Talk on Frank Knight and John Rawls

This past weekend I attended the inaugural conference of the PPE Society in New Orleans – an excellent event, with lots of interesting papers on related themes. My presentation was based on my paper ‘Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,’ Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 16, (2017): 47-69. It was called The Free Market Critique of Desert, and its Relation with Justice as Fairness; the text of the talk (lightly revised) is available on my site, via the link above. “Free-market critique of desert” is misleading; it should really be “the free-market critique of the desert-based justification of capitalism” but that’s too long. Another possible title for the talk would be “the neoliberal foundations of liberal egalitarianism,” but that would generate too much confusion.

9 thoughts on “Talk on Frank Knight and John Rawls”

  1. I take it that you’re undisturbed by the fact that Knight treats economic activity as the playing of a game – a serious game, to be sure, but a game nevertheless – for the same reason that you’re undisturbed by the fact that Rawls treats politics in this way. What I don’t get is why you’re undisturbed by these things!

    1. Actually, I think Knight did find it disturbing, or at least he recognized that others found it disturbing. It’s one thing to choose to walk into the casino, it’s another to be forced to play a competitive game to make ends meet – and then to be judged in a comprehensive way based on one’s success or failure. I think I posted a video here of a Milton Friedman clip in the casino. The rules of a social practice need not be competitive in that manner, however, or at least we can constrain and limit the competition. And competition has its virtues. If people are going to be free to work at the occupations they prefer, efficiency is going to require incentives.

      1. I still don’t get it. Look at it this way. You have wars and you have war games. The latter are serious to the degree that they’re played not for fun but for educational purposes. Still, they ARE played, for they are no more than simulations of the real thing. And this is precisely how Knight, Rawls, and Lister treat economic and political activity, i.e. as unreal.

  2. I think economic and political activity is real, but that it is inevitably (and in some ways desirably) limited by more-or-less general rules that we follow only on the condition that most others generally follow them too – partly because the rules don’t necessarily line up with what we (variously, conflictingly) take to be the moral ideal. Does thinking of a society as a system of social rules (norms, etc.) commit me to viewing society as a game, and hence as unreal?

  3. Knight and Rawls say explicitly that they conceive of economics or politics as games, though they (for some reason) fail to see how unreal this is.

    As for you, it depends why you think we should adopt the system of rules. If, like Rawls, you think we should do so for its own sake (Theory of Justice, p. 9; Political Liberalism, pp. 50, 54, 92, 148-9) then, yes, you are treating the rules as if they were the rules of a game and so as unreal. If, by contrast, you believe that they should be adopted for a serious practical purpose, then no. For that’s the same reason why people follow sets of systematic rules which are not games, e.g. recipes, which help us fulfill the serious practical purpose of having something good to eat for dinner. Not that I think it’s a good idea to think of society in this way either, but that’s another matter.

    1. Rules have a number of functions. Some rules are instrumental, as in the case of baking the cake. We need to coordinate our behaviour, for example, in order to achieve our various objectives. From a Hayekian perspective, we inherit social rules, and may not fully appreciate their various positive functions (though there is no guarantee that evolutionary success in intergroup competition selects for justice). In other cases the role of the rule isn’t so instrumental. I take it that ordinary personal relationships are constituted in part by the attitudes we have towards one another, and that these depend on the existence of shared moral norms. Resentment and indignation at the conduct of others depends on my assumption that they are flouting a norm; if I find out that they don’t subscribe to that norm at all, that they have a very different moral conception, I can’t be so resentful or indignant. They’re not intending any disrespect, they’re just following what they take to be the applicable moral rule (that’s my quick summary of Gaus building on Strawson, but there’s some similar material in Rawls’ section 87 of Theory on the natural and moral attitudes). It’s at this point that we need politics, understood as a set of norms and procedures for identifying a certain set of norms that will become laws, publicly announced and enforced. The justification of these procedural rules will be in part instrumental; the primary purpose of the procedures is to enact just or otherwise wise laws and policies. However, given that we disagree about what laws are just /wise, the procedures also have to serve the purpose of legitimating the laws with respect to those who disagree. That tends to introduce a non-instrumental dimension into the assessment of procedures (e.g you should obey despite disagreeing because you had an equal say in making the law, and if the decision had gone the other way, we would have obeyed..) It seems to me that one can recognize that rules play a number of legitimate functions, in social life, some of the relational rather than instrumental, and this doesn’t involve treating social life as just a game.

      1. So you disagree with Knight and Rawls:

        “Industry and trade is a competitive game, in which men engage in part from the same motives as in other games or sports.”
        “The Ethics of Competition”

        “In much the same way that players have the shared end to execute a good and fair play of the game, so the members of a well-ordered society have the common aim of cooperating together to realize their own and another’s nature in ways allowed by the principles of justice.”
        A Theory of Justice

        Where, precisely, do you think they went wrong?

  4. I think Knight was simply describing the actual effects of the competitive system – and pointing out that judged from the standpoint of “absolute” (noncomparative) ethics (Christian or Greek) it didn’t look so great (though critics tended to underestimate egregiously the chances of doing vastly worse, he thought – a rough quote).

    Rawls is describing an ideal. But it’s an ideal for an association membership in which is not fully voluntary, but which claims and exercises final authority over who is allowed to enforce what rights and duties, in the context of ongoing religious and philosophical disagreement. I think practice-rules play a number of essential roles. And I think that respecting and following those rules can be important for its own sake as well as for the ends it brings about (particularly given disagreement about what ends our society should be bringing about). So I don’t think Rawls does go wrong, in this respect. There is an analogy with games in which people have not only individual motives for playing but the shared end that the rules be followed.

    Your view seems to be that social rules can only ever be instruction-rules, which are justified by their tendency to bring about specific results. Treating rules as partly constitutive of social life and social relationships, is a mistake, you think – is that right?

  5. I think you’d be hard-pressed to explain why their visions are merely analogous to games rather than actual games. Because given their assumptions (which I think you share) I believe they’re right to see them as the latter.

    As for my view, the big issue for me is not that of instrumental vs. intrinsic, i.e. instructive vs. constitutive, social rules, but whether (i) they are, at bottom, mental or practical (they’re practical); and (ii) whether they fit together in a unified system or not (they don’t).

    For more see

    and (again)

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