John Rawls’s Theory Of Justice

We analyze the main ideas of this philosopher about justice and social organization.

Without a doubt, if there has been a dominant figure in political philosophy during the second half of the 20th century, that is the figure of John Bordley Rawls (1921 – 2002).

John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, which is also a form of social contract, has been the main form of philosophical foundation of liberalism in its social aspect, as well as a point of reference of obligatory confrontation for other political currents.

The “original position” experiment

Rawls’s theory of justice, which has at its core the thought experiment of the “original position”, exposed in his magnum opus “A Theory of Justice” (1971), is also a proposal on human subjectivity and ultimate motives. that govern moral behavior.

The thought experiment of the original position aims to establish the basic principles of justice from a reflection that, by hiding certain knowledge about our concrete life circumstances behind a “veil of ignorance”, allows us to reflect as free and equal people on which they must be the basic principles of justice.

The influence of Kant’s moral imperative

John Rawls’s thought experiment can be traced back to philosophers like Hume or Kant. In fact, there is a clear relationship between the original position and the Kantian moral imperative, since the latter is based on the foundation of moral principles through a reflection based on the rational capacity of the subject, and not on their belonging to a certain group cultural or historical.

The difference would be that, while Kant supposes that it is possible to arrive at these principles individually, Rawls poses the original position as an exercise of deliberation between people who will occupy different places in society, although at the time of the original position they are unaware what those places will be.

Thus, it is not only an abstract deduction of the universal moral principles made individually by each person, but it is also a form of social contract that lays the foundations of justice and the basic structure of society.

Another difference with Kant would be that, although the former conceived his categorical imperative as a principle to which any rational being can arrive, Rawls later rectified his theory to affirm that his original position is only feasible in historical societies that recognize as their principles basic freedom and equality.

The veil of ignorance

As we have seen, Rawls assumes that people who deliberate in the original position do not know what position they will occupy in the future in society. They do not know, therefore, what social class they will belong to or what positions of power they will occupy. They also do not know what natural abilities or psychological dispositions they will have that could give them an advantage over other people.

In fact, for Rawls, the natural lottery is neither fair nor unfair, but what it does have to do with justice is how a society treats natural differences between people. Finally, these people know that they will have a certain conception of the good (of what a life lived meaningfully should be) that will guide their lives, and that as rational beings they will be able to reconsider and modify over time.

Contrary to other theories of justice, John Rawls does not presuppose any historically inherited conception of the good that functions as the foundation of justice. If so, the subjects would not be free. For Rawls, the principles of justice are generated in the original position and are not prior to it. It is the principles that emerged from the original position that would mark the limits of future conceptions of the good chosen by each person in their concrete life.

Thus, the participants in the original position are conceived as representatives of concrete persons , nevertheless forced to deliberate under the veil of ignorance.

Participants of the original position experiment

But these guys are not totally ignorant. They do not know any details of their lives as concrete subjects, but they do assume scientific knowledge about human nature (knowledge of biology, psychology, as well as a presupposition of the validity of neo-classical economic theory) that allows them to know how to they will carry out in their lives, so that they can negotiate with others on equal terms the best principles on which to base justice.

Furthermore, these people are presumed to have a sense of justice, which means that they want to adhere to the standards recognized as fair after the negotiation process.

Finally, Rawls presupposes that the subjects of the original position are mutually disinterested, which does not necessarily mean that they are selfish beings, but that in the context of the original position their interest is only to negotiate with the limitation of the veil of ignorance to favor of a specific future person whom they represent. His motivation is this and not the benefit.

The principles of justice

From here, Rawls extracts a series of primary social goods necessary for the development of “moral powers”, the aforementioned sense of justice, as well as the ability to review and pursue a certain conception of the good.

These primary social assets are rights and freedoms, opportunities, income and wealth or the social bases to respect oneself (such as an education that prepares us for life in society as well as a minimum income).

Rawls applies the theory of rational choice to the conditions of uncertainty of the original position to extract the principles of justice. The first principle that he extracts from the original position is that according to which each person must have the greatest possible basic freedoms that allow the rest of the members of society to also have those freedoms. These freedoms are freedom of expression, association or thought. This principle supports the idea of ​​freedom.

The second principle establishes equality. According to Rawls, abstract rational subjects deliberating in the original position would come to hold that economic and social inequalities are permissible to the extent that they work in favor of the greatest possible benefit for the most disadvantaged in society and depend on positions open to all under conditions of equal opportunities.

What is the best way to organize society?

Since the participants in the original position do not know what place they will occupy in society, that is, they do not know what social or natural advantages they will have to compete for the different positions and positions in society, they would reach the conclusion that the most rational and safe is to maximize the minimums, the so-called “maximin”.

According to the maximin, the limited resources of a society must be distributed in such a way that the disadvantaged can live in an acceptable way.

In addition, it is not simply a matter of distributing a series of limited resources in a fair way, but that this distribution allows the society as a whole to be productive and based on cooperation. Thus, inequalities can only make sense once these minimum needs have been covered for everyone, and only as long as they work in favor of society, especially the most disadvantaged.

In this way, participants in the original position ensure that, occupying their place in society, they will live with dignity and will be able to compete for access to the various possible positions. When participants in the original position have to choose between different theories of justice, they will choose justice as fairness proposed by Rawls over other theories such as utilitarianism.

Furthermore, according to Rawls his conception of justice as fairness can be translated into political positions such as liberal socialism or liberal democracy, where private property exists. Neither communism nor free market capitalism would allow the articulation of a society based on justice understood as equity.

The legacy of John Rawls

Of course, a theory like Rawls’s, central to reflections on politics and justice, has drawn much criticism. For example, libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002) are against redistribution by the government, as this contradicts the basic right to enjoy the fruits of one’s own work.

He has also received criticism from communitarian thinkers for his conception of subjectivity. As is clear from his theory, for Rawls human beings, in everything that responds to articulating the bases of society, can be reduced to rational beings (or, as he would say, reasonable).

The company would be constituted with an agreement between equals prior to the different conceptions of the good. However, from communitarianism it is argued that there is no possible subject that is not preceded by a conception of the good.

According to this conception, we cannot make decisions that base the principles of justice apart from the common values ​​that have shaped us as subjects. These thinkers have a conception of the subject as constituted in relation to its cultural and social environment, so that subjectivity cannot be reduced to an abstract and individual entity.

John Rawls is without a doubt the political philosopher who had the most impact in the second half of the 20th century. His theories have not only helped to base certain political positions, but have also served as a horizon from which to think about justice and politics, even from opposite political positions.

Bibliographic references:

  • Freeman, S. (2017). Original Position . [online] Available  here.
  • Rawls, J. (1980). Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory. The Journal of Philosophy, 77 (9), p.515.
  • Rawls, J. (2000). A theory of justice (1st ed). Cambridge (Massachusetts) [etc.]: Harvard University Press.

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