The Game of Philosophy

The following pages are from the opening chapter of The Game of Philosophy by William Soderberg, Creative Commons, 2014.



Chapter 1: Some Preliminaries

Two major stories of moral and political philosophy have emerged in recent times. These two stories or theories provide markedly different views of the human person, morality and justice. The first is a communitarian story, the second a liberal tale. In the first, the human person is described as a social being; in the second, the person is viewed mainly as an individual. In the communitarian story, the good life or the kind of life worth living can be determined only within a community; in the liberal account, the good life or lifestyle is an individual matter. Several other features that we will examine distinguish communitarianism from liberalism.

These two stories seem to be so radically different that no reconciliation or common ground between them can be found. The first part of our project will be to grasp some of the main differences between the two stories and the power of each in its description of morality and justice. We will also consider how each story can collapse into a form of tyranny when, in the name of morality, some treat others in an arbitrary way. Our final concern will be to explore whether common ground may be found to allow adherents of each story to address differences and conflicts.

Both the communitarian and liberal stories have ancient roots in the history of ideas. In this book, some ofthe main roots will be examined. The communitarian account, as we will see, prevailed in the ancient and medieval worlds. With the emergence of moral liberalism in recent centuries, morality in many societies has become less a public and

The Game of Philosophy

more a private matter. The liberal view is the major account of morality and justice in contemporary democracies. The rise of liberalism, according to its proponents, represents moral progress. The communitarian view, however, continues to have many adherents. Indeed, many individuals feel drawn toward both communitarianism and liberalism, so the conflict between the two stories can occur even within individuals.

Our study of the roots of communitarianism and liberalism will take us beyond the practical questions of morality and justice. Some philosophers who address moral and public policy issues also offer speculative answers to the questions of what is real and true. In the course of this work, various communitarian and liberal answers to these perennial questions of reality (metaphysics) and truth (epistemology) will be examined.

The Rawls Game

John Rawls is a major contemporary defender of a liberal notion of justice. One of Rawls’ students, Ronald Green, devised a game to illustrate Rawls’ conception of justice. Several classes of mine have played the game described in the following paragraphs. This version contains a few minor changes from Green’s version.

The Rawls Game consists of three rounds. Prior to the first round I announce to the class that we are the elected representatives on the island republic of Nacirema. Each of us represents about one thousand constituents. Nacirema is a completely isolated island and the economy is agricultural. Everyone either farms or provides services to the farmers . The people own their own farms and believe strongly in looking out for number one. They also share the widespread belief that no one should be forced to do anything against his or her will. To protect liberty to the greatest extent possible, the legislature has adopted the procedure that all policy decisions must be adopted by unanimous vote.

The rules for the first round of the game appear on the blackboard:

(I) you may look at the cards, and (2) the measure will pass if the vote is unanimous. I then pass out cards and explain the situation that we are voting on. The island has been afflicted with a serious drought and many, but not all, of its people are now suffering from the drought. The mountaineers have water from a snowcap on the mountain and continue to flourish. The tlatlanders, who are completely dependent on rainfall for their crops, are suffering. The mountaineers make up about one-fifth of the population on the island. Those who have an “X” on their cards are mountaineers and those without a mark are tlatlanders.

A proposal has been studied by our scientists and is now in front of the legislature for discussion and vote. The proposal is that water from the snowcap will be transferred equally to all farms on the island, and that an irrigation system will be built to make this possible. The mountaineers currently are living very well, since traditionally they have had an abundance of water for their crops. The tlatlanders, however, even in the best of times have barely eked out an existence and in the present crisis are unable to do even that. In a few years, if the waterworks project is adopted, the unequal economic and social division between the mountaineers and tlatlanders will be erased and everyone on the island-tlatlanders as well as mountaineers-will be at the same economic level.

After some discussion and an exploration of alternative proposals, we bring this proposed waterworks project to a vote. Generally some of the mountaineers will vote against the proposal. When they do, I point out that a weakness is present in our system. We have followed the two procedures (looking at the cards and trying to get a unanimous vote) in an effort to protect everyone’s liberty, but a tyranny of the powerful minority has resulted.

