Friday, June 19, 2009

On Basic Structures and Starting Points

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes (7):
The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different social positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others. These are especially deep inequalities. Not only are they pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert. It is these inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply.

He elaborates (82):
The primary subject of justice, as I have emphasized, is the basic structure of society. The reason for this is that its effects are so profound and pervasive, and present from birth. This structure favors some starting points over others in the division of the benefits from social cooperation. It is these inequalities which the two principles are to regulate. Once these principles are satisfied, other inequalities are allowed to arise from men’s voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association. Thus the relevant social positions are, so to speak, the starting places properly generalized and aggregated.

In this post, I want to jot down some thoughts on why I find this a concerning aspect of Rawls’ approach. My concern arises from Rawls’ supposition that basic structures “contain” social positions, and thus the array of social positions in a society are the result of the choice of basic structures in that society. But the basic structure of society does not itself directly produce the distribution of starting places. In each instance where a person is born into a particular starting place, it is the consequence of some people having a child. It is somewhat difficult for me to imagine why we would think that the basic structure of a typical society could directly cause a baby to be born. Perhaps we could coherently say this if we lived in a mechanistic totalitarian society in which children were in an important sense a product of social planning, but this seems like an odd way to think about the way children are born in our society.

The extent to which the basic structure of our society impacts the array of starting places is the extent to which it has some influence on the range of opportunities that prospective parents are able to offer their children, in those cases where these people actually do choose to have children. Approaching things with this mindset, we can see that any society will “contain” an infinite number of potential starting points, and in certain relatively rare circumstances, a child will actually be born into a particular starting point. But these starting points will be the product not only of the principles governing the basic structure of society, but also (and undoubtedly more importantly) the incredible confluence of events that led up to the possibility of a particular child being born into a particular set of social circumstances, almost all of which are only tangentially related to the basic structure of society. And significantly, the way that we characterize a starting place will be significantly conditioned by the kind of parenting the individual in question will receive. I would at least be hesitant to think of the quality of one’s parents’ personal contributions to one’s childhood as being entirely the product of the basic structure of society (I would actually be a bit hesitant to make these claims about pretty much any of the social interactions that help to shape a child’s life, but for our purposes it will not be necessary to raise this challenge). If it’s true that the distribution of starting points is at least partly determined by the way that people choose to treat their children, then Rawls’ claim that the basic structure of society “contains various social positions” (where the relevant social positions are “starting places”) seems a little worrisome.

But Rawls might counter that even if the basic structure of society does not solely determine the array of starting points into which people will be born, it still has some impact on the range of opportunities that will be available to individuals whose parents decided to have them. And this, he could say, may be cause for some concern. Intuitively, this seems fair enough. I think it’s entirely reasonable, for example, to think that we may want to consider the idea that we have some duty (as individuals, social groups, communities, or whatever) to ensure that people have certain opportunities provided to them if we can help it (I don’t intend to engage this question here, but I certainly wouldn’t want to rule this out). Rawls might say that we ought to help poor families to provide education, food, or clothing for their children. He might say that we ought to help children from less fortunate backgrounds get into college or enter the workforce. Though these suggestions might be problematic for one reason or another, they don’t seem totally unreasonable on their face.

But this isn’t what Rawls wants to argue: he wants to suggest that by allowing a certain array of starting points to come into existence, the basic structure of society might itself be seen to be unjust, and would thus need to be replaced with another basic structure. This, I think, is where Rawls might be running into real trouble.

Here’s what I have in mind: Individuals who are born into particular starting points are the products of particular reproductive events. These events are the products of long histories of social changes and reproductive events which produced the circumstances in which these events occurred. Altering the basic structure of society would bring it about that a different set of reproductive events would occur, and so a different set of starting points would come about, but into these starting points would be born a totally different set of people. This is a problem because Rawls’ view is built on a scenario where the members of society are supposed to try to agree on the basic structure of society -- a mutually beneficial system of cooperation. But if we assume that living is not itself a bad thing (I have heard this disputed, but whatever), then it seems clear that the most beneficial choice of basic structures for any individual would be whatever structure brought that individual into existence. No one would really have any grounds to complain about their starting place because it would be a necessary precondition for them existing in the first place. Altering the array of starting points in society might be justified, but not on the basis that it would somehow benefit the people whose “undesirable” starting points would be eliminated. And if we’re not trying to benefit these people, then it’s sort of difficult to see how we’re still talking about a contractarian view that’s focused on starting points.

(To be honest, I’m sort of unsure about this conclusion. In this case, when I say that it’s difficult for me to see how this could be accommodated, I am not saying that rhetorically; I don’t know how it works. If anyone can explain to me how Rawls’ approach could accommodate the fact that no one will benefit from the choice of any basic structure besides the one that causes them to come into existence, that would be sweet.)

So hopefully, this post has served to establish two points on which I am confused: a) the basic structure of society doesn’t itself produce the distribution of starting places, and b) messing with the basic structure in order to alter the distribution of starting points in fundamental ways would bring about an entirely different population, which would most certainly not benefit the people whose starting points are being eliminated, and would therefore seem not be an appropriate goal of a contractarian view like Rawls’. As should be clear from the above, none of this should be taken to be “damning criticism” of Rawls; I am just hesitant about the way that Rawls is proceeding, and I think he might have made a big mistake. Even so, these do seem like the sorts of things that would need to be addressed.

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