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Liberal Apologetics, Part One: John Rawls

Anyone who keeps a weary eye on the tedious tidings of the news will no doubt be familiar with the regrettable state of American political discourse. While this is certainly nothing new, and can actually be seen as a sort of necessity for the survival of a ‘healthy’ democracy, it seems like there are fundamental and seemingly intractable disagreements at the heart of this conflict between increasingly intransigent ideologues (who can be found on both the left and the right, though not necessarily in equal proportions). Perhaps these problems are not so grave compared to historical struggles such as the question of slavery, civil rights, etc., but they still must be confronted in a profound way in order for us to collectively define and allocate our national priorities and ‘values’. The most important instantiation of this process is represented by the various beliefs about the degree to which the State should be empowered to collect and distribute resources (tax revenue, budget allocations, etc.), and to interpret the ‘rights’ of individuals vis-à-vis the State. At this point, I will attempt to simplify the issue into what I see as its most fundamental question: do we want the State (or, ‘Government’) to establish and maintain some sort of a notion of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ in society (for my purposes here, I shall label this as ‘Liberalism’), or do we want the State to maintain only the most basic necessities for the security of the State and its citizens, in favor of a wide-ranging personal and individual liberty (this shall be labelled ‘Libertarianism’).

Both of these political philosophies have traditions and divergent uses dating from at least Industrial Age Europe, which I will happily ignore in the name of brevity. They both conspicuously share the same etymology: the Latin root liber, which simply means ‘free’, and which also found its way into the medieval universities’ notion of the ‘Seven Liberal Arts’ (the Trivium and the Quadrivium), which were considered the essential subjects for free citizens to study.  I will attempt to synthesize the basic arguments of each ‘school’, and their competing views of an ideal society. I will also use as my point of departure the ideas of the two most representative and influential thinkers of each ‘school': John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

These two men were colleagues and friendly rivals at Harvard University for several decades (and both recently died in the same year–2002). Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971, which presents his idea for creating a new social contract in favor of distributive justice. Nozick wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974, which presents his ideas about the benefits of a limited and minimal state– it is a fundamental text for modern libertarians. Part One will involve the key aspects of Rawls, and Part Two will address Nozick, as well as my final conclusions.

John Rawls, 1921-2002

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to find a solution to the question of to what extent a society can have both liberty and equality, and where we can place the concept of justice on a continuum between those two incongruous concepts. He called his theory ‘Justice as Fairness’, and derived from it two principles to establish the ensuing justice: the ‘liberty principle’ and the ‘difference principle’. Prior to this, Rawls describes a hypothetical social contract which would need to be drawn up whence would follow these two principles; this is the ‘Original Position’, in which principles of justice are all decided behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. Behind this veil, no one knows any facts at all about their own background, place in society, class, race, sex, intelligence, or natural abilities, so that judgment about notions of justice will be unclouded by any prejudice or knowledge about personal outcome. Naturally, ignorance of these personal details leads to the establishment of principles that will be fair for everyone, will not privilege any specific class of people, and will maximize the potential benefits for the least well-off (‘maximin’ strategy).

Let’s take a step back for a moment before looking at the the theory in more depth. By using the concept of a ‘social contract’, Rawls’ Original Position follows the traditions of Hobbes and Locke. Rawls is not as concerned with the problem of justifying a type of ideal government (such as Hobbes’ absolute monarchy), but follows a bit more closely Locke’s ideas of natural rights (life, liberty, possessions). Unlike these earlier thinkers, however, Rawls’ theory was only a thought experiment, totally hypothetical and ahistorical, which he used merely to demonstrate the means by which his principles of justice could be established. These principles would then be used by the government to protect individual rights as well as to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across the society in question.

The first principle of justice that follows from the Original Position is the Liberty principle, which states that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” Basically, this ensures political liberty (voting rights, etc.), freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of personal property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. This would seem to exemplify Isaiah Berlin’s (an early teacher and influence on Rawls) concept of ‘Negative Liberty’, a topic which I discussed here. This principle should also seem to come naturally to us, since we have long had many such freedoms in Western Liberal societies, as seen in the Bill of Rights. It is not so clear-cut in reality, however, as seen by the fact that civil rights and voting freedom are not necessarily guaranteed in America even today; in fact, there are still no shortage of attempts to push back against such freedoms in favor of regressive policies of disenfranchisement, limiting freedom of speech, and even racial segregation. It is notable that Rawls’ first principle does not protect the rights to certain types of property (such as capital and means of production) or freedom of contract between parties. Also, since any individual liberties, especially in a large and diverse population, may conflict with another person’s liberties, some sort of pluralism is needed (such as Berlin’s ‘value-pluralism’).

