December 13, 2006

Rawls on Dignity

Looks like an interesting discussion at Ezra's on Rawls, taking off from Sigrid Fry-Revere's attack on Rawlsianism for allegedly "neglect[ing] to realize that any form of distributive justice is disrespectful of the person to whom goods are being distributed at the expense of others." (Also check out Ezra's links, espcially Julian Sanchez.)

The first point I'd make is the one that Blar did -- Rawls wrote a lot about respect, and it's bizarre to discuss him without actually looking at what he had to say about it. The second point is one that Andrew makes, at least indirectly: Rawls wasn't a fan of our welfare system, precisely because it does mark the poor out as undeserving and thus undermines their self-respect. IIRC (I don't have any of my Rawls right here) Rawls was a much bigger fan of universal systems like a guaranteed income for all. People who collect Social Security aren't stigmatized, because everyone does it once they're old enough.

Fry-Revere's basic argument (in comments) perhaps can be summed up as, "the best kind of caring isn’t anonymous, and that our society would be better off if we all gave each other more time instead of expecting government to do it for us." Hence the welfare state is bad because it institutionalizes anonymous caring. I think it is good for society to encourage more personal caring, but I'm very dubious that this is an argument for demolishing public welfare systems; Fry-Revere's argument comes uncomfortably close to the idea that society's goal should be to increase the virtue of those who care for the worst-off rather than to better the lot of the worst-off themselves. But this is backwards, carrying what Julian describes as "a whiff of moral self-indulgence."

Perhaps more important, the personal-caring model seems very poorly suited to a heterogenous society like ours. Personal caring will most likely in most cases be caring for people around us and people like us. That'll leave many people out in the cold. And the people who are most hurt by this will be exactly the poor black people who suffer the most because of the past and present injustices in our society. We need truly universal programs if we're to ensure that everyone is cared for.

Posted by Matt Weiner at December 13, 2006 09:48 AM

Let us kick it Rambam-style.

Posted by: standpipe b at December 13, 2006 04:54 PM


Yes, Rawls does speak a great deal of respect, but my point is that the way he believes we should show respect has the opposite effect that he intends it alienates people and creates the impression that caring or being cared for is somehow degrading. We need to change this perception. If we all help each other because we all need help at one time or another there is also no stigma involved. Besides, making friends isn't stigmatizing and that is part of the point. I don't think anyone I've helped in my years of volunteering, taking people in, etc. think of me as anything but a friend.

I’m not sure what "a whiff of moral self-indulgence" means other than that it is non-constructive name calling. My point is that the human interaction involved in caring for others is essential to a moral society, both the giver and the person who receives benefit from the experience. I’m not alone in this moral perspective. I learned it from Aristotle and Kant.

It is all the more important that we reach out in a heterogeneous society -- after all we are one human community and we need to interact to understand each other better. Actually, I don't understand how this position is moral self-indulgence -- it is how to build a better society.. The ethos of caring is seriously missing from our society, and my point is that Rawls theory doesn't do anything to help further that important social goal.

Another point I made earlier is that those who are the “worst-off” are often very good at caring for others. There is a great deal everyone can learn from each other, but we have to interact to do that. We can’t just send a check in the mail.

Posted by: Sigrid Fry-Revere at December 13, 2006 06:00 PM

Hi Sigrid, thanks for stopping by! I've got a lot of grading to do now so I'll just try to respond quickly about why I didn't mean to be name-calling.

I take it that Julian's point about moral self-indulgence, and one I agree with, is that in caring for others the important thing is not our own moral status, but the consequences for the cared-for person. My moral status is unimportant beside the question of whether the person who's being cared for gets what they need. That I think you agree with, that one's motive for caring should be the other person rather than one's own moral status. But I'd go farther, and say that society's first priority should be to try to set things up so that people get what they need rather than so that people have the most opportunity to behave morally by caring for others. Of course this isn't to say that society should make it impossible to care for others, and there's no risk of that happening. But giving people the most opportunity to care for others is not the point. That seems like it elevates concern for our moral status over what the moral status is good for. The virtues of caring are good in part because they ensure that people get cared for. Arranging society so that more people care, but (because of lack of a safety net) more people also go without care that they need, would undercut the point of caring for people.

[I remember a talk-show host arguing that socialism--whatever he may have meant by that--was un-Christian because it means that we can't exercise the virtue of charity. And I thought, doesn't that undercut the point of charity? You don't want to make sure that the poor are always with us so that people can earn points toward salvation by giving them charity.]

