A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Kathy asked:

Hi! I took a philosophy course years ago. One that we studied talked about looking at ethics from an interesting standpoint and I would like to study it further but I cannot remember the name of the philosopher. The standpoint was this: imagine you and a group of people are creating the world. This committee must make up all of the rules, but none of the committee members will know his/her standing in the community. Do you know the philosopher and/or branch of study this idea is in.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Kathy, the person your question refers to is, I’m pretty certain, the American moral and political Philosopher John Rawls. In his book A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls sets out to discover the principles which any society must embrace if it is to be just. In so doing he hoped to present an alternative to utilitarianism, which he regarded as the dominant moral philosophy, and to revive the social contract tradition in political theory.

However, before giving a synopsis of Rawls’ social theory let me give you some brief insight into the type of person Rawls was (he died in 2002). Like many people, philosophers included, the Second World War had a profound and life-changing effect on Rawls. A somewhat humble man, when, in 1990, he was asked by photographer Stephen Pyke to summarise his idea of what philosophy meant to him he answered:

"From the beginning of my study in philosophy in my late teens I have been concerned with moral questions and the religious and philosophical basis on which they might be answered. Three years spent in the US army in World War Two led me to be concerned with political questions. Around 1950 I started a book on justice, which I eventually completed."

The name of the book to which Rawls alludes is, of course, his A Theory of Justice. Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness, and his vision of a legitimate society as an overlapping consensus of peoples with different conceptions of good within a framework of basic rights and liberties, exerted a powerful effect on liberal and social democratic politicians in the 1980s and ’90s. This culminated in Rawls being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1999.

As mentioned above, in his A Theory of Justice, Rawls is concerned with discovering the principles which any society must have to be just. What sets Rawls theory apart from other such theories is his concept of ‘a veil of ignorance’. Rawls begins by inviting us to imagine not only a hypothetical ‘original position’, but one in which we are all ignorant of our own particular abilities or prospects, both financially and structurally. That is, ignorant of the status we would have, in a future society. Rawls calls this state of unknowing ‘the veil of ignorance’. In such a state, ignorant of our own potential, dispositions and talents, we are all equal: each at the same starting point.

From such a position we will each be anxious to ensure that each member of society is guaranteed a level of protection, financially, socially, and physically, below which we cannot fall. From such a position, argues Rawls, we are more likely to establish principles of justice which guarantee equal liberties and equal access to the conditions of well-being.

For Rawls then, a just society is one which embraces two fundamental principles of ‘justice as fairness’: The First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. The Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (i) to be of greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle; and (ii) attached to offices and positions open to all under fair equality of opportunity.

The reference to the ‘just savings principle’, refers to the fact that, in addition to the liberty principle and the equality of opportunity, Rawls argues that the welfare of future generations is also an important consideration: what a society saves, and what burdens it thereby imposes, are also matters of justice.

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