Rawls: Theory of Justice
In this essay I intend to give an account of Rawls’ arguments for justice and fairness as outlined in his A Theory of Justice and demonstrate that, while noble in intentions his theory is somewhat problematic. Furthermore I plan to demonstrate why I don’t necessarily agree that: “social and economic inequalities can only be justified if they are to the benefit of the least advantaged”.
Rawls Theory of Justice is an universalist system of justice. In the tradition of Kant, Locke and Rousseau it seeks to address the issues surrounding the social contract theory in an egalitarian manner in attempt to provide an answer to utilitarian approaches that have gone before from the likes of Jeremy Bentham and J. Stuart Mill. Inspired by David Hume he seeks to give an account of the circumstances of justice and endeavours to incorporate a Kantian style approach to morality. His theory is concerned primarily with distributive justice, thus seeking to design an approach that will provide a guide for the governing of the distribution of benefits and burdens inherent in society. His distributive theory is an outcome-based theory of justice, and measures justice according to how well it delivers in reducing inequality. It is thus an egalitarian theory to the problems of society.
The Utilitarian approach that had preceded Rawls sought to offer a moral theory (the ‘good’) and a theory of justice (the ‘right’).In utilitarian theory-- a consequentialist form of theory --says the moral worth of an action is discerned according to its contribution to overall utility, as the name suggests, and furthermore it’s sum total to all persons measured in some way according to net pleasure, or happiness.-“The greatest good for the greatest number”
Rawls theory on the other hand attempts only to provide a solution of justice. He is thus not unduly concerned with individual morality, but that of social justice. Rawls takes a pluralist attitude to that of the ‘good’ because as he rightly observes in a society such as ours there are so many diverse conceptions of morality due to differing religions etc. a universalist approach must require such if an attempt is to be made not to violate the rights of our fellow person.
Rawls argues in his theory of Justice that utilitarians have their priorities in the wrong order. That by focussing on the sum of utility as a result inequality in the distribution of the benefits and burdens is overlooked.
This is a preview of the whole essay
“The concerns of individuals are subordinated to finding an efficient means of allocating scarce resources to people with different, sometimes conflicting, needs, interests and preferences. Utilitarian justice thus enshrines no principled protection of individual rights and so leaves open the possibility that the rights of some individuals may be overridden.”
Moreover, Rawls’ argues that Utilitarians make the error of extending individual principles of choice to the collective.
Therefore Rawls attempts to offer an alternate theory by which we may achieve some level of social justice. He begins by attempting to get us to consider a hypothetical ‘original position’ whence from we may then be able to devise a more just theory rather than using Thomas Hobbes previously savage ‘state of nature’.
Rawls posits that we imagine ourselves behind what he calls the “veil of ignorance” One knows nothing of themselves, natural ability, nor position in society. Nothing is known of ones sex, race, tastes or nationality. The only specifications in the scenario are that we consider ourselves rational, free and moral equal humans. Three assumptions are added to this original position. Namely the:(1) The parties are mutually disinterested.(2).The parties are rationally self-interested(3.) The least advantaged ‘representative’ is the key element in deciding which principle of justice is chosen.
We are thus led to the conclusion, according to Rawls, that a rational person would necessarily adopt the position of the least advantaged person. That the only ‘safe’ principles would indeed be fair principles because we wouldn’t know if we were to suffer (or benefit) if the resulting institutions were structured in a biased fashion. Furthermore, that these principles would provide for highest minimum standards of justice for all. Rawls thus concludes the rational individual would chose a society standards that met the minimum 2 principles:
Principle of Equal Liberty: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
What it amounts to ultimately is that people don’t necessarily deserve their talents, and are thus not morally relevant and thus it is quite acceptable to penalise or reapportion the result of ‘luck’.
I’m inclined to side with Nozick in that the maxim principle is neither reasonable nor just ultimately. It could only be applied, as he suggests, if primary goods fell “like manna from heaven”however we know this is not the case in real life. Rawls’ maximin prevents the more industrious in society from the full enjoyment of the fruits of their labour. He wants us to treat our fellow humans as means to an end. While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest, as a number of anarcho-capitalist’s have argued over the years, that all taxation is theft and that the ‘invisible-hand’ can justly apportion scarce resources in all instances, it seems to me Rawls part a) of his difference principle undermines the very goal of his first principle of equal liberty.
