A Theory of Justice: An Introduction to John Rawls

“This original position… is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice. Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one 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. ” — John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

This is a brief on the Rawls and his work on political theory that I prepared for my exam on political philosophy at the London School of Economics. May it help you in whatever way you deem necessary. It’s not complete, but it’s quite extensive.

It covers negative an outline of justice as fairness, utilitarianism and intuitionism, reflective equilibrium and method, the two principles of justice, the original position, the presentation of alternatives, the argument for justice as fairness, the institutions of a just society, and intergenerational justice. Additionally three objections are also included. This is a resource, not an essay.

“Critiques Of” includes philosophers or ideas that challenge the topic. “Importance Of” explains the most important points on the topic from the philosopher’s point of view. And “Excerpts Of”, as the name suggests, offers a few quotes by the philosopher.

RAWLS BRIEF

INDEX

A THEORY OF JUSTICE

I AN OUTLINE OF JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS

II UTILITARIANISM AND INTUITIONISM

III REFLECTIVE EQUILIBRIUM AND METHOD

IV THE TWO PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE

V CHARACTERIZING JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS

IV THE ORIGINAL POSITION

VII THE PRESENTATION OF ALTERNATIVES

VIII THE ARGUMENT FOR JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS

IX THE INSTITUTIONS OF A JUST SOCIETY

X INTERGENERATIONAL JUSTICE

B OBJECTIONS

I INCENTIVE

II EFFORT

III DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE IS NOT A MATTER OF REWARDING MORAL DESERT

A THEORY OF JUSTICE

I AN OUTLINE OF JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS

  • Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”
  • Example of slavery: justice is more important than economic gain. Even if society as a whole would benefit from it, it is not just regardless.
  • Principles of social justice determine how responsibilities are assigned and benefits and burdens distributed.
  • The basic structure of society is the configuration of institutions and practices that together constitute the background conditions against which the individual members of a society live out their lives according to their own designs.
  • Justice as fairness “generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an intitial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association.”
  • Veil of ignorance: ‘A Thought Experiment’ In an original position behind the veil of ignorance individuals on an equal footing with one another ensure that they will arrive at judgments from a suitably impartial point of view. We then aim to deduce what “principles of justice for the basic structure” such persons would agree on.
  • What would we expect rational persons in an original position behind a veil of ignorance to agree on Rawls argues that rational persons would reject utilitarianism. Rawls believes they would agree on two principles.
  • … the first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities… are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.

II UTILITARIANISM AND INTUITIONISM

  • Rawls defines utilitarianism as a teleological theory in which “the good is defined independently from the right, and then the right is defined as that which maximizes the good.”
  • He objects to teleological theories because because they are indifferent as a matter of principle to distribution. It does not matter how happiness is divided as long as the overall level of happiness increases. Teleological theories characterize the good independently from the right.
  • Even if the sum total happiness could be increased by reintroducting slavery, or by locking up potential terrorists without trial, we should not do this because it would violate basic individual rights.
  • a) utilitarianism by Bentham focusing only on quantity b) utilitarianism by Mill also taking into consideration quality. C) utilitarianism by preferences
  • Intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
  • For Rawls many political conflicts arise precisely because people’s intuitions diverge most strongly when it comes to such rankings. For example, most Americans value both equality and liberty, but some do more equality than liberty, and vice versa. Intuitionism would provide no guidance in this case as it would have us fall back onto our intution to decide on the relative ranking and weight.

