Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Theory of Justice

SS 1-6, 9, 11-14, 17, 22, 24-26, 29, 40, 47-48
By John Rawls

The theory presented here deals with social justice. This refers to the basic structure of society, and the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. Rawls develops “Justice as Fairness” by considering what principles of justice individuals would come up with in the “original position.” Parties in the original position are assumed to be behind a “veil of ignorance” in which no one knows his place in society, his class position, his social status, his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities (intelligence, strength, etc.), nor his own conceptions of the good or psychological propensities. However, these parties are considered to be rational and not envious. Given this situation, Rawls argues that individuals would develop the following two principles:
(1)Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others
(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and
(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

Part One: Theory
Chapter 1. Justice As Fairness
1. The Role of Justice
This book deals with justice. Justice is the first virtue of social institutions and is uncompromising: if laws and institutions are unjust, they must be abolished. Society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, but it involves both unity and conflict of interests, because social cooperation can make a better life for each person than if they lived individually, but each person would like a larger portion of the benefits produced by society. Therefore, we need a set of principles (a theory of social justice) to provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society. In particular, a well-ordered society must advance the good of its members and be effectively regulated by the public understanding of justice. To do this, everyone must know and accept the same principles of justice, and the basic institutions must satisfy the principles. This rarely occurs in reality, since there is much disagreement about principles and about which things are just or unjust.

There is an important distinction between the concept of justice and the conception of justice. The concept of justice is defined by the role different conceptions of justice have in common – i.e. a conception of justice is one interpretation of the role of the concept of justice. In general, everyone can agree “institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.” A conception of justice should also be efficient and stable, and should lead to ends and consequences that are broadly desirable.

2. The Subject of Justice
This book is about social justice, which deals with the basic structure of society. It determines the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. These major institutions include the political constitution as well as economic and social arrangements – these are institutions that define men’s rights and influence their life prospects.

This theory begins by developing the structure of a society that is isolated from other societies. It assumes a perfectly just society in which everyone acts justly and upholds institutions (strict compliance theory); there is no civil disobedience. This provides a standard to assess the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society.

To understand the difference between justice applied to actions and social justice, we can look at Aristotle. Aristotle talks about justice as refraining from gaining personal advantage by taking one belongs to someone else (property, etc.) or denying a person what is due to him (repayment of debt, respect, etc.). However, what belongs to a person and what is owed to him must be derived from social institutions, so Aristotle must have a conception of social justice to account for these claims.

3. The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice
The aim of “Justice as Fairness” is to present a conception of justice at a higher level of abstraction than the social contract theory found in Locke, Rousseau, or Kant. The principles of justice are those rational men would choose in a situation of equal liberty. In this situation, it can be imagined that individuals are in an ‘original position’ behind a ‘veil of ignorance.’ In the original position, no one knows his place in society, his class position, or his social status. No one knows his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities (intelligence, strength, etc.), and parties do not even know their own conceptions of the good or psychological propensities. This ensures that no one can choose principles with the aim of favoring himself. This ensures the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair, hence the name “Justice as Fairness.” Parties within this scheme are rational and mutually disinterested, and the theory of justice is the theory of rational choice.

Rawls argues that persons in this original position would choose two principles:
(1) Equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties
(2) Social and economic inequalities (ex; wealth, authority) are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, in particular the least advantaged members of society

He argues that people in the original situation would not choose institutions where hardships are some are offset by good in the aggregate (utilitarianism), but they would allow greater benefits for the few as long as this also improves the situation of the least fortunate.

4. The Original Position and the Justification
Agreements reached in the original position are fair because everyone is equal, and no one is able to make choices that benefit themselves. Though it is hypothetical, the original position is important because it allows us to think of the constraints we regard as limits on the fair terms of social cooperation. We can examine the principles developed by this theory by looking at whether these principles would lead us to make the same judgments about the basic structure about society that we now make intuitively (e.g. racial discrimination is unjust). If so, we may use it to remove doubts in areas where we are not sure.

5. Classical Utilitarianism
Classic utilitarianism (Sedgwick) believes that a society is rightly ordered (just) when its major institutions are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory in which a judgment is made about what is good (hedonism – good is defined as pleasure; classical utility – good is defined as satisfaction of rational desire), and then the right is defined as that which maximizes the good. In the utilitarian view, it doesn’t matter how the sum of satisfactions is distributed among individuals, only the overall maximization of the good is important.

