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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 3)

March 5th, 2008 Comments off

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Quine’s criteria are different; his basis for claiming the significance[8] of a linguistic utterance either derives from treating it as an ultimate and irreducible matter of fact, or from analyzing people’s ordinary reactions to the utterance in question and similar utterances. He reduces the useful ways that people commonly speak of meanings to two: the having of meanings (significance) and the sameness of meanings (synonymy). One’s “giving” the meaning of an  utterance is his utterance of a synonym in a more ordinary and clearer language than the original. If such an interpretation of meaning is unsatisfactory, then one can simply speak of an utterance as significant or insignificant, and in relationship to other utterances (in synonymy or heteronomy). Though Quine recognizes the difficulty and importance of handling this approach properly, he once more refers to the lack of any increase in explanatory power resulting from adopting McX’s ontology- in this case, the adoption of special and irreducible intermediary entities called “meanings. ”

In light of the preceding arguments, McX is led to question whether any statements are possible that lead one to be committed to universals or other entities Quine finds unwelcome. Once again, Quine cites Russell’s theory of descriptions in tandem with quantifiers, explaining that the entities can be stated as bound variables, so long as it is said that “there is something [a bound variable] which red houses and red sunsets have in common. ” As explained earlier, the only way to make ontological commitments is to use bound variables. If “to be is to be the value of a bound variable,” whatever is said by names can be spoken of without names; names can be converted to descriptions, and then eliminated by Russell’s theory of descriptions; the purported namehood of an utterance can be repudiated if no respective entity is affirmed by the proper use of bound variables. Variables of quantification have a range of reference over the whole of an ontology (regardless of the particular ontology), and an ontological presupposition is convincing if and only if it must be considered among entities in this range of reference in order to establish the truth of an affirmation.

Therefore, the utterance “some dogs are white” does not commit the speaker to recognizing doghood or whiteness as entities. Rephrased, it states, “some things that are dogs are white,” which only creates the requirement that the quantifier “something” has a range of reference that includes white dogs, but need not include whiteness or doghood. However, it is also recognized that the statement “some zoological species are cross fertile” entails a commitment to the abstract entities “zoological species” unless the subject of the statement is reducible to another entity. Generally, a commitment to any reference persists until some means of paraphrasing a statement can be devised to change (or properly delineate) its bound variable’s reference.

Choosing an Ontology

Bound variables alone do not commit one to any single ontology, but only describes the process by which one becomes committed to an ontology. One means of adjudicating among ontologies, relative to a particular theory, is by finding an ontology whose entities are required to be within the range of reference of the bound variables of the theory in order to render the affirmations of the theory true. Modern disagreement over the foundations of mathematics is divided almost exactly on the issue of which entities lie in bound variables’ permissible range of reference.

Quine suggests that Occam’s razor be fully applied as an adjudicator among ontologies and that any ontology should be accepted in the same way that scientific theories are accepted: one must seek the simplest theory that accounts for all of the evidence. In the case of ontology, one must seek the simplest conceptual scheme that can be created to account for all the elements of raw experience. Quine’s argument, by his implicit admission, refutes the realist position on universals only as much as he asserts that a physicalist ontology containing universals is a useful “myth,” specifically in the fields of the physical sciences and more so in mathematics; put differently, he refutes it only by undermining its necessity by emphasizing the marked difference between naming and meaning, untangling Plato’s beard in the process. In the end, he states that the question of which ontology to adopt remains unanswered, with only “tolerance and an experimental spirit” as advice and judgment to be reserved for each myth based on its quality relative to a particular point of view.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 4)

March 5th, 2008 Comments off

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Critique

One potential shortcoming in Quine’s argument lies in his approach to singular terms- their elimination and replacement by quantifiers- as an application of Occam’s razor. As was explained, if singular terms can be done away with, then their supposed implications about existence vanish. Hence, by using a singular term, one need not acknowledge the existence of the entity described by the term in order to be speaking meaningfully. Yet, if quantifiers could be done away with in the same manner, would they not be also subject to ontological elimination? One such possible elimination arises from combinatory logic, which was initially intended as a means of clarifying the role of quantifiers in logic by their elimination, much as quantifiers were intended to clarify existential statements by a similar process. In her book Philosophy of Logics, Susan Haack notes, “Quine concedes that his criterion doesn’t apply directly to combinatory logic, but observes that it can be applied indirectly, via the translation of combinatory into quantified formula. ”[9] This may only be an evasion of the demand that the elimination of quantifiers places on their ontological status (via Occam’s razor). Even without delving into deeper discussion, it is a possibility worth mentioning, as it questions the validity of one of Quine’s necessary steps in reasoning.

