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The Political Philosophy of John Rawls

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Political philosophers attempt to address some fundamental questions about the way in which complex societies ought to organise themselves. How can the political state be justified and on what is it based? What rights and responsibilities does the individual have towards the state, and it towards the individual? What are the limits of state power? Can any form of state be justified at all? If so, what kind of state ought there to be?

There have been many attempts to answer these questions, and one of the most interesting was that made by John Rawls (1921 - 2002). Rawls is widely recognised in the academic community as the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century and is credited with reviving serious academic interest in political philosophy. It is rare to find any subsequent work of political philosophy that does not discuss Rawls in some way. Rawls's most famous work is A Theory of Justice, which was first published in 19711.

A Theory of Justice, along with Rawls's subsequent articles and later works (Political Liberalism and Justice as Fairness), have spawned a huge number of books and articles, seeking to demolish, defend, amend, or adapt Rawls's arguments. This entry is only a very brief introduction to the basics of his thought and cannot hope to do full justice to its complexities or to the insights and criticisms of others. This Entry will inevitably be incomplete and perhaps even an over-simplification2.

A Theory of Justice is a potentially misleading title. Rawls is not attempting to produce a universal theory that will fit all circumstances at all times and places. Rather, he is concerned with finding 'principles of justice' for what he calls the 'nearly-just state'.

By 'nearly-just state', Rawls means a state with democratic traditions and the broad support of its citizens for its institutions (though they may not necessarily support the government of the day). This state has enough resources so that no-one need starve, but not so much that everyone can have everything they want. It is a state, in short, like most Western states now. Rawls's principles of justice are not intended to apply to questions of justice between individuals or between private or sub-state organisations (such as businesses, churches, or sports clubs) nor for use in questions of international justice. Although Rawls does have something to say about the subject in a legal sense, he is much more interested in social justice.

By 'principles of justice', Rawls means the basic, fundamental rules that govern society. These are not the laws, or the constitution, but the principles upon which they are based. The principles of justice are only concerned with what Rawls called the 'basic structure' of society - the economy and system of distribution, the state and its institutions.

The Original Position - 'the veil of ignorance'

Perhaps the most strikingly original aspect of A Theory of Justice is the original position thought experiment. This is a form of interactive political philosophy, and anyone can play along. The thought experiment runs like this:

Imagine that you knew nothing about yourself - your gender, talents, hobbies, sexual preferences, religion (if any), race, social class, employment prospects, wealth, age, generation, or indeed anything else about yourself at all. Imagine further that you know nothing about your society, its history, or its traditions. You are behind what Rawls called 'a veil of ignorance.' You do have a basic general knowledge of sociology, psychology, politics, and economics, and of human nature. Behind the veil of ignorance, no-one is capable of bias, because no-one knows anything about themselves. Each person may turn out to be, literally, anyone. Now, under such circumstances, asks Rawls, what principles of justice would each of us choose from a long list of alternatives if we were interested only in getting the best deal for whoever we turn out to be, and not interested (at the moment) in helping or harming others?

This thought experiment might seem to be an odd way of going about things, but Rawls's idea is that the principles of justice that would be produced under such conditions would be 'fair', and therefore binding. All of the knowledge and beliefs that causes people to be biased (consciously or unconsciously) for or against particular policies and conceptions of justice is removed by the veil of ignorance.

More controversially, perhaps, the veil of ignorance also screens out our moral, political and metaphysical or religious beliefs. Most political philosophies are based upon these kinds of beliefs - about human nature and human rights, about the kinds of goals and behaviours that are good and to be encouraged and conversely those which are bad and to be discouraged. Such political views are usually described as 'foundationalist' in that they are based in a solid set of beliefs. Rawls's view, on the other hand, does not start with statements about human nature and right and wrong, but with a thought experiment. People disagree over what kind of foundational values are the correct ones, and it can be difficult to judge which view (if any) is right. Rawls's approach is a 'constructivist' one in that he hopes to produce a system which is consistent but which does not depend on any particular set of foundational values. What would you choose, asks Rawls, if motivated only by self-interest, under these circumstances? If Rawls is right, and the circumstances of choice of principles are 'fair', then the principles it produces will also be 'fair'. This is of course, extremely controversial!

Why not go and have a think about what principles of justice you would choose, and then come back to this entry and see how yours compare with those of John Rawls.

If you don't want to know the answer, look away now...