III REFLECTIVE EQUILIBRIUM AND METHOD

  • Intuitionism characteristically instructs us to discover basic moral facts through the exercise of our common sense intuitions regarding moral problems.
  • Objection: “Not only are our everyday ideas of justice influenced by our own situation, they are also strongly colored by custom and current expectation.”
  • People have differing intuitions when it comes to moral and political problems and even when people share similar intuitions, we cannot be certain that this is not merely the product of their having had similar life circumstances or experiences.
  • Historically many people hav had the strong intuition that women are inferior to men, but this does not demonstrate the validity of judgments based on these intuitions.
  • Two solutions: a) reduce our dependence on bare moral intuitions b) reliance on rational self-interest
  • Rawls expects that fully rational people in an original position behind a veil of ignorance would take broader, long-run considerations into account.
  • 3 pillars of the basic structure: a) The basic structure dictated by a conception of social justice must actually in some measure succeed in coordinating the plans and activities of society’s various members. b) The basic structure should to some extent be efficient in the achievement of desired social ends. c) The basic structure dictated by the conception should be stable in the sense that, once it is up and running, it will tend to generate its own support.
  • The original position procedure greatly aids in the process of moral reflection by reducing our dependence on unreliable, bare moral intuitions. However, we cannot reduce our dependence on unreliable, bare moral intutions.
  • The method of reflective equilibrium: Suppose that we start with a bundle of moral intuitions on various topics, at various levels of detail and abstraction. Now we need not stop there, as the intuitionist does. Some of these intuitions are liable to be stronger or more deeply held than others. Rawls terms these “considered judgments” — namely, “those judgments in which our moral capacities are most likely to be displayed without distortion” Suppose that we select a few of these more considered judgments, and then try to construct a theory of social justice that would explain them in something like a systemic manner. Unless we get things exactly right on the first go, which is unlikely, our provisional theory will have all sorts of entailments that conflict with other moral intuitions we also have. Next, we examine one of these conflicts, and make a judgment as to whether we should adjust the theory if the intuition still seems compelling to us, or else drop the conflicting intuition if the adjustments required seem too costly to the overall theory. Proceeding thusly through all of our relevant moral intuitions, we eventually arrive at a theory we are happy with that is, an internally consistent theory that sits well with all the intuitions we have decided, after careful reflection, to keep. This is a reflective equilibrium: the state reached after a person has weighed varioud proposed conceptions and then either revised his judgments to accord with one of them or held fast to his initial convictions.
  • Two set of intutions: First, intuitions about what sort of decision procedure would be fair. One intuition might be that the parties in the original position are equal, in the sense that they all have the same rights in the procedure for choosing principles; each can make proposals, submit reasons for their acceptance, and so on.
  • Second, Rawls also imagines that we have another bundle of intuitions about the nature of social justice. We have already encountered some of these, for example, our intuition that justice is more important than effciency, and that people must have at least some inviolable rights.

“All theories are presumably mistaken in places. The real question at any given time is which of the views already proposed is the best approximation overall.”

IV THE TWO PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE

  • First principle always lexical to the second one.
  • For Rawls, basic liberties are a familiar bundle of specific rights:
  • Political liberty together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the rule of law.
  • Interpretations of the second principle: The second principle of justice as fairness has two clauses, respectively requring that any social and economic inequalities permitted by the basic structure be
  • A) “to everyone’s advantage” à principle of efficiency (Pareto efficiency)
  • Economists generally define a distribution of goods as efficient it it is the case that no one can be made better off without making some other person or person worse off.
  • B) “attached to positions and offices open to all.” à no discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, and so on.
  • Specific designs of the original position must be cross-checked, so to speak, with their respective results, and vice versa, until after an iterated process of revision and calibration we eventually arrive at reflective equilibrium.
  • “The initial distribution of assets for any period of time… is the cumulative effect of prior distributions of natural assets — that is, natural talents and abilities — as these have been developed or left unrealized, and their use favored or disfavored over time by social circumstances and such chance contingencies as accident and good fortune. Intuitively, the most obvious injustice of the system of natural liberty is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced by these factors so arbitrary from a moral point of view.”
  • Historical contingencies are arbitrary from a moral point of view.
  • It will probably be impossible to completely even out class barriers as long as the institution of the family exists.
  • Our initial natural assets are neither deserved, nor undeserved: they simply are what they are. The only question is what, if anything, should be done about this fact?