Assuming that this problem with Quine’s methodology is somehow irrelevant to his general reasoning or can be answered appropriately, Quine’s dismission of the necessity of universals, as part of a common trend in dismissing the imaginary problems of Plato’s beard, is quite effective. Indeed, something appears highly flawed about the presupposition that denying the existence of an entity somehow presupposes that entity in the same sense that affirming that entity’s existence does. Quine accurately assesses logical possibilities (though not in those exact words) as meaningful, but does not make the error of “stealing” the concept of existence by making it a predicate.

For the non-Quinean, how much can Quine’s reasoning be used to make a more decisive case against the realist position on universals? On an absolute basis, Quine seems hesitant to commit himself ontologically,[10] and does not rule out the possibility of an ontology containing universals; he merely rules out the possibility of a poorly-reasoned ontology containing universals. To utilize Quine’s argument from an objectivist standpoint, there is not much that can be meaningfully done in the discussion of universals besides Occamite elimination, as is true with any other unnecessary multiplication of entities. In communication and in action, often times a person consistently holding the realist view on universals and a person not holding the view are totally indistinguishable, except in their assertions about the nature of universals. Lacking positive proof of a position or falsification of its negatory position, an appeal to Occam’s razor is the only logical argument left to pursue.


[1] P. 135

[2] Here, Quine briefly introduces a subtler-minded pseudonymous philosopher- Wyman- who advances the argument that Pegasus is simply an unactualized possible. Hence, when it is said that “Pegasus is not,” what is really meant is that Pegasus does not possess the property of actuality; in other words, it is an entity that is already understood to be. Wyman’s definition of the word “existence” entails that “Pegasus” has spatio-temporal connotations if “Pegasus exists,” but that “exists” does not (it merely refers to actualization). Quine then moves on to discuss some problems with unactualized possibles. This discussion is not directly necessary for his discussion of universals, except in as much as unactualized possibles can be looked at as entities in a similar manner to universals.

[3] What Quine means by “ambiguity” in this instance is that the quantifiers are subject non-specific on their own and only necessitate the satisfaction of arbitrarily-stated conditions in a proposition, not that they are poorly defined in usage.

[4] P. 137

[5] P. 138

[6] P. 139

[7] Ibid.

[8] Quine uses “significant” as interchangeable with “meaningful. ”

[9] Haack, Susan. Philosophy of Logics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

[10] At the very least, his hesitation is reflected in this article.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections

December 1st, 2007 Comments off

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In the United States today, the public debates about healthcare, Social Security, and the standard of living have reached a new level of prominence. While some of these dialogues pertain to already-existing, but failing institutions like Social Security and the minimum wage, more than ever the climate of public opinion states, “government ought to provide its people with economic security. ” Of course, the degree of the economic security to be provided varies greatly, from simple safety nets such as unemployment payments to outright socialization of particular industries. The nations of Europe are examples of affluent “democracies” (broadly speaking) which incorporate strong social programs, taxing usually between half and over two-thirds of all income to pay for (among many other things) public education, employment agencies, guaranteed housing, and most conspicuously, universalized healthcare. The ideological underpinnings of the pervasion of the belief in the need for such institutions in America have their contemporary roots in the early 20th century, which heralded the Progressive movement. The movement successfully established an essential power for the exercise of any resource-intensive redistribution scheme: the graduated income tax. With the coming of the Great Depression, the shift in the national mood was solidified; attributing the economic decline to Herbert Hoover’s inaction, Franklin D. Roosevelt attained the presidential office. His New Deal solidified, constitutionally and psychologically, the role of the U. S. government as a major actor in the economy. The subsequent creation of his “Second Bill of Rights,” and later the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, codified the supreme change in the language of rights from the Founding’s conception of formal political guarantees, to substantive economic entitlements. No longer would one simply have the Lockean rights to protection from harm, freedom to choose one’s own path in life, and the ability to acquire and hold property freely; one would also have the right to have certain kinds of property, regardless of one’s success in productive endeavors (invariably coming into conflict with traditional property rights). –more–>Changes in attitude toward laissez-faire capitalism historically have been generally defined by any or all of three major shifts: most importantly, the replacement of liberal political rights with economic entitlements; closely connected, a new emphasis on collective instead of individual good; and in effect, the belief in the use of organized coercion (government) as a valuable tool for bettering those collectives. Two contemporary thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, brought the debate about the role of government in a wealthy liberal democracy (such as ours) back to the philosophical forefront, asking the essential question: if they should at all, for what reasons should government be able to interfere with the market, beyond protecting its citizens from violence and fraud? [1] On one side, Rawls’ Theory of Justice attempts to justify a broader scope of government powers by appealing to a Kant-esque “original position,” in which agents must decide on principles of justice irrespective of what their physical position will actually be in the world. On the other, Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia sets out to construct a consistent account of the ideal libertarian state, and in the process reject Rawls’ arguments. [2] There is strong evidence both in Nozick’s writings and elsewhere that the position delineated in A Theory of Justice is a flawed justification for the liberal welfare state.

