Reasonable and rational

(cross-posted from my blog at America is Angry)
Last weekend, I finished the book Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman. It’s a study of how philosophers have dealt with the problem of evil—why do bad things happen to good people—focusing on some of the big philosophical names who’ve tackled the question and two events Neiman says shattered most people’s answers (a devastating Lisbon earthquake in the late 1700s and Auschwitz). Neiman’s view is that evil isn’t just a problem for religion—why does a good God allow us to suffer?—but for reason-based philosophies as well: It doesn’t seem logical that good people receive pain instead of reward, that the innocent are persecuted, that the wicked get off scott-free. In Neiman’s eyes, a major strain of modern philosophy is figuring out the difference between what is and what ought to be.

Near the end of the book she discusses John Rawls, the author of Theory of Justice, who states in his book that “to be reconciled to the social world, one must be able to see it as both reasonable and rational.” His test for this: What sort of world would you want you and your children to be born into if you knew nothing about whether they were rich or poor, male or female, white or black, citizens of New York, Beijing or Somalia? If you knew nothing of your and their abilities—poetry, football, carpentry, preaching—or whether you and they will be brave, timid, cool or excitable (Neiman says this is a version of well-established thought experiments).

It’s an interesting experiment. Most of us, when we fantasize about living in some other time, it’s more likely to be as a pharaoh or pirate than a fellahin or a slave; would anyone make the trip if they didn’t have the choice?

What would a world like Rawls describes look like? Is it even attainable? How would you get there? How would you get halfway there? To completely achieve it, we’d need to eliminate sexism/racism and other isms, have some sort of basic safety net, and a thriving economy, one in which there was still decent jobs with good pay for blue-collar labor (among other things). And have a government limited enough that there were protections against arbitrary imprisonment and injustice.

Rawls, from the quotes in this book, believed it was possible, even if we can’t achieve it ourselves: “So long as we believe for good reasons that a self-sustaining and reasonably just political and social order, both at home and abroad is possible, we can reasonably hope that we or others will someday, somewhere achieve it, and then we can do something toward this achievement.” The “and” part is important: Rawls wasn’t offering this as pie-in-the-sky consolation (“Yeah, the system sucks, but someday maybe there’ll be justice.”) but as something to work toward.

In another quote, Rawls said that to meet the “arbitrariness of fortune … In justice and in fairness, men agree to share one another’s fate. In designing institutions, they undertake to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit.”

Neiman says some critics objected this presupposes a human sense of justice—that people would actually care whether the system screws over anyone but them. And that’s a fair criticism. Some people don’t care as long as they’ve got their share. Some have unshakeable confidence that everything they’ve achieved is through their own abilities (and conversely, that anyone who’s poor or unemployed is there by their own fault). Some can’t conceive that the wheel of fortune spins, and that someday they’ll wind up on the bottom. Chance, contingency, fortune, luck—whatever you call it, it doesn’t affect them.

Or as Neiman puts it, “no arguments can force you into other people’s shoes. Either you decide that it’s right to consider the world from somewhere other than the accidental point at which you stand in it—or you don’t.”

I know which side I’m on.

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Politics

One response to “Reasonable and rational

  1. Pingback: Assault survivors are not at fault for not resolving the problem of evil | Fraser Sherman's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.