John Rawls and Disingenuousness

John RawlsI’m in the process of reading John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness. It is not easy reading. But still, I’m sure you’ll hear me talking more and more about Rawls as time goes on. That’s the way I am.

Reading this book got me thinking of another of his books, Political Liberalism where he tries to answer the question of political legitimacy. Basically: why should we even accept “justice as fairness” as the basis of our society? Why not just accept the idea that what it says in some holy book as the basis of our society? His answer is universality. Only people who accept the book as the word of God think, for example, that God cries whenever a sperm is wasted. But no one can reasonably argue that beating up innocent children is a good thing to do. (Actually, the Bible is pretty big on that too!)

As a society, we accept this. So in general, you don’t see people arguing against gay marriage because “God” is against it. Instead, you see arguments cloaked in a patina of universality when the actual point is simply a plea to a particular religious or cultural doctrine. So they argue (against all actual facts) that same sex couples are bad for children. Sure, their holy book is very clear that God hates fags, but that has nothing to do with their argument. It’s just about the children!

What this all comes down to is the fact that policy debates usually have a high percentage of content that is disingenuous. What’s more, those arguments come mostly from the conservative side. Consider abortion. The only argument against abortion rights is that the fetus should be considered a full citizen. But this isn’t a reasonable argument when you are talking about a zygote that has no brain. Again: it is a religious argument about souls masquerading as a universalist argument about protecting the innocent.

It isn’t just social issues either. Almost every conservative economic argument I hear is based upon the aristocratic idea that the rich really are better than the rest of us. It is a belief of pure faith and is completely unsupported by the facts. But the argument is rarely put in this way. Instead of “the rich are better” we get the Job Creator myth. By this myth, the poor will only have jobs if we let the rich keep all their money. Again: a disingenuous argument intended to hide the real argument.

Related to this is the evolution debate. In the 19th century and through much of the 20th, the argument was purely religious: God said it was seven days, dontcha know! But over time, the creationists realized they were losing the battle with all this religious talk. So they got disingenuous. They started making scientific-like arguments against evolution. They developed Intelligent Design. But regardless of how much mumbo jumbo you pile on, it is still Genesis 1.

I love theoretical discussions and I think John Rawls is brilliant and adds a lot of insight into my thinking about these things. But such serious discussions don’t mean much in the practical world. The conservatives know how to play the game, even if they don’t really understand the game. And as a fairly practical guy, I want to know how to deal with all this disingenuousness. I wish the Christians would just go back to their old way of arguing: God said it; I believe it; that settles it. At least it’s truthful.


I would never try to prove natural selection by offering Bible verses. I really do not understand why they think it is alright to pollute my science as they do. They think they have the whole truth. If it were me and I just knew that after I died God was going to take me to heaven for eternity, I wouldn’t care much about this life. I know there are Christians like that out in the world. But most American Christians seem awfully angry when they talk about anything but how much Jesus loves them. Why does it matter to them what I believe? By their way of thinking, the best that’s going to happen to me is that I’m going to cease to exist. Given I only get one go at this, why not at least let me have my science and politics unpolluted by their faith-based disingenuousness?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “John Rawls and Disingenuousness

  1. I read "When God Talks Back," a book by the sociologist T.M. Luhrmann about evangelicals. It confirmed a lot of what I remembered from my fundamentalist upbringing.

    Basically, there are two kinds of really fervent evangelicals. One is the person for whom the doctrine is morally convenient. I’ve done crummy things to get where I am, but I’m saved, so I’m better than people who aren’t.

    The other kind are people who have had really horrible life experiences; they’ve been terribly abused, struggled with addiction, or had loved ones die too early. (Well, it’s always too early for loved ones to die, but you know what I mean.) To them, God is a protector. The concept of God comforts them. That whole "one set of footsteps" thing is emotionally very important to them.

    So when evil manipulative assholes (there I go, using that word again, but dammit, it fits) tell emotionally vulnerable people that "liberals are trying to take God away from you" of course they get scared. It’s perfectly understandable.

    I don’t miss faith. To me, faith is like permanently being in mental hock to the Landlord From Hell. You can never pay off the debt; you always, forever, owe God your moments of happiness, while moments of sadness are entirely your fault.

    Which is true of relationships in general. If this or that interaction with another person makes me happy, I owe that person; when the interactions go foul, it’s my fault. But that’s a much less crushing thing to accept when those I’m interacting with are fellow, imperfect humans than when my sadness is attributed to disappointing McBig Great God.

    Anyhoo. I’d mentioned a college instructor trying to explain Rawls’s "veil of ignorance" to a business class, and your take was "they just didn’t agree." It really wasn’t, though. They honestly didn’t get it. There was simply no way a good person (like them) could be disadvantaged and have no possibility of winning. It would have been demoralizing for these community-college business students to conceive of a world where privilege matters more than hard work; that would defeat the purpose of what they were trying to do with their lives.

