Political and Social Philosophy
I. THE INTUITIVE ARGUMENT.
According to Rawls, social and economic inequalities
are to be arranged so that they are to everyone's advantage and attached
to positions open to all. He argues for this by arguing against the prevailing
ideology of equal opportunity. That ideology can be summarized in the following
1. Inequalities are just only
when conditions of equal opportunity obtain.
Rawls argues that the prevailing ideology
is unstable, since it only rules out inequalities determined by social
circumstances. But one's talents and abilities are no more deserved that
one's social circumstance. Therefore, inequalities determined by one's
talents and abilities must be ruled out as well:
2. Conditions of equal opportunity obtain
only when a person's fate is not determined by morally irrelevant factors.
3. One's fate is not determined by morally
irrelevant factors only when it is determined by one's choices and efforts.
4. One's fate is determined by one's choices
and efforts only if it is not determined by social circumstances.
5. Therefore, inequalities are just only
when not determined by social circumstances.
6. One's fate is determined by
one's choices and efforts alone only if it is not determined by one's talents
Kymlicka objects that while Rawls rules out
inequalities determined by both social circumstance and talents and abilities,
he appears to allow inequalities based on choices and efforts. But this
conflicts with his own Difference Principle, which allows no inequalities
that are not to the benefit of the least well-off position in society and
open to all. In any event, Rawls holds that it is not how inequalities
are determined which makes them just or unjust. Rather, it is whether inequalities,
however determined (at least, consistently with the Liberty Principle),
are to the benefit of the least well-off and open to all.
7. Therefore, inequalities are just only
when not determined by a person's talents and abilities.
II. THE SOCIAL CONTRACT ARGUMENT.
Rawls claims that justice consists of those
principles people would agree to under conditions of fairness and equality.
Hence, he refers to his view as "justice as fairness". Our conception of
justice is constituted by principle we would agree to live by certain principles
under fair conditions, in particular,
1. Each person is to have an equal
right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty
for others. (the Liberty Principle)
In outline, his argument is:
2. Social and economic inequalities are
to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's
advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (the
1. Our conception of justice is
that of principles free and equal reasonable people would agree to live
Now one can accept premise 1, but reject 2.
Or you might accept the conclusion, 3, but reject 1. That is, as Rawls
points out, one can agree with him that the principles of justice are whatever
principles free and equal rational persons would choose live under, but
disagree with him about which principles those are. And one can agree with
him about the principles of justice, but disagree that they are identified
as those which free and equal rational persons would choose live under.
Moreover, one can disagree with Rawls about what "free and equal rational
persons" means -- that is, one can disagree with his description of the
"initial situation" or "original position" which specifies a "fair" choice
situation. But why should we accept premise 1? What I will call the "social
contract" argument purports to show us why:
2. Free and equal reasonable reasonable
would agree to the Liberty and Difference Principles (giving the former
3. So our conception of justice consists
of these Principles (giving the former priority).
1. The principles of justice are
principles by which we are legitimately bound.
The idea of the "social contract" argument
is that we are only obligated by principles we would agree to under normal
conditions (e.g., no force, fraud, we're of sound mind, etc.). Since we
want a conception of justice that obligates us, we specify it in terms
of a contract under the normal conditions.
The problem with this argument is quite apparent:
2 is false. That is, contracts obligate us only if we actually make them,
not if we would make them. No one ever actually agreed to any principles
of justice, and surely not Rawls'. So no such principles can legitimately
The truth is, however, that Rawls does not
rely on hypothetical agreement to secure the obligatory force of the principles
of justice. Rather, the hypothetical agreement is simply a device for "embodying"
a certain conception of justice as fairness. Dworkin offers an additional
idea, based on the social contract argument, to show how such a conception
could be binding on us. The principles of justice legitimately bind us,
not simply because we would have agreed to them, but because what we would
agree to under these conditions reflects principles that treat persons
as moral equals.
2. We are only legitimately bound by principles
to which we would agree, were we free and equal rational persons.
3. So the principles of justice are the
principles to which free and equal rational persons would agree.
1. The principles of justice are
principles we are legitimately bound by.
Notice that we get the same result, with an
additional premise specifying why the social contract, as construed by
Rawls, is binding. It is binding, not because it is a contract, but because
it specifies principles that treat persons as equals.
2. We are only legitimately bound by principles
that treat persons as moral equals.
3. Principles that treat persons as moral
equals are those we would agree to live under we free and equal rational
4. The principles of justice are the principles
free and equal rational persons would agree to live under.