The Liberty Principle

Rawls suggests that the first principle of justice would concern liberty. Whoever we turn out to be once the veil of ignorance is lifted, and whatever our likes and dislikes are, it is almost certain that we will need freedom to live the life that we want to lead. It might be that our desires and life-plans are very common and are widely understood and respected by others - but it might be that we turn out to have beliefs and wants that are unusual and prone to be misunderstood or even persecuted by others. Also, whatever life-plan we turn out to have, there's always the possibility that we will wish to revise it (perhaps radically) at a later time. Behind the veil of ignorance, therefore, Rawls thinks that it would be irrational not to want the greatest possible total package of freedoms - you have no way of knowing what you'll turn out to want and to risk not being allowed to follow your concept of the good life would be to risk a lifetime of frustration and unhappiness. Rawls's first principle, therefore, is (roughly) that:

each individual is to have a right to the greatest equal set of liberties compatible with a like set of liberties for everyone else.

It shouldn't be surprising if this sounds familiar - this is a classic liberal view on freedom. What has been more controversial is Rawls's first lexical priority rule. As long as the conditions of the nearly just state apply (stable democracy, moderate scarcity), the liberty principle is not to be over-ridden for any other value. This means that we shouldn't restrict the package of liberties available to everyone in the interests of (say) increasing the total amount of resources available, or for any other good.

This does not, of course, mean that everyone can do whatever they like. Everyone is to have the same equal basic package of liberties, so the liberty of others constrains what each person is entitled to do. The exact nature of this basic package of liberties is not defined - this is something that Rawls thinks cannot be done at this stage. We would need more information about the specifics of our society before we could judge exactly which liberties should be included and how far they should go.

The Equal Opportunity Principle

Rawls thinks that equality of opportunity would also be important. Behind the veil of ignorance, we don't know whether we are among the richest or among the poorest and Rawls reckons we wouldn't want to risk our chances of pursuing the kind of career that we want just because we're born into the wrong kind of social class, for example. Of course, we don't know whether we'll turn out to be the kind of people who care about jobs and careers, but it would be too much of a risk to assume that we won't care about such things.

There have been a number of different conceptions of equality of opportunity, and Rawls thinks that the correct one is 'equality of outcome.' Roughly, two people with the same talents and the same desire to use them should - all other things being equal - achieve an approximately equal outcome, even if one was born into one of the richest families and the other into one of the poorest. The equality of opportunity principle has priority over any other considerations except the package of equal basic liberties. For example, we should not make people richer at the expense of equality of opportunities, but we should not enhance equality of opportunity at the expense of equal basic liberties.

The Difference Principle

So far, Rawls thinks, you ought to have selected the liberty principle and the equality of opportunity principle. The next question to settle is about the distribution of resources. Remember that you could turn out to be anyone (the richest, the poorest, or somewhere in the middle), and that, for the purposes of the thought experiment, you are interested only in the best outcome for yourself - whoever you turn out to be.

One obvious possibility is to divide everything equally. After all, we have equal basic liberties and equality of opportunity, so why not equality of resources? Rawls thinks that this would be a strong candidate, but argues that it should be rejected in favour of his 'difference principle', which states that 'social and economic inequalities should be arranged to the advantage of the least well-off'.

What does Rawls mean by this? Well, it could be that allowing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth (constrained, of course, by equality of opportunity) could serve as a spur to greater productive efforts, entrepreneurship, risk-taking and innovation. This would obviously benefit certain individuals, but perhaps others too, through the creation of wealth and of desirable new goods and services that might not otherwise be available. It might be possible to arrange a system of distributive justice so that the effects of these new wealth-creating activities would leave even the poorest better off than they could ever have been under a strictly egalitarian system of distribution. If this is the case, then such inequalities should be allowed.

Imagine that there are only three possible systems of distribution. Under system one (equality), there would be five units of resource for each person. System two produces 15 units for some, and 10 units for others. A third system produces 20 units for some and eight for others. Rawls's difference principle would find for system two, which produces the largest possible amount of resources for the least well-off. System two maximises the minimum outcome. The 'difference' between the richest and the poorest is justified because this 'difference' makes the poorest as well-off as they could possibly be - they may end up with a smaller share of the total, but that smaller share of a bigger total may turn out to be more than a bigger share of a smaller total.

It is important to remember that people in the original position are conceived of as being mutually self-interested, and wanting the most that they can possibly get for themselves. It is unreasonable for people to be envious; that is, to wish for others to have less when they themselves already have as much as they can have under any other system.

Rawls argues that those in the original position will want to maximise the worst-case outcome, so inequalities will be allowed if they are to the advantage of the least well-off. Even if fate turns out to have dealt a particular person a poor hand, they will at least have enough to allow them a chance of achieving their idea of happiness. Other possible distributive systems, such as maximising the total wealth of society as a whole, or the total average wealth, or the greatest possible wealth for the greatest number of people, could leave the least fortunate with a very small amount of resources, which might be barely enough to survive on, never mind enough to pursue anything like a freely chosen life-plan. While human beings are prone to take risks and gambles, Rawls thinks that the risks of failure are too high, and the relative value of what might be gained too low, for people in the original position to adopt any decision strategy other than that of maximising the minimum share they might receive.

