John Rawls and “A Theory of Justice”

John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” has long seen been revered as a marvel of modern political philosophy. It’s most well-known for the two principles of justice outlined by Rawls: (1) that all persons have an equal right to liberty; and (2) that (a) all inequalities in society should be arranged to benefit the least advantages, and (b) that all positions and offices should be open and accessible as outlined by fair equality of opportunity. Rawls’ conception of society, as a “co-operative venture for mutual gain”, forms the basis for both principles, and he is at all times concerned with creating a stable concept of fair and just society. Rawls’ second principle, dealing with distributive justice and equality of opportunity, outlines a theoretical procedure whereby the maximum social primary goods (i.e. wealth, health, respect, happiness) can be distributed o those with the minimum advantages (“maximin”). Rawls introduces this concept by establishing a social contract between people behind a “veil of ignorance”. This veil would remove the identity and characteristics from an individual (age, sex, social status, race, religion, etc.) so that he or she would be forced to support a Basic Social Structure (where controls are set on the activities of individuals to maximize total primary goods and liberties) that is fair, just and equal.

Rawls reasons that all inequalities that do not arise from such social circumstances are just, and therefore searches for a way to make social inequalities fair. In accordance with his policy of “justice as fairness”, Rawls creates, and later defends, what is known as the “difference principle” (principle of justice #2). This principle stipulates that those who are advantaged by social and natural circumstances should redistribute their primary social goods to the least advantages. This principle seems fair, as all social endowments are arbitrary and should not affect one’s fate. Rawls’ “difference principle” also seems reasonable because it removes unjust social advantages without actually altering the advantaged’s endowments (which would be almost impossible, as seen in Vonnegut.) While Rawls’ amended principle does seem progressive, there are a few flaws and objections, as noted by such contemporaries as Kymlicka. Whereas Rawls strives to alter conventional equality of opportunity (which opens all offices and positions regardless of status, age, race etc), he changes the concept to allow for another social circumstance: natural endowments.

Thus, according to Rawls, natural endowments (intelligence, physical ability etc) should not factor in the distribution of the goods in a fair and equal society. Here we can note Kymlicka’s first objection: although this amendment reasonably accounts for unfair advantages in higher IQ, physical strength etc (which Rawls responds to with his re-distribution to the least advantaged in the “difference principle”), it does not account for unfair disadvantages (in terms of income, lack of health/ability, lack of self-realization and respect: all things which are necessary for “human goodness” according to Rawls) that are uncharacteristic to many of the members of society. Kymlicka states that even Rawls’ adjusted theory does not provide a fair and just solution for a physically or mentally challenged individual; as Rawls considers natural endowments a type of arbitrary circumstance, like social advantages, he is ignoring the great gaps in ability and advantages of those naturally lacking in endowments. Kymlicka suggests that this “endowment-insensitive” principle should be reassessed.

Kymlicka’s second objection directly relates to the concept of the “difference principle”. He discusses the case of a tennis player and a gardener, both of equal social advantage and natural endowment. One (the tennis player) chooses to waste resources and barely sustain himself, thus spiraling into the least advantaged spot. The gardener, on the other hand, continues to produce resources, and thus would have to, according to Rawls, subsidize the tennis player’s decision not to work (as she would be in the great economic standing). Kymlicka calls this situation unreasonable, and states that Rawls needs to make his theory more “ambition-sensitive” to account for personal decisions. In cases like these, the worry is that individuals would lose ambition and their drive to succeed, as those who do had such characteristics would only end up supporting others. Overall, however, Kymlicka supports Rawl’s principles of justice, sighting their utility in society, even if at time impracticality.

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