Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Theory of Justice - John Rawls

A Theory of Justice is John Rawls' most famous and important book. As I said in my previous post on Rawls, the book quickly became a target for philosophers of all ideologies and principles, which made Rawls reconsider his argument several times. At the end of his life,  Rawls' ideas about morals and politics were but a shadow of what they used to be in A Theory of Justice, and he was regarded with a strange mix of admiration and pity by most people who know his story.

A Theory of Justice is an extremely ambitious book. In Rawls' own words, its aim "is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant (p. 11)." Though Rawls would make efforts to distinguish his theories from Immanuel Kant's, the reality is that his theory is an application of Kant's moral principles to public policy. The original position, which is the cornerstone of Rawls' entire argument, is, in his own words, "a procedural interpretation of Kant's conception of autonomy and the categorical imperative. The principles regulative of the kingdom of ends are those that would be chosen in this position, and the description of this situation enables us to explain the sense in which acting from these principles expresses our nature as free and equal rational persons."

Reading A Theory of Justice is actually kind of sad because it shows how far we are from the ideal of a Kantian society, where all human beings are treated as ends in themselves, and where public deliberation and the common good are the guiding principles. In short, a Rawlsian society is one where public life is based on morals, and morality is based on rationality. To give a practical example, a Kantian/Rawlsian society should look a little bit like this:

"Representatives are not, to be sure, mere agents of their constituents, since they have a certain discretion and they are expected to exercise their judgment in enacting legislation. In a well-ordered society they must, nevertheless, represent their constituents in the substantive sense: they must seek first to pass just and effective  legislation, since this is a citizen's first interest in government, and secondly, they must further their constituents' other interests insofar as these are consistent with justice."

Compare this with the petty debates of real life politics and cry.

A Theory of Justice is nothing more than a complicated thought experiment. We will never be able to enter a veil of ignorance with members of past and previous generations to determine what is the best way to organize society. Instead, Rawlsian theory should be seen as an ideal to emulate, which has actually taken place in some Western democracies: maternity leave, fair labor regulations, and other measures adopted in the social arena in the last 40 years were inspired by Rawls.

The operational assumption underlying Rawls' theory is that rational human beings under a veil of ignorance can agree on an idea of justice. By bringing this assumption down, you tear down Rawls' argument with his own weapons (other critiques, like Nozick's, are but a remake of the utilitarian argument, which Rawls addresses throughout his book). The idea that there are competing versions of justice that can be defended rationally is called intuitionism. Rawls' defense against it is actually very shaky.

To give you an example of how intuitionism works, imagine you are in the original position (i.e., you are a perfectly rational human being without vested interest or pre-conceived conceptions of the good), you have a flute and you have to give it to one of three children. The first child says she deserves the flute because she is the only one who can play it. The second one counters that she is the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would give her something to play. Last, the third children says she deserves the flute because she built it. Rawlsian theory assumes that society can reach an unanimous agreement on which children should get the flute. That assumption is wrong.

The example of the flute is presented by Amartya Sen (himself a personal friend of Rawls) in The Idea of Justice (yes, the title is a conscious appeal to Rawls), probably the most powerful and best articulated critique to Rawls. If I can recommend you to read one book about justice, it would be Sen's: it summarizes Rawls' theory and presents it in in intelligible English, and provides an alternative to it.

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