A Theory of Justice
In recent times, books such as The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009, Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson) have reignited the debate on fairness and inequality, highlighting the effects across societies when there is great inequality.
John Rawls is seen as the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, and A Theory of Justice is now appreciated as one of the great texts in moral and political philosophy because of its brilliant treatment of the fairness issue.
Yet because of his primary insistence on personal freedom in the John Stuart Mill mould, Rawls does not advocate a redistribution of wealth and power in any kind of socialist way. Rather, his focus is on equality of opportunity in the first place. Society may be rigged in favour of those who are born into lucky circumstances, but Rawls wondered: what would happen if citizens were temporarily robbed of the awareness of their place in society (their wealth, status etc), and were then told to go and organise things in the fairest way possible? How would that society be different to what exists now?
This ingenious scenario is the heart of A Theory of Justice. First, though, we look at Rawls’ basic concept of a just society through his two guiding principles of freedom and equality.
The ‘original position’ and two guiding principles
As a political philosopher Rawls was strongly influenced by traditional ‘social contract’ theories expounded by Locke and Rousseau in which citizens willingly give up some of their freedoms in return for state protection and order. In these theories, the ‘state of nature’ is the original position which exists prior to any system of laws or justice. Rousseau, for instance, compared the costs and benefits of such a state with life in a society based on law, concluding that what is lost is more than made up for in what is gained.
Rawls has a corresponding ‘original position’ in which free people come together to imagine possible principles by which a society could be justly ordered. These include utilitarian principles (the greatest happiness of the greatest number), intuitionist principles (those considered ‘appropriate’ or ‘acceptable’ by the citizens) and egoistic principles (society is ordered, if at all, for the sole benefit of the individual).
Imagine you are among this group. In choosing among these alternative sets of principles you have to make a choice based on uncertainty. If you don’t know the future, how can you arrange society in terms of least-harm and potentially greatest upside? Another way of seeing it is, how would each set of principles turn out if they were taken up by your group’s worst enemies? If we choose to base a society on egoistic principles, for example, we can imagine that it would be wonderful for some people (who have access to many resources and advantages) but terrible for others (who lack them).
Rawls proposes his own principles by which a just society could be guided:
1) there must be basic freedoms (e.g. of speech, association, religion);
2) the inequalities which inevitably result from freedom are so arranged to bring most benefit to the worst-off, including full equality of opportunity.
The first ‘priority rule’ supporting these principles is that freedom can only be restricted when it results in other freedoms. As he puts it, “a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberty shared by all”.
The second priority rule is that justice is always more important than efficiency or utility of outcomes. Specifically, equal opportunity is more important than achieving a certain whole-of-society outcome or what some government may believe is ‘for the good’ of the people. The individual is more important than the mass, because whatever whole-of-society gains might be obtained (in a utilitarian way), it should never happen at the expense of the worse off. Rather, whatever gains are made, they occur second to, or as a result of, everyone having the chance to be lifted up.
The veil of ignorance as a path to justice
The big problem, as Rawls sees it, with existing theories for achieving a just society is that of the biases and prejudices of those charged with their creation. To get around this, he makes his famous ‘veil of ignorance’ proposal.
Every member in society agrees to voluntary and temporary amnesia. As this ‘veil of ignorance’ descends upon them, they forget who they are and the place they hold in society, so that fairness to all is their main concern. After all, Rawls notes, if someone knew they were rich, they might want to oppose taxes or welfare policies, not just because it might reduce their fortune, but because they may have conditioned themselves to see welfare as an unjust principle. The veil of ignorance eliminates such prejudices, because each person is blind to their station in life. They may be revealed as a pauper as much as a prince, and so will opt for societal rules that benefit the poor as much as the rich, and which indeed will give a leg up to the worst off.
Under the veil of ignorance, we know that our chances of ending up in a good position, while attractive, are not great. To protect against ending up a downtrodden serf, for instance, we would choose a society where there is a reasonable chance at a good life, whatever our station, but still plenty of room for upward mobility. This is a rational decision not just for ourselves, but for our family and future generations, all of whom will affected.
From this position of absolute equality and fairness, it will be clear what constitutes justice, and society can be regulated accordingly.
Justice as fairness
Rawls names his position ‘justice as fairness’. He sees it as the heir to the social contract theory, and yet distinct from utilitarian forms of justice.
Social institutions must exist not simply to provide order, or to protect property, but to achieve the most just outcomes. At the same time, he rejects the utilitarian model with its “algebraic sum of advantages” because it does not give enough attention to individual rights and interests. For Rawls, “the greater good” should never be built atop the loss of freedom for some.
He assumes that any society has a scarcity of resources, and therefore who gets what, and how much, becomes the key issue. While some may see this negatively in terms of ‘redistribution’, Rawls simply puts in terms of ‘social justice’, which involves rights as well as responsibilities. Social justice involves “the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation”.
