E.O. Wilson’s Criticism of John Rawls

John Rawls would be almost universally regarded as one of the most important political philosophers in the last hundred years. To most philosophers his ‘A Theory of Justice’ would be considered a classic and would be a set text for pretty much all political philosophy courses. His work has plenty of critics but most of his critics acknowledge the importance of his work (see criticisms from Nozick, Habermas, and Rorty etc.). Not all of Rawls’ critics employ the same level of respect and careful reading as Nozick et all. In his article for the Atlantic ‘On the Biological Basis Morality’ (1998) biologist E.O.Wilson savagely attacked Rawl’s views on political philosophy (and political philosophy in general). According to Wilson, Rawls’ focus on transcendental arguments and ignorance of science makes his work of little importance. Unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson seems to find little of value in Rawls work. Furthermore unlike most of Rawls’ critics Wilson didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rawls’ work before criticizing it.

Rawls wasn’t the primary target of Wilson’s article. Wilson wrote his article as a criticism of philosophers and theologians who constructed moral theories while ignoring basic findings in biology. I agree with Wilson on the importance of any theory of morality and political philosophy being constrained and informed by evolutionary psychology and biology. However, I find little of value in Wilson’s ignorant attack on Rawls which ignored Rawls’ actual views and instead attacked a caricature. The scope of this blog-post will be limited to criticizing Wilson’s criticism of Rawl’s views it will leave it to other authors to engage with Wilson’s overall polemic against political philosophy and theology.

Wilson’s primary criticism Rawl’s theory is that it is ignorant of relevant facts about science. In his 1998 Atlantic Article Wilson makes the following blanket criticism of Rawl’s work:

“Rawls ventured no thought on where the human brain comes from or how it works. He offered no evidence that justice as fairness is consistent with human nature, hence practicable as a blanket premise…Transcendentalism remains firm in the hearts of…countless scholars in the social sciences and the humanities who, like Moore and Rawls, have chosen to insulate their thinking from the natural sciences” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’ )


Wilson makes a number of points in the above paragraph which warrant a bit of discussion. Firstly I should note the one area where I think Wilson is correct. Rawls does offer little by way of an examination of how the human brain works; but this isn’t because Rawls has chosen to “insulate his thinking from the natural sciences”. Rather Rawls focused on evidence from psychology, economics, and evolutionary science; his focus on these subjects in 1971 was sensible as these empirical disciplines were much more advanced than the neuroscience of the time.

The absurdity of Wilson’s claim that Rawl’s was ‘insulating himself from the science of his time” can be seen by considering the scientists Rawl’s cited and incorporated into his theory in chapter 8 of ‘A Theory of Justice’ called ‘A Sense of Justice’:

W.R. Ashby ‘Design for a Brain’, Harvey Leibenstein ‘Economic Backwardness and Economic Growth’, Albert Bandura ‘Principles of Behaviour Modification’, Roger Brown ‘Social Psychology’, Paul H. Mussen ‘Carmichael’s Manual of Psychology’, Ronald Fletcher, ‘Instinct in Man’, Jean Piaget ‘The Moral Judgement of the Child’, Lawrence Kohlberg ‘The Development of Children’s Orientation towards a Moral Order’. Goslin D. A. ‘Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research’, William Mc Dougall ‘An Introduction to Social Psychology’ E.E. Maccoby, ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’, John Flavell ‘The Development of Role-Taking and Communication Skills in Children’, G.H. Mead, ‘Mind, Self and Society’, A.F. Shand ‘Foundations of Character’, G.C. Homans ‘The Human Group’, G.C. Homes ‘Social Behaviour its Elementary Forms’, R. B. Trivers ‘Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ , G.C. Williams ‘Adaptation and Natural Selection’, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt ‘Ethology’.

Rawls critically engaged with all of the above scientists when trying to understand how humans developed their sense of Justice. It is utterly absurd for Wilson to accuse Rawl’s of insulating himself from natural science.

What is most notable in Wilson’s comments is his claim that Rawl’s offered no evidence that justice as fairness was consistent with human nature. On the contrary Rawl’s believed that a strength of his theory, as opposed to, alternatives such as utilitarianism, was that it was more consistent with our human nature. Rawl’s argued that it was very important his theory was psychologically plausible:

However attractive a conception of justice might be on other grounds, it is seriously defective if the principles of moral psychology are such that it fails to engender in human beings the requisite desire to act upon it…Most traditional doctrines hold that to some degree at least human nature is such that we acquire a desire to act justly when we have lived under and benefited from just institutions. To the extent that this is true, a conception of justice is psychologically suited to human inclinations…The task of this chapter is to explain how justice as fairness generates its own support and to show that it is likely to have greater stability than the traditional alternatives since it is more in line with the principles of moral psychology. To this end, I shall describe briefly how human beings in a well-ordered society might acquire a sense of justice and the other moral sentiments.” (‘A Theory of Justice pp.455-456)