The Just Savings Principle

In addition to the liberty principle and equality of opportunity, there is another constraint on what resources can be distributed and how they can be used. Resources are not infinite and decisions taken by the current generation can have serious implications for future generations, and therefore questions of inter-generational justice must also be considered. What exactly should be saved for future generations is impossible to determine in advance and in an abstract form, but Rawls suggests that each generation puts itself in the place of the next, and asks what it could reasonably expect to receive.

The 'Natural Lottery' Argument

Rawls has another argument in favour of his principles of justice, which he calls the 'natural lottery' argument3. He argues that much of our talents and skills are the product of the 'natural lottery' of genetic inheritance and the effects of our surroundings in our earliest years. According to Rawls, no-one can claim that they deserve to have been born with superior genetic endowments and/ or born into a safe, supportive, and loving family. Therefore no-one can claim to deserve the larger share of resources that talented people are usually able to obtain. As well as the nature and nurture lottery, we should also consider the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, where one piece of unearned good or bad luck can make or lose someone a fortune, and it becomes clear that being in a position to earn a lot of money under a 'free market' system owes much to good luck4.

It might be argued that, although no-one deserves their good or bad luck in nature or nuture, people might deserve a greater or lesser share of resources depending on what they make of the opportunities available. But what if ambition and even the ability to work hard, to concentrate, and to deal with setbacks were largely or in part due to the outcome of the natural lottery?

One response is to point to examples of people who have come from less than promising backgrounds and yet have still been very successful. But this might only show that they were 'losers' in the nurture lottery, but 'winners' in the genetic lottery. Alternatively, it might be that it is difficult to judge a person's background from the outside. A 'tough' upbringing might be more beneficial (in employment prospect terms) than being spoilt and sheltered. However, probably the best reply to this objection is to point out that only a tiny minority of the very rich are from humble backgrounds. Besides, the existence of a small number of apparent exceptions should not count against the general argument if - for the vast majority of people - their (economic) prospects are largely determined by nature and nurture, neither of which can be said to be deserved by the individual.

John Rawls and Mainstream Politics

Despite being the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, Rawls's impact on mainstream politics has so far been minimal. This can be partly explained by the length, complexity, the infamously poor structure and rather uninspiring style of A Theory of Justice. However, Rawls is attracting some interest in some of the former Communist states of Eastern Europe who are attracted by the prioritisation of the position of the least well-off alongside a thorough commitment to equal basic liberties. It is also said that UK politician Gordon Brown has referred to Rawls in interviews.

At the time of publication of A Theory of Justice (1971), many on the left saw the 'difference principle' as a kind of apology for capitalism in that Rawls allows inequalities and takes no formal position on whether industry should be owned by individuals, the state, or both. For the left, Rawls was not radical enough. Many also disagreed with his prioritisation of equal basic liberties (which would, in practice, mostly be enjoyed by the middle class) ahead of improving the situation of the least well off. Those on the political right, on the other hand, were far from taken with his prioritisation of the position of the least well-off and with the role of the state - rather than the market - in determining how resources were to be distributed.

Although Rawls's later work, Political Liberalism is generally regarded as less radical, and is mostly concerned with how groups with very different views can live together in the same state, A Theory of Justice is a thoroughly radical work. Equal basic freedoms is, perhaps, relatively uncontroverisal, but his insistance on fair equality of opportunity would - if taken seriously - require a great many changes to the way that most Western societies operate. The difference principle is more than just an apology for capitalism - the whole economy would be orientated to improving the lot of the least well off, to maximising the minimum share. This is not just a version of 'trickle down' economics, but a principle which attempts to harness the power and energy of incentive inequalities and combine it with a central concern for the least well off. At a time when old-fashioned Marxism no longer appears an attractive option, perhaps it is time for those on the left to take Rawls's theory of justice a little more seriously.

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1A revised edition was published in 1999, incorporating a couple of extra sections. This is regarded as the definitive version2This entry structures the explanation of Rawls's theory in a rather different way to the one employed by Rawls himself, but what it loses in sophistication it will hopefully make up for in clarity.3The role and status of this argument within Rawls's overall theory is controversial. Rawls seems to regard it as an integral part of his argument for the difference principle, but most philosophers now regard it as incompatible with the 'original position' argument for reasons which are beyond the scope of this entry. The natural lottery argument is probably best understood as an argument against the common intuition that the rich deserve a greater than equal share4It's interesting to note that in most contemporary political discussion, success is put down to 'hard work', as if it were possible for anyone to emulate the success of the richest if only they 'worked hard' enough. Talent (or luck) never seem to be mentioned.

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