John Rawls: Decoupling Inequality From Injustice


In his monumental philosophical achievement, A Theory Of Justice, John Rawls notes that Aristotle said that it is a peculiarity of the human animal that we possess a sense of Justice.

And oh, the misery and bloodshed due to this most acute of feelings.

If there is a Default American Sense Of Justice, it is probably a not entirely rational nor consistent blend of Utilitarianism and the Golden Rule.  Most people, at first blush, would probably agree with the principle that sometimes the rights of the few must be sacrificed for the benefit of the many.  Rawls, however, immediately disparages this Utilitarianist morality.  One of the major problems Rawls has with Utilitarianism is that, in his view, it stresses too much the goal of increasing happiness for the society as a whole, and undervalues the importance of how all this happiness is to be distributed.

Imagine if you will a great, taxpayer funded party held by society’s elite of the elite every year.  And imagine that these ultra-elites have so much fun at this annual event that the amount of pleasure they derive from it surpasses the pleasure that all society could have experienced if resources had instead been diverted to other things and the party not been held.  What Rawls contends is that the Utilitarian principle would say that the moral thing to do is to have the party, since the society’s net amount of pleasure for the year will actually be best increased this way.

Rawls’ concept of Justice dictates that “social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are Just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the Least Advantaged members of society.  These principles rule out justifying institutions [or parties] on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate.”

Continuing to ride this rational train of thought, Rawls also condemns the related notion that some portion of the population must sweat and toil under lesser liberties so that a talented tenth (or one-percent, in today’s Occupier parlance) may have the leisure and resources to create great art or technology—boldly disagreeing with two of the greatest philosophers of all time, Aristotle and Nietzsche.  For Rawls, this is the true Road To Serfdom.

Says Rawls:  “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on Justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.  For this reason Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.  It does not allow that the sacrifice imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum advantages enjoyed by many.”

Rawls arrives at an idea of Justice that many of us would at first find odd, even disconcerting.  This is because Rawls uncouples Justice from Equality—something quite foreign to the American way of thinking.  Instead, a society should be allowed to run rampant with inequalities–  and indeed, there is no stopping the persistence of inequalities in the world—but (and this is a big but)– these inequalities are Just only as long as they make everyone better off than they would have been had not these inequalities existed.

An example might be an inventor who obtains a patent on a cheap, safe, non-polluting flying automobile.  He becomes enormously wealthy because of this invention— but this situation is not necessarily Unjust because everyone else has been made better off by his invention, too.

For Rawls, the job of political theorists is to:  1) come up with the best way of allowing for unequal advantages, and  2) the best method for distributing the benefits produced by society.

But don’t think that because Rawls condones inequality that he is advocating a system designed to purposely keep some members of society at a perpetual disadvantage.  Rawls stresses that:  “All Social Values– liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect — are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage,” adding elsewhere that all citizens “of a just society are to have the same basic Rights.”

And the ultimate aim of allowing some inequalities to go forth is to maximize “the long-term expectations of the Least Advantaged.”  This is perhaps the most fundamental doctrine in all of Rawls’ work:  inequalities in power and wealth are not to be allowed unless they serve to improve the condition of the Least Advantaged.

In A Theory Of Justice, Rawls differentiates between several types of Injustice, or at least what people commonly think of as Injustice.  The two major categories of Injustice are:  1) Natural and  2) Social.  Rawls believes that Natural Inequalities (such as physical advantages with which some are born, or innate talents or tendencies to excel in certain skills) are neither Just nor Unjust.  The same goes for Social Inequalities (such as which economic or social class a person is born into).  “These are simple natural facts,” he says. “What is Just and Unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”

Rawls says that although “no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society” it does not follow that “one should eliminate these distinctions.”  He contends that the best way to handle these sorts of inequalities is to arrange the rules and institutions of society “so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate.”

In other words, being born with physical gifts or with all the advantages of wealth and privilege does not make one a bad or unjust person; it is what one does with one’s advantages that matter as far as Justice is concerned.  Where we start from is irrelevant in terms of Justice; but what is very relevant is how we use and share the advantages we’ve been given in what Rawls calls the “natural lottery.”

In my next entry, I hope to get into some of the details of Rawls’ blueprint for a society in which Justice is determined by the condition of the Least Advantaged.  I hope I don’t give too much away when I say that it involves a hypothetical Social Contract among rational persons seeking their own best interests.


Other Hammering Shield articles on A Theory Of Justice by John Rawls:

The Greatest Work Of Philosophy In The Last Fifty Years

John Rawls And The Veil Of Ignorance

Rawls’ View Of Good Government

The Rawlsian Four Branches Of Government

Last Thoughts On Rawls’ Theory Of Justice


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