2.4 – Rawls on Justice

We’ve talked about some old-times so far but justice is very topical at present. One of the most recent great philosophers is John Rawls and he saw justice as something completely different from the others. He saw it as a safety net. Not the principle that promotes happiness, like Mill. Not the principle that determines how we should act, like Kant. And most certainly not the principle that ensures reward is determined by virtue, like Aristotle.

In its whole, Rawls’ theory proposed the possibility of a society whose “basic structure” is contrived (and everyone knows it is contrived) from basic principles of justice as fairness. Furthermore, this society is inhabited by people with an effective sense of justice. The basic structure of society is composed of major social institutions into one big co-op. The constituent institutions are “a public system of rules which defines offices and positions” and these positions and offices have duties, benefits and responsibilities. And somehow, these institution are going to give us all a system of justice that is fair. This is Rawls’ vision for society.

The problem with institutions is that they are made of people, and the problem with people is that people have problems. People are greedy, jealous, prejudiced and selfish. How are such animals as us to come up with good basic principles of justice? Well, Rawls has an beautiful idea about that.

The idea is that all principles must come from behind a veil of ignorance. That means that at the starting point from where you are trying to work out principles of justice, you do not yet know what role you will play in the world. You must imagine that you do not have a racial, religious, economic or sexual (or anything else) starting point, but you do know how the world you and your yet-to-be-decided-demographic will live in works. The world you live in will be the same, but you will not. So the principles of justice you want the world to adopt cannot serve you specifically, because there is no you. You could be anyone.

So today you might be a Black, Islamic, Millionaire in the North of Africa. You have to determine the principles of justice for the world, and tomorrow you could be anything at all. A homosexual, female Jew; A stone broke, Norwegian Catholic priest. Anything. It is from the veil of ignorance that all principles of justice must be made. This position we must start from when determining the principles of justice is called, in Rawls’ terms, the original position.

Here in the original position, we are meant only to examine the principles of justice. We are not meant to, at this stage, partake in a particularly long discussion on the finer points of justice nor can we create a code of justice to use in our daily lives whilst in the original position. That is the role of the social and political institutions that will follow. Obviously, it is purely hypothetical too.

Rawls believes that by focusing only on the basic principles of justice, our most fundamental fears will be first attended to. Remember, the person in the original position is considering that they could be anyone, including the most vulnerable person on earth, and as such the consideration of the first principles of justice from the original position should serve to protect the vulnerable people from the most severe injustices. Why? Because a reasonable person would move first to protect the injustices upon the vulnerable person because those injustices would be the most terrible. After all, a wealthy man could likely fix his own injustices himself. By creating a safety net that will save even the most vulnerable, we create one that will save all people from the worst injustice. This is strong because it draws on a person’s sense of selfishness, rather than altruism, to make the first principles of justice. At the end of the day, we are all most scared of ending up at the bottom of the ladder, so from the original position we attended to the bottom rung first.

A flaw in Rawls’ theory here is that people might gamble from the original position. For example, it would be extremely unlikely that they would be born Australian Aboriginal or an African Masai (at 0.01% of the world’s population respectively) so we might choose to ignore injustices to that specific people given the extremely unlikeliness that we would be Australian Aboriginal or Masai after the hypothetical original position. You’ll have to make your own mind up on this flaw yourself.

So by using the original position, people who hold offices within institutions should be able to come up with a very good idea or a picture of what a just society will look like. When those institutions co-operate to contrive basic society, that society will be on its way to fairness. But this is not the end of Rawls’ theory of justice.

Rawls predicts two key principles that will most likely be derived from reasonable persons in the original position for justice as fairness to work. First, political institutions must offer the same basic and extensive liberties and human rights to all humans. Easy. I won’t go into this as it is as straightforward as it sounds. Just remember that it is applicable to political institutions and is absolutely not negotiable under any circumstances. Even if depriving one person of the liberty made everyone else in the world richer, you could not do it.

After this, Rawls requires that we accept the two part second principal. The first part is that all humans must enjoy the same and equal opportunity to obtain all and every social position within society.

The second part is that inequalities are just fine and dandy, so long as they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (not just to everyone’s’ advantage). It is this second part that is hard to grasp.

Let’s discuss the first part briefly. What Rawls really means is that people with the same talents and willingness to use them have the same educational and economic opportunities regardless of whether they were born rich or poor. So if you are not willing to use your opportunities you loose them. That simple.

There should be no office within social or political institutions that are off limits to anyone. This principle can never override the first principle about the same basic liberty for all, but it does trump the second part of the second principle about inequality is fine so long as it benefits everyone. Right now, this principle is severely lacking in the world. You pretty much need a billion dollars to run for the highest office in the USA so you could say that the highest office in the world’s most powerful country is off limits to almost everyone.