The difference principle:

  • Rawls believes that no one is personally responsible for the native talents they happen to be born with — this is just a brute fact of nature. But if we distribute social and economic goods equally to everyone, on the view that the members of the entrepreneurial class do not after all deserve their distinctive talents and abilities, it follows that we cannot expect them to invest much time or effort in cultivating those distinctive talents and abilities, for such investments will bring them no additional rewards.
  • The difference principle à according to which “higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations he least advantaged.
  • Everyone benefits, we might think, when we make the best possible use of the total pool of talent available to society.
  • If we combine the difference principle with fair equality of opportunity, we get what Rawls calls the “democratic equality” interpretation of the second principle of justice.
  • The least advantaged to the least advantaged group relative to a particular basic structure and not individuals.
  • Democratic equality and procedural justice
  • Concerning the difference of “perfect” (slicing a cake) vs. “imperfect” (criminal trial) procedural justice
  • Perfect procedural justice is rare, and imperfect procedural justice the norm.
  • “Pure” proecedural justice (poker game)
  • To continue with the poker game analogy, we are not supposed to use the difference principle to assess the outcomes of poker game, but rather their rules. The fairness of the outcome of a poker game crucially depends on the fairness of its rules.
  • According to Rawls the difference principle is designed to tell us what the best rules would be.
  • Justice as fairness requires: the two clauses of the second principle offer a reasonably good approximation of our considered judgments.

1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties 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 and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

V CHARACTERIZING JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS

  • Rawls uses primary goods rather than happiness as a metric for his social justice.
  • Primary goods are easier to measure than happiness.
  • Utilitarians observe society from the viewpoint of a perfectly impartial, but benevolent external spectator.
  • Justice as fairness observes society from the viewpoint of citizens themselves, imagining that they have come together as equals and settled on principles of justice agreeable to all.
  • The role of social justice is only to ensure that our starting positions are fair. It reflects the thought that we cannot personally be said to deserve or not deserve our initial endowments. The natural distribution of talents and abilities is neither just nor unjust; nor it is unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. They are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. The aim of justice as fairness is not to eliminate them but to ensure that these contigencies work for the good of the least fortunate.
  • The difference principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as in some respect as a common asset and to share in the greater social and economic benefits made possible by the complementarities of this distribution. In other words, we all benefit from the fact that society contains a diversity of people with a diversity talents and ability; thus it seems only fair that some of the benefits filter down to the least advantaged individuals in particular.
  • To put the point more broadly, justice as fairness involves regarding society as a sort of common enterprise in which we all agree to share some burdens and risks, but at the same time , we all agree to place definite limits on the extent of sharing that can be demanded of each.

IV THE ORIGINAL POSITION

  • What sort of principles would people agree to in an original position?
  • According to Rawls, they would reject utilitarianism and endorse justice as fairness.
  • Rawls hopes to derive principles of social justice that rational persons would agree to in an original position.
  • Why does he set deductic, geometric rigor as his ideal?
  • We have important reasons for wanting to reduce as much as possible our dependence on unreliable, bare moral intuitions. The original position model strives to accomplish this by substituting prudential judgments (judgments about what rational persons would agree to in order to further their own interests) for moral judgments wherever possible.
  • The idea is to begin with what appear to be fair negotiating conditions, and see if the principles of social justice generated by the model so characterized match our considered judgments. If not, we slightly adjust the conditions, our judgments, or both, and repeat the exercise until eventually, after many such adjustments, we reach reflective equilibrium.

The veil of ignorance:

  • We are merely asking ourselves what the likely outcome of negotiations would be if those negotiations were held under the fairest possible conditions?
  • Deliberations will be fair when participants do not know certain facts about themselves.
  • No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status.
  • Additionally no one knows his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities.
  • No one knows his conception of the good.
  • It also prevents them from knowing the particular circumstances of their own society.
  • The point of the veil of ignorance is to force us to think about the problem of social justice from an impartial point of view.
  • “There is a conflict of interest since men are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends, they each prefer a larger to a lesser share.”
  • “Different people nevertheless have different ends and purposes, and to make conflicting claims on the natural and social resources available.” The point here is that people will inevitably have different life plans, based on their differing conceptions of the good.

