Rawl’s Principles of Justice Explained.
John Rawls is a famous American philosopher who is well known for his book A Theory of Justice. Rawls published this book in 1971 and spent the rest of his life answering objections, and reviewing his theory, until his death in 2002. In this article, I will try to explain in lay terms both Rawl’s original position or veil of ignorance, and his two principles of justice. In order to illustrate this position, I will use a cake metaphor. My hope is that this will help make Rawls easier to understand to the casual reader, and maybe entertain the knowledgeable reader.
A Theory of Justice is about, yes, you guessed it, justice. Rawls’ version of justice is what he calls “justice as fairness.” What does that mean? A basic notion of fairness would be, if everyone puts in the same, they should get the same out. Imagine we are in a baking club, and we want to bake a cake. Each member of the baking club brings an exactly equal share of the ingredients. We bake the cake together. When the time comes to divide the cake, the “fair” solution is that everyone gets the same amount.
In a complex society, things are not so straightforward. We do not all bring the exact same things to the table, and our starting points are not equal either. But if things are this complex, how will we create a fair society? This is probably one of the most complex questions in political philosophy, and Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is an attempt to provide an answer to this question.
At the beginning of his book, Rawls proposes a thought experiment, an imaginative situation, he called it the “original position” or “the veil of ignorance.” In this experiment, Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves “behind a veil of ignorance,” behind this veil we know everything we know normally about society, but we don’t know one important detail: we don’t know who we will be in this society. If we were to put ourselves in this position, and we were given authority to organize this society, what sort of society would we choose?
When I ask my students about this, they are very quick to point out a lot of things we would not want to have. Racial discrimination, enormous disparities of wealth, lack of access for the disabled, sexism, and the list goes on. Rawls, however, is going to think about this in more abstract terms. He claims that under the veil of ignorance, we would come up with two principles of justice. Before continuing on to the principles, watch this video that illustrates Rawls’ veil of ignorance experiment:
Under the veil of ignorance Rawls claims we would come up with two basic principles, one concerning freedom, and the other concerning equality and inequality. The freedom principle would say that in this society we would like to be as free as possible as long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others. This would be easy to agree on behind the veil of ignorance because if we allowed more freedom than what is possible without infringing on others, and we would not know if we are the others, this would not make sense — you would have to want more and less freedom at the same time! (This type of reasoning is very Kantean — Kant’s categorical imperative said that we cannot will a bad action to be a universal law without contradictions — but this is a topic I addressed in a different article, you can read about Kantian Ethics here.)
The second principle of justice proposed by Rawls is the equality (and inequality) principle. In the second principle, Rawls recognizes that modern society is complex and inequalities do arise. When such inequalities arise, they are only considered fair if they fulfill two conditions: a) they can be reasonably expected to benefit everyone and b) they are attached to offices and positions open to all. This second principle is a lot more complex than the first and I will explain it using my cake metaphor. Before going into explaining the second principle let me just recall what the two principles are:
We would want to be as free as possible, as long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others (similar to Mill’s “no harm” principle).
Equality and Inequality
We would want any inequality that exists to be justified this way:
a) Reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage.
b) Attached to positions and offices open to all.
The second principle is often the most difficult one for students to grasp, so I have developed a metaphor to help with understanding it. We can start by returning to the original cake example I already mentioned and that Rawls himself uses in the book. In a society where everyone brings the exact same thing to the table, the problem of justice is not very difficult to solve. The slices should be divided equally. There could be a procedural justice issue on how we guarantee that, but there are simple strategies, for instance, the person who cuts the cake gets the last slice.
In a complex modern society, we definitely bring different things to our baking club. We can have, for instance, someone who is a fantastic baker. Another person can have access to copious amounts of chocolate, another flour, another has eggs, and so on. In this case, people will come together and the final product is a lot better than the original one.
In a modern society though, the cake that we collectively produce is way beyond any of these simple cakes. Maybe a better illustration would be this one:
The problem now is, how do we divide this cake? If the cake is this complex, if we are trying to divide in a fair way, it would be close to impossible to come up with a system of dividing it that was happily accepted by all. Rawls has a solution for this, and it is, whatever form of cake division we come up with, this division is only fair if the person that is the worse of is still better off than they would have been in the case of the first equalitarian cake. That is, the worse and smallest slice of this cake is still better than the equal slice of the cake we started with when everyone brought in the same and received the same. That’s what he means by “reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage,” if you can guarantee that the worst off person is better off than they would have been in an equalitarian society, then the minimum criteria for fairness is achieved (you also need to work with everyone else to see to it that their share is relatively balanced to what they put in, but the minimum requirement prevails.)
One important thing to add is that Rawls is not necessarily talking about money and taxes here :). This metaphor can be interpreted in many different ways. Imagine there was a shanty town somewhere and you want to build a building there, you may come in and buy out the residents and then offer them homes in several of your properties. Now imagine that one resident is wheel chair bound. In the shanty town, everything was accessible to them and it the new building have no wheelchair accessibility, the resident is now worse than he was before. That was not a fair deal. Maybe you can come up with other examples.
Let’s move on to the second part of the second principle. Rawls claims that inequalities of positions are acceptable if they are attached to offices and positions open to all. Rawls wants to argue that it is ok to have certain positions in a society that are better paid and have a higher status than others. But there is one minimum condition, these positions have to be open to all. This is also sometimes called the opportunity principle. Think about the large cake again — if the larger slices are 95% given to say white men, or tall people, or whatever characteristic that does not match who the population is, that could be an indicator that the opportunity principle is not being respected.
Rawls this not believe the opportunity principle is not simply looking at the numbers and giving equal representation to the several groups in positions of power. The issue with doing this is that if we do so, we end up not fixing the root of the problem. Imagine there is a CEO position opening up at a large company. The applicants for this position are 90% male and 10% female. But I already have a high percentage of males in leadership positions in that company. I choose the female. This is good in the sense that it can help show other women that such positions are attainable. However, this does not solve the routes to power issue, that is, why aren’t women applying to those positions? Maybe we need to look at the entire path and not simply the last step. We need to make the offices are indeed open.
One way to do that for instance is to guarantee that the ivy league universities are accepting good students that are male and female, or from different ethnicities. And if there aren’t enough applicants in a specific group that means we need to look further down the line. We need to look as far as the beginning of the path if we really mean that we want offices and positions of power to be open to all. We need to create paths towards them. Now here I must say that Rawls may have had a more minimalist requirement than what I am developing here. He would think that as long as there is a path it is fair. I am saying that if the numbers of applicants are not relatively equal, there is a problem further down the line. What we both agree on is probably that looking at the end of the line is not the entire story. What we need is a path to get there.
This is all I had to say about Rawls here. There are a lot of Rawls’ experts out there, and I would be more than happy to discuss my interpretation in the comments. I do not think this interpretation is representative of the entirety of the book A Theory of Justice, it is not. This is just part of it and I have found it useful to explain it this way to my students. I hope you find it useful as well, but if you are interested in Rawls, you can definitely go a lot further than what I have here explored.
The gist is, freedom first, allow variety, but make sure no one is completely excluded and create paths for all. Inequality is only acceptable if it is for everyone to benefit, and not just for the benefit of the few. That’s it.