Term Paper: John Rawls Utopia Society

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John Rawls and the Viability of His Theory of Justice in the 21st Century

John Rawls spent a great deal of time pondering issues such as fairness, justice, equality and liberty. But how well do his conclusions fare in the modern, globalized world nearly forty years after the publication of his famous work, a Theory of Justice? Some would say Rawls' philosophies are too idealistic to stand up in any decade, or in any era for that matter. Others would view his vision of utopia as, at the very least, a step in the right direction. Ultimately, determining the value of Rawls' conjectures in contemporary society requires a thorough dissection of the egalitarian principles that constitute his philosophies.

The majority of Rawls' ideas on fairness, justice, equality and liberty fall within the context of his theory of Political Liberalism (PL). This theory is rooted in the notion that when making ethical political or social decisions, the primary consideration must be the choice that is the most fair and equal for society and its members. According to Rawls, in an ideal society, "the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain" (Rawls, 1971, p. 12).

The majority of Rawls' efforts lie in detailing the social contract of his "realistic utopia," in such a way that they can be understood and embraced by all. He submits that the state that society is in prior to 'signing' this social contract should be called the "original position." Rawls believes that it is logical for parties in the original position to choose his principles of justice as opposed to the principle of utility because people want to avoid risk at all costs. They desire a world without prejudice or bias, because those entities naturally contain risk due to their subjective nature. Furthermore, by living under the erroneous guise of an equal society, they do not have to look at the fact that they are the ones who are underprivileged by comparison.

Once these people in the original position become aware that life can, in fact, be just and fair under the right social contract, Rawls believes they will forgo their previous way of thinking and adopt his. This requires, however, a willingness to step behind the "veil of ignorance" in which no one can be judged by their race, gender, religion or anything else that causes inequality in society. It is mankind's judgment of these differences, Rawls contends, that cause inequality and injustice.

In terms of economic justice, the dominant economic theory of the past, i.e. classical economics, has evolved into what is now considered to be neo-classical economics. Classical economists believed that the pursuit of individual self-interest generated the greatest possible economic welfares for society as a whole. They additionally asserted that the economy is either in a state of equilibrium at all times, or is at least working toward that state. The school of economics that evolved into neo-classical economics believed in economic welfare as a derivative of a free market (Shaw, 2007)

For Rawls, economic justice is based on compliance with social cooperation. As William Shaw points out, Rawls' perception of economic justice entails the right of every individual to earn a high enough income to adequately support themselves and their families. However, Rawls does not impose limits on these rights to earn, and does not disparage earning more than is necessary to sustain a basic lifestyle. For utilitarian John Stuart Mill the primary concern of economic justice was with the issue of civil liberty, which centers on recognizing to what extent man can legitimately be controlled and have his freedom restrained. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, meaning that it is based is the belief that actions or rules should be evaluated in accordance with their potential consequences. These consequences are typically measured by their intrinsic "goodness." Thus, for those with a consequentialist perspective, the degree of harm associated with a decision or action is of tremendous significance (Shaw, 2007).

Rawls is not satisfied merely advocating his own position and the likelihood of society to think highly of it. While arguing in favor of his own theory of justice, at the same time, he is arguing against the principles of Utilitarianism. In many cases he specifically applies the tenets of utilitarianism to social issues as a means of discrediting the discipline. For example, Rawls writes that "Utilitarianism cannot account for the fact that slavery is always unjust." (cited in Goodin & Pettit, 2006, p. 194). The reason Rawls makes this statement is that there is no way to argue that slavery could ever be for the greater good. However he is viewing the situation from an entirely moral perspective. Taking emotion out of the equation, slavery could in fact be considered to be a benefit to society from a utilitarian viewpoint if the number of people suffering from the injustice was minimal compared to the people benefiting from it. Rawls is not trying to say that advocates of Utilitarianism approve of slavery, but rather that the fact that slavery is always wrong, under any circumstances, contradicts the utilitarian philosophy that all moral judgments can be weighed based on their utility because there is no viable rebuttal to the injustice of slavery.

Rawls is not solely consumed with disproving Utilitarianism; however he does focus a great deal of his attention on this goal. At the same time, he seems quite determined to validate his own principles based on their own merits of validity. For instance, Rawls supports the rationality of his original position theory by presenting it as a logical, natural aspect of the process towards equality and justice. He writes,

The idea here is simply to make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice, and therefore on these principles themselves. Thus it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles.... One excludes the knowledge of those contingencies which sets men at odds and allows them to be guided by their prejudices. In this manner, the veil of ignorance is arrived at in a natural way (Rawls, 1971, 18-19).

Once the awareness of these "contingencies" has been dispelled, Rawls believes that those members of society who remain may be qualified as "moral personalities," because their choices will not be dictated by bias. From then on, their decisions will be rooted solely in rational, just, and undistorted premises. Therefore, they will be the ultimate moral beings because they do not seek to polarize society.

Because they have been stripped of all of their subjectivity, Rawls replaces that empty space with a set of guidelines that will help them make their decisions from an alternate perspective. Firstly, he imparts upon them an understanding of what he calls the "circumstances of justice." In essence, he is referring to the fact that a completely equal distribution of resources cannot exist when there simply are not enough resources to go around. Therefore, the rationing of resources is a responsibility that must be assigned to the "moral personalities," who are able to make their decisions impartially. Otherwise, recipients will be chosen based on factors such as race, gender, religion, bloodlines and similar qualities that continue to divide society into the 'haves' and the 'have nots.' Secondly, in order to maintain their impartiality, the moral personalities must concentrate on the so-called "primary goods," or "things it is supposed a rational man wants" (Rawls, 1971, p. 79). The distribution of these primary goods, which include abstract principles such as freedoms and opportunities, should be aimed at improving the lives of the underprivileged, not only at present, but for future generations as well.

Thirdly, the parties ought to frame their decisions within the context of what Rawls refers to as the "constraints of the concept of right." (Rawls, 1971, p. 12). According to Hampton (1997) "these are constraints that Rawls argues any conception of justice must satisfy in order to be adequate as an effective adjudication of competing claims among the citizens. These constraints require that a conception of justice be general, universal, understandable, public, effective at imposing an ordering on competing claims, and final - that is, the final theoretical 'court of appeals' in the society" (p. 139).

Fourthly, the parties ought to incorporate the concept of "maximum rule" into their decision making process. This involves the estimation of probabilities in uncertain situations, based on one's conception that they could be the person most disadvantaged in society. In other words, decisions should be made from the perspective that the individual making decision was the person in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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