I highly recommend reading Priority of Right as well. Because...

In support of Mano's assumption and cool's recollection that Rawls' Theory presents an alternative to utilitarianism:"the state can no more act to maximize the fulfillment of citizens' rational preferences, or wants (as in utilitarianism), or to advance human excellence, or the values of perfection (as in perfectionism), than it can act to advance Catholicism or Protestantism, or any other religion. None of these views of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life, as specified by the corresponding comprehensive religious or philosophical conceptions of the good, are affirmed by citizens generally, and so the pursuit of any one of them through basic institutions gives the state a sectarian character." (256)

In other words, the distinction Rawls draws in Priority of Right between political and comprehensive conceptions of good, is interesting not only as the basis of political liberalism, but also because it is a necessary leg of the argument that liberalism is a better basis for our State than utilitarianism, perfectionism, or any other framework.

Posted by sam on March 9, 2005 09:48 PM