I take it that your response to this would be in part that the safety net doesn't meet people's needs, because it deprives them of dignity. So they aren't really cared for; people's needs can only be met if they're met personally and privately. Here we'd disagree, partly for the reasons given in Ezra's thread by Amanda and B in Ohio. But I'll leave that for a followup, since I have to grade.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 13, 2006 07:25 PM

I was going to mention Maimonides but I see SB got there first.

Posted by: teofilo at December 13, 2006 08:35 PM

ITYM "Sorry it took me so long to mention Maimonides…"

Posted by: standpipe b at December 13, 2006 09:11 PM

OK, someone needs to explain the Maimonides to me. Unless it has to do with the comment of Ezra's that my mom corrected in his thread, about how "the Jewish religion has long recognized a hierarchy of [charity], with the highest form being donations where the donor didn't know the recipient and the recipient didn't know the donor -- thus there would be no feelings of shame or entitlement on either side." In which case the both of you are pwned.

[Serious students of philosophy should not click standpipe's link.]

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 13, 2006 09:14 PM

Right, Maimonides' eight degrees of charity.

I think Ezra's post is far enough removed from this cozy little thread for your own comment above to count as a proxy farb. Unless you want to argue that link-clicking and whole-thing-reading are, in fact, bloggic norms. In which case I will laugh at you.

Posted by: standpipe b at December 13, 2006 10:17 PM

But to claim pwnage... ah hell, it's quarter to one, I just finished grading my exams, and when I went to input the course grades that ABSOLUTELY MUST be in by tomorrow morning the server was down. So I'm going to bed. I will correct your errors sometime after I awake.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 13, 2006 11:48 PM

I will say that I don't get Maimonides's 11-14. Are not the categories "one who gives to the poor person before being asked" and "one who gives to the poor person after being asked" a joint partition of "one who gives to the poor person"? (If you mention those who give while being asked I will hit you.) How then can there be two degrees of one who gives below them? What makes the most sense to me is if giving before/after being asked and giving gladly/unwillingly are two different axes of above/belowness, if that were physically possible.

Sigrid, I have every intention of addressing your points with more seriousness than this comment evinces.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 13, 2006 11:53 PM

I don't see what you're not getting, Matt. All Maimonides is saying is that it's better to give a poor person money without waiting for them to ask you, that giving willingly is better than giving unwillingly, and that giving unwillingly is the lowest level of charity. Since he is, for whatever reason, putting this all on one axis, he needs to put the asking bits higher than the willing bits. And I'm frankly surprised that you aren't familiar with this hierarchy.

Posted by: teofilo at December 14, 2006 12:17 AM

I think I had heard of the hierarchy, though it isn't the first thing I think of. (I've heard stories of lamed vavniks who go out of their way to appear miserly when they're actually very generous, and to tell the truth they always seemed pretty messed up to me.) But I think my reading of the hierarchy is exactly the same as yours, my point is just that it doesn't actually fit on one axis. It's not a very substantial point.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 14, 2006 08:01 AM

So, old standpipe, let us engage in conceptual analysis. Why would I have to argue that link-clicking and whole-thing-reading were bloggic norms? If pwning required that the pwnee have violated bloggic norms. But the classic pwn is one in which the pwner posts while the pwnee is still typing. (This, I believe, is the original.) So pwning cannot entail that the pwnee has done wrong, for it is impossible to forestall pwning with certainty. (Even if you preview, the pwner might post while you're previewing.) In fact, to farb is really to claim that the farbee has done wrong (though this claim is often taken to be outlandish).

On the other hand, violation of a norm does not necessarily entail that the violator has done wrong. It could just be that they have not lived up to ideal standards. But in this way it is not implausible that clicking is a bloggic norm; just as being pwned reflects that you are not living up to the standards of ideal quickness that would, for instance, prevent you from being beaten to the hundredth comment in a thread.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 15, 2006 09:30 AM

I don't see how welfare *necessarily* stigmatizes the poor as undeserving. I believe that the real effect of Social Security has been income transfer to older women, and it's made the most difference to those who'd otherwise be very poor.

But what I really want to say is this: In a dry third-world country, where people have to carry water from a spring, to give someone a cup of cool water is a beautiful, loving gesture. But would we want to dismantle the pumps and pipes of our developed world?

Posted by: Matt's mom at December 26, 2006 09:07 AM