So far I've been quite critical of Bernard Williams in my rather more erratic than intended series of posts on his collection, In The Beginning Was The Deed. I have delineated his differences from post-Rawlsian liberal theory, and then attacked him for being excessively meta-theoretical and for failing to understand the moral limits of politics. This is, given that I began by claiming a particular interest in and affinity with Williams, perhaps slightly odd. Here, then, I will attempt to justify those claims of interest and affinity by defending one of Williams' critiques of post-Rawlsian liberal theory, if, initially, rather and perhaps typically digressively.
One of the recurrent concerns of post-Rawlsian theory is to provide a precise and ideal theory of distributive justice, to find some way to be able to be sure about the exact moral status of not only any pattern of holdings and exchanges of physical objects, but of any of the instances which make up that pattern. This is partly a product of Rawls' own extensive discussion of his principle of distributive justice, that -
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:
a) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
b) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society -
and has tended to naturally circle around various ideas Rawls brought up: that priority should be given to the least well-off; that departures from equality are justified where enforcing equality would make some or all less well-off; that talent, because arbitrarily distributed, is not a proper ground of desert. A variant of the last of these ideas, that anything which is arbitrarily distributed has a morally arbitrary distribution, has given rise to a school of thought about distributive justice called Luck Egalitarianism.
What unites Luck Egalitarians is the thought that outcomes which result from brute luck - genetic inheritances, what insurers call acts of God, and so on - should be equalised, whilst outcomes which result from option luck - deliberate gambles, such as an investment or the decision to go to take one job or another - should be left undisturbed. This looks very neat: there may be some arguing to be done about exactly what counts as brute luck and option luck at the margins, and to decide what sorts of things should be redistributed, but the core of the position seems unimpeachable, with a pleasingly robust and foundational character.
It invokes a clear and widely accepted moral principle, that if you choose to take a particular risk, then if it turns out badly no-one else has an obligation to assist, whereas genuine accidents create a duty of assistance. However, despite this clear and apparently eminently reasonable moral principle, Luck Egalitarianism has neither conquered the academy nor, internally, been able to produce some categorical and canonical statement of the dividing line between brute and option luck or of what should be the metric of justice, what sorts of things should be redistributed.
One particularly powerful critique of Luck Egalitarianism, first made by Elizabeth Anderson, is that it forgets that a choice amongst some set of options is not necessarily legitimating. It is now a philosophical commonplace that bare consent is not enough for a social contract theory, because if the alternative to consent is insufficiently attractive, the legitimating power of consent slips away, undermined by the lack of palatable options. Anderson's point is broadly the same: we can hardly hold people responsible for a particular choice, in the sense that any duty of care or assistance falls away, if the set of options they were choosing from lacks acceptable alternatives. Some suitably pithy remark about being offered a choice between your money and your life would, if I could think of one, be appropriate here.
This is not the only critique of Luck Egalitarianism offered by Anderson, by any stretch of the imagination. I think, though, that it is the central one. The point it makes is that Luck Egalitarianism expects a plausible thick-grained moral principle to be refined down into a precise, foundational and equally plausible fine-grained one. It has picked one moral claim from a universe of moral claims, and set it itself the task of refining, sharpening, it, hoping that by doing so, the now precise claim will be able provide, of itself, a perfect guide to moral conduct, admittedly within a particular sphere of moral conduct. Whatever moral work the idea of choice does, it cannot do all that work alone. Our moral lives are richer than that.
This connects with Anderson's other criticisms, which mostly relate to the moral attitudes that Luck Egalitarianism would express to those who would live under it. She claims, not bizarrely, for example, that by viewing their claims against others as following directly and solely from their misfortune, Luck Egalitarianism disenfranchises and patronises those to who it would distribute its largesse. Equally, she feels that Luck Egalitarianism, by accepting chosen and hence many market outcomes as just, institutionalises various unacceptable socially-constructed roles - most obviously those of women as carer - and thus gives up on the idea of moral progress. All of these critiques come back to that about the legitimating powers of choice: they are examples for it, showing that insufficient attention has been paid to the more general moral fabric.
This, though, is precisely Williams' point about contemporary, and perhaps modern, moral philosophy, that its systematising urge means that it ignores the richness of our moral lives. It is not an accident that one of the other two posthumous collections is called Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline. Geoffrey Hawthorn, in the introduction to In The Beginning..., quotes extensively from one of Williams' earlier works, Ethics And The Limits Of Philosophy:
Theory looks characteristically for considerations that are very general and have as little distinctive content as possible, because it is trying to systematize, and because it wants to present as many reasons as possible as applications of other reasons. But critical reflection should seek for as much shared understanding as it can find on any issue, and should use any ethical material that, in the context of the reflective discussion, makes some sense and commands some loyalty. Of course that will take things for granted, but as serious reflection it must know that it will do that. The only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after the reflection; moreover (although the distinction between theory and practice encourages us to forget it), we have to live during it as well.
In the essay 'Modernity And The Substance Of Ethical Life', Williams expands this criticism, claiming that one force which may well have encouraged such trends, a force which must now undoubtedly be dealt with, accommodated in whatever ways are appropriate, is the heterogeneity of modern societies. It has done so by widening the constituency to which public justification needs to be addressed, a fact which must now be dealt with.
Public justification does not in itself inevitably imply the use of "thin" concepts; in a very homogeneous traditional society... public justification may deploy "thick" ethical concepts that figure equally in private practice. Modern societie, however, are characteristically more pluralistic... their conception of public legitimacy is one that encourages institutions to... adopt styles of justification that are more procedural, or appeal to notions of welfare or consensus that are less commital and less ethically distinctive than "thick" concepts.
[w]e can hope to make sense of ethical thought in relation to the modern world only if we give up, along with other ambitions of ethical theory, the attempt to find one set of ideas that will represent the demands of ethics in all the spheres to which ethical experience applies
to do this, we need to both
aim to cherish as best we can a range of ethical concepts of the more substantive kind
and, at the same time,
recognize, possibly in virtue of some of these ideas themselves, such as certain conceptions of justice, the need that decisions taken by public bodies may have to be argued about and justified in more abstract, procedural terms, with a "thinner" ethical content.
Williams is not being a nostalgist here. His claim is not that things were better in some imagined past, but that ethical theory does not do justice to its subject matter here and now, that the ethics that professional philosophers discuss too often bears too little resemblance to its lived reality. That strikes me as correct, as the hopefully salutary example of Luck Egalitarianism I believe amply illustrates.