Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rawls' "A Theory of Justice"

The following is a brief treatment of the main ideas in John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice. Rawls’ theory of justice has two parts. First, there are two principles of social justice, which he puts forward as the most acceptable principles of justice. Second, he argues for these principles by means of a hypothetical social contract argument. I will start by explaining the two principles and then discuss his social contract argument.

For Rawls, principles of justice have to do with the distribution among members of a society for desirable goods such as rights, freedoms, wealth, and opportunities. Such good he calls primary goods, which he defines as things people want regardless of whatever else they want. They are wanted in this way because they are general means essential for achieving most of our aims in life. Rawls’ first principle of justice focuses on one of these goods, liberty. It says that liberty should be distributed equally and that citizens should have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all. Rawls calls this the Equal Liberty Principle.

The second principle deals with social and economic goods and here inequality is allowed if two conditions are met:
  • First, the inequalities must make everyone better off than they would be if such goods were distributed equally, and they must do this in a way that those who end up in the lowest positions are as well off as they can be.
  • Second, everyone must have and equal opportunity of ending up in the best of positions and they have this when positions are allocated on the basis of qualifications, and everyone has an equal chance of developing whatever socially useful talents they innately, which Rawls calls Fair Equality of Opportunity.
The first part of the second principle is called the Difference Principle and the second part the Equal Opportunity Principle.

The Difference Principle states that any societal change may be considered just and depart from equality if and only if it benefits the least advantaged. Inequality, in Rawls’ view is acceptable if it makes everyone better for it, but it must not just maximize the overall utility by benefitting the most advantaged. It must maximize the benefit to the least advantaged or as it is called, maximizing the minimum or Maximin. The minimum is maximized when any attempts to raise it would be counter-productive and would make those on the bottom worse off than they would have been if such attempts had not been made. In this sense, Rawls defends a welfare state whose crucial concern about justice is for those worst off. Transferring money directly from the rich to the poor is not the only or best way to raise their condition. Funds for better education, better employment skills, guaranteed health care might be more appropriate to fit into the Difference Principle to Maximin.

I will now discuss Rawls' social contract argument in support of his two principles of justice. Rawls understands a society as a group of people who cooperate for the production of mutual benefits. Principles of justice are principles about the appropriate allocation of these benefits and of the burdens necessary for their production. Rawls' core idea is that the best principles of justice are those which would be chosen by people in a situation which is fair to all those doing the choosing. The best principles of justice, he argues, are those which people in a fair situation would choose. He calls this fair situation the original position. He argues that in this hypothetical situation, the choosers are self-interested, rational, and required to come to a unanimous agreement. The most important condition is that the choosers are under a veil of ignorance about their own social relations and talents. They do not know their social class, their abilities, or their conception of the good. Rawls argues that a position with such a veil represents fairness between free and equal persons and that persons in this original position would choose his two principles of justice.

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