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A marvellously accessible overview on a serious subject which challenges all our decisions
on 21 January 2014
I am glad that I have persevered with this book, and done it justice by finishing it and thereby hearing the author's conclusion on the subject. Reading the first 60 or so pages, I found myself sick to the stomach; I found the notion of utilitarianism revolting. The concept of thinking about justice and moral by calculation and treating human beings like "arguments" in the utility or happiness maximisation function, governed only by human's primeval makeup of pain and pleasures, is, to me, hugely degrading. Forcing my mind to comprehend such alien notion turned out to be very disagreeable to my mind that it rebelled! I soldiered on and was glad to find the critiques of utilitarianism, which came afterwards, and where humans were described like humans, moral agents.
It is no denying that this book is thought provoking, because it challenges our assumptions and beliefs so ingrained in our thinking and debate about social issues of the day. In our inclination, we are not even aware of our biases. This book helps take apart all those assumptions, which have been taken for granted, and presents alternative or competing approaches to think about the same issues. In so doing, it broadens our view and considerations. Along the wider spectrum, we work out where our inclination is situated. Once we know the positioning of our inclination, we may start to review if we would like to adjust its placement and why.
For example, after reading this book, I realise how much our politics and public discourse are influenced by liberalism and individualism. Interestingly, no political parties are actually consistent in advocating the same principles in all area of policies. This is a reckoning. In the past I believe that economic justice is defined clearly by the market discipline and mechanism, although success is not always in direct proportion to talents and effort, not to say that we did not choose our initial endowments. Rawls has expounded on this randomness from "an original position of equality" (while a similar concept has been coined by Warren Buffett as "the ovarian lottery"). However what is most interesting is the notion of moral desert. We think justice is done when we get what we deserve. But what we deserve cannot be defined without referring to the purpose of the social institution under concern or the virtues to be honoured and rewarded, and in turn the rules of the game. Purposes and virtues are moral values.
But what is most powerful in swaying me away from minimal state is not Rawls' liberalism egalitarianism but our sense of belonging to a community, which is part of our identity. I don't think it is realistic to think that we can abstract ourselves from all our ties and links in making moral decisions behind "a veil of ignorance", as required by Rawls' theory. It is to me more natural to think that we are indeed "storytelling beings" living in narratives, as "situated selves" rather than "individuals" living in isolation. How big is and who are in this community that we align our loyalty with, and what our membership to this community entails are yet to be thought through on a case-by-case basis, I guess. But at the very least, this sense of belonging and membership will give rise to a sense of collective responsibility within this community, past and present.
There are other highlights from the book. For example, Aristotle's concept that moral virtues have to be practised and exercised through choice. This reminds me of Hayek's point about socialism as amoral because people no longer exercised choice. As the author eloquently argues, deliberation reflects the quality of character, and "to have character is to live in recognition of one's (sometime conflicting) encumbrances." (p. 237)
Also Kant's critique to utilitarianism is brilliant to the point. We are not free agents as we think, if our actions are governed by our desires which we haven't chosen in the first place. "Trying to derive moral principles from the desires we happen to have is the wrong way to think about morality." (p.106) Morality based on interests, wants, desires and preferences people have at any time cannot give rise to universal principles, because these factors are variable and contingent, and can hardly be a consistent basis for a set of coherent moral principles! Even the pursuit of happiness, which has been taken by many as a legitimate pursuit in life, cannot be the basis for the same reasons. If our desires and wants can't serve as the basis of morality, what's left? One possibility is God, but Kant appeals to our "pure practical reason". Furthermore, our capacity for reason underlies our capacity for freedom.
I think the author's reflection of today's politics is accurate: "Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is a recipe for backlash and resentment. A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life. It is also an open invitation to narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread." (p.243)
Today the pressure to have everything permissible in our society under the name of liberalism, which seeks to provide scope for everyone to choose his good life (as long as it does not infringe on others' rights), without defining for anyone what a good life is. It is believed that liberalism is the way to accommodate a pluralistic society. But after decades of following this ideology we see our sense of community weakened and replaced by apathy and divisive politics, and we see increasingly our society moves to value the wrong things. Is it time that we challenge a politics that is void of substance? The author thinks so, as he concludes, "A politics of moral engagement is not only a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. It is also a more promising basis for a just society." (p.269) Do you agree it is time to rethink?