Research Proposal: Rawls on Justice as Fairness

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Justice and Fairness

Rawls' first general premise is that it is beneficial to everyone in society for that society to reflect principles of justice that are fair and equally beneficial to all members of society. In that respect, Rawls' ideas are no different from many other philosophers and legal scholars; what is different about Rawls' concepts of justice in society is the manner in which he sets forth the respective requirements of a social and justice system that fulfills that objective. Rawls also employs a novel mechanism, the veil of ignorance to illustrate the basic concept of fairness in light of infinite different possible arguments capable of supporting various interests of differently situated individuals.

John Rawls -- Two Principles of Justice:

Equal Basic Liberties

Rawls' first principle of justice postulates that every person in society maintains an equal right to personal protections and liberties as every other person limited only by the extent to which those same rights of others limit the rights of the individual. As far as specific rights go, Rawls suggests that certain rights and liberties are so much more important than others, that the need to preserve them may justify violating other aspects of his first principle. Those fundamentally important rights include liberty of thought, conscience (i.e. religion), political inclusion, free association, integrity of the individual, and equality of all rights and privileges defined by formal law.

To a certain extent, Rawls' first principle may seem similar to libertarianism except that Rawls does not value all forms of liberty equally; rather, he affords a much higher priority to specific liberties whose importance outweighs even the greater public good. More importantly, whereas libertarianism emphasizes a free market economy, Rawls would impose outright limitations on the amount of compensation and benefits that individuals might earn from their respective talents and abilities, particularly where their endeavors do not contribute to the public good.

Likewise, while Rawls emphasizes the greater public good, his principles also differ substantially from utilitarianism since no amount of public good justifies infringement of certain liberties in Rawls' view. Whereas the utilitarian may ask what the effect would be on the greater public welfare of an infringement on the rights of the individual to determine the morality of a proposed infringement, Rawls' system does not permit that line of reasoning at all, especially where the rights at issue are those that he describes as fundamental.

For one example, the utilitarian might consider the larger benefits of certain policies or practices (such as slavery) against the harm to the individual slave. Rawls' principles would absolutely prohibit that entire line of rational argument a priori by virtue of the impermissible violation of the liberty of the individual, irrespective of any amount of benefit conferred on society.

Fair Equality of Opportunity

Rawls' second principle postulates that individuals of equal ability and motivation must have equal opportunities to achieve desirable positions irrespective of their circumstances with respect to wealth, privilege, social class, and the many advantages that normally attach to those beneficial circumstances. More precisely, Rawls continues to suggest that certain differences in the relative opportunities may be justified as necessary to create incentive for people to make the effort and sacrifices required of certain positions, particularly where those positions are necessary for the public good.

"It may be, for example, to the common advantage, as just defined, to attach special benefits to certain offices. Perhaps by doing so the requisite talent can be attracted to them and encouraged to give its best efforts. But any offices having special benefits must be won in a fair competition in which contestants are judged on their merits" (Rawls, 1958 p.169).

Therefore, Rawls supports the notion that (for one example) physicians must be paid enough to compensate them for the lengthy training and rigorous commitment entailed by their profession in comparison to other professions that require less personal commitment and sacrifice. However, Rawls also maintains that the difference between what (in this example) a physician earns and what other citizens earn should not be any greater than absolutely necessary to ensure that enough people choose to go to medical school to support the need for physicians in society. Presumably, Rawls would support a system where physicians earn much more than laborers but not more than necessary to compensate them fairly for their efforts and avoid a shortage of individuals willing to endure medical school and subsequent internships.

Priority of Equal Basic Liberties over Fair Equality of Opportunity

According to Rawls, his first principle of justice enjoys priority over his second principle of justice, meaning that it is permissible to violate elements of the second principle where necessary to preserve the objectives and purpose sought to be achieved by his first principle of justice. Therefore, fair equality of opportunity (such as the principle of majority rule in political opinion) is secondary to fundamental liberties such as the liberty of conscience (or religious liberty).

Otherwise, unrestricted political equality (also a valid principle) could conceivably eradicate religious freedom by majority vote. In Rawls' approach, certain liberties of the individual trump even other important liberties (such as political representation) and it is equally in the interests of all citizens to preserve fundamental personal liberties even at the cost of others.

The Veil of Ignorance:

Rawls proposes a specific mechanism, or thought experiment, to illustrate the concept of a truly just social system of laws. He imagines a situation where a tribunal is convened for the purpose of establishing a comprehensive set of formal rules and laws by which all members of the tribunal must live afterwards. In Rawls' thought experiment, none of the members of the tribunal has any idea what his specific situation or circumstance is in society prior to contributing to the selection of rules to govern society.

Furthermore, it is stipulated at the outset that no modifications or appeals based on personal circumstances or interests will be permitted once the tribunal votes on what will become their society's law and public policy. Once the laws are established, the members of the tribunal will have no choice but to accept them and to comply with them regardless of how those laws might affect their personal interests. According to Rawls, the ignorance of the tribunal members is a means of ensuring that the laws they establish will be objectively fair rather than preferential to any particularly situated individuals.

In principle, the veil of ignorance described by Rawls it is simply a mechanism for guaranteeing absolute intellectual objectivity in the process. Since all members of the tribunal know only that they will be bound to comply with whatever laws they establish but without any possible way of knowing how they might be affected personally, the veil of ignorance is a means for establishing the objective fairness of any laws they support and the equality of their effect on all individuals in society.

"These principles will express conditions in accordance with which each is the least unwilling to have his interests limited in the design of practices, given the competing interests of others, on the supposition that the interests of others will be limited likewise. The restrictions which would so arise might be thought of as those a person would keep in mind if he were designing a practice in which his enemy were to assign him his place" (Rawls, 1958 p.172).

Therefore, according to Rawls, any such tribunal would naturally gravitate toward a system of justice and social policy that mirrors the two main principles in his formulation. Only complete unbiased objectivity provides the necessary escape from the realm of personal circumstance and selfish interests required to appreciate the meaning of genuine philosophical objectivity.

The Benefits of Incorporating Rawls' Ideas within a Social System:

Incorporating Rawls' ideas into society would create a much different social system. First, a society based on Rawls' ideas would radically change professional business by imposing statutory limitations on profits through a maximum allowable profit margin, particularly for industries and business ventures that do not contribute to the greater social good. Presumably, those industries or ventures whose products do serve the greater public good (such as manufacturers of medical equipment) would be permitted a much greater profit margin than s0-called "superficial" industries (such as entertainment and fashion).

Second, a society based on Rawls' ideas would reward teachers, police officers, firefighters, and many other types of municipal workers, elected officials, and public servants in a manner much more commensurate with their actual contribution to society and the sacrifices and risks they undertake to perform services that benefit society and the greater good of all citizens. Conversely, while Rawls' approach would likely permit professional sports and other forms of entertainment (such as movie production) that are rewarded at an astronomical level in comparison to the income of ordinary workers in our society, Rawls would radically limit the maximum profits capable of being earned from such nonessential industries.

In principle, Rawls' ideas would promote a more cooperative communal society that rewarded achievement in relation to the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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