Rawls’ Equality and Difference Principles

Though the focus of this post will be on government’s role as a redistributor of wealth, a holistic understanding of Rawls’ account of government is essential to understanding his position on redistribution. His primary concern in exploring social justice is what rights and duties members of a society must have in its institutions, and in turn how the benefits (and burdens) of social cooperation should be distributed. He argues from two principles of justice: the equality principle and the difference principle. The former prescribes that each individual must possess the same level of liberty as each other individual, and the latter prescribes that social and economic inequalities should be rectified for the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. These are ordered by priority; the institutions of the first can not be surpassed by “greater social and economic advantages. ” Rawls defines these two principles are part of a larger, more general conception of social values: “all social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 2)

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” One essential implication in this statement is that institutionally, the course of action we should take (as constrained by the equality principle) is an empirical question. If general property rights, freedom of association, and other facets of laissez-faire capitalism most frequently lead to material inequality compared to centrally planned production, yet produce a level of output that makes everyone better off, then they ought to be instituted.

The Original Position

He arrives at his principles of justice by creating a thought experiment, the “original position,” from which he derives his notion of “justice as fairness. ” Before doing so, he establishes two primary premises. The first is a constraint of social unity; the freedom and equality of citizens must be respected. The second pertains to the fact that there always exists a plurality of conceptions of the good; these include one’s fundamental beliefs, values, projects, personal loyalties, and so forth. Because of these underlying necessities, Rawls holds a contractualist position in order to create a theory of justice which does not depend on any of those conceptions, but one with which free and equal citizens could be expected to reasonably agree. The establishment of a contract (a consensual agreement) would be the only way of respecting the autonomy of individuals totally, while at the same time providing a framework for universal governance. For a simple example, a comprehensive moral doctrine such as utilitarianism (“always act in such a way that leads to the greatest happiness”) would not, in Rawls’ view, be used as a starting point from which societal institutions would be designed, because one can always reasonably disagree with such a doctrine. Instead, the principles of justice would be determined by the hypothetical rational agreement in what Rawls argues to be the fair conditions of the original position (hence “justice as fairness”).

The original position has several necessary characteristics to achieve Rawls’ conclusions about justice. Firstly, he defines the participants, positing rational agents, who, in the negotiation, seek the guarantee of rights and resources to pursue their individual conceptions of the good, reflect on them and change them, and apply them. These assumptions are responsible for traditional liberal institutions (rights) of “freedom of conscience”: freedom of speech, press, religion, etc. Likewise, they are partially explanatory of common, universally accessible public resources: free primary schooling, public libraries, universities, etc. Secondly, he delineates the critical constraints: the finality of the contract, and most importantly, the “veil of ignorance. ” Those participating in the original position have no knowledge of what their natural endowment, their place in society, or their conception of the good will be, but they will have general knowledge of how the world works and expect moderate scarcity of resources. The purpose of the veil of ignorance is to prevent these self-interested agents from supporting principles of justice that are biased in favor of their characteristics, instead forcing them to adopt universalizable principles. They will not know who they will be when they enter society (rich or poor, utilitarian or Kantian, etc. and thus any preferential policy which they advocate in the original position is equally likely (from their perspective) to be to their benefit as their detriment.

Rawls on Wealth Distribution

This leads to Rawls’ position on wealth redistribution. Its primary cause extends from the condition of utility maximization in the context of a lack of information about the distribution of outcomes. In effect, Rawls is appealing to the choices rational economic actors ought to make in the face of uncertainty. Imagine the following example of choice relating to uncertain outcomes. Someone must choose between two different coin-flip games: in one, the heads payoff is $5000, and the tails payoff is $0; in the other, the heads payoff is $2000, and the tails payoff is $1000. The coin is being flipped by a well-known trickster, who is reputable for his pleasure in biasing coins to any possible distribution. The player is aware of this, and thus does not know the probability that either heads or tails will occur on the coin, entailing a situation of total uncertainty. By Rawls’ (and standard game theoretic) reasoning, the player’s rational choice would be to choose the $2000-or-$1000 coin, in effect maximizing the outcome of the worst-case scenario.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 3)

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This coin is known as the maximin option, the uncertain game with the best worst outcome. In distributive justice, the maximin option would be the one in which the least advantaged, whoever it may be, will be guaranteed a certain payoff by society, whether it is in food, shelter, employment, healthcare, or education, at the expense of a higher payoff for others.

