Born in 1921, John Rawls is Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA; he is perhaps the single most important political philosopher of the last century. In his main work, A Theory of Justice, he sets out his conception of justice as fairness. Like Plato, Rawls is concerned with the structure of society, how it should be arranged, and how wealth and goods ought to be distributed.
Rawls regards himself as being in the contractarian tradition of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. These illustrious predecessors conceived (in general terms) of everyone in a society agreeing to a certain contract, and thereby setting up a government. Rawls makes the more abstract suggestion that the initial contract should concern only the basic principles of justice:
‘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 co-operation 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.’ [Chapter 1, S.3]
But how are we to establish what these free and rational people would agree to in this initial position? Simple – by imagining ourselves in it.
The Original Position
Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in what he calls the Original Position: a hypothetical state of affairs in which we must establish our principles of justice. Just as previous contractarian theories spoke of an initial State of Nature, where no laws yet exist, the Original Position is a hypothetical situation designed to help us formulate an accurate conception of justice. Equality in the Original Position is ensured by the Veil of Ignorance. Behind this veil, we have no knowledge of our position in society, gender, income, or even our desires and preferences. We only know certain basic facts about human nature: that people can be exploitative and cruel, but also helpful and kind. Given these basic facts, we must agree on which mutually beneficial principles of justice we should adopt.
The idea is that, since we are behind the Veil of Ignorance, our choice
of principles of justice will be impartial, and hence fair. Imagine a
slaveowner and one of his slaves. The slaveowner is quite happy with his
position in society, and does not care that it is unjust. The slave conversely detests his lot, and cares very much about the injustice of his situation. Now imagine that these two people find themselves in the Original Position. Since they are behind the Veil of Ignorance, they are both unaware of their positions in society; the slave doesn’t know he’s a slave and the owner doesn’t know that he is an owner. Rawls believes that, since they don’t know in what position they will find themselves when they ‘return’ to the real world, they will agree on whichever principles of justice will ensure that they are treated well. Their ignorance ensures their impartiality, which in turn ensures their fair adoption of just principles.
Important to Rawls’ conception of justice is the notion of primary goods: things that will be important, no matter what our preferences and position in society turn out to be. If you are a musician, you require an instrument; a scholar requires books. But these goods are too specific. More generally, everyone needs money. Money is a primary good; so are health and liberty and self-respect. In being fair and just, we should attempt to ensure an even distribution of primary goods; after this is done, it’s up to individuals to do the best they can for themselves with these basic goods. Rawls states that the most important primary goods are ‘rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth.’ Self-respect is also important. (Other primary goods include health, vigour, intelligence and imagination, but these are not directly affected by the initial structure of society.)
The Two Principles of Justice
With their impartiality secured by their ignorance, Rawls thinks that the free and rational people in the Original Position will adopt two basic principles of justice that will ensure them a fair share of primary goods:
1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others (the Liberty Principle).
2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
(a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage (the Difference Principle), and
(b) attached to positions and offices open to all (the Fair Opportunity Principle).
(The Fair Opportunity Principle is not as important as the other two.)
Given that those who find themselves in the Original Position do not know their ‘real’ position in society, they will adopt these principles because they ensure that, no matter how bad the circumstances they find themselves in, they will be treated fairly and justly. Thus the slave, on ‘returning’ to a world in which these principles of justice have been adopted, will find himself a slave no longer, since the institution of slavery violates both these principles. (A slave does not have an equal right to the same liberty as everyone else and does not gain advantage from their unequal status.)
Rawls offers some comments on his principles. They apply to the basic structure of society, and are intended ‘to govern the assignment of rights and duties and to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages’. The first principle applies to the part of society that establishes equal liberties, and the second to the part of society that establishes (allows) any social or political disadvantages. Let us now look at the principles in more detail.
The Liberty Principle
What are the basic equal liberties guaranteed by Rawls’ first principle?
• Political liberty (freedom to vote and stand for office)
• Freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure.
Rawls’ First Principle of Justice has priority over the Second. This ensures that violations of citizens’ liberty by the state cannot be justified, even if such violations reap social and economic benefits. The priority of the First Principle over the Second also ensures that people cannot choose to sacrifice any of their fundamental rights for financial or other gain. For instance, a man might want to give up his right to religious liberty if this will increase his income. He does not feel that this right is important, and even if he had it, it would not have much effect on his life, as exercise of this right would have only a marginal effect on the state’s policy. But the paramount position of the Liberty Principle vetoes such a surrender of rights, as its priority indicates that certain primary goods are simply too valuable to be sacrificed for mere benefits of income: ‘the serial ordering of principles expresses an underlying preference among primary social goods. When this preference is rational so is the choice of these principles in this order.’
This means that, although wealth is a primary good, it is not as important as rights and liberties. Rawls ascribes this great importance to rights because, once a right is given up, it might never be bought back. While increased income, as a primary good, might benefit a man’s life in the short term, if he undergoes a religious conversion in a few years’ time and becomes a devout member of a minority religion, he will not be able to practise his faith, because he has surrendered his right to do so. Such a situation (although only a possibility) would not be to his benefit, so Rawls gives priority to the Liberty Principle in order to stop people gambling with their fundamental basic rights and liberties. A more general conception of justice, stated by Rawls, is helpful:
‘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... injustice is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.’
Since the loss of religious liberty might well be to the detriment of some people, such loss (whether voluntary or enforced) is forbidden by the priority of the First Principle.
The Difference Principle
The Second Principle is concerned with fair distribution of income and wealth, and with the regulation of any institutions that have inequalities as part of their structure. This latter point is 2b: the Fair Opportunity Principle. Where a company (for example) employs a hierarchical structure, positions of power within that company must be ‘accessible to all’. The more interesting part of the Second Principle is its first part. Whilst the Liberty Principle guarantees certain fundamental liberties and rights, the Difference Principle (2a) ‘insists that each person benefits from permissible inequalities in the basic structure’. Thus income and wealth (resources) do not necessarily have to be distributed equally, but their distribution must be to the advantage of everyone. This is a little more complicated.
Which strategy should be used to distribute primary goods? Rawls thinks that we would adopt the Maxi-Min Strategy in the Original Position: try to maximise the interests of the worst off. Behind the Veil of Ignorance, since I might turn out to be the worst-off, I will adopt the Maxi-Min Strategy. The Difference Principle is a formalisation of the Maxi-Min Strategy as a principle of justice. Consider these three distributions of primary goods amongst four people:
If you favour total utility (the biggest total of units), you will go for A. The Maxi-Min strategist would prefer B, as the worst-off person benefits most, despite the lower total and average utility. A strict egalitarian (an advocate of equality) favours C, as this is the most even distribution. But this does not maximise the interests of the worst off. For Rawls, an unequal distribution where everyone is at least quite well off, is better than an equal distribution where everyone gets very little. (From an individualistic point of view, B is better than C, as each person is better off.)
Rawls thinks that equal distribution is prima facie good, but that inequalities are justified when they help the worst off. Thus we should adopt the Maxi-Min Strategy (and hence the Difference Principle) in the Original Position, as we may turn out to be the worst off. (Rawls thinks that no one would gamble on this, as no one would take the risk of adopting a system that allows slavery on the slim chance that they will turn out to be a slaveowner.) It depends, though, what the units of distribution are. If the numbers above related to income, the egalitarian would say that C is best because everyone occupies a similar position in society. Under B, the worst off will only get half as much as the best off; this inequality is unjustifiable. Under C, there will be a greater sense of fraternity, and more self-respect, which is a primary good. But if, as mentioned above, these units do not merely refer to income, but to all the relevant primary goods and circumstances, then B is best distribution.