John Rawls Essay

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The publication in 1971 of A Theory of Justice established John Rawls (1921–2002) as one of the most prominent figures in moral and political philosophy of the 20th century. In this seminal work, Rawls sets out to develop an ideal set of moral principles capable of governing the basic structure of a society. In order to do so he conceives of what he calls the original position, a thought experiment and hypothetical situation in the tradition of classical social contract political philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

Unique to Rawls’s original position, members of society are placed under a “veil of ignorance” that prevents them from knowing their individual positions in society. An individual under the veil of ignorance might be a king or queen, or a lowly peasant, but the individual has no way of knowing this or any other information about his or her personal characteristics while under Rawls’s veil. As a result of this lack of knowledge about one’s placement in society, individuals who might have otherwise been tempted to “stack the odds” in the favor of their own social class or group are instead emboldened to advocate for equality while in the process of policy formation. Thus, Rawls argues that those in the original position will attempt to seek out “justice as fairness.” In order to ensure justice as fairness, two principles must be adopted:

  • First principle (liberty principle). Every individual will have an equal right to the system of basic liberties.
  • Second principle (difference principle). Any inequalities in social and economic systems must be arranged in such a way that they are of the most benefit to the least advantaged in the society and applicable to all offices and positions, which are open to all fairly and equally.

Taken together, the two principles of Rawls’s theory of justice argue that all of society’s goods (e.g., liberty, wealth, opportunity) should be distributed equally, unless that unequal distribution favors the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls finds this set of principles compelling as a structure for governing society, particularly when compared to existing philosophies. The example of utilitarianism provides a useful contrast. Utilitarian societies seek only to maximize utility. It is possible, in a society governed by the principles of utilitarianism, for resources to be distributed in a highly unequal fashion, leaving a segment of the population severely disadvantaged, in order for the society at large to achieve maximum utility.

Those  in  Rawls’s  original  position, however, would reject utilitarian goals. Because no one under a veil of ignorance knows his or her position in society, it is unlikely these “blind” individuals would take the risk of existing in a society where they themselves may be severely disadvantaged.  Instead,  those  in  the  original position would advocate justice as fairness via Rawls’s two central principles. In a society advocating justice as fairness by way of equal opportunity for all and the existence of inequalities only when they benefit the least well-off, an extremely disadvantaged segment of the population would not be possible.

Elaboration on  the  second  component  of Rawls’s theory—the difference principle—is warranted. He argues that those in the original position would advocate inequality only when that inequality  benefits  the  worst-off  because  this ensures that everyone, including the least advantaged, will benefit from a society under the conditions of the original position. For example, the economic circumstances of the family one is born into or the geopolitical location of one’s birth are matters of luck and chance.

Individuals operating under a veil of ignorance would advocate for inequality only in instances when that  inequality  benefits the least advantaged, as they must assume that it is possible for them personally to be in this position. In this way Rawls’s theory allows for a structuring of a society made up of individuals seeking to cooperate with one another not out of purely altruistic reasoning or out of purely egoistic aims but rather a combination of both in order to achieve a society that is fair and just and thus, most attractive to the individual. Rawls’s advocacy for a society made up of individuals engaged in this balancing act between altruistic and egoistic motives is perhaps his lasting and most influential contribution to political philosophy.

Rawls’s liberty and difference principles are relevant  to the criminal justice system as they offer guidance for the creation of policy. Policy makers in the criminal justice system mindful of Rawls’s moral and political philosophies are more likely to create just and fair policies and laws. For example, when a lawmaker takes into account the veil of ignorance, he or she is more likely to consider fairness as an important factor in that law’s creation. One could argue that the federal government’s differentiation between powder and crack cocaine penalties is a violation of Rawls’s philosophy. Because the penalties for crack cocaine have historically been significantly higher than those for powder, this has had a disproportionate effect on minorities who are more likely to be adjudicated for the crack form. A lawmaker mindful of the veil of ignorance would consider the circumstances of “luck” that has led to this disproportionate effect and would reject these policy differences pertaining to powder versus crack cocaine.

Rawls’s first principle (the liberty principle) provides for equal access to basic rights such as liberty, wealth, and opportunity for all individuals. His second principle (the difference principle) ensures that if inequalities exist, these differences will only benefit the least well-off. These principles, taken together, result in the creation of a society composed of individuals striving for justness and fairness, enabling the cooperation of individuals in order to achieve common goals of liberty and equality.

