Rawls' theory of justice assumes that there are no natural claims on the distribution of goods in society. Why is that claim important for his theory and why is it a doubtful claim?
John Rawls’ assertions regarding the distribution of wealth in society, as articulated in his important study A Theory of Justice (for purposes of discussion, the revised edition was consulted in preparation of this answer) rejects the notion that, in a just society, natural selection should be determinative of that distribution. The main discussion of this point appears in Chapter Two of his book, originally published in 1971. As set forth in A Theory of Justice, Rawls draws a vital distinction between natural or inherited fortune and social justice by emphasizing that “justice” is a product of the redistribution of wealth. As he states in Chapter Two,
“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”
In other words, those born or elevated to preferential status by virtue of their natural abilities or through advantageous social structures should not be entitled to a disproportionate share of a that society’s wealth. The essence of justice, he argued, is the manner in which the governing and social institutions within a society redress those natural imbalances so that the least fortunate are not condemned to an inferior status through no fault of their own. Again, as he wrote in Chapter Two,
“Those who have been favored by nature . . . may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out. The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted, but only to cover the costs of training and education and for using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well. No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.”
Rawls’ philosophy of social justice is representative of a strong body of opinion in many societies or countries where social welfare programs and structures for taxation are seen as the moral and socially-essential – at least in terms of ensuring social justice and stability – system of governance. The principle of justice is obviously central to his entire thesis, thereby implying that no society that tolerates economic destitution while certain sectors exist on a higher socioeconomic plane can genuinely be considered just.
Whether Rawls is right or wrong is entirely a matter of one’s personal political ideological inclinations. A major distinction between conservative and liberal factions within most societies involves this very debate regarding the distribution – or redistribution – of wealth. The increased concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands in the United States has been the subject of numerous protests, most prominently the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Many political analysts, economists and philosophers would agree that an excessive disparity in wealth inevitably creates social tensions that can tear a country apart. How to address those disparities, to the extent one considers them unjust or politically destabilizing, is a product of one side’s ability to effect change in tax rates and social welfare programs designed to shift wealth to those most in need.
In order to see why this claim is important for Rawls, let us look at his second principle of justice. This principle is expressed in two ways. First, it says that there must be equality of opportunity for all in a society. Second, it says that society must be arranged in such a way that any inequalities must help the poorest people in society. In other words, Rawls does not say that everyone must be equal. However, he says that a society is only just if it works to help its poorest members as much as possible.
We know that different people are born with different talents and abilities. Rawls does not dispute this. What Rawls does say is that the people who are born with greater talents and abilities must use their gifts to help everyone. They cannot simply use their talents to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.
This is why it is important to say that there are no natural claims on goods or other resources in society. If people have a natural claim to goods or resources, they have the right to use those goods and resources for their own benefit. They are not obligated to use them to help society. If they do not use the goods and resources to help society, they will not bring about Rawls’ vision of a just society.
As to the doubtfulness of this claim, that is a matter of opinion. It is very difficult to argue that we can objectively determine who has a “natural claim” on goods and resources. If we want to claim that no one has a natural claim, we have to say that there is no such thing as private ownership. If I own something, I have a natural claim on that good or resource. If there is no natural claim, then I cannot own anything. It is hard to argue for this position while still accepting basic liberal ideas such as the right to our life, liberty, and property.