By calling on the state to control, and that any gains be redirected to the worst off, then it is not so hard to envisage a state of affairs whereby the society falls into sort of malaise. Where is the incentive for the entrepreneur, the hard worker to do overtime or the venture capitalist to risk his bank balance? Nietzsche, in a typically prescient moment, although referring to his own times, also appears to predict the coming of Rawls in his ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ [word restriction prevent the full passage as I’d like; see appendix1 for context]
Briefly and regrettably, they belong to the LEVELLERS, these wrongly the democratic taste and its "modern ideas" all of them men without
solitude, without personal solitude, blunt honest fellows to whom
neither courage nor honourable conduct ought to be denied, only,
they are not free, and are ludicrously superficial, especially in
their innate partiality for seeing the cause of almost ALL human
misery and failure in the old forms in which society has hitherto
existed--a notion which happily inverts the truth entirely! What
they would fain attain with all their strength, is the universal,
green-meadow happiness of the herd, together with security,
safety, comfort, and alleviation of life for every one, their two
most frequently chanted songs and doctrines are called "Equality
of Rights" and "Sympathy with All Sufferers"--and suffering
itself is looked upon by them as something which must be done away with!
Since Rawls wrote his thesis in 1974 we have been fortunate in that we can empirically observe what can result when Rawls theory is taken to an extended degree in the case of Chinese and Eastern Bloc communism. When state institutions are charged with apportioning resources and control most aspects of citizens existence there is little incentive for innovation flourish. The production of the Trabant automobile on one side of the Berlin wall, while Mercedes and BMW were produced on the other was demonstrative in this regard.
A secondary point of Nozick’s also strikes resonance with me. Why will the more ‘lucky’ in society be sufficiently motivated to uphold Rawls’ maximin once they have emerged from the veil of ignorance? While Rawls acknowledges this and counter argues that peoples patterns will be different in his well ordered just society and will recognise its normative force, I find this argument somewhat unconvincing. Perhaps it is rather cynical on my part, but it seems that in regards to rational self interest people will in the main chose (vote) for laws and maxims that will most benefit their particular position. Granted humans have an innate sense for the ‘fair go’ but one can’t help wondering how far this can be practically extended to law.
When a system of justice’s starting position is predicated on providing the greatest benefit to the least advantage it is not hard to envisage many of societies participants gravitating toward a ‘free ride’. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged she tells the story of just this scenario where the heroes must continually battle against ‘looters’ and ‘moochers’. These are often government officials whose demands are backed by force or provide example for such to other moochers. Moreover, the focus on the least disadvantaged when designing a justice system would seem to further institutionalise the class system that in Rand’s view to the ultimate detriment to the very people the goal is to assist.
In Rawls defence he seems to acknowledge at least some of the problems that meritocrats and libertarians are likely to point out. The rebuttal to criticisms of his justice as fairness method of designing society would likely be from a position known as ‘positive liberty’ –which refers to ones ability and opportunity to exercise ones own potential and which society should provide for a minimum standard—and which was identified as distinct by Issiah Berlin in his essay ”Two Concepts of Liberty” from the type of ‘negative liberty’ of which Nozick subscribes. The argument indeed has some merit.
Having been critical of Rawls it is also hard to get a grasp of how a Nozick’s system could ultimately work realistically without descending back into a Hobbesian “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” state of affairs.
The lack of true resolve inherent between the various utopian systems of justice perhaps point to an over riding truth that there can never be any single and universal theory of “justice as fairness” that all people will find truly satisfactory. And that an amalgamation of laissez-fare capitalism, yet still providing of a financial safety net, and that doesn’t unduly penalise someone according to race, sex or social standing should be the desired goal of any system that could claim to be truly fair and just.
Berlin,Issiah Two Concepts of Liberty(1969) (accessed August 25 2008)
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche Translated Helen Zimmerman. Beyond good and Evil Project Gutenberg Online Book Catalogue (2003) Section 44.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged 1996 New Penguin Books. Australia.
PHI110SP2 Philosophy, Morality and Society : Week 12 Unit content
Kilcullen, John Robert Nozick: Against Distributive Justice. Maquarie University
. (accessed August 26 2008)
PHI110SP2 Philosophy, Morality and Society Week 12 Unit content
Robert Nozick, 1974. Anarchy State and Utopia, (Oxford:Blackwell,1974).
Issiah, Berlin. Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) http://tlrdoc.free.fr/pages/berlin.htm