Bibliography:

  1. Kukathas, Chandran and Philip Pettit. Rawls: A Theory of Justice and Its Critics. Oxford: Polity Press, 1990.
  2. Lovett, Frank. Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice.” London: Continuum, 2011.
  3. Pogge, Thomas. John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  4. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

The publication in 1971 of A Theory of Justice established John Rawls (1921–2002) as one of the most prominent figures in moral and political philosophy of the 20th century. In this seminal work, Rawls sets out to develop an ideal set of moral principles capable of governing the basic structure of a society. In order to do so he conceives of what he calls the original position, a thought experiment and hypothetical situation in the tradition of classical social contract political philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

Unique to Rawls’s original position, members of society are placed under a “veil of ignorance” that prevents them from knowing their individual positions in society. An individual under the veil of ignorance might be a king or queen, or a lowly peasant, but the individual has no way of knowing this or any other information about his or her personal characteristics while under Rawls’s veil. As a result of this lack of knowledge about one’s placement in society, individuals who might have otherwise been tempted to “stack the odds” in the favor of their own social class or group are instead emboldened to advocate for equality while in the process of policy formation. Thus, Rawls argues that those in the original position will attempt to seek out “justice as fairness.” In order to ensure justice as fairness, two principles must be adopted:

  • First principle (liberty principle). Every individual will have an equal right to the system of basic liberties.
  • Second principle (difference principle). Any inequalities in social and economic systems must be arranged in such a way that they are of the most benefit to the least advantaged in the society and applicable to all offices and positions, which are open to all fairly and equally.

Taken together, the two principles of Rawls’s theory of justice argue that all of society’s goods (e.g., liberty, wealth, opportunity) should be distributed equally, unless that unequal distribution favors the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls finds this set of principles compelling as a structure for governing society, particularly when compared to existing philosophies. The example of utilitarianism provides a useful contrast. Utilitarian societies seek only to maximize utility. It is possible, in a society governed by the principles of utilitarianism, for resources to be distributed in a highly unequal fashion, leaving a segment of the population severely disadvantaged, in order for the society at large to achieve maximum utility.

Those  in  Rawls’s  original  position, however, would reject utilitarian goals. Because no one under a veil of ignorance knows his or her position in society, it is unlikely these “blind” individuals would take the risk of existing in a society where they themselves may be severely disadvantaged.  Instead,  those  in  the  original position would advocate justice as fairness via Rawls’s two central principles. In a society advocating justice as fairness by way of equal opportunity for all and the existence of inequalities only when they benefit the least well-off, an extremely disadvantaged segment of the population would not be possible.

Elaboration on  the  second  component  of Rawls’s theory—the difference principle—is warranted. He argues that those in the original position would advocate inequality only when that inequality  benefits  the  worst-off  because  this ensures that everyone, including the least advantaged, will benefit from a society under the conditions of the original position. For example, the economic circumstances of the family one is born into or the geopolitical location of one’s birth are matters of luck and chance.

Individuals operating under a veil of ignorance would advocate for inequality only in instances when that  inequality  benefits the least advantaged, as they must assume that it is possible for them personally to be in this position. In this way Rawls’s theory allows for a structuring of a society made up of individuals seeking to cooperate with one another not out of purely altruistic reasoning or out of purely egoistic aims but rather a combination of both in order to achieve a society that is fair and just and thus, most attractive to the individual. Rawls’s advocacy for a society made up of individuals engaged in this balancing act between altruistic and egoistic motives is perhaps his lasting and most influential contribution to political philosophy.

Rawls’s liberty and difference principles are relevant  to the criminal justice system as they offer guidance for the creation of policy. Policy makers in the criminal justice system mindful of Rawls’s moral and political philosophies are more likely to create just and fair policies and laws. For example, when a lawmaker takes into account the veil of ignorance, he or she is more likely to consider fairness as an important factor in that law’s creation. One could argue that the federal government’s differentiation between powder and crack cocaine penalties is a violation of Rawls’s philosophy. Because the penalties for crack cocaine have historically been significantly higher than those for powder, this has had a disproportionate effect on minorities who are more likely to be adjudicated for the crack form. A lawmaker mindful of the veil of ignorance would consider the circumstances of “luck” that has led to this disproportionate effect and would reject these policy differences pertaining to powder versus crack cocaine.

Rawls’s first principle (the liberty principle) provides for equal access to basic rights such as liberty, wealth, and opportunity for all individuals. His second principle (the difference principle) ensures that if inequalities exist, these differences will only benefit the least well-off. These principles, taken together, result in the creation of a society composed of individuals striving for justness and fairness, enabling the cooperation of individuals in order to achieve common goals of liberty and equality.

Bibliography:

  1. Kukathas, Chandran and Philip Pettit. Rawls: A Theory of Justice and Its Critics. Oxford: Polity Press, 1990.
  2. Lovett, Frank. Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice.” London: Continuum, 2011.
  3. Pogge, Thomas. John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  4. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

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