The second principle of justice, called the Difference Principle, is somewhat more controversial. Rawls states that social and economic equalities are to be arranged so that: a) “they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”; and, b) “offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”  The interesting thing about these points is that Rawls does not attempt to classify ‘inequality’ as a concept unjust or undesirable in itself, and does not claim to solve the problem of injustice; he simply uses the egalitarian-like notion that justice should be enacted (and injustice decreased) by way of the distribution of the most surplus benefits to the least-advantaged members of society. Since it follows from the Original Position that the opportunity to succeed should be completely open and available to all members of society, no matter their class, natural abilities, etc., the best way to ensure this fairness of opportunity is to always seek to redistribute inequalities which occur naturally in society to those members who are most in need of assistance. This seems to be more in the spirit of Berlin’s idea of ‘Positive Freedom’, only applied to society writ-large rather than the individual. Basically, it allows for the least-advantaged members to ‘catch up’ to the most successful members by having additional access to benefits (education, food/housing/medical subsidies) that are most needed by the disadvantaged. The second idea in b) also attempts to ensure that even these same least-advantaged members will nevertheless have equal access to opportunity (such as work, political office, etc.).

The Difference Principle is controversial because it mandates that social goods and benefits will be basically redistributed from one group (the well-off) to another (the poor). We shall see the arguments against this from the Libertarian perspective next time, but for Rawls, who equated justice to fairness, fairness had to then be ‘re-written’ into the social contract in such a way as to always err on the side of greater equality, rather than inequality. Before classical liberalism came on the scene in the 18th-19th centuries, women, minorities, and poor people were almost totally without rights, just as they had always been. Gradually, women gained the right to vote (1920 in America), African-Americans were relieved of the burden of slavery (1863) and given more civil rights (1964), and the poor were able to rise out of poverty due to labor laws and universal education. These things, thankfully, seem obvious to us today, but it took decades (or perhaps, the entire history of civilization) of struggle to finally realize them. All of these events, and many more, happened before the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971. Rawls continues this liberal tradition by taking things even further, and seeking to map out an even more just and more equal society than has yet been achieved.

Let’s try to look at some examples of how Rawls’ principles of justice could work in action today. Affirmative action began before Rawls’ work, but it continues to be a controversial issue. It is fair, according to Rawls, because it mitigates inherent inequality by distributing extra benefits (job positions, university placements, etc.) to the least-advantaged. So universities are allowed, in some cases even obligated, to accept more students who are from social groups that have been historically marginalized in America (minorities and impoverished). This policy (which some universities also justify by saying that it adds to the diversity of the student body) begins to decrease social inequality, while increasing a more universal freedom of opportunity. This same idea could be applied to the hiring practices of corporations and government agencies. In addition, it is easy to use Rawls as a justification for progressive tax rates, in which the rich (successful, usually well-educated, but a small minority of society) pay a higher tax rate than others; this revenue should ideally be used to support programs which help the large number of the middle and lower classes by providing extra education, medical benefits, etc., that will help to decrease inequality. Strictly speaking, though, Rawls only states that further economic gains by the most-advantaged are not to be made at the expense of the least-advantaged. The concepts of reciprocity and mutual respect should virtually ensure that benefits are distributed in the manner I have discussed. I think it is highly debatable whether this ever happens in reality.

As you can imagine, there have been numerous criticism leveled against Rawls’ theory on any number of major and minor points. I will discuss some of these in my next post. Some have argued that Rawls does not treat political factors seriously enough, that he only deals too exclusively with social institutions, or that he does not properly define natural rights. Some have argued against the fact that Rawls’ conception of equality derives too much from primary social goods, or that it does not account for and deal with the existence of inequality in the first place. There are many nuanced aspects of the theory, and the criticisms against it, that are too long and complicated to explain at this point (but that might appear as future topics on this website). For now, I am satisfied to say that Rawls has presented us with a strong case for justice as fairness. This involves (and requires) an understanding of justice and equality by the active participation of the citizens of a well-ordered society. It does not depend on any specific ‘values’ of any of the diverse groups. Therefore, an ‘overlapping consensus’ can be established by which everyone agrees to respect the rules of justice which apply to all and by which all are governed (this is similar, once again, in my opinion, to Berlin’s ‘value-pluralism’).

From this foundation, Rawls gives us his Difference Principle and its mandate of distributive justice. Whether disagreeing with this principle outright or simply nitpicking some of its parts, everyone should understand the ideas behind such a principle. If you disagree, you should be prepared to explain why and what your alternative solution is to the problems of justice and equality in society. We are free to decide these things however we desire, and, in fact, it is necessary to do so in order to maintain a well-ordered society. It all depends on how we define and prioritize the concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’. Should everyone have an equal opportunity to succeed? Or should individual liberty be so precious as to outweigh any amount of injustice or inequality that occurs in society?

UPDATE: Here is a link to a recent article by a philosopher talking about what Rawls might have thought about the Occupy Wall Street movement. He presents a good summary of ‘justice as fairness’.

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One thought on “Liberal Apologetics, Part One: John Rawls

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Tolerance « Tigerpapers

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