6. Some Related Contrasts
Commonsense seems to suggest that claims of liberty may have priority over the desirability of increasing the aggregate social welfare – people have some inviolable basic liberties. Justice as fairness accounts for this idea, while utilitarianism considers them merely a socially useful illusion. A central conception of justice as fairness is the priority of the right over the good – initial bounds are placed on what is good. This is different than utilitarianism which identifies the good and then defines the right as the maximization of the good. Justice as fairness and utilitarianism have different underlying conceptions of society. Justice as fairness thinks of a well-ordered society as a scheme of cooperation for reciprocal advantage regulated by principles which persons would choose in an initial situation that is fair. Utilitarianism is based on the efficient administration of social resources to maximize the satisfaction of the system of desire constructed by an impartial spectator from the many individual systems of desires as given.

9. Some Remarks about Moral Theory
The examination of Justice as Fairness can be considered in reflective equilibrium. Reflective equilibrium takes into account the idea that judgments are often subject to irregularities and distortions, and that when a person is presented with an intuitively appealing account of justice, he may revise his judgments to conform to its principles. The best account of a person’s sense of justice is not the one that fits all of his past judgments, but one that fits his judgments in reflective equilibrium. The two principles chosen in Justice as Fairness will be a better match with our considered judgments than recognized alternatives, such as utility.

Chapter 2. The Principles of Justice
11. Two Principles of Justice
The provisional form of the two principles of justice that would be chosen in the original position:
(1)Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others
(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
(a) Reasonably expected to be in everyone’s advantage, and
(b) Attached to positions and offices open to all

These principles apply to the basic structure of society; they govern the assignments of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages. The first principle requires equality of basic liberties, including political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. The principles are serially ordered – breaking the first principle cannot be justified by reference to the second principle.

With regard to the principles, we can imagine a basic structure of society which distributes certain primary goods (things every rational man is presumed to want). This includes social primary goods, such as rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, as well as natural primary goods: health and vigor, intelligence and imagination. The benchmark situation is one in which primary goods are evenly shared. Then inequities are only allowed to the extent that they can make everyone better off than this starting position.

One should keep in mind that when the principles mention persons, or require everyone to gain from an inequality, the reference is to representative persons holding the various social positions established by the basic structure, not to particular individuals.

12. Interpretations of the Second Principle
*Second principle phrases “everyone’s advantage” and “equally open to all” are ambiguous, and produce four possible meanings for the second principle:
“Everyone’s advantage”
“Equally open” Principle of efficiency Difference Principle
Equality as careers open to talents System of Natural Liberty Natural Aristocracy
Equality as equality of fair opportunity Liberal Equality Democratic Equality

In this chart, the principle of efficiency is Pareto optimality – a configuration is efficient whenever it is impossible to change it so as to make some persons (at least one) better off without at the same time making other persons (at least one) worse off. Applied to representative men, this suggests that an arrangement of rights and duties in the basic structure is efficient if and only if it is impossible to change the rules, to redefine the scheme of rights and duties, so as to raise the expectations of any representative man (at least one) without at the same time lowering the expectations of some (at least one) other representative man. Whether or not a system is efficient depends on its starting position. (e.g. Serfdom may not be significantly reformed without lowering expectations of landowners, so this may be considered efficient if it is the starting position.)

The system of natural liberty asserts that a basic structure that satisfies the principle of efficiency and in which positions are open to those able and willing to strive to them will lead to a just distribution. The initial position is regulated by the conception of careers open to talents, and since talents are based on natural and social contingencies, the distribution of factors would seem arbitrary from a moral point of view.

The liberal interpretation tries to correct this by adding the requirement of fair equality of opportunity. To ensure that people with similar life skills have similar life chances, free market arrangements must be set in political and legal institutions. This situation is preferable to natural liberty, but the distribution of wealth will still be based on the distribution of natural abilities and talents, because the principle of fair opportunity can only be imperfectly carried out in the real world do to family influences. This leads, again, to an arbitrary situation from a moral point of view.

In a natural aristocracy, no effort is made to provide fair equality of opportunity, but the advantages of persons with greater endowments are limited to those that also further the good of the poorer sections in society. This also seems arbitrary because of the role of natural and social contingencies in determining social shares.

13. Democratic Equality and the Difference Principle
The democratic interpretation of the second principle combines the fair equality of opportunity with the difference principle. According to difference principle, initial inequality in life prospects (e.g. better to be an entrepreneur than an unskilled laborer) are justifiable only if the difference in expectation is to the advantage of the representative man who is worse off (e.g. the unskilled laborer) – Inequality is permissible only if reducing it would make the unskilled laborer worse off. This assumes that the greater expectations allowed to entrepreneurs encourages them to do things which raise the long-term prospects of the laboring class. For example, it makes the economic process more efficient or makes innovation proceed faster.

