EJ the important blog commenter sent in the following guest post. I will offer a little intro on Rawls and then blog his comments. This is one of the pillar’s of EJ’s thought along with certain parts of Lacan. A yearning for a more Rawlsian halakhah.
The Harvard ethicist John Rawls was required reading in ethics, politics, law school for decades and was treated as open of the starting positions for political and juridical discourse. He offered a humanistic Kantianism based on equality, fairness, and justice. For many, it was a natural synthesis with Telshe, Brisk, or Maimonides. Rawl’s Theory of Justice (1971) was based on defining justice as treating others with fairness. Fairness was to be decided from what he called the “original position,” one makes decisions without knowing where in society one would fall. One created abstract principles of fairness not knowing where you would be in society. (For Kant, transcendence means beyond what our faculty of knowledge can legitimately know).
John Rawls’ Method
We are to imagine ourselves in what Rawls calls the Original Position. We are all self-interested rational persons and we stand behind “the Veil of Ignorance.” To say that we are self-interested rational persons is to say that we are motivated to select, in an informed and enlightened way, whatever seems advantageous for ourselves.
To say that we are behind a Veil of Ignorance is to say we do not know the following sorts of things: our sex, race, physical handicaps, generation, social class of our parents, etc. But self-interested rational persons are not ignorant of (1) the general types of possible situations in which humans can find themselves; (2) general facts about human psychology and “human nature”.
Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance are given the task of choosing the principles that shall govern actual world. Rawls believes that he has set up an inherently fair procedure here. Because of the fairness of the procedure Rawls has described, he says, the principles that would be chosen by means of this procedure would be fair principles.
A self-interested rational person behind the Veil of Ignorance would not want to belong to a race or gender or sexual orientation that turns out to be discriminated-against. Such a person would not wish to be a handicapped person in a society where handicapped are treated without respect. So principles would be adopted that oppose discrimination.
Likewise, a self-interested rational person would not want to belong to a generation which has been allocated a lower than average quantity of resources. So (s)he would endorse the principle: “Each generation should have roughly equal resources” or “Each generation should leave to the next at least as many resources as they possessed at the start.”
John Rawls’ principles of justice.
Rawls argues that self-interested rational persons behind the veil of ignorance would choose two general principles of justice to structure society in the real world:
1) Principle of Equal Liberty: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with similar liberties for all. (Egalitarian.)
2) Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of equality of opportunity.
For those who want more – here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Rawls.
I find these five ideas useful in stating my moral complaints against certain types of Orthodoxy. I could probably organize a moralizing blog explaining why and how Jews are screwing up their future by everyone trying to get an edge on the other guy.
(1) endorsement of a morality defined by interpersonal relations rather than by pursuit of the highest good; (2) insistence on the importance of the separateness of persons, so that the moral community or community of faith is a relation among distinct individuals; (3) rejection of the concept of society as a contract or bargain among egoistic individuals; (4) condemnation of inequality based on exclusion and hierarchy; (5) rejection of the idea of merit.
Enclosed are 3 recent examples where I try to adapt Rawls in a comment.
1…R. Maryles…If you want to give up racism you have to give up the idea that others exist for the sake of frum Jews. Let’s not even talk about blacks…you don’t even see the 12 million Jews who are not Orthodox as ends in themselves. Their tachlis is to become frum through kiruv. As Rashi says, God created the world bishvil yisrael shenikra rashis, and yisrael in your theology equals Centrists..
Human beings don’t exist for the sake of confirming anyone’s beliefs. They are ends in themselves and are to be treated as such.
I can’t say this Kantian idea is the correct hashkafah, that’s for rabbis to decide. But if you reject this idea, if you believe the world is structured as a hierarchy, to the point where this hierarchy is an adequate reason for acting, then you have no systemic grounded way to confront racism.
2…R. Maryles…Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Many here seem to agree they don’t want Lubavitch mucking about with their own kids or with other kids from their stripe, like the bocherim in YU. The solution is not to turn around and do something that Lubavitch will find unpleasant.
A group proselytizes when they think the children are a davar shel hefker, i.e. the parents do not have the exclusive right to raise their children in accordance with the parents ends and values. Orthodox hold it is a mitzvah to be mekarev non-orthodox kids; they and their parents are tinok shahnishbas and because of their ignorance of the truth, the parents have no legitimate say in how their children should live. Centrists also feel they have a right to be influence young charedim to become more centrist…go to work, join the army, get a secular education. Charedim, rosh yeshivas feel it is OK to turn MO students into Charedim. But when some group like Lubavitch feels they have the hegemonic rights of turning klal yisrael into Lubavitchers, and then come into Centrist or Charedi communities, many, maybe most, are up in arms. You don’t die from a contradiction, so maybe this is just the way it is.
This entire mess comes from treating people as means. Each and every person and certainly each and every Jew is an end in himself, and his freely chosen values ought to be respected. When two people meet, each viewed as an end in themselves, kiruv is not unidirectional. Like all human interactions both parties can change. ”
3…XGH… This is how I see your problem. You are caught between two poles, neither of which are acceptable. You feel Torah is not real in some common sense plus empiricist conception of the real. Take that as a starting point. You also feel Torah is not imaginary, it’s much more than a novel by Dickens. How to take hold of the middle, what Lacan calls the symbolic world, the world of society, law, tradition, language. These are social constructs. Even if not real-real, they are kind of important. Try not paying your taxes or lying to the bank. We live in this symbolic world. Death, physics dog shit (to use some of Lacan’s examples) are real, but who would want to embrace only this world.
So the task is how to make a symbolic world, like the world of Judaism, justified in some transcendental way, or noumenal way? This was in effect Kant’s problem about morality. All through the 19th century Jews remained neo-Kantians, the most famous being Hermann Cohen, the subject of RJBS’s dissertation. Today Rav Kook, pantheism, Rav Nahman, Art Green, and kabbalah are in, Kant is out of favor.
An article that I found moving, and is in a Kantian mode is this one about the young John Rawls and his religion. The Christian part is clearly marked and not essential. Even without knowing much about his ideas, I think it can be understood.