In Rawls's A Theory of Justice, are his principles of justice those we would choose under conditions of fairness? Should we force the more fortunate members of our society to help the less...

In Rawls's A Theory of Justice, are his principles of justice those we would choose under conditions of fairness? Should we force the more fortunate members of our society to help the less fortunate? Does justice require socialist equality or capitalist liberty? Should we seek equality of opportunity but not equality of results?

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mthiringer eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is a proposal for a workable political theory that is an alternative to utilitarianism and intuitionism. Rawls seeks to avoid the extremes of orienting a conception of justice around either the principle of utility (or the “greatest happiness” principle, in which a decision is deemed moral based on a prediction of whether it will create more or less happiness in more or fewer people), or a principle of intuition, in which the agent does what seems to be the right thing to him/her. 

The principles of justice that Rawls proposes are as follows:

“First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (Rawls, 53).

Your question asks whether we would choose these principles under conditions of fairness. The original position that Rawls suggests is what he calls the “veil of ignorance,” which is really just a thought experiment. A thought experiment is a kind of way of using our imagination philosophically to figure something out. So the veil of ignorance entails this pretend committee of people who are preparing to set up a brand new society and government, and they don’t know whether they will end up being rich or poor, powerful or uninfluential, a worker or an administrator. The idea is that if I have a pretty good chance of ending up really poor without an education to get a good job, I am going to set up a social system that is fair or even generous to those people. So the conditions of choosing these principles are in place to make sure that the least advantaged people in society are taken care of.

As for the second question, it isn’t so much a matter of forcing the more fortunate members of society to take care of the less fortunate members. It is a matter of setting up a system in which the disparity, or difference between those two extremes, is minimized. Although Rawls’s explanation of Pareto efficiency and optimality is pretty confusing (and can be found on pages 58 and 103 of the revised edition), it comes down to trying to achieve a political and social state in which economic resources are allocated such that no-one will ever be made better off at the expense of another person. So on a more practical level, no one can advance in any way (financially or socially, or in terms of political power) if doing so will cause the least advantaged group in society to be worse off. This doesn’t actually require personal benevolence or sacrifice on an individual level.

Rawls’s notion of equality of opportunity is controversial, to say the least, and it might not even be possible to employ. I will say though, that it makes more sense to me to try to set up your society such that no one is at an initial disadvantage. It does not make sense to me to seek equality of results because people are all different and have different natural abilities that may not allow them to succeed or excel in every area. However, Rawls’s goal was that no one would be at a disadvantage from the get-go; for example, a really brilliant but really poor person should not be impeded from going to the best universities simply because he/she cannot afford it.

Quotes from:

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justicerevised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2003).