"Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all."--J.B. Rawls
John B. Rawls (1921-24 November 2002) is recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. He was born in Baltimore in 1921 and went to Princeton as an undergraduate. He considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but lost his faith after his war experiences in the Pacific in World War II. He taught at Harvard for more than 30 years. Among his students are some accomplished American philosophers, including Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Neiman.
Rawls’s first book was A Theory of Justice published in 1971. Nearly 600 pages long, it has been translated into 27 languages. Rawls claimed to have articulated a theory of justice which is genuinely universal and acceptable from our present, pluralistic, political perspective. His book has greatly influenced political theory. A few regard his experiment as pernicious.
Two of Rawls's brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. In 1928, at age 7, John contracted diphtheria. His younger brother Bobby visited him in his room and was infected and died. The next winter, John contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died." Rawls' biographer Thomas Pogge calls the loss of his two brothers the "most important events in Jack’s childhood." The unfairness of these tragic deaths certainly caused Rawls to ponder the nature of fairness and justice.
Rawls's theory of justice is posed as an alternative to the utilitarian approach that holds that the best consequences indicate the best political choices. In his book A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls wrote “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or the calculus of social interests” (A Theory of Justice, p. 66).
Rawls proposed a social contract approach to justice that revolves around three principles: (1) each individual is to have equal right to the greatest personal liberty that is compatible with like liberty for all; and (2) social and economic inequalities are to be attached to public positions that are open to all under conditions of fairness in opportunity. Rawls also stated that when these principles are in conflict, the first principle must take priority.
Rawls accepts that there will always be some economic differences in society. He is not a Marxian. His concern is that those who are at the bottom should never be allowed to sink below the level of basic material needs. Fairness of opportunity requires consideration of those in society whose abilities may be such that they remain the least fortunate. To prevent extreme poverty, he developed a third principle which he called the “difference principle”.
Using the difference principle, Rawls hoped to minimize wealth differences by insisting that inequalities in basic goods can be allowed only if distribution of primary goods first benefits the poorest. He argued that the welfare of society depends on the welfare of the poorest, and that a just society makes fairness to all a primary consideration when forming public policy.
Rawls’ egalitarian approach to justice is a hypothetical one. It is not so much a philosophy as it is a method for constitution-building. He conducted his thought-experiment with his students at Harvard. Rawls’ method requires that participants forget their economic status, race, gender, level of education, religion, physical and mental abilities, etc. Under this “veil of ignorance”, each is to consider fairness from an “original position”; that is, they must establish a principle of fairness (such as distribution of income) without knowing beforehand where they end up in the pecking order. Rawls believed that nobody would agree to a system that incorporated practices such as slavery or totalitarianism since they themselves might end up a slave or oppressed by government officials. Rawls assumes that participants will always act rationally, and in seeking their best self-interest under the veil of ignorance, they actually will be seeking the best interest of all.
Rawls’ thought experiment operates on the assumptions that democracy is the best system, that people should vote, and that private property in not an inalienable right (against John Locke). His primary concern is justice. Rawls defends a welfare form of democracy on the basis of his belief that a just society requires that individual’s democratic rights must always take priority over the common good. In his view that there is a fixed point of reference by which to decide justice, Rawls follows the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant.
Another view of how humans act in their own self-interest was developed by the Russian novelist Ayn Rand in her famous book The Fountainhead (1943). The title is a reference to Rand's statement that “man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress”. In this book, and in her later volume Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand lays down the ethical principle of rational self-interest that would become the basis for Objectivism. She argues that rational selfishness is a virtue and that this virtue can be developed only by those who autonomously develop their own code of values and conduct.
J.B. Rawls' Quotes:
"Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of a whole species can be a great evil. The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the form of life of which animals are capable clearly impose duties of compassion and humanity in their case."
"My aim is to present a conception of justice which 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 idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness. ... ""I shall now state in a provisional form the two principles of justice that I believe would be chosen in the original position. ... The first statement of the two principles reads as follows.
First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.
There are two ambiguous phrases in the second principle, namely 'everyone's advantage' and 'open to all.'
By way of general comment, these principles primarily apply, as I have said, to the basic structure of society. They are to govern the assignment of rights and duties and to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages. As their formulation suggests, these principles presuppose that the social structure can be divided into two more or less distinct parts, the first principle applying to the one, the second to the other. They distinguish between those aspects of the social system that define and secure the equal liberties of citizenship and those that specify and establish social and economic inequalities. The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. These liberties are all required to be equal by the first principle, since citizens of a just society are to have the same basic rights.
The second principle applies, in the first approximation, to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility, or chains of command. While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone's advantage, and at the same time, positions of authority and offices of command must be accessible to all. One applies the second principle by holding positions open, and then, subject to this constraint, arranges social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits.
These principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and the hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity.
It is clear that these principles are rather specific in their content, and their acceptance rests on certain assumptions that I must eventually try to explain and justify. A theory of justice depends upon a theory of society in ways that will become evident as we proceed. For the present, it should be observed that the two principles (and this holds for all formulations) are a special case of a more general conception of justice that can be expressed as follows.
All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect— are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage."
Related reading: J.B. Rawls' "Original Position"