So let’s move to the second part of the second principle. Rawls accepts that absolute egalitarianism is not natural. Inequalities exist and they are not wrong per se. For example, offering people more money to perform less desirable labours (but important labours none the less) will make some people richer than others. If offering people more money is the only way to get them to do the undesirable but important work, this is just because everyone benefits. Obviously the highly paid worker benefits financially, but everyone else benefits by having an important task, which is undesirable to undertake, performed without them having to do it themselves. This seems a just situation. But it is only just to Rawls if the least advantaged person receives the greatest benefit from this situation. Importantly, absolutely dividing all wealth by the number of people on earth and giving everyone their share is not optimal unless it makes the least advantaged person best off. This might not be the case if no one in the world is willing to be a brain surgeon or The President for this small amount of money. Alternatively, if we all know that as soon as we become the least advantaged person we will automatically get an even portion of the world’s wealth, why would anyone work hard. It would be arbitrary as you’d receive the same wealth regardless. So Rawls agrees that some people should be paid more than others, this theory of justice is not simple communism.

Speaking of inequalities, they are only considered just when not determined by social circumstances or chance. So if two people are working, one big and can lift many kilos, one small and can only lift a few kilos, fairness explains that they should get paid the same. As the big person did not choose to be big, they should not get paid more and should do more work as they are fitted to it. In a similar vein, if what I am particularly good at in life happens to pay lots, it is unfair if I take lots of money for it as I did not choose that what I’m good at should be in high demand. However, if I’m not particularly good at anything but am just a really hard worker, I should not be paid more for this either. Rawls believes my hard working character is just luck too. So skill, hard work or any other characteristic of a person does not entitle them to more pay, its all just luck. The only single thing that can justify a person getting paid more is if that increment in wages makes the most vulnerable person better off. This is what Rawls sees as fair.

An interesting aspect of this theory of justice that Rawls puts forward is when he talks about fairness, he means a fair distribution of wealth. But, very cleverly, to Rawls, wealth does not mean financial wealth alone. It includes such concepts as freedom of movement and of occupation, education and even self respect. We should all have a fair amount of education and self respect. What a wonderful concept. But it does pose a problem of how it would work.

Clearly there are people in the world much more educated than others. But how do we take (or tax) their education and give it to others. Obviously, we can’t. What Rawls means is that a person who is lucky enough to be born really smart and into a rich enough family that they can go to uni, should go to uni and become a doctor, but when they graduate and start making big money, they should be taxed hard, right up until it’s not worth them working hard anymore, then they should be left with that level of income.

I want you to stop and pause for a second here and ask yourself the following question:

Does the scenario where we take a rich person’s money and give it to the most vulnerable person sound fair to you? Now check the answer you gave to the last time I posed this question (during the Aristotle paragraph). I wonder, do you still have only one definition of fairness, or do you know have two?

Right now you’re thinking that there is no way to get rich under Rawls. You’re right. Rawls’ theory is designed to take take take from the rich and give give give to the poor to the extent that it maximises the poorest peoples’ position. It is here that we meet the next flaw in Rawls’ plan. Can you ever take take take from a human without treating them as a means and not an end? This would be to violate Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and lose respect for man himself and see him only as sack of gold coin waiting to be taxed. Nor is it designed to make the most people the happiest they can be, so it disagrees with Mill. Finally, it definitely does not match reward with virtue. When a government enforces the taking of a man income as fast as he can make it and gives it to another, for whom no argument for his goodness or righteousness is even attempted, and the only justification is “he is more vulnerable than you”, can we as a society abide this process of morality?

In the real world, there is another reason this wont work. If we assume that I am a doctor and that I know how the Rawlsian model works, that I will still get paid big money if I refuse to provide my specialised services unless I do, quite simply I should refuse to provide my specialised services unless I get paid more. If the market systems is indeed efficient, in theory all doctors, presidents and CEO are already working at the lowest wages that they are prepared to work at. I’m not sure I understand why Rawls thinks that if a social or political institution took from me my wealth I’d act differently than if another entrant into my market and agree to work for less. Under the market system, millions of doctors don’t flood into the medical systems and doctors don’t put up with 6 years of med school and stressful working conditions to work for chicken feed. Why would it work for Rawls?

Another flaw in the Rawlsian model is that it would have to be applied globally. If I were a doctor working within Rawlsian system of social justice and that led to me being taxed excessively, why wouldn’t I just move country to a place that worked under a regular market system? Similarly, if I were a relatively vulnerable person in a non-Rawlsian system, it would be in my benefit to make it to a country governed by a Rawlsian system of government. One can only assume that unless the Rawlsian model was applied globally or unless the country that adopted the model closed its borders and didn’t let people in or out, it would only serve to attack the most vulnerable and repel the least vulnerable. I doubt a country like that would survive.