The difference principle is compatible with the principle of efficiency – when former is satisfied, it is impossible to make any one representative man better off without making another worse off (namely, the least advantaged representative man). However, because justice more important than efficiency, we may not reach the perfectly efficient stage.

If the difference principle is satisfied, other people must also benefit, based on the assumption that inequalities in expectations are chain-connected. If an advantage has the effect of raising the expectations of the lowest position, it raises expectations of all positions in between (e.g. If raising expectations of entrepreneur benefits the unskilled laborer, it benefits the skilled laborer as well.) We can also assume that expectations are close-knit – i.e. it is impossible to raise or lower the expectation of any representative man without raising or lowering the expectation of every other representative man, especially that of the least advantaged.

The Second Principle now reads: Second Principle now reads: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and
(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

14. Fair Equality of Opportunity and Pure Procedural Justice
Pure procedural justice allows us to design the social system so that the outcome is just no matter what it happens to be, so long as it is within a certain range. There is no independent criterion for the right result, instead there is a correct or fair procedure that is followed so that the outcome is likewise fair. An example is people engaging in fair bets with zero expectation of gain – the outcome of this gambling would be fair, though there are a variety of possibilities for the final distribution.

To apply pure procedural justice to distributive shares, we must set up and administer impartially a just system of institutions. Just procedure requires just political constitution and just arrangement of economic and social institutions. For example, the law and government may act effectively to keep markets competitive, resources fully employed, property and wealth widely distributed by appropriate forms of taxation, and guarantee a social minimum with fair equality of opportunity ensured through free education for all. The principle of fair opportunity ensures that system of cooperation is one of pure procedural justice; without it, distributive justice could not be left to take care of itself.

Utilitarianism is not based on pure procedural justice. It has an independent standard for judging all distributions – i.e. whether they produce the greatest net benefit of satisfaction. Utilitarians would set up institutions to best approximate these ends (imperfect procedural justice).

17. The Tendency to Equality
It is not just or unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. The way institutions deal with these facts is just or unjust – it is unjust to incorporate arbitrariness into social system. The difference principle represents an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be. Instead of getting rid of natural inequities, the basic structure makes them work for the good of the less fortunate. The difference principle provides an interpretation of fraternity – the idea of not wanting to have greater advantages unless this is to the benefit of others who are less well off. It is fair to note that the distribution of natural assets is somewhat affected by the social system. A society should take steps to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects.

Chapter 3. The Original Position
22. The Circumstances of Justice
Circumstances of justice are the normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary. The circumstances of justice exist whenever mutually disinterested persons put forward conflicting claims to the division of social advantages under conditions of moderate scarcity (if these circumstances didn’t occur, there would be no need for the virtue of justice). In the original position, individuals know that the circumstances of justice exist, and they try to advance their own conception of the good. They have competing interests and feel entitled to press their rights on each other. They are not bound to each other by prior moral ties.

24. The Veil of Ignorance
The original position aims to set up a fair procedure so that any principles that are agreed to are just (pure procedural justice). To do this, they are assumed to be under a veil of ignorance in which they do not know how particular alternatives will affect their own particular case, and so they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations. Under veil of ignorance, no one knows his place in society (class position or social status), his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities (intelligence, strength, etc.), his conception of the good (the particulars of his rational plan of life), the special features of his psychology (aversion to risk, optimism, pessimism), the particular circumstances of his own society (economic or political situation, level of civilization or culture), nor the generation to which he belongs (i.e. doesn’t know what savings, conservation of natural resources, genetic policy will benefit him). However, under the veil of ignorance, parties do know general facts about human society, such as political affairs, principles of economic theory, the basis of social organization, laws of human psychology, etc. There are no limitations on general laws and theories, because the general information is needed to ensure conceptions of justice are adjusted to the characteristics of the systems of social cooperation which they are to regulate.

Original position can be simulated at any time by reasoning in accordance with proper restrictions; to say that a certain conception of justice would be chosen in the original position is equivalent to saying that rational deliberation satisfying certain conditions and restrictions would reach a certain conclusion.

25. The Rationality of the Parties
We assume that persons in the original position are rational – in choosing between principles each tries as best he can to advance his interests. Though parties don’t know their conception of the good, they assume that they would prefer more primary social goods than less. In general, they try to protect their liberties, widen their opportunities, and enlarge their means for promoting their aims, whatever they are. The rational person is assumed to have a coherent set of preferences between options, ranks the options according to how well they further his purposes, and follows the plan which satisfy more of his desires rather than less and which has the greater chance of being successfully executed. These rational actors do not suffer for envy (they only care about the absolute level of their lot, and not its value relative to others). Also, parties can rely on each other to understand and to act in accordance with whatever principles are finally agreed to.