Rawls’ position is thus unique, in that he constructs it from no particular conception of the good except that of respecting individual autonomy at the inception of political principles. Unlike most advocates of distributive justice, he does not conclude his principles from some objective conception of the good, but only from a rational contractarian decision by agents to properly define the rules of social cooperation.

Objections a la Nozick and me

In opposition to Rawls, Nozick questions the validity of defining justice as some pattern of holdings- a material end-state. He holds that any theory of justice must either be end-result or historical, and either patterned or unpatterned. Nozick’s “entitlement” theory is historical and unpatterned; in short, a just distribution of wealth does not require any correspondence to some pattern (moral merit, need, etc. but merely the appropriate history of how it was acquired. Nozick thus emphasizes the importance of “justice in acquisition” and “justice in transfer,” as opposed to “justice in holdings,” an important concept in the thought of the economic left.

Central to Nozick’s objections to Rawls is his assertion that liberty inevitably disrupts patterned holdings. An important part of ownership is the freedom to transfer things to others. This means that any given distribution, after it is allocated, will be immediately changed so long as individuals choose to freely exchange their possessions. In order for a principle of patterned distributive justice to be consistent, it must always be applied; thus, the only means of guaranteeing any specific distribution is by constant interference in the economy or the abolition of free individual exchange. In light of that, Nozick observes the alienation from the source of wealth caused by patterned distribution principles. Wealth is implicitly taken as a given thing to be divided, when, in fact, how it is divided affects how much wealth there will be over time.

Rawls’ general process of justification for welfare merits interpretation and criticism. The original position (OP) is flawed as an accurate representation of the frame in which valid principles of government, if there are any which do exist, should be determined. Assuming a group has no choice but to endure conditions in the OP as set forth by Rawls, their strategy makes sense. Discussing the OP from a different angle yields additional insight into its nature. With a specific focus on those issues of justice relating to property, we can reformulate the OP as a new thought experiment, in this manner: our world as we know it- with the rich and poor, the talented and untalented, etc. must have a “Rawlsian original position” convention in order to determine the proper principles of justice. In order to do so, everyone must leave his actual person and move behind the veil of ignorance. Thus, an agent whose actual person is rich by talent and hard work will be unaware of his actual status, and, in accordance with his rational interest in the original position, will have no choice but to accept the maximin set of rules and unwittingly sacrifice his wealth.

To implicitly reiterate this formulation, Nozick cites an example of students taking an examination who decide to go to the original position to determine what the criteria for grading the test should be. Each party in this contract will seek to secure the best arrangement for himself. The maximin option will likely entail that what will not be chosen is a policy based on what students earn through their performances.

This exposes a pair of critical observations about Rawls’ argument: first, that it depends on the notion that gains from differences in nature are “unfair,” “undeserved,” or “morally arbitrary”; second, that individual merit (such as choosing to work hard to develop one’s talents instead of lazily watching television) is not relevant. His argument shifts from one position which (reasonably) says that “deserved” is not a valid descriptor of natural endowments, to another that holds that those endowments are explicitly “undeserved.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 4)

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” The difference between the two is clear: the former merely reflects the value-neutrality of natural outcomes, allowing one the right to individually benefit from them; the latter clearly describes a situation which normatively requires redress. It appears that Rawls- if he chooses to reject a person’s entitlement to the benefits of his own natural states- will be caught in between contradictorily ignoring individual merit and holding a view of humans as deterministic zombies.

Empirical issues?

Another major area of contention against the general idea of government-enforced “distributive justice” lies in the historical and expected performance of institutions manifesting those principles. [3] There is little doubt that humans are, at least generally, self-interested. Their admission into a government post does little to alter that fact: agents will always seek to maximize their own utility, which is for the most part only checked by externally-imposed penalties. As a point of clarification, self-interested activity need not be self-oriented; the defining feature of self-interest is the pursuit of one’s conception of the good, no matter what it is. Other-oriented behavior is still detrimental to the efficiency of operating a government post, so long as the objectives of an action are not functionally isomorphic with having an interest in the efficiency or proper operation of government (e. g. one gives preference to one’s family, or ethnic group, etc. Institutional design should ideally be aimed to create this isomorphism of personal to public interest, in the theoretical tradition of Madison, established in Federalist No. 51; though this may be the best solution, this does not mean that it is totally successful in absolute terms.

