John Rawls
A SAC narrative extension, from KIMBALL FILES
© Alan Kimball

1971:USA political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) published A Theory of Justice. Some think Rawls was the most important liberal political theorist of the 20th century

*--Rawls claimed to depend on Immanuel Kant’s notion of the “social contract”, an a priori assumption that “each individual’s freedom is so restricted as to harmonize with that of everyone else” [ID Kant]. Rawls made his own contribution to the rich legacy of thought on social contract [ID Locke's notion], and he labeled that contribution “the difference principle”. According to this principle, inequality within any given polity is unjust insofar as it cannot be defended on the grounds of advantage to the worst off within that polity. We should judge the degree of justice in any community or nation by the way it treats its least well off. A just polity does not seek to remove all inequality. That is impossible. But a just polity is one in which those in an advantaged position create incentives and opportunities for the disadvantaged. It minimizes inequality in such a way as to bring benefit to those otherwise unable to avail themselves of incentives and opportunities. These incentives and opportunities must harmonize with the larger operations of the just society. In other words, those who create incentives and opportunities, operating from their unequal or advantaged position, must have achieved their own advantages via the agencies -- “the offices and positions” -- now made available to the disadvantaged as incentives and opportunities (see basic idea #2 below)

*--For this reason, Rawls was not describing “handouts”. Financial elites do not attain their status via handouts. Thus handouts do not represent incentives and opportunities harmonious with the larger operations of the society. Rawls' concept was closer to that old saw = Give a person a fish, and they will be hungry tomorrow. Teach them to fish, and they will feed themselves. More to the point, Rawls harkened back to one of the enduring principles of the French Revolution, careers open to talent [ID]. In the largest sense, the “difference principle” promises to advantage and benefit the full body politic, not just privileged elites

*--But what about “inheritance”, the exclusive passing of incentives, opportunities and advantages from one accomplished set of elders to their children, without regard for the social promise of their progeny? Inheritance raises problems if the routes to self-realization taken by those who are advantaged must be open also to everyone else for their self-realization. Publicly funded education and training have been for two centuries the paradigmatic agencies -- “offices and positions” -- supported from advantaged resources, open to all, and appropriate to the demands of justice. What about exclusive private institutions of learning and the drive to exempt the wealthy from their part of the education tax burden via "waivers"? Progressive income tax has for decades been an agent toward Rawls' high purpose. The "conservative" economic policy that took the name “trickle down theory” in the time of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan aspired to this status, but economists argue that point [ID]

*1991:As the Thatcher and Reagan administrations came to an end, Rawls published Political Liberalism which offered further reflections and refinements of his basic theory. A central goal here was to make a distinction between politics and morality. In essence, the problem arose from two realms of truth =

(1) absolute principles were essential to morality, while
(2) compromise was an equally ultimate necessity in politics

*--Under the contradictory pull of these two truths, a “well-ordered society” was possible among peoples of different moral perspectives, said Rawls, only via “overlapping consensus” on the rules of the public game, the principles of politics rather than the politics of principle had to regulate the public game. Protect the private realm of absolute principles -- religious or moral conscience -- in the inviolable realm of liberty (basic idea #1 below). Don’t force principles out of their own inviolable realm and into an unsuitable public sphere. In the public sphere principles are inevitably exposed to the standard forms of compromise that are the lifeblood of the public or political realm. Under those circumstances, both principles and the public sphere suffer serious damage

*1991:New edition of A Theory of Justice appeared

*1991:Rawls published The Law of Peoples which tried to apply the basic principles to the global scale. Rawls stopped short of asserting a world-wide “difference principle”. He could not identify an international mechanism or “offices and positions” sufficient to the task of international justice -- as stated in #2[b] below. In the absence of effective international agencies, Rawls could only recommend that rich nations come to the aid of “burdened” nations

*--Perhaps his failure to extend his thought to the full global scale derived in part from his narrow assumption about the origins of the “social contract”. Essentially he assumed that the social contract arose from rational and diverse individuals perceiving the positive advantages of community. But the social contract can be thought also to arise out of a very negative perception of insecurity and impending disaster caused by the absence of community, the absence of enforceable community. Overarching institutions of government and other central “offices and positions” not only enhance opportunities but also restrain chaos. The social contract is not simply a luxury possible in certain limited times and places. It is a necessity

*--Action in the direction of Rawls' ideals then could take the form of normal democratic political processes, managerial fiat or revolution. What, if any of these forms, seems most likely in view of the three phases of the European revolution [ID]? And how much more difficult to foresee modes of political action in this direction on the global scale

*--Where did the more local or national forms of the historical social contract come from? That remains a speculative abstraction. When might a global form of enforceable social contract arise? That remains a distant dream

*2001:Justice as Fairness

The four basic ideas of John Rawls =

(1) LIBERTY PRINCIPLE = Each person has a claim to an adequate and equal, extensive and secure set of basic liberties = “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all” [Theory]. This is supposedly not an abstract “freedom” but rather a historically various set of liberties presumed in any given polity as a prescriptive norm. Still we might say that the European liberal tradition informs Rawls’ concept, especially its fundamental assumption of the need for consciously formed -- and constantly reformed -- community, not just any community but one in which “civil rights” are protected from unwanted community intrusion

(2) DIFFERENCE PRINCIPLE = “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”. I.e., social and economic inequalities can be acceptable under two conditions only =

[a] inequalities are tolerable only insofar as they bring benefit to the least advantaged and
[b] inequalities must be ameliorated via “offices and positions” open to all

(3) LIBERTY HAS PRIORITY OVER DIFFERENCE = When basic idea #2, difference, conflicts with basic idea #1, liberty, liberty prevails. In any reasonably prosperous polity liberty always takes priority over economic interests. But what about times and places in which economic distress prevails, or in which inequalities reach monstrous proportions? [EG]

(4) OPPORTUNITY HAS PRIORITY OVER EQUALITY = When basic idea #2[b], institutionally protected opportunity -- “careers open to talent” -- comes into conflict with basic idea #2[a], benefit to the worst off, opportunity prevails. It could be said that this fourth basic view is the supreme principle and has to do with a politically and socially protected right to gain and develop talent as well as to exercise it freely

*--Rawls’ distinct contribution here was the concept of the DIFFERENCE PRINCIPLE, subpart #2[a], embedded in his four basic ideas. Rawls defended the principle with a striking variation on the time-honored notion of “social contract”. He began with the presumption that a wide variety of people make up any given polity [EG], and that these vastly different people cannot be united in a common polity under anything but general principles that fit the needs of all. He called these “primary goods”. These “primary goods” or “social bases of self-respect” correspond closely to Harold Lasswell’s list of perceived interests that motivate social action [ID]. A widely diverse community can form itself into a “body politic” only by accepting these as available for one and for all. This agreement is motivated by a sense of impartiality and a recognition that these “primary goods” are vital to all, not just to some specialized segment of the body politic

*--Rawls might be thought weakest in his account of precise institutional arrangements and policies. It also seems sometimes that a quiet and rational “impartiality” was in his mind sufficient to the task of maintaining a just community, ignoring the occasional need for enforcement


*--Samuel Freeman, Rawls, explains that Rawls should not be thought a simple defender of the capitalist welfare state. He described a “property-owning democracy” in which control and ownership are widely distributed
*--Catherine Audard, John Rawls gives some attention to the Rawls/Habermas debate. She is interested in the actual mechanisms by which plurality in any public can be brought under the umbrella of general political principles
*--Thomas Pogge, John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice
*2008mr07:TLS:10-11, 16