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Thomas and Sen

Image result for John Rawls

In the previous two posts, I've given brief blurbs to each of two distinguished contemporaries in the world of social and political philosophy, Amartya Sen and Alan Thomas.

Today I'd like to bring their views in contact with one another.

The most obvious point to make is that Thomas identifies himself as, if not a 'Rawlsian' exactly, at least a member of the family. Sen, on the other hand, describes his own views in anti-Rawlsian terms.

John Rawls is generally credited with reviving political philosophy in the Anglophonic philosophic world after a long period of neglect. Some say he did more, that he revived substantive moral inquiry itself in that world, after a period in which it had disappeared into meta-ethics. So it seems fitting that nearly half a century later, once should describe two major figures by where they stand vis-a-vis Rawls. Thus, I'm illustrating this post with his visage.

Rawls' work mixes teleological and deontological elements. Of the two principles of justice that Rawls says the contractors behind the veil of ignorance will adopt, the first has a blatantly deontological sound to it, and must be obeyed before one even arrives at applications of the second (it is "lexically prior" as Rawls says). The second has a more teleological sound, but it it driven by a means-oriented desire to protect the least well off.

Sen is not a utilitarian, but he is a teleologist of a sort, and Rawlsian deontology is part of Sen's complaint.

Thomas is in accord with Rawls on this matter of deontology.

There are other differences, too. Thomas worries about "path dependence." A society determined to move forward, so that its people will live in better circumstances next year than they lived in last year, may find itself locked into a path where the way forward is suboptimal. There may be circumstances in which things will have to get worse before they can get better, because a society's dependence on a sub-optimal path has to be broken.

That path dependence concern is key to what Thomas means by "predistribution." Welfare liberalism leads a society to see redistribution as the way forward.  But if predistribution is a better way to address issues of institutional inequality and deprivation, then the welfarist structures may need to be undone to get there. The process will make some people worse off, at least for some period of time of indeterminate length.

That sounds like the sort of thing that gives "social engineering" a bad name, but one knows in general what he means.


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