Episode 7 - A lesson in lying and A deal is a deal

Link to the video and debate

Part 1 - A lesson in lying

Precisely because we inhabit the realms of both necessity and freedom, there is a difference between what we do and what we ought to do.

Kant's Categorical imperative: do that which you will to become universal law -- Kant

Benjamin Constant - The inquiring murderer: Your friend is in your house. A known murderer knocks at the door and asks you if your friend is in your house. What will you answer? Kant argues that you should never tell a lie (which is different from telling the truth).

[John]: I would say "I don't know" because I genuinely don't. He was hiding in the closet when I went to open the door, but by now he could be somewhere else, maybe escaping.

You receive as a present a tie that is just ugly. A white lie is to say "Oh, I've never seen such a tie before!" [laughter]

Part 2 - A deal is a deal

24:00 the contract that generates justice is the idea of reason, not an actual contract between people gathered in a constitutional convention -- Kant

27:00 John Rowls - the veil of ignorance: coming up with principles of justice while being blinded to the particulars of those who draft it.

[My thought]: what if most of those to whom the principles apply do have a distinguishing trait? Far-fetched, but the veil of ignorance would demand that all traffic lights be redesigned to have color-blind-free color, because there are a very few people who are color blind. Who is going to pay for that, and how is it their duty?

29:55 How do actual (real-life) contracts:

  1. bind or obligate?
  2. justify the terms that they produce? Rawls and Kant would say they don't, at least not on their own. THey are not self-sufficient moral instruments.

30:40: Of any contract can be asked, "is it fair?". Example: our own constitution was a contract drafted by people with different interests and bargaining power (as opposed to principles of right), and as a result produced a constitution that allowed slavery to exist.

31:40 Two parties agree on a deal: one is supposed to go to work, the other is supposed to pay. If the payer changes his mind after a minute, before the other party started doing any work, is he still obliged to pay? Contracts are determined by two key points:

  • mutual benefit / reciprocity
  • autonomy of entering a contract

38:00 The fact that two parties agreed on a contract doesn't mean it's fair. Example: Michael Sandel's two kids trading baseball cards, but one is older and knows more than the other about their value. Sandel instituted a rule each trade was complete only if approved by him. That was, of course, paternalism. But that is what paternalism is for.

Story: an old woman (sound of mind, but maybe terribly naive or unfamiliar with the price of plumbing) agreed to have her leaky toilet fixed by an unscrupulous contractor who asked $25k for the job. When she went to the bank to withdraw the money, the teller notified the authorities about the unscrupulous contractor.

[Sandel]: I suspect that even the most ardent contractarian will agree that the fact of this woman's agreement is not a sufficient condition of the agreement being fair.

Moral limits to actual (i.e., real-life) contracts: 41:20 "An actual agreement is not a sufficient condition of there being an obligation."

[Story]: Hume rented his house to a friend, who sublet it to a tenant. The tenant hired a contractor to paint the house. The bill was sent to Hume, who refused to pay. The contractor said that the house needed a new paint job, and he gave it a very good one.

[Hume]: on the same grounds, the contractor could go paint all the houses in town without the consent of landlords and demand payment.

Nevertheless, Hume had to pay.

Distinction between consent-based and benefit-based obligation. Even without explicit consent, if someone fixes your car when you do need help, you owe him payment, based on reciprocity of benefit. Point from the audience: benefit must be defined before any work starts. For example, what if the painter painted the house blue, but Hume hated that color? Sandel: We conclude consent is a necessary condition. Benefit needs to be defined; otherwise how can we know there has been a fair or equivalent of benefits?

The ideal of reciprocity may not be realized because the parties have different levels of knowledge about what constitutes benefit.

Imagine a contract among parties who were equal in knowledge and bargaining power - that is the idea behind Rawls' claim that the way to think about justice is from the standpoint of the hypothetical contract behind the veil of ignorance, enabling us to ignore for the moment the differences in power and knowledge that could, even in principle, lead to unfair results.

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