Rawl’s considers two main theories of our moral sentiments. The first theory is empiricism which he says runs from Hume, to Sidgwick up to present day social learning theory. Rawls puts Freud in the empiricist camp. He parses the empiricist position as:

“The aim of moral training is to supply missing motives: the desire to do what is right for its own sake” (ibid p. 458)


The other tradition of moral learning is rationalist. In this tradition Rawl’s places Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and Piaget. He parses the rationalist theory as follows:

“Moral learning is not so much a matter of supplying missing motives as one of the free development of our innate intellectual capacities according to their natural bent” (ibid p. 459)


Rawl’s consideration of the two major schools of thought is interesting in that he branches philosophers and psychologists into categories together depending on the emphasis they give to innate architecture in humans cognitive development. He doesn’t just focus on philosophical arguments but he makes use of empirical data in constructing his theory.

In theorising how humans acquire their moral sense Rawls offers three psychological laws that he argues play a role in humans acquiring their moral sense; (1) The Morality of Authority, (2) The Morality of Association, (3) The Morality of Principles. Discussing the nature of these laws and the evidence he offers for them will be revealing of Rawl’s respect for the findings of natural science.

The Morality of Authority:

Rawls discussion of the morality of authority involves a consideration of how a child comes to accept the authority of their parents as valid and develops the capacity to feel guilty for circumventing that authority. He sums up his conjecture with the line “The child comes to love the parents only if they manifestly love him first”. Rawl’s speculates that the child will experience his parents as all powerful creatures who get to decide how things should be done. But the child will recognize that the parent loves him and will eventually internalize the capacity to follow the simple rules the parent sets. Because the child will recognize the parents love for them they will learn to follow the rules even when the parents are not there or aren’t offering rewards for the good behaviour. The child will even develop the capacity to feel guilty for transgressing these simple rules. But the child won’t really have any concept of what justifies these rules. Rawl’s cites E.E. Maccoby ‘Moral Values and Behaviour in Childhood’ to support his claims about the child’s development of the morality of authority.


                           The Morality of Association:

In the beginning of the child’s development his primary association is the family group. But as the child grows up into the world they become members of many different intersecting groups. Each of these groups has its own idiosyncratic rules that the child must learn to follow. By becoming skilled at adopting to his role in various different groups; school, the neighbourhood, friends, team mates etc. the child learns the contextual nature of his role in groups. His identity means something different in each different group. When the child starts growing up and recognizing different groups he is no longer just following the precepts given by his parents. The child must learn to understand himself and others from a variety of different points of view depending on the various different groups he is a member of (Rawl’s cites Mead ‘Mind, Self, and Society’, and Flavell ‘The Development of Role taking and Communication Skills in Children’ in support of his conjectures). Rawl’s argues that through a similar process as the child learns the precepts of his parents; the child comes to learn the rules of the other groups he joins. But by immersing himself in many different groups the child gives himself a deeper understanding of these different moral rules.

The Morality of Principles:

The morality of association is a step up from the morality of authority in the sense that the developing person now has an understanding of rules and how they apply relative to the different groups. However, the morality of association still has severe limits in that it still relies on a sense of fellow feeling between the person at that stage of his development and the members of the various different groups he is in. The person still hasn’t developed any sense of principles that apply independent of contingent ties of affection and friendship. For Rawl’s a person becomes a true moral agent when they will need to acquire an understanding of abstract principles that go beyond contingent friendships. Rawl’s parses the acquiring of the morality of principles as follows:

“Now this leads to an acceptance of these principles by a third psychological law. This law states that once the attitudes of love and trust, and of friendly feelings and mutual confidence, have been generated in accordance with the two preceding psychological laws, then the recognition that we and those for whom we care are beneficiaries of an established and enduring just institution tends to engender in us the corresponding sense of justice. We develop a desire to apply and to act upon the principles of justice once realize how social arrangements answering to them have promoted our good and that of those with whom we are affiliated. In due course we come to appreciate the ideal of just human cooperation.” (ibid p. 474)


                           Justice as Fairness versus Utilitarianism

As we saw above in his 1998 article ‘The biological basis of Morality’ Wilson criticized Rawl’s for insulating himself from the discoveries of natural science and ignoring the question of whether his theory of justice as fairness is compatible with what we know about human nature. Wilson didn’t present any evidence to support his contention and as we have seen contrary to what Wilson claimed Rawl’s was very cognizant of the importance of empirical findings on human nature and its relevance to his theory of justice. Another accusation that Wilson threw at Rawls was that he simply made dogmatic claims which other philosophers denied by making contradictory dogmatic claims of their own. Wilson presents a bleak picture of moral and political philosophy:

“Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility… Rawls opens ‘A Theory of Justice’ with a proposition he regards as irrevocable…A very different premise is presented by Robert Nozick in ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’…Rawls would point us toward egalitarianism regulated by the state, Nozick toward libertarianism in a minimal state.” (Wilson ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’)


Wilson’s interpretation of moral philosophy is utterly bizarre. He seems to think that there is no argumentative rigor in the discipline and that empirical data that would bear on the issue is entirely ignored. Wilson offers no evidence for this strange interpretation other than the fact that two philosophers have a fundamental disagreement on a particular issue. He entirely ignores the evidence provided by each theorist and the arguments they present and simply asserts that because they disagree on something this proves that moral philosophy involves nothing more than dogmatic assertions. His reasoning would be on a par with a creationist who believed that because Wilson and Dawkins disagree on group selection then this proves that evolutionary theorists are simply making up things as they go along.

After asserting without argument that moral philosophers are simply making up their theories and are ignoring science, Wilson claims that making use of discoveries in biology would have been a good starting point for these errant philosophers. Interestingly Rawls does in fact appeal to evolutionary science as a reason that his Theory of Justice is a more plausible theory than utilitarianism.

Rawls notes has famously argued that a person who is in the original position would be rational to want to adopt the justice as fairness conception. However, he noted that in practice such a cooperative scheme would be vulnerable to free-riders who took advantage of the cooperative scheme without contributing much themselves. Hobbes had argued that to stop free-riders taking advantage of a scheme of cooperation it would be necessary for a sovereign to be in place who could punish those who chose to be free-riders.

Rawl’s however thinks that the three psychological laws; (1) Morality of Authority, (2) Morality of Association, (3) Morality of Principle, would be sufficient to ensure that the vast majority of people reared in a functioning democratic system would be encultured to find the idea of being a free-rider distasteful. So the stability of our cooperative scheme would be made more likely because of our psychological nature within the particular system of justice.

He contrasts this state of affairs with a well ordered society paired with the principle of utility. In such a society the psychological laws would have to be altered. The second psychological law would have to be “people tend to develop friendly feelings toward those who with evident intention do their part in cooperative schemes publically known to maximize the sum of advantages, or the average well-being” (ibid p. 499). Rawl’s correctly notes that this psychological law isn’t as plausible as the one he sketched under justice as fairness. He furthermore noted that such principles are less likely to be accepted by people who are less fortunate and told that the principle must be accepted because it is for the greater good. Ultimately Rawl’s argues that a utilitarian principle will lead to a less stable society than the justice as fairness conception. He argues that this is because people will find it psychologically difficult to accept the utilitarian philosophy.

Rawl’s offers an evolutionary argument to explain why people will be naturally more inclined to accept justice as fairness than its utilitarian rival. Citing the work of Konrad Lorenz, he notes that there is amble evidence that behavioural patterns have been as much shaped by natural selection as has our bodily parts such as arms and legs etc. (ibid p. 503). He notes is mountains evidence from evolutionary science (he cites: Trivers, Williams, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt) that indicates that humans evolved in small groups where there was selection pressure on cooperation within these groups.

Finally he asks whether these selection pressures will have made humans more psychologically prone to utilitarian philosophy or justice as fairness:

“if selection is always of individuals and their genetic lines, and if the capacity for the various forms of moral behaviour has some genetic basis, then altruism in the strict sense would generally be limited to kin and the smaller face-to-face groups. In these cases the willingness to make considerable self-sacrifice would favour one’s descendants and tend to be selected. Turning to the other extreme, a society which had a strong propensity to supererogatory conduct in its relations with other societies would jeopardize the existence of its own distinctive culture and its members would risk domination. Therefore one might conjecture that the capacity to act from the more universal forms of rational benevolence is likely to be eliminated, whereas the capacity to follow principles of justice and natural duty in relations between groups and individuals other than kin would be favoured. We can also see how the system of the moral feelings might evolve as inclinations supporting the natural duties and as stabilizing mechanisms for just schemes. If this correct, then once again the principles of justice are more securely based.” ( Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice’ pp.503-504)


Now obviously Rawl’s isn’t claiming that these evolutionary speculations prove that his conception is superior. Rather he is merely arguing that they offer an explanation as to why justice as fairness is more psychologically plausible than utilitarianism.

It is not the purpose of this blog post to take sides on the debate between Utilitarianism and Justice as Fairness. Nor am I claiming that Rawl’s sketch of evolutionary considerations is remotely complete. Rather all I have aimed at in this blog-post was to demonstrate that contra Wilson there is no evidence that Rawls is trying to shield himself from scientific findings.

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