26. The Reasoning Leading to the Two Principles of Justice
From the perspective of one person selected arbitrarily in the original position, there is no way to win special advantage, and no reason to accept special disadvantage; the sensible thing is to acknowledge as a first principle of justice one requiring equal distribution. Starting with a principle of equal liberty, equality of opportunity, and equal distribution of income and wealth, parties then consider inequalities in the basic structure if these make everyone better. Under the veil of ignorance, individuals don’t know the probable nature of society, and can’t calculate expected values of each possible decision. They also have no incentive to risk greater gains at the expense of equal liberties. Therefore, they are likely to choose systems where the worst possible outcome is the least bad. Justice as Fairness is stable, because once they are in society, people would not announce that they wish things had been different (as may be the case in a utilitarian society where benefits to some come at the expense of losses to others).

29. Some Main Grounds for the Two Principles of Justice
For an agreement to be valid, the parties must be able to honor it under all relevant and foreseeable circumstances. This is likely to be the case with the two principles, where basic rights insure people against the worst eventualities. A conception of justice is stable when the public recognition of its realization by the social system tends to bring about the corresponding sense of justice. When the two principles are satisfied, each person’s liberties are secured, and there is a sense defined by the difference principle in which everyone is benefited by social cooperation. Since everyone’s good is affirmed, everyone will have an inclination to hold up the scheme. Utilitarianism is less stable in both these ways because it may put some in a position they don’t want to accept, and it forces some to sacrifice for the good of others. The two principles of justice are also better than utilitarianism in that they follow Kant’s argument that men be used only as ends and never as means.

Part Two: Institutions
Chapter 4. Equal Liberty
40. The Kantian Interpretation of Justice as Fairness
The idea of the original position and the veil of ignorance over rational, mutually disinterested men is similar to Kant’s theory of autonomy. Kant requires that a person acts as a free and rational being, not based on his social position, natural endowments, or the type of society he is in. Also, the principles of justice are categorical imperatives in Kant’s sense. Kant defines categorical imperatives as being principles of conduct that apply to a person in virtue of his nature as a free and equal rational being, not as a means to a specific end. Since the two principles apply regardless of our particular aims, they fit this description. Further, the conception of the original position helps to show exactly what principles/ nature free and equal rational persons would choose, and what acts would express this nature. In general, the original position can be viewed as a procedural interpretation of Kant’s conception of autonomy and the categorical imperative.

Chapter 5. Distributive Shares
47. The Precepts of Justice
We need to consider whether the conception of distributive justice meets our intuitive ideas of what is just and unjust; i.e. examine how it accords with common precepts of justice. The distribution of income in a competitive market is based on supply and demand. Firms are willing to pay more for those with ability, training, etc. because their productivity is higher. This gives weight to the precept “to each according to his contribution.” Also, firms are willing to pay more for unstable, hazardous, strenuous, etc. jobs, to attract adequate supply of workers. This gives weight to precept “to each according to his effort/risk/etc.” Different conceptions of justice will likely generate similar common sense precepts, because aims of economic agents are sufficiently similar. Therefore, difference among conceptions of justice shows up not in level of commonsense norms, but in the emphasis the norms receive over time. For example, if one society provides fair equality of opportunity, and a second does not, then in the first society (compared to the second), the precept ‘each according to his contribution’ (training, education) will have less weight, because people will be more similar in this regard, while ‘each according to his effort’ will weighted more highly. It is true that existing institutions always fall short of ideal assumptions, but ideal theories allow us to know identify what is just, how serious existing imperfections are, and how we might fix them.

48. Legitimate Expectations and Moral Desert
There is a commonsense tendency to suppose income and wealth and good things in life generally, should be distributed according to moral desert, but justice as fairness rejects this. People have expectations about what they are entitled to based upon social institutions, and what they are entitled to is not dependent upon their intrinsic worth. There is also no tendency for entitlements to correspond to moral desert. For example, though someone may get paid less if her abilities are less in demand (singer as her voice deteriorates) it doesn’t mean her moral deservingness has changed. Similarly, we might say that the losing side of a game deserved to win, but this does not mean they are entitled to the trophy.

It is important to remember that distributive justice is not the opposite of retributive justice. Retributive justice involves punishing people for breaking laws. This only occurs in a partial compliance theory. Distributive justice aims to attract individuals to places where they are most needed from a social point of view. The economic and social advantages are not given as rewards to moral worth. Distributive justice can occur within a strict compliance theory.

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