The operation of institutions to enforce justice in general is faced by many challenges. Simply dealing with the basics military, police, and courts is already a daunting task to do correctly. Even on the comparatively simple starting point of individual rights to life, liberty, and property, cases of conflicting obligation arise on a frequent basis, particularly in establishing “reasonable expectations” in cases where a contract was not explicitly written and signed. The incorporation of distributive justice into the system of obligations complicates it immensely. Now, those tasked with adjudicating disputes must appeal to a broader host of laws and guarantees, while adapting to the constraints of equality, scarce resources, and respecting Rawls’ first principle of justice.

The cost of oversight is borne by more institutional expenditure (bureaucracy to watch bureaucracy, which may require some oversight of its own) which ultimately is borne by the constituent public. Besides taxes, the individuals must be attentive to their tax dollars at work. End-state distributive justice, as in the case of adjudication, not only necessitates the creation of more laws and more bureaucracies to execute those laws, but requires more lawyers, advocates, lobbyists, action groups, and others of their kind. Essentially, an entire sector of labor and knowledge must be dedicated to navigating complex institutions instead of those resources being applied to more productive endeavors. Furthermore, for the average citizen, a greater level of education and attentiveness to current affairs is required to ensure that he is not being swindled by special interest groups via these institutions. The bottom line is that he must trade off work hours or leisure in order to protect his “investment” in the government. His alternative is that his tax dollars go to waste-a problem plaguing governments worldwide today.

On the flip side of the problem of Rawls ignoring individual merit is the issue of diminished incentives to produce. In a market setting, wealth redistribution can be construed as a subsidy (or a kind of de facto tax) on a particular kind of behavior, namely labor. Rawls cannot simply assume that individuals will work and produce as they would have before; with an expectation of a certain level of well-being, many recipients of welfare benefits will be far less likely to produce the value of the goods and services they are guaranteed. From their perspective, they possess an exogenous level of utility irrespective of their action (sans filing the correct forms). Not all of them will be dependent on government services for factors supposedly beyond their control. The presence of those institutions will have a distortionary effect on how wealth is generated in the economy.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 5)

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Even argued strictly in terms of Rawls’ theory, these observations about redistributive establishments demonstrate that the “pie” is heavily damaged by the presence of such institutions.

Some would argue that wealth redistribution and other forms of economic interventionism are institutions we need or ought to have, and that they can work if they are designed correctly or if the right people staff them. To some degree, that is true, but only in as much as it is true of all institutions and forms of government. If people of the appropriate mindset who possess the appropriate values are readily available, then almost any system of any values will not produce unbearable results. Small, Republican city-states of the kind that Rousseau so often praised are examples of such agreement between people and state. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and unrealistic necessary precondition for any system, which is more than often faced with the reality of many people with many competing interests. The fact that so many brilliant minds are and have been ideologically committed to the construction of wealth-redistributive institutions, yet at the same time have not succeeded in designing comprehensive ones that have proven to be effective, sustainable, and cost-efficient, is testament to the fact that the inherent nature of such institutions conflicts with the inherent nature of humans and reality. Of course, by no means does this paper claim to be the last word: to do justice to Rawls’ Theory of Justice (no pun intended), a fuller exposition of Rawls’ potential counter-objections as well as greater clarification of the assumptions at play are required. Nevertheless, the essence of the argument stands that Rawls, as one of the most prominent supporters of the liberal welfare state, must address several problems- both theoretical and empirical- with his conception of justice.

Sources:

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press (1999).

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, Inc.


[1] Some have argued with much vigor that government should do none of that (i. e. disappear altogether). Those arguments are beyond the scope of this paper.

[2] Nozick’s position in totality is much less linear, and much more difficult to summarize, than Rawls’. That is not to say that Rawls’ position is simpler or dumber, but just that his account is easier to capture briefly. My exposition of Nozick will thus be limited to his position vis-à-vis Rawls’ view on distributive justice.

[3] Evidence generally supporting my argument are nations with major government intervention and spending that have descended into massive debt. The United States is one such example. Also, most of the nations of Europe (notably France and Germany) are suffering from large debts and unfunded welfare liabilities which account for as much as 250% of GDP. Enumerating many specific institutional cases would be an interesting basis for further study of my assertions.

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