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John Rawls' Theory of Blind "Justice"
The most widely discussed theory of distributive justice, during the past three decades, has been proposed by Harvard professor John Rawls. In lieu of the concept of the state of nature, Rawls introduced the methodological concept of an “original position,” a hypothetical and counterfactual condition which requires us to visualize the negotiators of the basic terms of political association conducting their negotiations behind a “veil of ignorance” while having no knowledge of their individual life conditions, including their talents, intelligence, sex, race, class, religion, wealth, conception of the good, etc. Rawls’ veil of ignorance blinds those in the original position to all the specific natural contingencies and social accidents that make up their particular identities except to the contingency that they are all beings with specific worldly identities who have particular, but unknown, traits and goals to which freedom, opportunity, and income are means. According to Rawls, to be fair in selecting the principles of justice, the possibility of bias must be removed. Fairness in Rawls’ theory requires the more favored to agree to the type of distributive rule they would prefer if they were not more favored.
Rawls thus argues that the principles that should govern the basic structure of a just or well-ordered society are principles that would be selected by rational individuals in specially constructed, imaginary circumstances called the original position. For Rawls, a society is well ordered when (1) its members know and agree to the same principles of social justice and (2) the basic institutions of society generally satisfy and are widely known to satisfy these principles. Rawls argues that if we are to justify the use of the coercive power of the state over individuals, it ought to be in terms of reasons that all can accept or should accept.
Rawls proposes that benighted persons in an original position will or should agree that all social primary goods (e.g., basic liberties such as political freedom and freedom of choice in occupations, opportunity, income, wealth, and the bases of self-respect) are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored. Rawls thus depicts justice as an issue of fairness, focusing on the distribution of resources, and permitting an unequal distribution only to the extent that the weakest members of society benefit from that inequality. To Rawls, this justifies the coercive limitation of unjust resources and therefore redistribution where it would improve the situation of the disadvantaged. For Rawls, even if an inequality does not harm the least well off, it is unjust if it leaves them no better off than before. This emphasizes a redistributionist type of justice and a defeasible presumption in favor of equality in the distribution of primary goods such as wealth and income. Rawls’ assumption that equality is desirable puts the burden of justification on those who support some type of inequality.
According to Rawls’ difference principle, an inequality can be advantageous to the person who gets the smaller share because inequalities can constitute incentives which increase the size of the pie to be shared, so that the smaller piece may be larger in absolute terms than an equal share of the smaller pie that would have existed in the absence of such incentives. The difference principle collapses to strict equality under conditions where differences in income and other rewards have no effect on the incentives of individuals. However, in the real world currently and in the foreseeable future, greater rewards bring forth greater productive effort, thus increasing the total wealth of the economy and, under the difference principle, the wealth of the least advantaged.
A practical implication of the difference principle is that society must redistribute income up to the point where the wealth of the representative poorest individual (an abstraction) is maximized. In other words, “society” should tax and redistribute the wealth of the more advantaged up to the point where their incentives to produce more disappear.
Rawls recognizes that by allowing at least some greater level of rewards to accrue to the skilled and motivated, the poor will be better off than they would have been with a totally equal distribution of income. He also realizes that redistribution cannot go as far as his ethical preference for equality would recommend without making everyone (including the poor) worse off. At some point, impairing individuals’ economic incentives would reduce the total wealth in society.
Rawls argues for inheritance taxes on the basis that an unregulated transfer of wealth from people to their children would result in the entrenchment of wealth in particular segments of society. According to Rawls, individuals who are not fortunate enough to have wealthy parents do not merit worse starting points and, consequently, worse life prospects than those who were so fortunate. Ignoring the right that people have to bequeath wealth to whomever they want, Rawls contends that society should equalize the prospects of the least well off by taxing the undeserved inherited gain of children of rich persons, and using the tax proceeds to aid the least well off.
