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John Rawls (1921-2004) A Theory of Justice (1971)

August 27th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Philosophy by

john-rawlsRawls was a philosophical specialist in political theory and ethics who spent most of his academic career at Harvard, where he was a colleague of Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974).  Nozick made capitalist libertarianism an object of study in academic political theory, and helped defined the argumentative methods used by many current political theorists.  Rawls’ work was even more influential, and Nozick’s book is itself, in part, a reaction to Rawls.

The publication of A Theory of Justice, together with related journal articles going back to the 1950s, transformed political theory, both with regard to methods of argument and in content.  Like Nozick, Rawls gave importance to formal work in economics and social science, and like Nozick he incorporated the argumentative methods of ‘analytical philosophy’ (the kind of philosophy which concentrates on analysing logical and conceptual distinctions).  This makes A Theory of Justice a demanding read, particularly considering that it is much longer than Anarchy, State and Utopia.

A Theory of Justice puts a commitment to liberty as the primary principle, and then equality second on the grounds that liberty is something shared equally.  Liberty refers to the equal rights of individuals to be free from coercion.  Rawls takes equality beyond simple equality of liberty to a preference for equality of goods of all kind.  There is an assumption that equality of liberty is connected with equality of income, wealth and general social position.  One reaction to this from classical liberals and libertarians, is to treat Rawls as the enemy, as the instigator of all levelling down, controlling statist bad things.  However, it’s important to understand that Rawls gets an equally outraged reaction from radical left people, who consider that he betrayed the supposed revolutionary socialist promise of the 1960s, and they strongly reject the way he puts liberty before equality.

As was mentioned in a post on Samuel Fleischacker, Hayek expresses strong approval of A Theory of Justice in Law, Legislation and Liberty , Volume 2, The Mirage of Social Justice (1976).  Since Hayek rejects the notion of social justice, it may seem strange that he approves of a book which advocates equality as part of a theory of justice.  The reason for this is that what Hayek notes, in Rawls, is that there no view expressed of how much economic equality there should be.  Nozick picks up on an opposite tendency, that it looks like Rawls wants the state to predetermine income distribution in a very designed fore-planned way.

The aspects of Rawls that Hayek and Nozick are concentrating on in are the ‘veil of ignorance’ and the ‘difference principle’.  The ‘veil of ignorance’ refers to Rawls’ thought experiment (a frequent means of argument in analytic philosophy) about the best way of designing the principles of a just society.  He suggests that the best way would be for a group to get together which would design the principles of a society without knowing what place they would have in that society, in particular they would not know about their income level.  This is a way in which Rawls tries to refine idea of a contractual basis for a society which John Locke used.

Rawls argues that the outcome of such a deliberation would be to accept principles that would favour the lowest income groups, because apparently reasonable people who do not know which income group they would be in will wish to maximise the position of the minimal position in that society.  This is know as the maxi-min principle, and it assumes that these hypothetical designers will choose to give the highest priority to minimising the risks, associated with being at the bottom of the society in terms of income.

This leads to the ‘difference principle’, the principle according to which income differences are only just if they benefit the poorest.  However, Rawls also recognises that the income of the poorest, along with the whole of society, benefit from competition in a market economy.  Given Rawls assumption that markets benefit the poorest, he has an argument against income redistribution if it undermines the incentives of a market economy, and therefore the long term growth of the economy.  Some have referred to ‘Rawlsekianism’, in which we  accept Rawls’ arguments for equality, but also accept Hayek’s argument that an open market economy is the best creator of wealth for all.  In that case, we might argue for equality of rights and esteem for all, in a society where income equalities which emerge from the market are left to the market.

It is clear that Rawls’ own preference was for a much more social democratic, even ‘market socialist’ outcome, but in A Theory of Justice, he is careful to restrict himself to principles we can use in evaluating different kinds of society, only excluding those which obviously violate basic individual liberties with regard to free speech, judicial process and so on.

6 Responses to “John Rawls (1921-2004) A Theory of Justice (1971)”

  1. Niklas Smith Says:

    Very interesting, and thank you for providing a digestible summary of Rawls.

    What I find attractive about the veil of ignorance is that it is a useful concept to explain different levels of state intervention in income distribution in different societies. There is no particular reason why all people would want to minimise risks (i.e. support the maxi-min principle). People’s tolerance for risk depends on their utility function (disclosure: I’ve studied economics!) which is different for different people. Some people will accept more risk in exchange for a higher average income level (which is after all the level they will expect to get if their position in society is randomly allocated).

    This difference in preferences can help explain why (for example) the American political system has produced a less redistributive state than the Swedish political system: the preferences of Swedish voters are much more egalitarian than those of American voters.

    So the veil of ignorance does not necessarily result in the maxi-min principle; I think that is an expression of Rawls himself having a low risk tolerance. (There’s nothing wrong with that, but not everyone would agree with him.)

  2. Julian Harris Says:

    Which is the problem with the veil of ignorance, isn’t it? Ie. saying “imagine what you’d think if you knew nothing about your existence” is irrelevant because you DO exist, and everything you think depends entirely on your existence (including your approach to risk).

  3. Niklas Smith Says:

    That’s not what I meant; I was trying to say that in a “veil of ignorance” situation different groups of people will make different choices because of their differing risk tolerances.

  4. Paul Lockett Says:

    I’d also recommend reading David Gauthier’s work to see the way in which he expands on and adapts Rawls’ ideas.

  5. Mark Littlewood Says:

    I think Rawls’ veil of ignorance is an engaging concept. There is a metaphysical issue about how a human entity – stripped of all gender, race, sexuality, class etc – could have the moral equipment to make decisions behind the veil, but that doesn’t wholly trash Rawls’ case.

    I’m quite sure though that Rawls’ “difference principle” (the monumentally risk-adverse redistributive element of his philosophy) would not survive any scrutiny from behind the veil. Some of his genuinely liberal points probably do though.

  6. Tom Papworth Says:

    I’m reading Nozick at the moment and am half a chapter away from where he addresses Rawles (which I read ten years ago) so this is really timely. Thanks, Barry.

    I actually quite like the Veil of Ignorance. Julian misses the point that Rawles is talking about how one would structure a society in the absence of specific knowledge about oneself including one’s view of risk.

    Of course the Veil of Ignorance does (can) not actually exist, any more than there really is a Social Contract, an Invisible Hand or any of the other metaphors or concepts that shape political philosophy. In fact, I think that Ralwes is saying nothing more than that one should try – when outlining a vision for a perfect society – to be as objective as possible. In that sense it is fundamentally liberal, even if Rawles comes up with different results from those I would come up with.