Friday, November 20, 2009

Justice as Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls

A thorough and intellectually sophisticated argument for a notion of justice based on what reasonable people would supposedly agree to given equal bargaining positions (It is also the reformation of his concept of Justice as Fairness). It is difficult to offer a meaningful review without going on for pages, but as I don’t want to do that so I’ll attempt a brief account of the work and my experience with it and then link to other, more informative resources.

I had heard of Rawls and his landmark A Theory of Justice for years and had always been interested in learning more about it. At 500 pages or so, I would wonder if I really needed that degree of exploration. Consequently, when I found out that the Restatement was only about 200 pages and served to update his view whilst addressing criticisms from Theory (and other essays); I thought I’d give it a try. It was dense, informative and quite dry. This should have been unsurprising as there is very little narrative in the book and it takes the structure of sections being presented as 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, all the way up to 60.4. At times I actually resented the book as I just wanted it to be done so I could read something more accessible or fun. Fortunately(?) my ‘ought-self’ persevered and I finished the book and now have a greater (but by no means deep) understanding of Rawls and his idea of justice as fairness.

Why I was so interested in A Theory of Justice is that I had found the main concept – a veil of ignorance – to be a fascinating one. If you want greater fairness have people decide upon the structure of society but without knowing their place in that society. The deciding people would have equal positions, both in debate and possible outcome. Consequently, self-interest would take over and we’d have more fairness.

Apparently, this wasn’t quite accurate. There is a veil of ignorance, but the set up of the ‘original position’ is different. There are representatives of various groups who are to follow moral and logical arguments to ensure fairness for their group. Additionally, emotions such as greed, spite and envy are not supposed to feature prominently in the representatives while they deliberate. While the book does argue decently for this point, I think human nature is far too flawed. As the original position is a thought experiment, it seems to make more sense to hijack the deeply ingrained self-interested tendency of people and have fairness fall out of someone trying to be selfish for every person in all their various societal positions.

Justice as Fairness attempts to provide a moral/logical argument about how to structure a political society. It is supposed to be what a reasonable person would agree to, and/or what a group of reasonable people would put forth. Rawls repeatedly (almost excessively) emphasizes that is a political doctrine not an overarching philosophical or moral system (this was primarily to address criticisms of Theory). Alternatively, I did enjoy when Rawls repeatedly mentioned the concept of “reasonable pluralism.” Reasonable pluralism “is the fact of profound and irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world, and in their views of the moral and aesthetic values to be sought in human life.” (1.3) Of course, it appears Rawls hopes that reasonable people would agree to the validity of reasonable pluralism (if they didn’t, would they prove his point?) and from then on, also with all the various arguments about how certain rights and freedoms should be fundamental and that only certain (rational) ways of discussion should be permitted for the representatives.

I applaud the idea of trying to argue for an abstract concept of justice of which reasonable people would supposedly agree. Alternatively, the practical realities of the world seem so vastly removed from this abstraction that the entire enterprise can be called into question (just watch Question Period or a debate on the House floor in the US congress). It makes me think there should be greater resources put into research, analysis and programs that might actually help the world (for that reason I might like Sen’s new book more)

Other bits
-I was reminded of the foundational importance of general rights and freedoms.
-I appreciated that Rawls described how those with native endowments that make them more likely to succeed just lucked out. Does one morally deserve something for which they had no contribution? That said, Rawls does believe a society must take into account that those with native endowments will, on average, succeed more often, and that this is acceptable.
-The difference principle - “The difference principle permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society”
-That utilitarians have to address the idea of pleasures from cruelty.
-That in ancient Greece 90% of the population was excluded from fully participating in the society.

Justice as Fairness is an impressive work. It was not meant to be a light read and it was not. I am happy to have read it but I was not happy while reading it. Read it if you think it will be your thing. Perhaps at a different period in my life I will be less impatient, but for the moment, I acquired what I desired: a greater understanding of Rawls’ beliefs, the veil of ignorance and political theory in general.

Chapter 1
John Rawls in Wikipedia
NY Times review
Mises Review


Post a Comment

<< Home