12 May Design a new and better society. (JOHN RAWLS)
John Rawls (1921 —2002), a modest, quiet Haward academic, wrote a book that changed the way people thought about these things. That book was A Theory of Justice (1971) and the result of nearly twenty years of hard thinking. It’s really a professor’s book meant for other professors and written in a rather dry academic style. Unlike most books of this kind, though, it didn’t sit gathering dust in a library far from it. It became a bestseller. In some ways it’s amazing that so many people read it. But its key ideas were so interesting that it was very quickly declared one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, read by philosophers, lawyers, politicians and many others — something Rawls himself had never dreamt was possible.
Imagine you have to design a new and better society. One question you might ask is, ‘Who gets what?’ If you live in a beautiful mansion with an indoor swimming pool and servants, and have a private jet waiting to whisk you away to a tropical island, you might well conjure up a world in which some people are very rich — perhaps the ones who work hardest and others much poorer. If you are living in poverty now, you’ll probably design a society in which no one is allowed to be super-rich, one where everyone gets a more equal share of what is available: no private jets allowed, but better chances for people who are unfortunate. Human nature is like that: people tend to think of their own position when they describe a better world, whether they realize it or not. These prejudices and biases distort political thinking.
Rawls’ stroke of genius was to come up with a thought experiment — he called it ‘The Original Position’ — that plays down some of the selfish biases we all have. His central idea is very simple: design a better society, but do it without knowing what position in society you’ll occupy. You don’t know whether you’ll be rich, poor, have a disability, be good looking, male, female, ugly, intelligent or unintelligent, talented or unskilled, homo- sexual, bisexual or heterosexual. He thinks you will choose fairer principles behind this imaginary ‘veil of ignorance’ because you won’t know where you might end up, what kind of a person you might be. From this simple device of choosing without knowing your own place, Rawls developed his theory of justice. This was based on two principles he thought all reason able people would accept, principles of freedom and equality.
The first principle was his Liberty Principle.
This states that everyone should have the right to a range of basic freedoms that mustn’t be taken away from them, such as freedom of belief, freedom to vote for their leaders, and extensive freedom of not fair’ and shrug their shoulders. Even if restricting some of these freedoms improved the lives of a majority of people, Rawls thought, they were so important that the freedoms should be protected above all. Like all liberals, Rawls put a very high value on these basic liberties, believing that everyone had a right to them and that no one should take them away.
Rawls’ second principle, the Difference Principle, is all about equality. Society should be arranged to give more equal wealth and opportunity to the most disadvantaged. If people receive different amounts of money, then this inequality is only allowed if it directly helps the worst off. A banker can only get 10,000 times more than the lowest paid worker if the lowest-paid worker benefits directly and receives an increased amount of money that he or she wouldn’t have had if the banker was paid less. Rawls thinks this is the kind of world reasonable people would choose if they didn’t know whether they would be rich or poor themselves.
Before Rawls, philosophers and politicians who thought about who should get what often argued in favour of a situation which would produce the highest average amount of wealth. That could mean that some people could be super-rich, many moderately rich and few very poor. But for Rawls, such a situation was worse than one in which there were no super-rich, but everyone had a more equal share, even though the average amount of wealth was lower.
This is a challenging idea — particularly to those who are capable of earning high salaries in the world as it is. Robert Nozick (1938—2002), another important American political philosopher, further to the right politically than Rawls, questioned it. Surely fans who come to watch a brilliant basketball player should be free to give a small part of their ticket money to that player. It’s their right to spend their money in this way. And if millions come to watch him, then the sportsman will fairly, Nozick thought millions of dollars. Rawls entirely disagreed with this view. Unless the poorest got richer as a result of this deal, Rawls argued, then the basketball player’s personal earnings shouldn’t be allowed to increase to such high levels. Rawls, controversially, believed that being a gifted athlete or a highly intelligent person did not automatically entitle individuals to higher earnings. That was in part because he believed that such things as sporting ability and intelligence were a matter of good luck. You don’t deserve more simply because you are fortunate enough to be a fast runner or a great ball player, or if you are very bright. Being athletically talented or intelligent is the result of winning in the ‘natural lottery: Many people disagree strongly with Rawls and feel that excellence should be rewarded. But Rawls thought that there was no automatic connection between being good at something and deserving more.
But what if from behind the veil of ignorance some people would prefer to take a gamble? What if they thought of life as a lottery and wanted to make sure that there were some very attractive positions to occupy in society? Presumably gamblers might take the risk of ending up poor if they had a chance to be extremely rich. So they’d prefer a world with a wider range of economic possibilities than the one Rawls described. Rawls believed that reasonable people would not want to gamble with their lives in this way. Perhaps he was wrong about this.
A Little History of Philosophy
Image: John Rawls | The New York Review of Books