Thursday, June 12, 2008

Autonomy and Instrumentalism

I've been reading Michael Frazer's paper 'John Rawls: between two enlightenments', and was puzzled by the following passage about reasoning behind the veil of ignorance:
Facing the possibility that they will be deeply committed to a certain religious or philosophical vision of life, these actors [in the original position] must feel their way into the perspective of such committed believers, and consider the role that first principles play in the lives of those devoted to them. Upon doing so, Rawls argues, actors in the original position come to understand that any risk of not being allowed to live according to one's most cherished convictions cannot be compensated for by any degree of economic or political benefit. Such a rejection of the very sort of cost-benefit analysis characteristic of instrumental rationality cannot itself be the product of that very faculty, but must stem instead from an empathetic understanding of others, including those very different from oneself.

Where's the rejection of cost-benefit analysis? Isn't the point precisely that the costs of "not being allowed to live according to one's most cherished convictions" are considered to be so great as to outweigh any mere "economic or political" benefit? Given that one prizes autonomy (lexically) above material comfort, instrumental rationality recommends taking the means that will best accomplish the former goal, at any cost of the latter. Such lexical orderings strike me as insanely absolutist, but instrumental reason abstains from such judgments, and so can accommodate such preferences, however crazy they may seem. So what in the world does Frazer mean by calling this a "rejection" of instrumental reasoning?

I also don't get why he contrasts "empathetic understanding" as some completely distinct, non-rational faculty. Surely empathy is required here for simple informational purposes, i.e. to enable the veiled agent to fully understand what it would be like to experience the various lives that could (for all she knows) turn out to be hers. It thus serves as a kind of perceptual input to the rational faculties.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that Rawls' position, as depicted here by Frazer, can be understood contra Frazer as conforming to a cost-benefit analysis where autonomy is valued highly.

    Nevertheless, there is something very strange about the way this cost-benefit is performed here. It seems to me that a reasonable person wants to live according to their core convictions not because those convictions are THEIRS (which would be mere pride) but because they think their convictions are RIGHT. That is, they want to live a certain way because they think it's good for people to live that way. This is why a non-relativist (i.e. sane) philosopher or religionist tries to convince other people to also live according to their own beliefs about what is right.

    Suppose for example that a member of an ascetic religion chooses to live a highly unpleasant life in the hopes of obtaining a better afterlife. The ascetic admits that if he is wrong, he has essentially ruined his life for nothing. It seems rather condescending for those in the original position to respect his choice simply because it is his choice. Since the ascetic's behavior is good for him if and only if his beliefs are correct, the only way for someone to judge whether society should encourage or discourage his asceticism is to decide whether his beliefs are correct. Or else to simply pat him on the back and say "good for you, whatever floats your boat," but that is precisely to avoid thinking about it from his perspective (he himself might think that everyone else should be equally ascetic).

    I guess this just shows the absurdity of trying to discuss ethics from an original position completely removed from all beliefs about what is good.


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