Sunday, November 5, 2017

Summary: John Rawls and The principles of justice

The contemporary American philosopher John Rawls has developed  an egalitarian theory of justice that embodies the Kantian conception of equality and offers an alternative to utilitarianism.  Rawls’s theory focuses on social justice, which he regards as a feature of a well-ordered society.  In such a society, free and equal persons are able to pursue their interests in harmony because of institutions that assign rights and duties and distribute the benefits and burdens of mutual cooperation.  Rawls’s aim is not to develop  the institutions of a well-ordered society but to determine the principles that would be used to evaluate the possibilities.  His method is to ask what principles a rationally self-interested person might agree to if he or she were to choose these principles in an original position behind a veil of ignorance.  The original position is a hypothetical pre-contract situation similar to the state of nature in Locke’s theory.  The veil of  ignorance requires that individuals choose the principles of  justice without knowing any facts about their stations in life, such as social status, natural ability, intelligence, strength, race, and sex.

The principles of justice.  Rawls acknowledges three principles of justice—the principle of equal liberty, the difference principle, and the principle of equal opportunity.

1.  The principle of equal liberty holds that each person has an equal right to the most extensive set of basic liberties that are compatible with a system of liberty for all. 
2.  The difference principle allows an exception to the principle of equal liberty if some unequal arrangement benefits the least well-off person.  That is, an unequal allocation is considered just if the worst-off person is better-off with the new distribution than the worst-off person under any other distribution.
3.  The principle of equal opportunity provides that all public offices and employment positions be made available to everyone.  Society should strive to offer all of its members an equal opportunity to fill positions through the elimination of differences caused by accidents of birth or social condition.  Natural differences should be used for the benefit of all.

The basis for the first principle is that an equal share is the most that any person could reasonably expect considering the requirement for unanimous agreement in the original position.  The second principle recognizes that a rational, impartial person would make an exception to the first principle and accept less than an equal share if everyone would be better off as a result of the inequality.  Rawls’s concern for the least advantaged is due to maximin, which is  a rule of rational choice drawn from game theory in to which it is rational to maximize the minimum outcome when choosing between different alternatives.  However, maximin is not the only rational choice of a person behind the veil of ignorance.  One might use the principle of maximum average utility and assume some risk to increase his or her chances of becoming better-off.  Whether Rawls’s theory of justice is superior to utilitarianism depends, therefore, on the acceptability of maximin as a rule of rational choice.

See also: Rawls - Justice as Fairness