Rawls, Radicalism and Occupy Wall Street: a Response to Wilkinson

Last Friday, I posted a piece in The Stone at The New York Times suggesting the work of philosopher John Rawls as an intellectual touchstone for the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

The post has elicited a range of reactions. Of the 102 comments on the Times website, a handful offered ideas for what might be included in an Occupy manifesto, a few maintained that I mischaracterized the protestors’ aims or erred by putting Rawls side by side with the novelist and Tea Party favorite Ayn Rand. Many commenters offered ideas for alternative authors and texts to inspire the Occupiers: Marx, Nietzsche, Gandhi, Wallerstein, Lowi, Wolff, Habermas and Sandel, as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Book of Proverbs and the Golden Rule. Twenty or so comments expressed agreement that Rawlsian ideas should fuel the movement’s agenda.

And then there were a number of comments arguing that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t need Rawls and may not need any philosophical underpinning at all. For some, Rawls’s principles are “too radical” (no. 40, no. 60) because they put too much weight on the interests of the least advantaged. For others, Rawls is “not radical enough” (no. 62) because his theory calls for measly incremental policy changes that “already lay dormant in our constitutional republic.”  

According to Will Wilkinson, who responded to my post at length on Monday, Rawls is more radical than I let on, and “generations of students” suffer from a misperception of what lies at the heart of Rawls’s theory. For Wilkinson, the most contentious move in Rawls’s theory is not the difference principle, according to which inequality is only justified if it maximizes the well-being of the least well-off. This idea, he writes, “follows almost trivially from the idea that our main institutions ought to tend toward the common interest and mutual benefit” and is “the least significant and probably least contentious” proposal Rawls makes.

Oddly, Wilkinson immediately refutes his own point by contending that the principle is “uncommonly and, I think, implausibly strong.” Rawls himself argued that the difference principle is not a “constitutional essential” because “issues of distributive justice…are always open to differences of opinion” that may be difficult to reconcile (Justice as Fairness: A Briefer Restatement, 48). Nevertheless, Wilkinson offers a different proposal for what counts as Rawls’s wildest move: his purported failure to include economic rights under the first principle of justice:

One might sensibly imagine that if all liberties matter, and that if citizens are to enjoy the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, then economic liberty must matter, and citizens ought to have as much of it as possible. However, Rawls specifically denies that robust economic rights and liberties are in any way implied by his first principle of justice. Economic liberties are not among our basic liberties. This is Rawls' boldest claim.

Wilkinson both misreads Rawls and exaggerates the implications of his stance on economic rights. Rawls did include meaningful property rights among the equal basic liberties protected by the first principle, and the sensible limits he envisions for those rights are hardly radical.
To begin with the interpretive question, Rawls is clear that some property rights do count as fundamental and belong on the list of liberties protected by his first principle: “Among the basic rights is the right to hold and to have the exclusive use of personal property.”  Rawls explains why:

One ground of this right is to allow a sufficient material basis for personal independence and a sense of self-respect, both of which are essential for the adequate development and exercise of the moral powers. Having this right and being able effectively to exercise it is one of the social bases of self-respect. (Justice as Fairness: A Briefer Restatement, 114)

Wilkinson is correct that Rawls excludes “the right to private property in natural resources and means of production” from protection under the first principle. But this does not mean the right is necessarily abandoned in a Rawlsian state. Rawls’s point is that the right to acquire and operate, say, oil fields and rubber factories, is not necessary for the development of an individual’s “moral powers” to pursue a meaningful life in concert with others. Nevertheless, they “may still be justified,” depending on the “historical and social conditions” at play in a given society. So these economic rights may well be protected in a Ralwsian state, as they are in the United States, but they do not rank as fundamental and should be decided legislatively – not entrenched constitutionally (JAF, 114).

If you’re swimming a bit in the Rawlspeak, let me translate: in order to lead a decent, free, happy life, everyone needs to know that their property in their homes, cars and iTunes libraries will be protected by the government. They are free to be secure in holding and profiting from “productive assets” (JAF, 139) like real estate, businesses and copyrights. But it is not obvious that property in natural gas drilling equipment or rainforests is fundamental to individual human flourishing, and there may be good reason to limit or regulate private ownership of such resources.

Now, it is clear why Wilkinson “might sensibly imagine” this nuanced stance on property rights to be “radical”: for libertarians, expansive versions of liberty of contract and rights to buy, hold and sell virtually all forms of property are at least as indispensable to a just society as are civil and political liberties like voting rights and the freedoms of speech, conscience and association. (Wilkinson has criticized GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul’s more extreme libertarian position that economic freedoms also take precedence over civil rights for racial minorities.)      

But putting “robust” economic rights on the same pedestal as civil and political rights – or above them – hearkens back to the Lochner era of the early 20th century when the Supreme Court balked at Progressive Era and New Deal legislation to improve workers’ conditions in factories, establish a minimum wage or regulate child labor. This discredited era of robust economic rights ended in 1937, when the power to regulate business was returned to legislators’ hands.

The most instructive portion of Wilkinson’s post is his brief mention of “property-owning democracy,” the type of regime Rawls favors over both state socialism and welfare-state capitalism. Rawls decries the tendency of capitalism to “permit a small class to have a near monopoly of the means of production” and argues for a society whose institutions “work to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy, and indirectly, political life as well” (JAF, 139). Rawls thus shares the Occupy critique of the “1 percent.” But this is not anything approaching Marxism. A property-owning democracy permits, as its name suggests, the private ownership of property, and it employs markets to distribute goods and services.

Rawls pitches his typology at a high level of abstraction, so it is difficult to discern exactly how such a regime differs from the American model. But main distinction Rawls highlights is themed perfectly for Occupy Wall Street. Property-owning democracy guarantees “the widespread ownership of productive assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills) at the beginning of each period,” rather than “the redistribution of income to those with less at the end of each period” (JAF, 139). The Occupy movement isn’t clamoring for cash handouts. It is urging the restructuring of society along lines that will eliminate the growing underclass and bring true equality of opportunity for everyone. 

Wilkinson’s closing thought that “Rawls really does have to be watered down…to make him relevant to American politics” bears on a point several people made in response to my original post. As commenter no. 43 put it, “One doesn’t need an obscure philosophical theory to have a political movement.”

I am not proposing taking A Theory of Justice off the shelf and rallying under the weight of its 560 pages. In a democracy, this is not a role that political philosophy can – or should – play. Nor am I suggesting hollow slogans from a watered-down Rawls. I am observing that Occupy Wall Street’s justified anger with the status quo finds a rich philosophical friend in Rawls, and thinking carefully about his theory may help give the movement energy and direction as it continues to grow.   

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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