John Rawls – A Theory of Justice

As the Economists’ Hour has come to an end, the philosophy of Rawls offers a tempting philosophy to guide public policy. Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice before the emergence of neoliberalism, but his ideas anticipate its arrival. The aim of his theory is to offer an alternative to utilitarian or consequentialist philosophy. Utilitarianism is a natural philosophical school for economists because it assesses decisions based on their consequences rather than the reasons or means to achieve them. It is the philosophical tradition that has used the ends to justify the means.  

Of course, important decisions are never simple. There are costs and benefits. And it is rarely the obvious choice between material wealth and human life. Different public policy options often offer a difference of degrees rather than orders of magnitude. And natural uncertainty means there is generally a difference in probability. It is easy to blur the line between right and wrong based on results especially for goal-oriented professionals. Utilitarianism has either explicitly or implicitly been the philosophy of economics and social science. Socialists have used it to justify social programs while neoliberalism has used it to justify market-oriented solutions. Rawls wrote his Theory of Justice between this paradigm shift. Redistributive policies were developed for the results they obtained, but Rawls recognized how capitalist economics had begun to show how economic gains were possible through limitations on state intervention.

Because Rawls wrote his theory as a refutation of utilitarianism, he describes his approach as deontological. But this is an oversimplification. Rawls defined utilitarianism as teleological, but his own ideas were only deontological to the extent where “deontological theories are defined as non-teleological ones.” His ideas do not divorce the morality of actions from their consequences. Indeed, he goes on to write, “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.” This hesitation to abandon consequentialism can be a problem for Rawls.

Ultimately, the reader has a sense that Rawls knows what a just society would be without his philosophical machinations. This makes his approach appear contrived because it is designed to deliver a result. But it is such an elegant approach which Rawls has devised based on a notion of justice he accepts intuitively. The book is dense and complex, but it is based on a simple idea that justice is fairness. This is the central idea which ties together the veil of ignorance, the original position and his two principles of justice. Indeed, the veil of ignorance is a clever symbol for a philosophy based on justice. The people in the original position become blind to their circumstances so they can deliver a just society.

Rawls expects the original position erases many prejudices and personal interests which get in the way of people from making fair decisions within a democracy. But it becomes difficult to imagine a people without any experiences making a rational decision about a just society. It becomes unclear where their values are derived without personal experiences or culture to guide them. Rawls imagines these people will look to avoid negative consequences. This is the essence of his difference principle. People will want an egalitarian society except where differences in income will make the least advantaged person better off. This idea allows him to avoid a commitment to socialism or capitalism. It does lean toward socialism but allows for the benefits of a market economy. Yet it is unclear people would naturally remain so risk averse. Some would prefer the chance to become substantially better off even if they might end up in a worse position. Others might ask about their odds.

The original position resembles a game theory scenario. Each person will participate in the creation of a just society, but they are not impartial. They have an interest in the outcome. The problem is they are unsure what their interest might become because they are ignorant of their position in society. Rawls imagines people will hedge their risk through the difference people where nobody is worse off but they can become better off. But there is a substantial difference between this ‘game’ and a prisoner’s dilemma where people are naturally risk averse. The prisoner’s dilemma makes the optimal scenario contingent on somebody else’s decision. The prisoner goes free so long as the other prisoner stays silent. But they can reduce their own risk if they testify against the other prisoner. Ultimately, both prisoners testify and receive a suboptimal result but avoid the worst outcome.

In Rawls’ original position the optimal scenario depends on the decision of the participants. A decision to avoid risk can be a decision to forego a better outcome. The difference principle makes any differences in social situation dependent on the improvement of those who are the least advantaged. This means a single person could hold back an ideal situation for everyone else if they received a slightly worse outcome. It is difficult to imagine this hypothetical assembly would remain so risk averse.

Moreover, Rawls takes for granted the people in his scenario will naturally favor equal liberties. But it is difficult to imagine how these people might conceive of the need for equal liberties without the experience of discrimination or injustice. It has taken people a few millennia to recognize the importance of human liberties and freedoms. The notion of human rights emerged as the division of labor in society brought about differences in lifestyle that were necessary to reconcile. Rawls imagines the people are part of a modern, plural society. But the people in the original position are ignorant of their differences. They recognize only their similarities. It is hard to imagine they would understand the necessity of equal liberties. The illiberalism of modern populism has shown how a focus on similarities often leads to intolerance.

But the strongest critique of Rawls comes from radical democracy. Chantal Mouffe has critiqued the Rawlsian notion of justice as antithetical to democracy because the outcomes of the political process become predetermined. There is no need for democracy when a technocratic judge can simply assess social problems and determine a just outcome. Mouffe argues for an agnostic pluralism where different perspectives and interests are necessary for a truly democratic society. Rawls removes the political from his philosophy through an appeal to a universal sense of justice.

The last three books I have reviewed have all referenced Rawls and the book I plan to review next week references Rawls as well. Moreover, these are not passing citations buried in the footnotes. These are explicit discussions of his ideas in the main text. It is impossible to avoid Rawls in any serious study of political theory. He is a giant of political philosophy who is routinely referenced among the giants Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. But this does not mean there are no problems with his conception of justice. A serious reading of Rawls is not an end to the study of politics. It should not become a bible to resolve political disagreements. Rather it is a challenge to overcome for those who aim to develop their own ideas.

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