The British philosopher Antony Flew is best known as a leading “ordinary language” philosopher. In reaction to the attempt by the logical positivists and others to settle philosophical disputes through resort to an “ideal language,” the ordinary language movement contended that philosophical muddles often arise through lack of attention to the ordinary use of words. Flew, like his mentors Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin, was at the peak of his fame in the 1950s and 1960s. But he continued his work long after that. He argued that John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the last fifty years, sins greatly against ordinary language; in particular Rawls ignores the ordinary meaning of “justice.” This is no narrowly linguistic point but undermines his entire theory.

For Flew, the assault on Rawls is more than an ordinary scholarly controversy. Rawls’s lapses from proper standards of philosophical argument, all in the service of egalitarian propaganda, arouse Flew to indignation. Rawls, he notes in a characteristic passage of his book Equality in Liberty and Justice,

must thus have become the first person ever to produce what purports to be a treatise on justice which can find no room even to quote, much less to discuss, any version of the traditional distinction. By this misguided omission Rawls exposes himself to the objection that what he commends as a conception of justice is not, whatever its other merits, a conception of justice at all.

The “traditional distinction” that Flew mentions is that justice is to give to each person what is due to him. In this traditional view, there is no antecedent bias in favor of equality, because people should get what is due to them, which need not be an equal amount of resources. Why would it be?

Rawls defends egalitarianism by assuming a mistaken premise. He thinks that people do not deserve to profit from their superior abilities, because these are arbitrary from the moral point of view. If so, Rawls claims, equality is the default position and any departure from it requires justification.

I suspect that Rawls’s view will strike most of my readers as alien; but an example will show what Rawls has in mind. If you say to Rawls, “LeBron James makes enormous sums of money, but of course he deserves to do so: people willingly pay him because they value his skills,” he will shake his head. “No doubt he is phenomenally skilled,” he might reply, “but he acquired his ability through no moral merit of his own. He is simply lucky enough to possess physical skills that exceed those of other players. Why should he benefit so greatly from the mere fact that he has ‘good’ genes?”

Flew, displaying his careful attention to conceptual precision, expertly locates the fallacy in Rawls’s contention. Rawls has moved from the contention that the category of desert does not apply to natural endowments to the much more controversial claim that these endowments are undeserved. The latter implies, as the former does not, that people should not benefit from them. As Flew puts the point,

The reason why this argument appears to go through is that the word ‘undeserved’ does indeed usually carry overtones of outrage, calling for redress. What is needed now is to introduce a third category of the not-deserved to cover what is neither, meritoriously, deserved, nor scandalously, undeserved.

LeBron James’s income is safe. He may be entitled to benefit from his extraordinary talent, even though he did not acquire this talent by doing morally good deeds. And can’t we go further? To some extent, he and other gifted people like him do deserve to profit from their abilities. In most cases, they must develop their potential through hard work: Don’t they then in part gain their benefits from meritorious activities? “Moral luck” does not suffice to account for what they have.

Rawls has an incredible rejoinder to this point. He acknowledges that people develop their talents through hard work. But this trait too must be attributed to moral luck: if you have an extraordinary capacity for work, this also is “arbitrary from the moral point of view.”

Here Rawls has unintentionally reduced his position to absurdity. No properties of individuals that Rawls considers morally arbitrary entitle persons to wealth or income. But so extensive is his list of these properties that when they are removed nothing remains of genuine individuals. Flew notes the problem in his inimitable way: what we have left in Rawls’s system are “blinkered and de-individualized zombies.” Rawls’s theory has no relevance to flesh-and-blood human beings.

As if this were not enough, Flew finds another problem with Rawls’s theory. Let’s put to one side for a moment all the difficulties Flew has raised for Rawls’s notion of desert. If Rawls were able to overcome them, he would still confront a crucial obstacle. Even if individuals do not own, and deserve to benefit from, their special talents, it hardly follows that society does. 

Yet this is what Rawls without argument assumes:

It simply will not do…to collect up, in thought, all the wealth already produced and in the future to be produced by all the individuals and firms in society; to describe this as the total social product, conceived as the product of an hypostatized super-person, Society; and then take it for granted that this total social product is in fact now available, free of all prior claims, for redistribution among the members of that same hypostatized entity, Society, at its absolute collective discretion.

(I have quoted this at some length to convey the flavor of Flew’s wonderful rolling sentences.)

But isn’t this unjust to Rawls? What about his whole elaborate apparatus: the original position, choice behind the veil of ignorance, primary goods, etc.? Haven’t we dismissed without trial the essential elements of Rawls’s enterprise?

Not in the slightest. Flew has located a passage from A Theory of Justice that is devastating in its revelation of the nature of Rawls’s project: “We want to define the original position so that we get the desired solution.” The difference principle does not stem from an impartial “decision procedure for ethics,” as Rawls titled an early paper; quite the contrary, he has ensured egalitarian conclusions by his starting point. Flew ironically observes that given the “endearing frankness” of Rawls’s confession, “it should come as no surprise that the curiously deprived creatures” in the original position arrive at egalitarian conclusions. Rawls has concealed from them any information that might have induced them to favor conflicting principles.

Flew’s assault on Rawls has stood the test of time. Thinking about him brings back a pleasant memory of him at a Mises Institute Conference in 2001. He said that I was ‘too easy” on Rawls. No one was tougher.


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Here’s Yet Another Way Rawls Was Wrong About Equality