    And this is the thing with our dysfunctional American economic system. The consequences of poverty are so extreme here that failure to be rich means a lot more than it would in a civilized society. This is why fundamentalists turn to an emotional-landlord God, or angry Black people believe batshit conspiracy theories about how The Man is keeping them down. (Trust me, I’ve heard them all. Did you know Obama isn’t Black, because his father came from Africa? Just wrap your head around the nuttiness of that a few times.)

    Socialism had a lot to be desired as a functioning economic system, but at least it had an intellectual basis that told poor people: you aren’t losers. You aren’t failures. It’s not your goddamn fault that your stove is broken and your windows leak in the cold. You’re trying as hard as you can, and assholes (that word!) are making money from exploiting you.

    When we lost unions (which had their own problems, and were sometimes very corrupt) we lost a lot more than a bargaining chip. We lost a sensible story about why bad things happen to good people. Now only God and conspiracy theories remain. To me, these are sloppy seconds at best.

  2. @JMF – When I read stuff like this, I really think you ought to start a blog. But anyway…

    The relationship thing reminded me of Thomas Harris’ [i]I’m Okay, you’re Okay[/i]. His idea was that that was the healthy way to view the world. "I’m not okay, you’re okay" was the neurotic, "I’m okay, you’re not okay" was the psychotic. In my experience, when I’m doing well, I really do manage the "I’m okay, you’re okay." During bad times it is "I’m not okay, you’re okay." So I don’t think it is so much about neuroses. But it is certainly true that we normal people tend to assume the best about others (Even God!) and the worst about ourselves. And I think that’s a good way to look at the world.

    The point about Rawls’ idea is not that we would decide on a system of perfect equality, just that most people would decide on a system of relative equality. To me it is very simple. Incentives really do matter. So allowing people to have a bit more stuff if they work extra hard is good for the society. But there are obvious limits to it. And as we’ve seen over the past three decades, if inequality gets past a certain point, society breaks down for more or less the same reasons. I won’t go into it here, but basically: if people at the bottom know there is a very small chance they can do better, then they have no more incentive to work hard than people do in a system with perfect equality.

    Another part of Rawls’ thought experiment is that you not only wouldn’t know where you were born and how rich you would be born: you wouldn’t know if you would be born strong or smart. That’s critically important! What should be do about those that are born incapable of being terribly useful to us. In general, "primitive" people take care of such people. Our great conservative "thinkers" (or as you would refer to them: assholes) can’t even manage that.

    The issue of self-worth is really big and involves a lot more than just the economic system. But you are quite right to bring up unions. The reason they terrify the rich is that they bind people together. And that alone (Forget collective bargaining!) is powerful. That’s why the Taft-Hartley Act was really what killed unions. I see it today with people in one union not being supporting of strikes by another union. Divide and conquer. The rich are winning that fight.

  3. The part about doing Rawls’s thought experiment and not knowing if you had the particular gifts to succeed in the theoretical society was where it got hard for many of my classmates to follow. To be fair, theoretical conceptions aren’t easy for everyone (there are many I can’t follow.) But this one challenged the subconscious belief that our society is structured fairly; it invited you to imagine a fairer one. And that’s just not the way most hopeful business students think. From what little I’ve seen of that discipline, it strikes me as much more ideological (defending laissez-faire capitalism, power relationships within companies) than practical (how to balance an account sheet; that’s what CPAs are for.)

    Funny, I work with the disabled, and while they aren’t "terribly useful" economically, I’m sure you’d agree they are in many other ways. This is always one area where cuts hit hardest, because it’s just not seen. I consider my most important part of the job to be making disabilities visible; going shopping, to ball games, restaurants, etc. Few of even the meanest conservatives want the disabled to suffer; they just don’t think about their existence. (And while autism has been rising for years, now cerebral palsy is too, thanks to horrible pre-natal care for the poor.)

    (When the NBA Trailblazers built their new arena in 1993, they forgot accessible seating! My brother and a wheelchair-using friend of his had to start a lawsuit to get the team to comply with the ADA!)

    Anyhoo. The notion that we live in the best of all possible systems is a troublesome thing we face. And among the other aspects you mentioned, inequality perpetuates the illusion of a just society by separating people physically from seeing how others live. A middle-class suburbanite may know, in their family or second/third-hand, a "lazy" person on "welfare." How many people do they come into contact with who are schizophrenic, or were damaged during childhood mental development? Almost none. But that’s the majority of people on long-term assistance. (Or the homeless, or in jail . . .)

    Heck, suburbanites even get peeved if someone tries opening a nursing home in their neighborhood!

  4. @JMF – Absolutely. It’s interesting that people in high crime areas tend to be more understanding and forgiving of criminals. Suburbanites who face almost no crime want to throw away the key for shoplifting.

    Experience is key. It’s easy to vilify blacks if you don’t actually know any. I think that’s critically true of people on assistance. And a big part of the problem is that pretty much everyone is on some kind of assistance but they don’t realize it. They define away their mortgage interest deduction as something they are owed instead of what it is: welfare for homeowners.

    I think you are quite right about about business students. They don’t exactly go into that major because, "I just want to help people." (That was, BTW, something I always heard from premeds and hated.)

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