John Rawls 1921-2002

Link to the ideas of John Rawls

Rawls was an American academic whose best-known work, A Theory of Justice (1971), attempts to reconcile individual freedom with the avoidance of excessive inequality in society.

John Rawls, invites us to imagine that we are behind a hypothetical ‘veil of ignorance’, in that we don’t know how and where we will end up in society . For example, we don’t know our gender, ethnicity or class, nor do we know our character and talents, for example whether we are hard working or lazy . He argues that if we didn’t know any of this, we would opt for a much fairer system, just in case we ended up at the bottom . This system would be based on freedom and equal opportunities, and would also be one in which there was not a large gap between the rich and the poor . Because we would come to this decision from a neutral perspective, it should be accepted by all as correct and truly fair . A Theory of Justice (1971) is one of the most important works of post-war political philosophy . In it, Rawls argues that the aim of government should be to achieve liberty for all . This must be accompanied by equality of opportunity, which would lead to the creation of a truly free society . This society would include inequality only if this would help the poorest to improve their positions . Rawls argued that the role of liberalism is to create the social conditions in which people can fl ourish and live the life they choose to . It should not tell people how they should live in terms of morality

He rejected utilitarianism because it did not take accountof the range of desires and goals pursued by individual people, and some would find their interests ignored. Rawls' starting point was that everyone has an equal entitlement to certain basic rights and liberties. However, it is also important to create a society in which there is economic justice. His ideas are intellectually linked to the social contract, as developed by Locke and other liberal thinkers.

Rawls accepted that there would always be a degree of inequality, but said that a just society should aim to minimise the difference between the outcomes for the best off and the poorest. He envisaged what he called the 'original position' — a hypothetical state of affairs before human society had been formed. People would have to decide on a basis for

society that was fair to all, devising it behind a 'veil of ignorance' so it would not be skewed by knowledge of their own class, gender, race, talents or other characteristics. They would not be certain about how successful they would be, so they would need to adopt a low-risk strategy so that if they found themselves at the bottom of society, they would not suffer unduly.

In these circumstances, Rawls argued, people would agree on the importance of equal rights including freedom of speech and the right of assembly. They would also want an accepted minimum standard of living. This 'difference principle' would allow people to enjoy as much freedom as possible, provided that it was not exercised at the expense of others. There would be inequality in such a society, but it would be tolerated only if it did not make those at the bottom worse off.

Rawls rejected the two extremes of communism and unregulated capitalism, instead favouring a 'property-owning democracy, in which ownership is widely distributed and the poorest members of society can be economically independent.

In Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls modified his original theory because he realised that, in a pluralist society, not everyone would agree with his model. He therefore envisaged a range of liberal principles, with his two principles of equal rights and economic justice forming just one of a number of options. It would be enough for there to be what he termed an 'overlapping consensus, as opposed to unanimous agreement on the principles of a just society.

Rawls is thought to be the most important exponent of modern liberalism in the twentieth century. Rawls’ major work, A Theory of Justice (1971), remains a key reference for students of liberal thinking. It had two principal objectives:

First, to restate the idea that the core liberal principle of ‘foundational equality’ meant individuals required not just formal equality under the law and constitution but also greater social and economic equality. This was necessary, Rawls argued, to ensure the just society, where all lives could be rich and fulfilled. Yet this could be provided, Rawls stated, only by a significant redistribution of wealth via an enabling state, with extensive public spending and progressive taxation.

Second, A Theory of Justice set out to show that such a redistribution of wealth was not (as Friedrich von Hayek had suggested) a ‘surrender to socialism’ but perfectly consistent with liberal principles. To do this, Rawls constructed a series of philosophical conditions. The first of these was termed ‘the original position’, whereby individuals would be asked to construct from scratch a society they judged to be superior to the one they lived in currently. Central to such an exercise would be questions about how wealth and power should be distributed. The second condition was one Rawls termed the ‘veil of ignorance’, whereby individuals would have no preconceptions about the sort of people they themselves might be in this new society. They might, for example, be white or they might be from an ethnic majority; they might be rich or they might be poor.

Rawls argued that when faced with such conditions, human nature — being rational and empathetic — would lead individuals to choose a society where the poorest members fared significantly better than in present society. From a liberal angle, Rawls argued that the key point here was that this ‘fairer’ society, where inequalities were reduced, was the one individuals would choose. So an enlarged state, with higher taxation and significant wealth redistribution, was indeed consistent with liberalism’s historic stress upon government by consent. Rawls denied this was simply a fresh justification for socialism and egalitarianism. He noted that though most individuals would indeed choose to improve the lot of the poorest, they would still want considerable scope for individual liberty, self-fulfillment and, therefore, significant inequalities of outcome. So although Rawls argued that the lot of the poor should be improved by the state, he did not argue that the gap between the richest and the poorest should necessarily be narrowed — thus ensuring that his philosophy was still distinct from socialism.