[hist-analytic] Rawls, Contract, and the Theory of Social Choice

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Wed Aug 25 14:20:28 EDT 2010

Before engaging Rawls (and related self professed "social contract" philosophers, we need to get our "meta-bearings." What is Rawls up to, anyhow. Here is my take in very broad terms. 

Rawls is not, really, a social contract thinker. He intends to be but this is not what is most fundamental in dealing with his thoughts on, say, the "Nash point," Arrow's theorem, Pareto liberalism, and welfare economics, generally. The way I see it, Rawls has a bogey man (or bogey person, or bogey woman, etc). That bogey being is the idea of a "comprehensive moral view." I will go into all this later, but I just want to set forth in general terms what I see as his strongest motivating desires. 

What Rawls wants to do, in my opinion, is first deploy social contract theory in order to "free" himself from "comprehensive moral views"; then, "reduce" the fundamentals of social contract theory to social choice theory. Thus, Rawls is in fact doing social choice theory not contract theory, as such. I will explain later WHY I don't believe this is really social contract theory in either of the two senses I identify (Rousseau vs. Locke). But, besides avoiding "comprehensive moral views" there is another consequence, one which he will employ to detoxify the assets of utilitarianism: he detaches the theory of justice a discussion of historical processes. (e.g. _Justice as Fairness_ Harvard, 2001, p. 54: "The principles of justice specify the form of background justice apart from all historical conditions." 

I hold in abeyance the issue of the legitimacy of this move; but I would point out one fact which I believe is sort of interesting. Not only does Rawls distance himself from utilitarianism by rejecting the comprehensive view, e.g., but he also distances himself from Marxism, by denying the pertinence of historical processes. The rejection of historical processes and the rejection of a "comprehensive view" AND the rejection of Marxism, as such - although I think it is pretty clear Rawls, notwithstanding his occasional disclaimers, is anti-capitalist - are tied to the "reduction" of political theory to social choice theory. 

Steve Bayne 

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