The rationality of the parties:

  • Rawls assumes that persons in the original position are rational.
  • We would be cheating in our derivation of social justice from the OP if we assumed that people in the OP were already moved by specific moral considerations.
  • Being strictly rational individuals, the parties to the OP must consider not only their immediate short-run gain, but also the likely longer-term effects of adopting one conception of social justice rather than another.
  • The main point is only that we should assume the parties to the OP will want to advance their own aims, and the aims of their immediate descendents.
  • Think of the OP as a point of view any one of us can adopt by ourselves at any time, simply by putting ourselves in the right frame of mind. To figure out what social justice is, we need only reflect on the principles of social justice we would choose for ourselves when we leave aside the particularities of our own position in society, and contemplate the problem from a strictly impartial point of view.

VII THE PRESENTATION OF ALTERNATIVES

  • Five formal constraints on any acceptable principles of social justice.
  • Generality constraint. Principles should be general. That is, it must be possible to formulate them without the use of what would be intuitively recognized as proper names, or rigged descriptions.
  • Universality constraint. Principles are to be universal in application. They must hold for everyone in virtue of their being moral persons.
  • Publicity constraint. They must envision a society in which everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the actual principles of justice that are governing their society.
  • Efficacy constraint
  • Finality constraint

VIII THE ARGUMENT FOR JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS

  • Maximin is a risk minimizing approach to uncertainty.
  • The parties to the original position must act as trustees for the interests of their descendants. Considering that we do not know what the specific interests of our grandchildren is it would be irresponsible for us to not guarantee him basic rights.
  • In opting for justice as fairness we effectively announce as a society that we do not ever want the balance of preferences to shift in favor of slavery etc. This public announcement represents an agreement among the parties to permanently respect one another as equal citizens.
  • The strains of commitment
  • The idea is simply that, in comparing alternative conceptions of justice, the parties will not want the strains of commitment to be too great, insofar as this would raise the prospect of their agreement ultimately falling apart and their hard work in the OP coming to naught.
  • Justice as fairness manifests our desire to treat one another not as means only but as ends in themselves.
  • According to Rawls, utilitarianism fails to take seriously the distinction between persons. In other words, it fails to respect the fact that the life of each individual person has unique value for him or her, not be casually sacrificed whenever it is outweighed by the interests of others.

IX THE INSTITUTIONS OF A JUST SOCIETY

  • Four-stage sequence
  • The first stage is the original position itself: in this stage, people select basic principles that will serve as the public account of social justice for their society, and they make this selection from behind the veil of ignorance that excludes any knowledge of either their personal characteristics or the particular circumstances of their society.
  • The second stage corresponds to a constitutional convention in which people design a system of government and constitutional law for their society, using the principles selected in the first stage as their guide.
  • The third stage corresponding to the process of setting public policies and socioeconomic regulations. In this stage the second principle is implemented.
  • The fourth stage is the stage in which public agencies, the justice system, and ordinary citizens respect the institutions and carry out the policies adopted in the previous two stages.
  • Pure command systems are ruled out because they do not respect our basic liberty; pure capitalist systems are ruled out because they do not work for the benefit of the least advantaged. Rawls believes that either a liberal democratic socialist society or a property-owning democracy might be compatible with justice as fairness.
  • Basically, the two lexically ordered principles are supposed to represent an ideal to be striven for over the long run
  • Rawls admits that in the meantime of realizing the ideal society, it may be necessary to forgo a strict implementation of the principle of equal basic liberties when this is required to transform a less fortunate society into one where all the basic liberties can be fully enjoyed.

X INTERGENERATIONAL JUSTICE

  • Policies and institutions should be designed to maximize the prospects of the least advantaged so far as this is consistent with maintaining a fair equality of opportunity.
  • There might be a scenario where we help the least advantaged of the current generation to the detriment of future generations.