The second round of the game begins at this point. I entertain suggestions for changing either of the two rules of the game. The suggestion to have a majority vote is quickly made. I change the second rule to incorporate the suggestion. The two rules now read: 1) you may look at the cards; 2) the measure will pass if it receives a majority vote.

The situation for our second vote is as follows . A serious disease has broken out on Nacirema that takes the lives of ten percent of the population every year. Five people on the island have been found to possess an enzyme that protects them from the disease. Our scientists have also found that this enzyme provides a cure and prevents the disease in others who are vaccinated with the enzyme. After considering various alternatives, the scientists have determined that all five people must be hooked up to machines so that the enzymes can be extracted and used to bring the dreaded scourge to an end. The five

The Game of Philosophy

people will have to be hooked up twenty-four hours every day for at least ten years-and perhaps longer.

Five representatives are given marked cards while the rest receive unmarked cards. Each of the representatives with a marked card has one constituent with the valuable enzyme. During the discussion of the proposal, the five representatives report whether their five constituents are willing to give consent. Sometimes the consent of the individuals is withheld until enormous sums of money are given; sometimes a small child is one of the people with the enzyme; and sometimes a constituent simply refuses to give up his or her freedom and rejects being attached to a machine. In the last case, the one who refuses is sedated and kept “happy” throughout the time that he or she is on the machine.

The vote is taken on the enzyme-extraction procedure, and generally a majority of the class votes in favor of the proposal. I then point out that a tyranny of the majority has occurred: the liberties of one or a few persons have been overridden for the good ofthe many.

The third round then begins. Again I invite a suggestion for a possible modification of the rules. Sometimes a student will suggest not looking at the cards. I take that suggestion and pass out a set of cards with the marks turned down, as I instruct the students not to look at the marks on the cards until after the vote is taken. In addition, I suggest that to protect the liberty of each person we return to the requirement that the vote be unanimous. The two rules now read: 1) you may not look at the cards; 2) the measure will pass if the vote is unanimous.

For the third round, another proposal faces the legislature. The proposal is that each mountaineer family will be assigned four flatlander families. If the mountaineers wish, they may provide food and shelter for their designated flatlander families. The flatlanders, meanwhile, are required to provide labor for the mountaineer farms. No wages are given for the labor, only food and shelter. The food and shelter are provided at the discretion of the mountaineer.

During the discussion of the proposal, someone invariably identifies it as a slave or serfdom proposal. When the vote is taken, the proposal is generally defeated with a unanimous vote. I then point out that we have adopted Rawls’ perspective of justice and ruled slavery out. This procedure, according to Rawls, helps us to grasp the origin of a right not to be enslaved. We don’t in “real life” actually engage in turning down the cards and voting unanimously; however, when we realize that such practices as slavery are not allowed in liberal societies, the image of the face-down cards can help us to grasp how and why they were ruled out. It is as if such a procedure were used. During the course of our study, we will see that the cards-down perspective has sometimes been associated with a religious point of view.

The link between religion and public policy is strong in the history of ideas. In Chapter Two we will examine different forms that this link has taken in various Mediterranean societies. One of our main projects is to gain some understanding of why the link between religion and public policy has been so strong. The central answer that we will explore is that many people believe war can be avoided if the cards are turned down before violence breaks out over issues that divide communities.

In Chapter Two, we will trace the link between religion and public policy through the traditions of Plato and Aristotle. Despite the problem of the tyranny of orthodoxy, as we will see, religion continues to exercise an influence on policy matters in many cultures. Modem liberalism has in large measure emerged as a corrective to the tyranny of orthodoxy that has historically accompanied the shaping of public policy by religious authorities.

In Chapter Four, “Modem Moral Liberalism,” we will study classical and contemporary moral liberalism and review Rawls’ efforts to preserve the strengths of both liberalism and communitarianism. We will examine Rawls’ response to four major forms of tyranny-the tyrannies of the majority, the powerful minority, orthodoxy, and perfectionism. His response to the tyrannies of the majority and the minority is· that the cards should be turned down for policy decisions, but Rawls is aware that the tyrannies of orthodoxy and perfectionism lurk nearby when the cards are turned down. We will see that Rawls addresses this problem with two main suggestions: first, the turning down of the cards is merely a hypothetical, not an actual, procedure; secondly, the cards may be regarded as inverted for some matters only. The fair-minded, cards-down perspective, Rawls maintains, helps to understand how individual rights are created. We will examine the matters for which Rawls would tum the cards down and review criticisms ofhis notion of a hypothetical social contract.

