The End of the Filibuster: John Rawls Belly Laughs and a Justice Failure is Corrected

The moral philosopher John Rawls, whose theory of distributive justice will likely get mentioned at some point in discussions about the end of the filibuster for presidential nominations, would likely sit back and belly laugh at the change in these rules.  He might laugh because he could be of the opinion that it is long overdue.


The death of the filibuster for presidential nominations in the United States Senate has an ethical dimension that we’re going to see misinterpreted and piped through the manufactured outrage machine.  The important philosopher John Rawls, whose theory of distributive justice will likely get mentioned at some point, I am hoping would sit back and belly laugh at the change in these rules.  He might laugh because, like me, he could be of the opinion that it is long overdue.

The ideas of Rawls are integrated into our lives in ways few people realize.  They have, when employed in a positive way by governments and legislatures, led to a more just society.  Rawlsian distributive justice theory supports such diverse things as the civil rights of the disabled, funding of scholarships for adverse circumstance youth to attend college, food stamps and Women Infant and Children (WIC) programs, and underlies the system used to distribute organs to sick people in need of transplants. 

Rawlsian distributive justice has a few parts worth mentioning.  First is the ‘veil of ignorance,’ an imaginary shroud that we put on ourselves when considering something.  The veil tells us not to prejudge, to leave out knowledge of who people are, where they are from, what gender they are etc.  Basically, be neutral and come to the table with a clean slate, much as a juror must do in a trial. 

Importantly, only after putting on this veil can you evaluate an issue relating to distribution of scarce resources (whether it be money, the power to make a decision or impact something, who should get the donated kidney, etc.).  Of particular interest to Rawls was what is now called the difference principle. There are two parts to it.  The first is that there should be an equal playing field.  In the case of a liver transplant, it isn’t an equal playing field because not everyone has an equal chance to get the liver (we certainly do not have a liver surplus).  In the absence of an equal playing field, then the second part of the difference principle comes into effect.  It says that the greatest benefit shall go to those with the least or in the most need.   In the case of the liver transplant, it goes to the person on the top of the transplant list.  They are at the top because they are the sickest and therefore the most in need of the liver. 

In the wake of the filibuster dismantling, it will be screamed loudly that the minority is being stripped of their power and that this is unjust.  It will be claimed that the minority, in a just society, should have the power to stop something and that the difference principle automatically applies.  This is a false claim to Rawlsian justice.  The reason it is a false claim is that it fails to meet the conditions necessary to even consider the difference principle.

No single person currently in the United States Senate has ever put on a veil of ignorance in their voting on nominees.  It is not designed that way.  If they had, the number of filibusters would be extremely low.  By definition, a filibuster is a political move informed by preconceived notions and assumptions that violate the veil of ignorance and serve only to block someone and deny them an opportunity.  A filibuster goes further and requires, at some level, an agreement amongst a few colleagues to do work together to hold someone back from getting a simple up/down vote.   As far as an interpretation of Justice is concerned, filibusters violate the veil of ignorance.  Even if they got past that hurdle, a filibuster violates the first part of the difference principle by denying equal opportunity to a nominee to receive a fair vote in the established system.  

While there are likely many challenges to come in integrating these changes, all are better than continuing an unjust practice like the filibuster.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

3 ways to find a meaningful job, or find purpose in the job you already have

Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.

Videos
  • Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
  • There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
  • "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

UPS has been discreetly using self-driving trucks to deliver cargo

TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, has also engaged in test programs with the United States Postal Service and Amazon.


PAUL RATJE / Contributor
Technology & Innovation
  • This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
  • UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
  • TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.
Keep reading Show less