III. THE ORIGINAL POSITION.
The question remaining is What conditions
specify a fair agreement, one which will reflect principles that treats
persons as equals? Rawls' answer is the Original Position. The Original
Position is the position under which people are free, equal and rational
and are concerned to make a choice of principles that they will live under.
People in the original position (POPs):
(a) Are rational (i.e., they take
the most efficient means to satisfy their desires).
(b) Desire a set of primary goods--wealth,
opportunities, liberties and self-respect--that enable one to promote their
conception of the good, whatever it is.
(c) Are mutually disinterested (neither
sympathetic nor malicious).
(d) Know general laws and principles that
govern society and psychology (e.g., that humans are social creatures,
typically need affection, etc.).
(e) Know that they will have a conception
of the good for themselves.
(f) Know that they will have a sense of
(g) Know that their society is subject
to the "circumstances of justice"- people live in proximity and are roughly
equal; there is moderate scarcity; they have some, but not all interests
in common; and they have finite psychological, emotional and intellectual
(h) Are situated behind a "veil of ignorance"
1. What stage of social, economic
and cultural development their society is in, nor what sort of society
or economy it is.
2. What generation of that society they
3. Their social, political and economic
4. Their natural talents and abilities,
intelligence, strength, etc.
5. Their conception of the good.
6. Their psychological proclivities.
IV. ARGUMENT FOR THE DIFFERENCE PRINCIPLE.
Rawls' argument is that people facing a choice
of principles under these conditions would agree to his two principles.
Let us set aside the argument for the Liberty principle. The Difference
principle, according to Rawls, represents a "maximin" solution to the choice
situation faced by persons in the "original position". The conditions under
which it is rational to choose a "maximin" principle (M-conditions) are
M1. One has no knowledge of probabilities
of outcomes. (If you knew it was unlikely that you would end up in the
least-favored position, it might be rational to go for an alternative that
has a minimum which is worse than the others but a maximum which is better.)
Outline of Rawls' argument:
M2. One has no reason to try for anything
above the minimum possible. (If you have a strong desire to
get more than the minimum outcome, then it will be rational to go for the
option with a greater maximum possibility, even if it has a minimum which
is worse than the others.)
M3. The alternatives have dire, unacceptable
worst-possible outcomes. (If the alternatives had acceptable minimums,
then you would be willing to take a blind chance, and opt for principles
that might result in a system in which you have less than you could have--since
the least isn't so bad.)
(i) If M-conditions obtain
in OP, then the principle which maximizes the minimum position (the maximin
principle) is the most rational choice.
(ii) M-conditions obtain in OP.
(iii) Justice as fairness is the
(iv) Therefore, justice as fairness
is the most rational choice.
V. ARGUMENTS FOR (i) & (ii):
Does OP call for a maximin solution?
(a) M-1: POPs are ignorant
of the conditions of society; it is as likely that they end up getting
the minimum as it is that they get anything else.
Therefore, POP's will choose whichever principles
regulating the basic structure of society provide a maximin solution (or
maximize the minimum outcome possible).
(b) M-2: POPs will not prefer to
gain more than the best minimum possible of primary goods. They will take
a chance on something other than maximizing the minimum only if they believe
that more than the minimum possible would be necessary to their conception
of the good. Only then will it be rational to take a chance on more than
maximin. But they do not know what their conception of the good is, and
so do not know whether it would be worth the risk to try for something
other than maximin. So they do not prefer anything other than maximin.
(c) M-3: The alternative principles
have unacceptable minimums. Rawls takes it that utilitarianism is
the main opponent. Utilitarian principles say to maximize overall well-being.
But there may be overall well-being in a society that has slavery. That
is, a few people suffering may be of so much benefit to everyone else that
there is a net gain in well being for the society as a whole. But it is
possible that one will be a suffering slave in that society. And, given
we don't know how possible, any possibility is unacceptable. So utilitarianism
has an unacceptable outcome.
Objection: POPs will not opt for a maximin
solution, for that is not a rational principle to follow under conditions
of ignorance about the probability of outcomes. Rather, under such conditions
it is most rational to follow the principle of insufficient reason, viz.,
to count each outcome as equally likely. Hence, given the number of possible
outcomes (O) of a given distribution (n), we should say that we have a
1/n chance of getting On. But that is equivalent to maximizing average
utility. Hence, POPs will maximize average utility. They will not maximize
the minimum position.
VI. ARGUMENT FOR (iii):
But is justice as fairness (the difference
principle) the maximin solution?
1. POPs desire the maximum amount
of primary goods, and so will choose the principles that will insure that
they get the maximum. From behind the Veil, only the liberty and difference
principles will insure that they get the maximum. So POPs will choose these
POPs will not be interested in taking a chance
on anything more than maximizing the minimum expectation. And this is just
what Rawls' principles of justice do.
