John Rawls and the Blueprint for a More Just Society

When it comes to politics, many of us simply accept the current social order as its stands and base our voting decisions and policy preferences on the idea that the current socio-economic system is natural or inevitable—without considering whether the system itself is fair or optimal in the first place. 

This, of course, is the danger of not having an underlying political philosophy; we risk either making inconsistent decisions or else being subject to the manipulation of others. But we must understand that, before we can weigh in on particular issues or legislation, we must first answer a more basic question: What is the just society? 

The twentieth-century political philosopher John Rawls formulated the question this way:

“What is the most acceptable political conception of justice for specifying the fair terms of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal and as both reasonable and rational?”

Rawls spent his entire career answering this question, and we would all do well to give the topic some serious consideration ourselves. It is only by operating according to valid first principles that we can establish consistent political preferences and shield ourselves from the self-interested propaganda of others.

Let’s see how Rawls’s theory of justice can act as a blueprint for a more just society. 

Towards a more just society

A simple definition of justice is “the quality of being fair and reasonable.” The just society, therefore, should be both fair (structured without providing unjust advantage) and reasonable (structured in such a way as to appeal to our common rationality, for the purpose of achieving widespread acceptance).

How can we meet these two criteria? 

First, consider what would happen if we gathered everyone together to decide on a new social order. We know that there would be deep and significant disagreement. The poor, the rich, the healthy, the sick, and people living in different circumstances and with different religious and philosophical views would all disagree as to which social order is ideal. Compromises would eventually be made, but they would be made in such a way that those with greater bargaining power (or “threat advantage”) would get the better deal. This would create unjust advantage. The idea that someone gets a better deal because they are in a superior bargaining position, or the idea that “might makes right,” has been refuted as far back as Plato. As Rawls wrote, “To each according to his threat advantage does not count as a principle of justice.”

The reason this is unjust is largely based on the idea of morally arbitrary advantage. For example, the fact that you happen to be born into wealth rather than poverty, or endowed with superior physical or intellectual gifts, is not something that you have either earned or agreed to. Winning the biological lottery or being born into a wealthy environment is not to your credit and cannot count as a just basis for your continuing advantage over others. 

Our conception of political justice therefore cannot place undue emphasis on these kinds of morally arbitrary advantages. How, then, can we get around this problem and build a stronger foundation for a more just society? We can do this using a thought experiment, developed by Rawls, called the Original Position.

The Original Position      

Imagine a group of representatives getting together to devise the plans for a more just society. Each representative would represent a single citizen in this new society, seeking to maximize their client’s benefits by formulating the principles by which the new social order would be created.

While each representative would seek to maximize the benefits for their client-citizen, each representative would be completely ignorant as to which position their client would occupy in the new society. Their client may be rich or poor, male or female, black or white, born into wealth or poverty, endowed with natural abilities, or not. The collective decision the representatives make is therefore made behind a “veil of ignorance” as to which position in society their clients will eventually occupy.

The brilliance of this thought experiment lies in the fact that it removes morally arbitrary advantages and forces the representatives to agree on the most reasonable conception of justice that can be accepted by everyone. According to Rawls, the representatives will consider competing alternative conceptions of justice, but will ultimately agree on the conception of justice that creates the best outcomes for the least advantaged members of society. 

The representatives will not choose utilitarianism, because their clients may very well belong to a minority whose well-being is sacrificed to the greater good of the majority. And they won’t choose a laissez-faire arrangement either, because while their clients may turn out to be Bill Gates, they might also turn out to be homeless and without help.  

Rather, they will choose a society that maximizes the position of the least advantaged, so that if their clients end up being born into morally arbitrary disadvantage, their well-being will not be sacrificed for those born into advantage. 

In this society, inequality is allowed only insofar as it lifts up the bottom rung of society. Individuals may be rewarded for their efforts and compensated accordingly, but not because they are entirely responsible for all of their success (morally arbitrary advantages and the dependence on the social order itself indicates that people are not entitled to ALL of the fruits of their labor, and that a significant portion should be given back). 

The Rawlsian society

The representatives in the Original Position are therefore compelled to agree on a social order in which the well-being of the least advantaged is maximized, allowing for inequality insofar as it raises the tide for all boats (complete equality would lower the standard of living for everyone, including the least advantaged). But inequality has its limits; when inequality grows to the extent that it is only benefiting the wealthy (where top incomes grow each year and common wages do not), then redistributionist policies are needed to restore an acceptable level of distributive justice.  

Rawls was quick to point out, however, that this conception of justice is a political conception, not a comprehensive worldview. A just society will eliminate arbitrary advantage but will not eliminate what he labeled reasonable pluralism. People will always hold a plurality of religious, moral, and philosophical views, and it is unrealistic to suppose that everyone will agree on a single comprehensive worldview or conception of the good life. Any definition of justice must therefore allow for individuals to live their lives according to the dictates of their own conscience, granted they do not inflict unnecessary harm upon others. 

Any reasonable political conception of justice must therefore be restricted to political justice, not to a comprehensive moral or religious worldview. As the philosopher Thomas Pogge wrote:

“For Rawls, this is one of the most important lessons of modernity: that it is possible to live together under common rules that have a moral basis, even without sharing a comprehensive moral or religious worldview or conception of the good.”

Rawls’s conception of justice is also justifiable. We must recognize that any definition of justice we propose will need to be defended or justified to others if we hope to have a realistic chance of actualizing it. Stable political arrangements can only be maintained voluntarily; the subjugation and dominance of others by force or oppressive ideology can only be transient and subject to eventual revolution or violent overthrow. Our task, therefore, is to develop a conception of justice that all or most members of society can agree upon. We must, in other words, adopt a contractualist approach, based on the idea of reciprocal justification, if we wish to ground our conception of justice in cooperation rather than coercion.

As Rawls demonstrated, it is not possible to justify morally arbitrary advantage in such a way that most or all members of society can agree upon. The majority of people would not agree to the advantages gained by being born into wealth if it is unlikely that they would partake in this advantage. This is accepted in our current society ONLY because the majority do not hold sufficient bargaining power, and because those that do hold these arbitrary advantages spend endless sums of money telling us it is because they deserve it (the myth of meritocracy). Wealth can buy you better education, better employment, better healthcare, and greater political influence whether you deserve it or not, and whether you are truly talented or knowledgable, or not. 

The Golden Rule

The reader might recognize that Rawls has, in essence, reformulated in political terms the oldest and most pervasive moral principle in the history of human thought—the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule—which is found in virtually every religious and philosophical system—can be formulated in three ways:

  1. Treat others as you would like others to treat you
  2. Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated
  3. What you wish for yourself, wish for others

Rawls’s formulation of the Original Position essentially states that you should treat others the way you would wish to be treated because you may actually come to occupy their position in society. This is the Golden Rule applied to a political conception of justice, based on the long-established idea of reciprocity and human solidarity. Somewhere along the way—in our materialistic and capitalist society—we lost sight of this idea and opted instead to value human lives solely according to degree of economic output. 

Conclusion

Rawls is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century because he (1) rejuvenated interest in the importance of political philosophy and (2) developed a theory of justice that eliminates arbitrary advantage, speaks to our sense of compassion for others, allows for reasonable pluralism and freedom of conscience, and emphasizes the rational and justificatory nature of politics based on widespread cooperation. 

We can only hope that we collectively look to Rawls to lead us into the next stage of our political development, and do not return to a conception of justice based on greed, money, materialism, indifference, dehumanization, and the prioritization of morally arbitrary advantage. As Rawls wrote, “In justice as fairness society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.”

Further reading

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