Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ethics Of Creation

One of the wonderful things about reading Rawls' A Theory of Justice is the breadth and so the richness of his writing. For example, in the context of explaining why the parties in the original position would choose principles which maximize the position of the worst-off, he discusses the role of facts in theorizing about justice, saying that "fundamental principles of justice quite properly depend on natural facts about men in society" and then going on to claim that thinking otherwise "makes moral philosophy the study of the ethics of creation: an examination of the reflections an omnipotent deity might entertain in determining which is the best of all possible worlds". This is a lovely, pregnant phrase, one which he goes on to develop and refine by contrasting the differences between the role of facts in utilitarianism and his own theory through the remainder of that section. One of the many complaints about the REF, the mechanism by which the British government distributes funding for research in higher education, is that it institutionalizes a 'publish or perish' requirement (see for example here). If you haven't got enough good pieces of work published in the census period, at the minimum you're screwing your institution and your colleagues over and perhaps making yourself unemployed or more likely unemployable. Rawls finished his PhD 21 years before he wrote Theory. He published articles here and there in the interim, but not many, not by today's standards. He didn't have to. Presumably, one of the consequences of that is the scope, the genuinely magisterial scope, and so the care and wisdom of Theory. He had the time to think these things through, to pursue resolutions to problems through all their complexities. In comparison with much of the work done in his field now, then, ironically, it is his considered reflections on how we might live together justly in spite of our differences that seem like an ethic of creation. There is so much that they explore, so much that, partly because of his influence, which perhaps has not always been good, but not just because of that, is now skated over, assumed and not thought through.