2. POPs will not choose a principle that
they do not believe reasonable people could abide by. For if they agree
on a principle in OP, and it turns out that some cannot abide by it once
the veil is lifted, then the scheme of cooperation so constructed would
fall apart. Once the veil is lifted, even the person in the worst position
must be able to see the reasonableness of the arrangements. The Difference
Principle does this by insuring that inequalities are to the benefit of
the persons in the worst positions. Of course, this would not help as far
as stability is concerned unless the principles of distribution were public.
For if they are not public, then people in the worst position will presumably
not know that the inequalities are supported only if they are to their
benefit. But once they know this, presumably they will acknowledge that
it is rational for things to be arranged in this way.
VII. KYMLICKA ON RAWLS.
Kymlicka holds that the Difference principle
allows inequalities to be influenced too much by undeserved natural talents.
That is, he defines the "least well-off" position only socially and economically,
but not in terms of the lack of natural talents. But lacks in natural talents
are undeserved, and make people less well-off. Therefore, if inequalities
are to be to the benefit of the least well-off, they must compensate not
only for less social and economic goods, but also for less natural goods--talents,
abilities, and health, for instance. Hence, "the difference principle...does
not entirely ėmitigate the effects of natural accident and social circumstance'.
For the well endowed still get the natural good of their endowment." (p.
How, then, should we compensate natural inequities?
On Rawls' view, the least well-off position is defined only in terms of
social goods. Hence, suppose we have two people of equal natural endowments,
but one is entrepreneurial and the other is a couch-potato. The couch-potato,
because of his choices, may end up in the least well-off position economically.
So it looks as if "removing the inequalities" requires that the entrepreneur
get a greater income only by subsidizing the couch potato. Surely this
is a bad result. And Rawls recognizes that it is bad, and that inequalities
that reflect people's choices are just. But the difference principle does
not insure this, and, indeed, does not even recognize it at all.
Dworkin, on Kymlicka's view, tries to come
up with a scheme that is both "ambition-sensitive" and "endowment-insensitive".
1. Ambition-sensitivity: Suppose everyone
has equal natural endowments and equivalent money, and all society's resources
are "up for sale". Each person then bids on these resources based simply
on their plan of life. Hence, the couch-potato will get his couch and TV,
the entrepreneur her business tools, and so on. After the auction, each
person will be satisfied, as measured by the "envy test". If no one is
envious of another's bundle, then the distribution treats each as a moral
equal. Notice that this will allow inequalities of income, but equality
in respect. No one can claim to be treated with less consideration, since
the distribution reflects choices alone.
2. Endowment-insensitivity: 1 alone fails
the envy test because not all inequalities are chosen. Some are natural,
and those naturally disadvantaged will be left less well-off after the
Remedy A: First compensate natural
inequalities; then distribute income equally for the auction.
Problem: More income can't
genuinely equalize these inequalities. If we equalize them as much as possible,
we might have no income left for the auction. But this would undermine
the point of equalizing, which was to allow each to pursue her own life-plan.
Remedy B: Don't compensate (Rawls).
Remedy C: "Second-best" theory (Dworkin).
How much will people behind a veil of ignorance spend on insurance? That
amount will be an income tax to be distributed to the naturally disadvantaged.
Everyone will buy some insurance, but no one will spend all of their income
Problem (Narveson): The envy test will
Reply: Question-begging. Dworkin doesn't
say that this is full compensation for natural inequalities, just that
it is the best we can do. But Narveson doesn't show how we can do better,
or why we shouldn't try to live up to this ideal.
3. The real world: A tax system can
only approximate the ideal of hypothetical insurance.
A. (i) Measurement of relative
natural inequalities impossible, since people may or may not choose to
develop their skills. We cannot determine which inequalities are chosen
and which are natural. (ii) What counts as a natural advantage depends
on what skills people value. But that is revealed only after the auction,
Dworkin's response: Tax the rich and support
the poor, no matter what the inequalities are the result of. Some will
get less coverage than they would have bought, and others will get more.
B. Unforseen contingencies (e.g.,
natural disasters) are also undeserved. But compensating them as well runs
into all the problems of compensating natural inequities.
All in all, the insurance scheme is a second-best
strategy for dealing with these problems, and taxation a second-best application
of this scheme. The problem is that accounting for ambition-sensitivity
and endowment-insensitivity pull in opposite directions. Compensating for
one implies disadvantage for the other.
4. The envy test makes vivid the fact
that a distributive scheme that treats people as equals will compensate
for unequal circumstances while holding individuals responsible for their
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