On April 26, 2019, Ludek Sekyra’s article was published on the website of the Czech newspaper "Economic News" (Hospodářské noviny), which focuses on economics and is published by Economia.
In the public sphere today there is no lack of discussion about the crisis of liberal democracy, the rise of populism, and the nature of freedom in authoritarian regimes making use of technology in a way that resembles Orwell’s iconic dystopia. These discussions have not just a political dimension, but also an important academic one.
In January, a conference took place at Harvard University devoted to the legacy of John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. It was organized by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics in cooperation with the Sekyra Foundation. The list of attendees included some of the greatest names of moral and political philosophy, such as Danielle Allen, Christine Korsgaard, and Thomas Scanlon (Harvard); Stephen Darwall (Yale); Samuel Scheffler and Jeremy Waldron (New York University); Partha Dasgupta (Cambridge); and Rainer Forst (Goethe University Frankfurt).
The goal was to elucidate the most pressing questions of contemporary discourse in light of Rawls’s theory of justice and liberalism.
In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, which changed the course of political thought in the twentieth century.
Rawls’s critique of utilitarianism and his return to the tradition of the social contract and Kant’s universalism resulted in an original transformation of moral doctrine into the political conception of justice, which remains today an unsurpassed philosophical reflection of liberal society. His efforts culminated in the 1993 book Political Liberalism, which is an attempt to delineate the conditions under which stable coexistence is possible in a society that is pluralistic in its values. According to Rawls, this can be guaranteed only by an “overlapping consensus”, which is the common point of intersection, the basis of coexistence in an otherwise divided society. This takes the form of generally acceptable political principles of justice, which arise from the fact that humans are moral beings that have their own sense of justice and a rational conception of a good life.
The prestigious conference at Harvard identified the themes that are at the core of today’s moral and political debates. The first is the issue of justice, which, in the classic Rawlsian conception, is “the first virtue of social institutions”. This is an important definition. With it, Rawls precisely limited the concept of justice to the institutional structure of society. The discussion showed that Rawls’s conception of justice, seen through the lens of the current era, is relatively narrow; that is, it is often not a sufficient foundation for social cohesion in a polarized society.
A number of participants shared the goal of making Rawls’s central concept more inclusive, to broaden it from distributional justice to justice in the context of climate change, as well as intergenerational justice, beyond the original framing of a purely institutional theory. It seems that this tendency reflects Aristotle’s conclusion that justice is the welfare of others, not just the principle of giving to each their own (suum cuique tribuere).
Inequality and the least advantaged
Although Rawls’s conception of political justice as the foundation of an acceptable liberal consensus is probably the most influential legacy of political philosophy in the previous century, we need other principles as well, because, despite the efforts mentioned in the previous paragraph, justice is often one-sided, and from a certain viewpoint, the emphasis on institutions may be advantageous only for those who have the greatest influence on them.
I believe that the moral basis of justice should be the principle of reciprocity, which is a necessary precondition of social cohesion, both in its symmetric form – for example, participation in the public life of an open and inclusive society, where the members of the society repay the society for providing them with education or offering them other forms of social integration – and in its asymmetric form, in the shape of care for future generations who currently cannot repay that care, but who, it is assumed, will do so in the future, once they adopt a reciprocal stance that always respects the claims of others and future generations as well. By doing so, after all, they will fulfill the age-old ambition of justice to make a moral stance the foundation of both human and political behavior.
Another great philosophical theme is the question of inequality. In Rawls’s conception, everyone should have the same access to the set of fundamental rights and freedoms, and inequality is acceptable only when to the benefit of the least advantaged, those who are on the bottom rung of society. To put it concisely, improving the station of the poorest is the responsibility of those who are better off.
Given the rising level of inequality in both the Western countries, especially those using the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, and the developing world, seeking ways to reverse this trend is an ever more pressing issue.
Wherever we see the middle classes growing poorer, becoming disillusioned, and facing destruction, people are radicalizing and turning towards populist negativism, which has been described many times before (examples include Brexit and Trump). What are – wrongly – proclaimed as the cause of inequality and enemies of the nation are migrants, minorities, globalization, and liberal politics. In this context, Piketty’s critique of capitalism, his call for regulation, redistribution, and global forms of taxation, has resonated widely, as has Scheidel’s cautionary analysis concluding that inequality is significantly reduced primarily through wars, revolutions, and epidemics. Arguments calling for greater distribution of assets are, of course, important and deserve respect. We must always keep in mind, though, that the market environment is not just one of the causes of economic inequality, but also the primary source of societal wealth.