The three perspectives that emerge from the game will be helpful in our discussions of moral and political philosophies. The place given to self-interest, altruism, and fair-mindedness will be traced through various philosophies.

The Game ofPhilosophy

The central metaphor of the Rawls game-tum ing the cards face up for some decisions and face down for others-can be quite graphic to those who have played the game and expressed their intuitions on specific issues from the different perspectives. The card-game metaphor has its limitations, to be sure, so it will be used mainly to provide preliminary comparisons among moral theories in our search for a fair social game. It will also provide a framework for presenting some of the problems associated with various theories.

Moral Relativism: Survival of the Fittest

At this point in our search, you may be thinking that morality is simply an individual matter. Further, you might hold that so-called “morality” is simply a matter of conditioning. A person’s beliefs and behaviors are best viewed as mere products of one’s culture. The position that you are entertaining if you think along these lines is known as moral relativism.

In this section, I will talk about relativism and try to explain why it is so popular, but also why it quickly falls apart as a coherent story of the phenomenon that people call morality. We will then examine liberal and communitarian stories of morality. I will try to point out the important influence that relativism has exercised on these two major stories or approaches to morality.

As people become aware of practices in various cultures, many are led to the conclusion that what is right varies from culture to culture. Polygamy is practiced in some cultures, monogamy in others. Pre­marital relations are permitted in some cultures but foribidden in others. Some cultures are vegetarian while others are carnivorous. These and similar examples seem to provide evidence to support the assertion that what is right varies from community to community. They seem to support, in other words, a form of ethical or moral relativism that may be called communal relativism.

Communal (Cultural) Relativism: Horses in a Herd

Communal relativists hold that if a group regards an action as right, it is right. The group is the exclusive determiner of what is right. Communal or cultural relativism, may be illustrated with the image of a herd of horses. A dominant stallion provides protection for the mares and the young. There is no right or wrong in this animal herd; there are only hungry horses in need of food and protection. The survival of the herd increases the chances that each member of the herd will survive, so the good of the group and the good of each member of the group are closely connected.

Relativists regard humans as close to animals as far as questions of life’s meaning and morality are concerned. Humans, like other animals, are subject to control and domination by others, and both human and non-human animals end their lives in the same way: they die. Non­relativists, on the other hand, regard humans as having capacities that fish and animals lack, capacities that make relationships among humans significantly different from relationships among non-human animals.

If the community is the determiner of what is right, a person who seeks to know what is right must only consult a community’s standards. When the standards of different communities are examined, however, one quickly realizes that some pretty outrageous policies have been adopted at different times and places. Chattel slavery was practiced in various parts of the Americas for several centuries. Genocide has been inflicted on people of different religious or ethnic heritage in some European and other countries as recently as the twentieth century. To say a policy is right if a community or group declares it is right seems out of place or even misguided in light of such examples.

A search for a coherent response to communal relativism seems to point us in the direction of individual or subjective relativism. What is right, according to subjective relativists, varies from individual to individual. If an individual regards an action as right, according to the subjective relativist, it is right.

The Game ofPhilosophy

Individual (Subjective) Relativism: Fish in the Sea

The subjective or individual moral relativist regards the human person as an isolated individual who, independently of others, determines what is good and right. On this view, there are as many different standards of morality as there are people in the world. In effect, then, there is no shared standard of right action and no universal standard of right or wrong. A picture or model for this position is the model of fish in the sea, where big fish eat little fish. Individual relativists regard humans as quite similar to animals as far as moral and ultimate questions (questions about what is right, real, and so forth) are concerned. There is no measure of right and wrong; there are only hungry fish.

Subjective relativism can be tested and refuted in the same way that communal relativism has been challenged. Son of Sam, a mass killer in New York, claimed that mass killing was right-even divinely inspired. This claim runs counter to the ordinary intuitions of many people, who would hold that mass killing is wrong. To hold that mass killing is wrong, then, requires that one reject the claim of the subjective relativist that an action is right if an individual regards it as right.