The argument concluded:

  • Regarding the method of reflective equilibrium, we are supposed to begin with our considered judgments about a concept — social justice, say — and then try to construct a theory that explains them in something like a systemic manner. Since we are unlikely to capture all of our initial intuitions with a single theory, however, we must eventually decide which of these to hold on to and which to drop. In constructing his theory of justice s fairness, Rawls began with the initial intuitions that justice is more important than efficiency, that religious intolerance and racial discrimination are unjust, and so on. After a long process of exposition and revision, we have now finally arrived at a statement of the theory we are reasonably happy with. As expected, it neatly captures these initial intuitions in a compelling and systematic manner.
  • In Rawl’s theory the idea is that a just society is one in which the basic structure reflects those principles of social justice in which the citizens would choose for themselves under fair conditions. Consulted under fair conditions, the citizens themselves would never accept the principles of utilitarianism, which might often entail sacrificing the interests of some merely for the benefit of others. Such principles would violate Kant’s Formula of Humanity, which directs us to never treat other people merely as a means. Instead, according to Rawls, they would adopt the principles of justice as fairness.

B OBJECTIONS

I INCENTIVE

  • Rawl’s reply: The difference principle permits income inequalities for the sake of incentives, provided the incentives are needed to improve the lot of the least advantaged. If the incentives generate economic growth that makes those at the bottom better off than they would be with a more equal arrangement, then the difference principle permits them.

II EFFORT

  • Rawl’s reply: Rawls rejects the meritocratic theory of justice on the grounds that people’s natural talents are not their own doing. He replies that even effort may be the product of a favorable upbringing. “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances.”
  • Like other factors in our success, effort is influenced by contingencies for which we can claim no credit. “It seems clear that the effort a person is willing to make is influenced by his natural abilities and skills and the alternatives open to him. The better endowed are more likely, other things being equal, to strive conscientiously…”
  • Many Harvard students would object that their achievements, including their admission to Harvard, reflect their own hard work, not morally arbitary factors beyond their control.
  • Sandel: Psychologists say that birth order has an influence on effort and striving — such as the effort the students associate with getting into Harvard… if something as morally arbitrary as birth order can influence our tendency to work hard and strive conscientiously, then Rawls may have a point. Even effort can’t be the basis of moral desert.
  • If there are two workers, and one worker completes a job quicker than the other, then no one would assert that the worker who needs more time should be paid the same.

III DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE IS NOT A MATTER OF REWARDING MORAL DESERT

  • Rawls’s defense: “There is a tendency for common sense to suppose that income and wealth, and the good things in life generally, should be distributed according to moral desert. Justice is happiness according to virtue… Now justice as fairness rejects this conception.”
  • The conflict between a game of chance and a game of skill
  • Rawls argues that distributive justice is not about rewarding virtue or moral desert. Instead its about meeting the legitimate expectations that arise once the rules of the game are in place. Once the principles of justice set the terms of social cooperation, people are entitled to the benefits they earn under the rules.
  • Rawls rejects moral desert as the basis for distributive justice on two grounds. First, as we have already seen, my having the talents that enable me to compete more successfully than others is not entirely my own doing. But a second contingency is equally decisive: the qualities that a society happens to value at any given time are also morally arbitrary.
  • Even if I had sole, unproblematic claim to my talents, it would still be the case that the rewards these talents reap will depend on the contingency of supply and demand. Whether my skills yield a lot or a little depends on what society happens to want. What counts as contributing depends on the qualities a given society happens to prize.
  • So while we are entitled to the benefits that the rules of the game promise for the exercise of our talents, it is a mistake and a conceit to suppose that we deserve in the first place a society that values the qualities we have in abundance.

That is it.

This resource from Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very useful.

Any feedback, or comments welcome. Send an email to letters@patrickdaniel.com.

Patrick Daniel (@patrickdaniel) is a fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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