Named after the American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), Rawls theory of justice sees justice as fairness, and its intuitive idea is that the well-being of society depends on cooperation.
It is based on the traditional theories of social contract as represented by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Also see: entitlement theorem
J Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford, 1972)
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality that is meant to apply to the basic structure of a well-ordered society. Central to this effort is an account of the circumstances of justice, inspired by David Hume, and a fair choice situation for parties facing such circumstances, similar to some of Immanuel Kant’s views. Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. These parties are recognized to face moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic. They have ends which they seek to advance, but prefer to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms. Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation (the original position with its veil of ignorance) within which parties would hypothetically choose mutually acceptable principles of justice. Under such constraints, Rawls believes that parties would find his favoured principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over varied alternatives, including utilitarian and ‘right wing’ libertarian accounts.
The “original position”
Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition, although he takes a different view from that of previous thinkers. Specifically, Rawls develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of an artificial device he calls the Original position; in which, everyone decides principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. This “veil” is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves so they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage:
- “…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”
According to Rawls, ignorance of these details about oneself will lead to principles that are fair to all. If an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is likely not going to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly. In particular, Rawls claims that those in the Original Position would all adopt a maximin strategy which would maximize the prospects of the least well-off.
- “They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association.” (Rawls, p. 11)
Rawls bases his Original Position on a “thin theory of the good” which he says “explains the rationality underlying choice of principles in the Original Position”. A full theory of the good follows after we derive principles from the original position. Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two such principles, which would then govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society. The difference principle permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. Rawls believes that this principle would be a rational choice for the representatives in the original position for the following reason: Each member of society has an equal claim on their society’s goods. Natural attributes should not affect this claim, so the basic right of any individual, before further considerations are taken into account, must be to an equal share in material wealth. What, then, could justify unequal distribution? Rawls argues that inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of those who are worst-off.
The agreement that stems from the original position is both hypothetical and ahistorical. It is hypothetical in the sense that the principles to be derived are what the parties would, under certain legitimating conditions, agree to, not what they have agreed to. Rawls seeks to use an argument that the principles of justice are what would be agreed upon if people were in the hypothetical situation of the original position and that those principles have moral weight as a result of that. It is ahistorical in the sense that it is not supposed that the agreement has ever been, or indeed could ever have been, derived in the real world outside of carefully limited experimental exercises.
The principles of justice
Rawls modifies and develops the principles of justice throughout his book. In chapter forty-six, Rawls makes his final clarification on the two principles of justice:
1. “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all”.
2. “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
- (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and
- (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”
The first principle is often called the greatest equal liberty principle. Part (a) of the second principle is referred to as the difference principle while part (b) is referred to as the equal opportunity principle.
Rawls orders the principles of justice lexically, as follows: 1, 2b, 2a. The greatest equal liberty principle takes priority, followed by the equal opportunity principle and finally the difference principle. The first principle must be satisfied before 2b, and 2b must be satisfied before 2a. As Rawls states: “A principle does not come into play until those previous to it are either fully met or do not apply.” Therefore, the equal basic liberties protected in the first principle cannot be traded or sacrificed for greater social advantages (granted by 2(b)) or greater economic advantages (granted by 2a).
The greatest equal liberty principle
- “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all” (1).
The greatest equal liberty principle is mainly concerned with the distribution of rights and liberties. Rawl’s identifies the following equal basic liberties: “political liberty (the right to vote and hold public office) and freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person, which includes freedom from psychological oppression and physical assault and dismemberment (integrity of the person); the right to hold personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law.”
It is a matter of some debate whether freedom of contract can be inferred to be included among these basic liberties: “liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle.”.
The difference principle
- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (2a).
Rawls’ claim in (a) is that departures from equality of a list of what he calls primary goods—”things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants” [Rawls, 1971, p. 92]—are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst-off under that distribution in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution. His position is at least in some sense egalitarian, with a provision that inequalities are allowed when they benefit the least advantaged. An important consequence of Rawls’ view is that inequalities can actually be just, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off. His argument for this position rests heavily on the claim that morally arbitrary factors (for example, the family one is born into) shouldn’t determine one’s life chances or opportunities. Rawls is also oriented to an intuition that a person does not morally deserve their inborn talents; thus that one is not entitled to all the benefits they could possibly receive from them; hence, at least one of the criteria which could provide an alternative to equality in assessing the justice of distributions is eliminated.
Further, the just savings principle requires that some sort of material respect is left for future generations. Although Rawls is ambiguous about what this means, it can generally be understood as “a contribution to those coming later”
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