Problems with contradiction and circularity also render moral relativism incoherent. The position of individual relativism may be expressed with this principle: “If a person regards an action as right, it is right. ” Along the same lines, the position of communal relativism may be expressed: “If a group regards a policy as right, it is right.”

Philip Montague, a philosopher from the state of Washington, has pointed out that if two people have opposite opinions of an action, the consistent relativist must say that the action is right and it is wrong. This contradictory conclusion follows from the principle “If a person regards an action as right, it is right.” The counterpart to this principle is “If a person regards an action as wrong, it is wrong.” So, if one person regards an action as right and another person regards the same action as wrong, it follows from the relativist principle that the action is both right and wrong.

To avoid this apparent contradiction, people often modify the principle and say: “If a person regards an action as right, it is right in his or her view.” Montague points out that if an action is right in someone’s view, that person regards the action as right. Anyone who

Chapter I: Some Preliminaries I I

accepts this paraphrase, Montague observes, must acknowledge that the principle is equivalent to this statement: “If a person regards an action as right, that person regards the action as right.” The principle is true but trivial. This circular principle tells us nothing about a state of affairs in the world. The effort to find consistency in a relativist principle leads first to contradiction and then to circularity. These are serious difficulties for moral or prescriptive relativists.

Examples of the sort we have been examining-known as “counter­examples”-help us to express our own intuitions; they ordinarily lead to the rejection of relativism in both its communal and individual forms. A plausible claim that may be made after the critical examination of both forms of relativism is that the individual and the community, in some combination, decide what is right. Neither the individual nor the community acting independently of the other is the exclusive determiner of right actions or policies.

The serious objections to relativism may well lead one to ask why relativism continues to be such a popular position. The reason may well lie in a failure to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive relativism. Descriptive relativists hold that what is regarded as right varies. They may hold that what is regarded as right varies from culture to culture, or that what is regarded as right varies from individual to individual. The descriptive relativists may also hold that both of these claims are correct.

Prescriptive or moral relativists address the question of what is right. They hold that what is right varies. Prescriptive relativism takes two forms. These are the two positions reviewed above under the labels communal (or cultural) and individual (or subjective) relativism. Polygamy, slavery, genocide, and clitorectomy may be regarded as right in some times and places, but a person may still ask whether these practices are right.

The popularity of the view that morality is relative may now be explained in the following way. When people hold that morality is relative, they are ordinarily subscribing to a form of descriptive relativism. Descriptive relativism, in the judgment of many philosophers and non-philosophers, gives a highly plausible account of a state of affairs in the world.

Prescriptive relativists, however, make quite a different claim. They make the controversial claim that what is right varies from culture to culture or from individual to individual. While descriptive relativists give a description of an actual state of affairs, prescriptive relativists

The Game ofPhilosophy

make a prescription about what could or should be. Descriptive relativism has been said to present claims about what is, but prescriptive relativism to make claims about what ought to be. The position of descriptive relativism can be readily verified through the study of different cultures or the observation of different individuals, but the claim of prescriptive relativism that what is right varies is highly controversial and requires defense. The popularity of relativism may be explained as the result of a failure to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive relativism. The position that many people have in mind when they say “morality is relative” is descriptive relativism, not prescriptive relativism.

In the rest of this section and the remainder of the book, I will be concerned with prescriptive or moral relativism. When I refer to ‘relativism’ I will mean prescriptive relativism unless I specify otherwise.

The final objection to relativism is that moral relativists address only the question of who decides. When they address only this question, they fail to take into account other questions that people often ask in regard to moral issues: What is the standard of right action? What is the good life? Why be moral? What is virtuous? The failure to take into account these questions, along with the exclusive emphasis on the individual or the group and problems with contradiction and circularity, leads most philosophers to look elsewhere for a definition or standard of a right action or a good life. Some look to moral liberalism and others to moral communitarianism.

Neither moral liberalism nor moral communitarianism is a relativist position. Both positions assign a role to the individual as well as to the community in moral decision-making. In liberalism, the individual is the primary moral agent; in communitarianism the community is the primary agent. The main differences between liberals and communitarians, as we will see, may be traced to conflicting views of the human person and the source of personal identity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s