I can think of one more flaw. Why don’t all people who believe in Rawls take all their wealth, put it in a brown paper bag and hand it to the next homeless person they meet and live their principles. I suppose a good reason might be that an instance when someone simply gives away their wealth is not truly an instance of what Rawls envisioned. Under a true Rawlsian theory there would be efficient social institutions in place to guarantee that the benevolent Rawlsian would be able to get their ‘brown paper bag’ in due course and to get off the bottom of the ladder in turn and that this process would be endemic until equality was obtained. So if we think of it that way, for Rawls’ theory to actually work, we would need to be able to guarantee that the government in power (that was ambitious enough to attempt a Rawlsian theory of justice) would stay in power for ever. Otherwise we would end up with the terribly, terribly unjust scenario whereby someone had their wealth forcibly removed by one government (in accordance with Rawlsian theory) only for a new government to be installed that didn’t believe in ‘returning the favour in due course’ and the state would literally be guilty of making a rich man poor without intention of rectifying the situation in turn. I don’t see how a Rawlsian theory of justice could be implemented without guaranteeing that each successive government must necessarily continue to adopt a Rawlsian theory of justice. This seems undemocratic.

So what does this mean? Honestly, it’s hard to know. At the very least, it means tax the rich and give to the poor right up until the rich get so annoyed that they stop doing what they’re doing and quit their high-end jobs leaving the rest of us high and dry without some of the positions we need for the world to function. But there is more than that. It means that reasonable people must come together and forms institutions, institutions that will eventually co-operate to form a just society. These people must opt to place themselves in the Original Position (even though they don’t have to) and from there choose the basic principles of justice, and agree on them. For 99% of the people that form the institutions, the basic principles (derived from the process designed to derive exactly them) will not benefit the people that chose them. Unless you are the most vulnerable person on earth, the principles will always benefit someone else, always.

This is a very different theory of justice than the others. This action does not maximise everyone’s happiness, but it closes the gap. It does ensure men act rightly, but it closes the gap. It does not ensure the virtuous are rewarded, but it closes the gap. And what’s more, there is no guarantee that the most vulnerable person on the receiving end of Rawls’ justice is a good man, just vulnerable.

Let’s use Rawls’ own words “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. Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.”. So apparently, to social institutions, liberty and morality come second.

Now what a statement that is, “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.”. It does seem that we all have inviolabilities doesn’t it. Aristotle would say the inviolability was that we must receive reward for virtue. Mill would agree that we do have many inviolabilities but that those inviolabilities are there to ensure we remain happy. Kant would say the violation was the absence of autonomy and reason. So perhaps it isn’t such a great statement. Everyone we’ve discussed believes there were inviolabilities, its just they disagreed on what they were. To Rawls, being vulnerable was an inviolability and it should be rectified via the principles of justice derived from the original position.

Rawls himself acknowledges that the theory is idealistic. It will require “a well-ordered society under favorable circumstances”. If you ever find one of these, let us know. But until then, it’s hard to find four people that can agree on the weather, let alone the basic principles of justice.

Rawls’ theory will not work in the real word, but it was not likely intended to. We can take some good points out of it. Of course, liberty and basic and extensive human rights for all is worth fighting for. The idea everyone with the society should be free to hold (and be held responsible for) any position in office is admirable as a human right, but harder to implement in practice. The original principle designed to serve the most vulnerable is both ingenious and highly admirable, but has the effect of ensuring that those who make the rules, once they ‘remove’ the veil of ignorance, will never be making rules directly for themselves. Best of all, it provides a solid foundation for acknowledging that there are natural inequalities among people and that unequal principles of justice are required to deal with that truth. Laws should apply differently to different people. This is important and much like Aristotle and Plato.

Myself? I balk at the policy of removing, at will, the wealth from hard working men for the hope that it’s redistribution to the least advantage for ever and ever with no guarantee that the redistribution will leave the wealthy feeling fairly dealt with and the vulnerable newly empowered with their redistributed wealth. Welfare dependency looms large in our society and the promise of regular income without having to risk entering the world of capitalism may be the unintended result of large scale income redistribution. The effect of the potential rampant taxing of men as soon as the need to redistribute arises cannot be ignored. People work hard their whole lives and forecast a time when they can live a much desired and self provided for retirement. The taxing of this dream is dangerous to a family’s sovereignty.

We thank John Rawls for a massive contribution to social justice but continue to look for an answer that will meet the modern needs. Next on the scene is Robert Nozick.

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