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Teaching Rawls Again

For some reason, whenever I think of John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" thought experiment, I imagine a bunch of people marooned in a lifeboat discussing politics under a heavy sea fog.  I really don't know why this image pops into my head whenever I have to read and/or teach Rawls––because there's nothing in Rawls' Theory of Justice about a lifeboat and a foggy ocean.  Perhaps the image is the result of the shoddy reading and half-assed listening that partially defined my first year as a university undergraduate, way way back.  Or maybe it's the result of the mental synthesis of an unexpected juxtaposition––perhaps I was reading Rawls in one class at the same time I was encountering Turner's paintings in another.

defender of welfare capitalism

But maybe this way of looking at the veil of ignorance reveals something about the logic of the thought experiment.  This is how we can understand justice, Rawls tell us: take a group of people, render them ignorant of their social position, and put them together to found a social contract.  Unaware of what they were before entering this first position, and unaware of what they will be after they have debated a social contract, if they are asked to conceive of a just society they will produce a society that will have some benefit for any social position they end up occupying.  Thus, a society that possesses some advantage for the most disadvantaged (because you don't want to gamble on the hope that you will end up in the tiny ruling class of a monarchy), but one that also permits social advancement.  Hence: the only social contract Rawls claims can be produced by his veil of ignorance thought experiment is welfare capitalism.  And so the ignorant agents debating a "just" social contract are castaways in the rotting lifeboat of capitalism, trapped within its confines and trying to plug its leaking holes with Keynesian logic.

Still beloved by modern liberals and hated by conservatives and rugged libertarians, Rawls' theory of justice is nothing more than the rationality produced by welfare capitalism; it is an attempt to humanize capitalism, to save the sinking boat by imagining it can be more just, an imaginary "first position" that was never primordial since it was always the logic of liberal capitalism projected unto the past as well as the imaginary realm of the veil of ignorance.

And yet the Rawlsian agent is "rational and self-interested"––the bourgeois individual.  The fact that we possess this essential self-interest is presupposed; those of us who are marxists know what Marx once wrote about the presumption of this human essence in the introduction to the Grundrisse and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: "this eighteenth century individual––the product on the one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century––appears as an ideal, whose existence [is] project[ed] into the past.  Not as a historic result but as history's point of departure."

Here I am also struck by Lorraine Code's assertion that the Rawlsian agent is not gender neutral, and should always be referred to as a he, because this notion of "enlightened self-interest" is intimately connected to the construction of masculinity under capitalism.  The maverick competing in the public sphere whose wife is expected to demonstrate empathy and selflessness: men are rational (also meaning, here, self-interested) whereas women are selfless (also meaning, here, irrational).  And so Rawls has assumed an agency, as well as a way of knowing, that is intrinsic to the capitalist male.

For why would anyone rendered ignorant of their social position end up rationally establishing welfare capitalism?  If we do not begin by assuming that the human being, once stripped of its socially constructed trappings, is defined by an individualistic essence of "enlightened self-interest", it would make far more sense to imagine that people, when rendered ignorant of position and privilege, would imagine a society where class disparity does not exist.


  1. Name dropping Lorraine Code! Well done...

    1. I have to name drop her at some point, and perhaps in the future, considering that she was the second reader of my doctoral dissertation and one of my favourite professors in that department... At some point I figured I would write something about how some of her work in epistemology intersects very beautifully with the kind of marxist concerns that emerged from the maoist tradition. Code always thought it was important to ask "who's knowledge and in who's service", and Mao's "who's knowledge and for whom?", "who's philosophy and for whom?", "who's art and for whom" class questions are well known.


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