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Rawls’ Justice as Fairness 2

Procedural Fairness and Substantive Justice

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John Rawls asserts that citizens are free and equal and the liberal state should be arranged in such a manner that it is fair.

Citizens are free qua citizens:

All citizens of a liberal state believe they should have an equal claim on the political and social institutions of the liberal state, and not be enslaved by it. And all citizens view their public identities as independent of their private conceptions of the good.

Citizens are equal insofar as they have the ability to cooperate socially and politically in a liberal state. They may have different skills and abilities, but they have equal entitlement to social and political status.

The Two Moral Powers

Rawls posits that citizens are:

1. Reasonable, and have the same capacity to cooperate on fair terms, with a sense of justice.

2. Rational, and have the same capacity to pursue their own conception of the good.

Rawls calls these two capacities, the “two moral powers,” and asserts that the liberal state must provide arrangements for all citizens to exercise their two moral powers.

The Primary Goods

All citizens have a fundamental interest in the “primary goods” of the liberal state:

The basic rights and liberties; freedom of movement and free choice among a wide range of occupations; the powers of offices and positions of responsibility; income and wealth; and the social bases of self-respect.

The recognition by social institutions that gives citizens a sense of self-worth and the confidence to carry out their plans.

The Original Position

With these assertions of the fundamental character of citizens, Rawls sets out his justificatory device for defending justice as fairness, the “original position.”

The original position is an abstract thought experiment in line with social contract theory developed by Locke, Rousseau and Kant.

In order to determine the fair terms of cooperation in society that would be agreed by all citizens, free and equal, reasonable and rational, Rawls reformulates the question:

What principles of social justice would be chosen by citizens knowledgeable about human affairs in general but deprived by a “veil of ignorance” of the information about the particular person or persons they represent?

That is, all parties to the hypothetical social contract have the requisite public reason, an understanding that they are free and equal and have the capacity for justice and a conception of the good, but have no information on what conception of the good they represent, nor the particular position in society they represent after the contract has been agreed.

Via the original position, Rawls sets up a procedural form of justice that is intended to be fair and assumes that deliberations in the original position are in the context of the parties’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal political state.

The Veil of Ignorance

The veil of ignorance deprives all parties of information regarding their race, class, position in society, wealth and income and conception of the good (but the parties understand these are indeed aspects of human life).

Not knowing how the dice will fall, the parties must choose principles of cooperation they deem to be fair.

Procedural justice, ie., fairness, translates into substantive justice via the constructivist experiment of the original position. This is what Rawls means by justice as fairness.

Constructivist Approach

The remainder of A Theory of Justice sets out to demonstrate that the two principles of justice would be chosen from the original position; are superior to a utilitarian form of justice based on the maximum benefit for the greatest number; and are stable principles over time.

A discussion of how Rawls justifies that the two principles of justice would be chosen by parties in the original position is beyond the scope of this discussion, but is of course the subject of intense debate.

Our purpose here is more limited:

To explore the most comprehensive theory of liberalism we have to date, and to identify the sources, points and places of consistency and coherence Rawls’ political liberalism and justice as fairness have with Deleuze’s philosophy of difference.

In order to do that, we must first expand on the constructivist approach inherent in Rawls’ political theory.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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