August 8, 2015
A philosopher tries to balance the claims of liberty and equality.
By J. B. Scheewind
ohn Rawls’s major work, ”A Theory of Justice,” is a closely written philosophical treatise of more than 500 pages. Over 225,000 copies of its two editions (1971, 1999) have been bought, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Chinese and Russian. This is plainly no ordinary piece of academic cookery to be savored only by professionals. Despite its great complexity, the book has appealed to a wide range of readers. Rawls is reaching for a still larger public in ”Justice as Fairness.” Much moral philosophy is addressed primarily to other philosophers. Rawls thinks that his views are simple enough to be understood by the public. He even hopes that the arguments for them might come to affect political discussion.
This is not a sign of immodesty. Rawls holds that because governments in modern democratic societies act on behalf of their citizens, we, as citizens, must have some common understanding of the rationale for our political institutions. We need at least to share principles of justice so we can talk out our major social disagreements. But we do not agree on any religion or any broad philosophy that could provide them. And we cannot be brought to share any ”comprehensive view” — Rawls’s term for an all-embracing worldview — without an unacceptable use of political power to enforce consensus. Consider, for instance, the horrors the Taliban inflict on their citizens in their insistence on religious conformity.
Reasonable people can hold divergent views on religion and morality. But the ”reasonable pluralism” in modern Western democratic societies makes it especially difficult to work out a shared idea of justice. We can get one if we are all willing to cooperate to sustain a democratic society. Rawls thinks this willingness leads to a view of justice that we can agree on despite our differing comprehensive outlooks. General acceptance arising from public discussion of the theory would strengthen this claim.
”Justice as Fairness” is a systematic reworking of ”A Theory of Justice.” Skillfully edited by Erin Kelly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Tufts University, from Rawls’s lecture notes, it replies to criticisms of the earlier book and corrects what Rawls thinks were its mistakes. Rawls means it as a synoptic overview of the core of his systematic thought from 1971 to the present. The book says nothing about international law, and little about past moral thought. Rawls has addressed these subjects in, respectively, ”The Law of Peoples” (1999) and ”Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy” (2000). These are rich additions to what Rawls has given us. But ”Justice as Fairness” will become the main work from which a public understanding of Rawls’s theory of justice will be derived.
The basic problem, in Rawls’s view, is balancing the claims of liberty and equality. We won’t accept slavery or the forced imposition of religious belief: as citizens we think ourselves free to have our own way of life and our own religion. Politically, moreover, we no longer think that anyone is naturally the superior of anyone else. No more kings by divine right or aristocracies by inheritance: as citizens we are all equal. But although we consider ourselves free and equal citizens, we agree that there have to be some limits on our freedom. Without such limits our attempts to live in our own way would interfere with our fellow citizens’ attempts to do the same. The speed limit restricts those who want to practice driving for the Indy 500 on Broadway on a Tuesday morning, but it protects the rest of us. We also accept limited inequalities in wealth and acquired status as a way of encouraging people to take on difficult or dangerous jobs that we all want to see done without doing them ourselves. What are the right limits?
One plausible and widely discussed theory, older than Rawls’s, is utilitarianism, often associated with Jeremy Bentham. It tells us that the aim of government and individuals should be to bring about the greatest possible amount of happiness or satisfaction of desire. All other moral principles and ends are subordinate to this one and must be overridden if they interfere with the bottom line. Rawls thinks that utilitarianism puts our basic rights at risk and opens the way to objectionable inequalities in wealth and power. His own view is designed to avoid these dangers.
In our time, Rawls argues, only principles that everyone could publicly avow can serve the purpose of giving us a fair distribution of goods and privileges. To give us a vivid way of understanding how to arrive at such principles, Rawls asks us to imagine a meeting at which each of us represents all the generations of our families. At the meeting we are to hammer out principles we all can live by, and these principles will in turn shape the fundamental institutions of our society — the government, the economic system and the family. Everyone has to think that the outcome is fair. We bargain until we find principles that do the trick. In daily life some of us are richer, or stronger, or better educated than others. But we all agree that these differences of power would not count in a fair bargaining situation. Plainly it would not be fair if poor people had to accept a bargain forced on them by the rich, or if minorities were forced to accept any proposal the majority liked.
What situation could guarantee that the principles of justice will be obtained by a bargain that is fair to everyone? Here’s how: when we’re bargaining, there’s a veil of ignorance drawn over us; we don’t know our sex, race, religion, wealth, intelligence or special gifts. All unfair advantages are thereby excluded from the bargaining table. Real people in ordinary life can reason in this way whenever they wish, as a thought experiment. So although we merely imagine the bargaining behind the veil, our own values now commit us to the outcome that results.
Rawls thinks that the representatives would agree unanimously on two principles: (a) each person has an absolute right to an adequate set of basic liberties; (b) social and economic inequalities go with social positions available to everyone through fair competition, and these inequalities must be beneficial to the least advantaged members of society. The first principle safeguards our freedoms to think and speak, to choose our careers and lifestyles, and to differ in our political and religious allegiances. These liberties are so important to us that we cannot afford to put them at risk, not even to increase overall happiness.
The second principle is accepted because behind the veil we don’t know our economic position. We know that some inequalities improve the condition of society. But we must assure ourselves and our families a share of the benefit. If one of us turns out to be a day laborer, he gets no benefit from the fact that his boss earns a thousand times as much as he does. The insistence that inequalities help those worst off protects against this kind of unfairness.
Justice as fairness can be accepted for political purposes by people who have deeply different ideas about how life should be lived. When people with different general views find Rawls’s principles acceptable, they reach what Rawls calls an ”overlapping consensus” on them. That’s the most we can hope for in a modern democratic society. The two principles are not toothless. Justice as fairness rejects laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism and state socialism. It endorses a property-holding democracy or a liberal socialism with economic power shared by companies and workers. It uses taxation to keep the difference between rich and poor small enough to preserve the real value of the basic liberties. It supports women’s rights and gay rights. And it plainly calls for important changes in the structure of American society.
If there is not now an overlapping consensus around Rawls’s two principles, can one develop? The history of religious toleration, Rawls thinks, shows how justice as fairness might come to be accepted. Toleration began as an experiment forced on Europe by the devastation of religious wars. Now it is embedded in our convictions for its protection of individual freedom. Similarly, the stubborn fact of reasonable pluralism may bring us to a view of justice adopted for political purposes and not anchored in any large-scale view.
Rawls’s brilliant, detailed and comprehensive defense of this position has made him the most important American political philosopher of the 20th century. Does his theory do better than its rivals at spelling out the deepest shared political convictions of citizens of a modern liberal democracy? Only public discussion will tell. ”Justice as Fairness” is not easy reading. But it deserves the careful consideration of everyone seriously concerned with politics.
J. B. Schneewind teaches philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and writes on the history of moral philosophy.