Rawls describes his theory as political rather than metaphysical—it is political in the sense that it does not depend on any of the metaphysical assumptions that are disputed among reasonable citizens in a pluralistic society. Rawls argues that democracy is required by justice, because as a procedure it complies with the tenets of justice in that it assigns everyone equal and extensive rights and liberties and because of its propensity to produce just results. For Rawls, the function of justice is to ensure that disagreements are resolved on the basis of prior agreement instead of through force. Thus, even if there are disagreements about the justice of particular laws and policies, there should minimally be agreement with respect to the procedures used to resolve these conflicts. Rawls renounces what he refers to as liberal equality (i.e., political equality and a market economy tempered by interventionist government efforts aimed at furthering equality of opportunity). He finds liberal equality insufficient because it seeks to ameliorate only those inequalities stemming from differences in social and historical circumstances, thereby permitting real differences in individual ability and effort to emerge as the causes of economic success. Rawls believes there is no more good reason to allow the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the possession of natural endowments than by social and historical factors. Rawls contends that individuals do not deserve the genetic assets they are born with. He explains that, from a moral perspective, the level of effort people are willing to put forth is, to a great extent, influenced by their natural endowments. Consequently, those who are more productive due to their greater natural abilities have no moral right to greater rewards, because the abilities and motivation that make up their work cannot be morally considered to be their own. In effect, Rawls’ difference principle is an agreement to consider the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the fruits of this distribution, no matter what it ends up being. In this view an individual’s natural endowments are not considered to be his own property, but rather the property of society.
Rawls contends that underserved inequalities call for redress in order to produce genuine (i.e., fair) equality of opportunity instead of procedural (i.e., formal) equality of opportunity. Rather than having all play by the same rules or being judged by the same standards, Rawls wants to provide everyone with equal prospects of success from equal individual efforts. Rawls’ idea of fairness requires that the state have the power to control outcomes and to supercede the preferences of individual citizens.
What makes Rawls’ idea of justice so important is that he systematically expresses a vision that had already underpinned a great deal of social policy, legal theory, and even international relations. The goal of Rawls’ conception of justice is to put certain segments of society in the position that they would have been in except for some undeserved and unfortunate circumstances.
The Rawlsian idea that one’s own status, endowments, and wealth are unearned is especially potent when it is combined with (1) the Kantian notion that there is no virtue in pursuing one’s own personal flourishing and/or (2) the guilt felt by those who are ashamed to live in material abundance while others in the world suffer. Kant advocated abject selflessness and held that an action is moral only if a person performs it out of a sense of duty without regard to any personal goal, desire, motive, or interest—if a person acts to derive benefit, his action is amoral. Furthermore, Kant would even maintain that no moral credit would accrue to a person who gains pleasure from his charitable activities even though he did not seek such pleasure. In addition, so-called political guilt can be defined as the belief that one belongs to a group of people that has unjustly or unduly fortunate circumstances, endowments, or privileges. Allan Levite has explained that those who regret their good fortunes are drawn to egalitarian political ideologies that promise to remove the social or economic inequality that is the source of their guilt. Such people wish to level society in a manner that will alleviate their own guilt feelings. They believe that only the state is powerful enough to redistribute resources thereby relieving their political guilt. The state’s promise to provide for the poor relieves guilt-ridden people of the stigma of “privilege” that they feel they bear by making it appear as though their resources and employment roles were granted by official state permission, instead of being the result of privilege or chance.
Rawls focuses on how goods are distributed among persons “representative” of various positions in society, but ignores which individuals have which goods and how they gained possession of them. Critics of Rawls argue that people hold an entitlement to what they produce or have legitimately acquired and therefore should be protected from Rawls’ proposed redistributionist policies. They hold that the difference principle involves unacceptable infringements on liberty in that redistributive taxation to the poor requires the immoral takings of just holdings. Rawls’ opponents contend that whether a given income or wealth distribution is just or unjust depends solely on the manner in which that distribution came about, not on the pattern of the distribution itself.
Another criticism is that fairness is not the proper standard of justice—the world is inherently unfair and thus “unjust.” Nature does not produce a state of equality. No two people possess the same mental or physical attributes—some are smarter, more talented, better looking, etc. People have the free will to either use or not use the talents that nature has endowed them with. It follows that economic equality is a goal that is incompatible with nature. True justice is attained when people’s lives and property are secure and they are free to own property, order its direction, determine the purpose to which their bodies are put, engage in consensual transactions and relationships with others, and freely pursue their conception of happiness.
Rawls also fails to recognize that talents are not a common pool. The aptitudes that one person enjoys in no way lessens the number and magnitude of abilities that are available to another. My talent is not acquired at your expense. Rawls is rebelling against reality, nature, and the existence of human talent. A natural fact, such as the existence of one’s talents, is neither just nor unjust—it just is. So why should those “favored by nature” be made to pay for what is not a moral problem or an injustice and is not of his or her own making?
Finally, Rawls’ theory can be challenged on the grounds that he is confusing justice with prudence—the virtue of advancing one’s own well-being. To be prudent is to apply intelligence to changing circumstances. Rawls’ maxi-min strategy appears to be a rational construction of prudence rather than of justice. A prudent man in the “original position” might choose a social structure under which he would be “least worse off” if things went badly for him. Such a choice could be called prudent, but certainly not just.
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