How to properly distribute wealth
At the Harvard conference, this question was addressed by one of the greatest living moral philosophers, Thomas Scanlon, who is convinced that we must distinguish between different forms of inequality (whether in terms of wealth, race, or gender).
Each of these domains requires its own solution; nonetheless, a societal guarantee of fair equality of opportunities, as well as a certain form of redistribution of wealth, appears to be a universal means of reducing inequality.
A radical right to compensation for inequality was also brought up by young Harvard philosopher Lucas Stanczyk, who pointed out the problem of the working poor, where certain professions are insufficiently compensated regardless of their work performance. In his opinion, the asymmetry benefitting the wealthy – that is, those who set the rules – cannot be solved within the capitalist market economy. On the left, the concept of “universal basic income”, which would guarantee a dignified existential minimum to all, is ever more popular.
At the same time, some participants criticized meritocracy, the principle stating that positions and functions should be distributed in accordance with capabilities, performance and competence – for example, because the financial demands of a high-quality education have made it inaccessible for aspirants from lower classes (current estimates from the United States indicate that 82 percent of young people from the highest income quartile attain a bachelor’s degree, compared to just eight percent from the lowest quartile.)
This weakens social mobility, and certain positions thus still cycle among the same closed-off elites. For example, Joseph Fishkin (University of Texas) named his book on this topic Bottleneck.
Fishkin analyzes the crucial points along an individual’s path to success, which are often set up to be restrictive, a way of limiting equality of opportunity.
Nonetheless, despite the overwhelming tendency towards various forms of egalitarianism, most philosophers accept the idea that natural talent and the circumstances of one’s birth are random, “morally arbitrary”, and cannot be offset completely. Inequality also has other implications, though: money is a threat to the democratic process, primarily by being a source of political influence for modern oligarchs – but they are usually a bad representative of the public interest, because their real, if often skillfully concealed, interest is the protection of their own wealth.
The problem of inequality has proven to be the greatest challenge for political economy not just in our era, but probably in the near future as well. One path may be to implement the principle of reciprocal contribution, where each person contributes to the common good in proportion with their abilities and opportunities; this is what society should demand of its members. A precondition of this demand is that society be prepared to support the development of individuals’ natural abilities.
Respect for the opinions of others pays off
The final great philosophical theme is our responsibility towards future generations. Given the development of biotechnology and artificial intelligence and the impact of the modern way of life on climate change, we can have a significantly greater influence on the life of future generations than past generations could have on ours. Intergenerational solidarity has many layers; according to Anja Karnein (Binghamton University), though, it is our moral obligation to prevent significant climate change and pass down just institutions to future generations – and, I would add, respect for individual autonomy in a free public sphere. In other words, what we are passing down is the ideal of reciprocal autonomy, which includes respect for the opinions of others, their human dignity, and the fact that they are different from us as well.
According to Samuel Scheffler, our relationship with future generations is asymmetrical, but nonetheless has a reciprocal nature. Danielle Allen made a similar point that “human development will generate reciprocity”, because the opinion of others, their viewpoint, becomes the source of our own morality. In a certain sense, care for future generations is repayment for what we received from previous generations. This conception is near and dear to me, for the essence of society appears as an infinite chain of reciprocity, and not just towards those who are able to engage in immediate reciprocal behavior of their own.
The principle of reciprocity is the permanent effort to reconcile one’s own viewpoint with the position of others. It serves as the starting point of justice, the foundation of intergenerational responsibility, and also a tool for reducing inequality, and in that sense, it is a symbol of liberal stability.
In many respects, we today do not have any normative reflection of a rapidly changing world. We need to reinterpret old terms like freedom, equality, justice, and reciprocity, concepts into which we must integrate new facts and events. Their current meaning obscures an absence of analytical thought, the loss of concentration on an essence hidden in a confusing deluge of information with neither author nor addressee. The rebirth of an ethics founded on universal values can show us the way; its principles and norms reveal not just the close borders of our freedom, but also the distant horizons stretching beyond our existence and, in this, provide it with meaning when brought face-to-face with the transitory nature of our lives.