While people disagree on what constitutes justice and fairness, they generally agree that a concept of justice should regulate society. For most people, Rawls suggests, “...institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.”
The problem with existing institutions is that they tend to be skewed to benefit some people over others, and not because of some particular merit of these individuals, but purely because of an accident of birth or lucky ‘starting place’ in life. The main task of social justice is therefore removing the discrimination against people based on factors or characteristics over which they had no control. Because of his insistence on freedom, never does Rawls suggest that his ideal society would be one of absolute equality. Only that, where there is inequality in status or wealth, that it has come about only after there having been a totally level playing field in the first place. Granted that hierarchies may be needed to run organisations, it would only turn out this way after there had been full and free access to jobs and positions in the first place. A society based on promotion by merit may be an ideal, but it only achieves its full expression if there is equality of opportunity to attain the merit.
Creating the just society
In Part Two of the book, Rawls imagines his citizens, having decided on their guiding principles for a just society, getting down to work, creating a constitution and developing laws. Only after this process is the veil of ignorance lifted, and everyone involved can see their position in society.
The chosen emphasis on liberty makes the society an echo of the American constitution, and indeed it ends up looking like a liberal democracy, with bodies of legislators, independent courts etc. Other features would include public schools, a minimum social wage, and an open and competitive economic sphere involving the prevention of monopolies. By a ‘just savings’ principle, the current generation must put aside some funds for future generations.
In Part Three, Rawls shows how a society based on justice as fairness will also be a good and stable society, because all the members will see how it helps them to grow personally, and benefits their families too. Justice as fairness is a sort of social glue that binds society together. Human psychology comes into it too; if we see how fairness benefits everyone, then breaking laws has social as well as legal issues which people will try to avoid. To go along with a just system is to feel just ourselves, with is pleasant. So a society based on fairness has personal, selfish benefits as well as the public. Echoing Rousseau, Rawls notes:
“...the desire to express our nature as a free and equal rational being can be fulfilled only by acting on the principles of right and justice as having first priority.”
By acceding to being part of a well-ordered, just society, we paradoxically experience freedom. We are not fighting for survival or for rights, and can pursue other projects that we desire.
But above all, a society based on justice as fairness sits well with our moral natures. If our heart is in the right place in relation to our fellows, everything else good will follow. The problem with the utilitarian view is that it sees us simply as machines for satisfying our desires, denying our moral natures. It is not feasible as a long-term model for a good society. Rawls’ view, in contrast, takes account of all aspects of our nature, the noble and ignoble.
The balancing act Rawls tries to achieve with his two principles is to preserve freedoms while enhancing opportunity. Where inequality exists, it would be arranged to offer the greatest possible benefit to the worst-off in society. Yet, as many have pointed out, a society arranged to reduce inequality inevitably means a stronger government hand, and consequently curtailed freedoms. Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick’s libertarian manifesto, pointed out the inherent paradox in Rawls’ principles. Nozick wrote:
“Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state?”
The room left is only for a minimal state protecting against violence, theft, fraud, and enforcing contracts. Anything more will force people to do things for some greater good with which they may not agree. The Rawls view, critics says, even though it may put a noble emphasis on freedom, in reality provides the rationale for a big welfare state which takes equality of opportunity to extremes.
Whatever your view, the Rawls view does provide a perfect counter to individualistic Ayn Rand-style political ideals, and if even if you prefer the latter, the good intentions and humanity of A Theory of Justice should be admitted. Its scope and imagination makes it a modern-day counterpart to Plato’s Republic: both books provide a vision for a just society, one based on fairness for all, the other on the superior knowledge of a class of elites. Despite the differences in content, Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ is up there with Plato’s allegory of the cave as one of the great images in philosophy.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
Born in 1921, Rawls’s comfortable upbringing in Baltimore (his father was a prominent lawyer) was marred by the illness and death of his two brothers.
He attended the private Kent School in Connecticut before going to Princeton University. He was a top student, and considered joining an Episcopalian seminary. After graduating with honours in 1943, he joined the army and was stationed in the Pacific. In Japan he saw the aftermath of the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima, which deeply affected him. He returned to Princeton to pursue a doctorate in moral philosophy, and married Margaret Fox.
After earning his PhD, Rawls taught at Princeton for a couple of years before taking up a Fulbright Scholarship to Oxford, where he was influenced by the essayist and political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. After teaching stints at Cornell and MIT, he took up a professorship at Harvard, where he would remain for the duration of his career, influencing a generation of moral and political philosophers including Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Nagel.
Other key works are The Law of Peoples, applying his concepts of justice to international affairs, Political Liberalism: The John Dewey Essays in Philosophy, and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, plus many significant articles.
In 1999, Bill Clinton presented Rawls with the National Humanities Medal, noting that his ideas had “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy”. In the same year he won the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy.
Rawls died in 2002. An asteroid, ‘16561 Rawls’, is named after him.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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