Last Thoughts On Rawls’ Theory Of Justice

I knew a couple of things before I was halfway through John Rawls’ A Theory Of Justice.  First, as I’ve said before, I knew right away that I was reading one of the greatest philosophical achievements created by a single man in the last fifty years.  I’m still convinced of that, despite the fact that this entry, my final one on A Theory Of Justice, is to be about some of the problems I have with Rawls’ amazing work.

I’ll put my final words on A Theory Of Justice in a brief, outline-style form.  There are several problems concerning Justice that even the masterful Rawls cannot solve, or at least did not solve to my satisfaction:

1)  Details of Definitions:  It is one thing to say that we must guarantee “fair equal opportunities” and basic liberties to the Least Advantaged— but how are we ever going to agree on what these things mean in day to day practice?  Is it “fair equal opportunity” or is it theft to take from others so that a mother of four can have free daycare and welfare aid?  What if a person had “equal opportunity” but then made a bad decision (or several) that reduced his or her opportunities?  Is it then society’s duty to return them to a state of equal opportunity?  What if their bad decisions actually harmed society as well as themselves?  Do we increase the harm by rewarding and enabling their inappropriate methods?

And who exactly are the “Least Advantaged?”   For Rawls, the Least Advantaged seem to be those with the least opportunity to get what they want in life.  But since everyone’s basket of goods and opportunities is different, it would be quite a difficult task to describe the Least Advantaged specifically as a group and be able to give any precise measurement of the improvement or deterioration of their situation.

And perhaps most difficult of all would be trying to agree, in the real world, on what activities actually benefit the Least Advantaged.  Rawls’ most fundamental principle is that the inequalities enjoyed by the wealthier and more powerful, to be Just, must also be shown to improve the lot of the Least Advantaged (such as a capitalist’s factory giving jobs to the poor).  But think of the endless arguments over each individual inequality—such as whether a rich man’s yacht purchase improves the lives of the unfortunate by giving them big boats to build and swab.  And was it Bastiat who suggested that a john is a benefactor of society since he improves the situation of his whore by increasing her income?

Lastly, I feel that Rawls sometimes conflated the concept of making “everyone” better off, and making better off the “Least Advantaged.” These two situations would not always overlap.

2)  The Problem Of Generations:  Rawls tries to address a problem that he, himself, spotted in his theory:  why should we give a care about future generations?  Rawls believes that:

“the life of a people is conceived as a scheme of cooperation spread out in historical time.  It is to be governed by the same conception of justice that regulates the cooperation of contemporaries.  No generation has stronger claims than any other.”

He evidently considers the conflicting claims of different generations a big question that is important to his own theory of justice, for he spends many a paragraph trying to answer it.  But he never successfully does so.

He suggests some fairly hard to believe notions, such as:  everyone in the future has someone who cares about them in the present, so we’ll just naturally want to take care of them.  But that’s just plain silly (no offense to the people living now who Rawls cared about but never met before he died).

Rawls tries to say that one of the conditions of setting up the original hypothetical social contract is that the signees would not know to which generation they would belong, but this seems to take the whole contrivance of the Social Contract too far.  Shall we pretend that the signees may believe they may enter the world as a squirrel in the year 3535?  Or perhaps as a nebula which exploded two million years ago but whose light is just now arriving at Earth?  He tries to say that not only the lot of the Least Advantaged should be improved but that the lot of their posterity should be improved also.  Ah, I think here Rawls takes that small step from the sublime to the ridiculous.

And Rawls, himself, remarks how it might seem undemocratic to allow future generations what boils down to a “vote” in our current political questions.  After all, the future is the great Undiscovered Country—and foreigners don’t usually get the vote.

It is obvious to me that Rawls’ heart is telling him one thing (namely that we should care about what kind of world we leave to future generations), and he tries to get his head to come up with logical reasons to justify this strange sympathy with people he has never, and will never, meet.  But he keeps bumping up against the same question (if you’ll allow me to insert one of my favorite jokes):  What has posterity ever done for me?

3) Future Value vs Present Value:  Like the Problem Of Generations, this is a question of Time:  Rawls attempts to explain why we should value our future selves equally with our present selves.  But I get the impression that Rawls does not adequately take into consideration the precariousness of the human situation.  We know we are here now (if we are to believe Descartes), but have no certainty about our existence tomorrow, or the day after, or the year or decade after.  Nor do we know what condition we will be in at some future date.  Shall we give up a juicy burger now so the old man who may have lost most of his sense of taste can have two burgers in the future?  Shall we say no to a great love affair and instead marry an unlikable widow so that the senior us can have an expectation of inheritance from a rich father-in-law?

Rawls, even after admitting that some people might give preference to the near term because of its greater probability, goes on to claim that favoring our present selves over our future selves is “irrational” since we would not then be “viewing all moments as equally part of one life.”  This is fascinating food for thought, but Rawls gets no closer than any of the rest of us in answering the eternal question, debated by the ant and the grasshopper:  To live for today or to sacrifice for tomorrow?

4)  Dismissal of Envy:  Rawls assumes that rational people will not envy better-off people, at least not so much so that they would wish upon them misfortune.  In this, he is just flat wrong.  Sadly, that is not human nature as it now exists or how it has ever yet existed.  He does, late in the book, speak at length about the Envy problem and gives some reasons why he believes what he does, but it is too little too late and does not convince.

5)  Personal Liberty vs Societal Liberty:  Rawls failed to convince me of his contention that even one liberty of one man cannot be limited for the increased happiness of the whole society.  I don’t fault him heavily for this.  No one has been able to come up with a good justification for public takings.  It seems we intuitively believe, for instance, that a transportation system criss-crossing the nation is a good thing, but we are really never comfortable with the ill effects this will have on the present and future generations of the families and communities whose land we are taking and whose way of life we are intruding upon.

Relatedly, Rawls fails to convince that he has come up with the correct formula for telling us when and how we should limit smaller freedoms for the sake of greater freedoms.  At one point he says that “the liberties of some are not suppressed simply to make possible a greater liberty for others.”  Yet, when he comes to talking about what he calls “intolerant sects” he says that their liberties can be limited if a society “sincerely and with reason” believes that the physical security of their citizens are threatened or the society’s so-called “institutions of liberty” are in danger.  Again, we are at the definitions problem:  what the heck is an “institution of liberty?”  What’s all this mush about “sincerity” and “with reason?”

6)  Sources Of Liberty:  A major premise of Rawls’ is the “priority of Liberty”—nothing but nothing trumps Liberty, or as Rawls says, “Liberty can be restricted only for the sake of Liberty.”  But here the problem will be determining which things actually affect liberty and which don’t.  For example, can a road through your pasture be justifiable in that it improves peoples freedom of travel and access to markets and such, even though it limits your freedom for grazing cattle there?

7)  Justice, Mercy, and Love:  I just have to mention this one, even though it has little bearing on the foundation of Rawls’ philosophy of government.  At one point Rawls claims that Love includes a desire to give justice.”  Actually, I found it is often quite the opposite:  Love tugs at your sleeve to show Mercy, and Mercy can often approach the opposite of Justice.  Justice could be punishment for stealing; mercy could very well countermand that deliverance of Justice and give someone a second chance.

8)  Publicly Funded Political Parties:  No one has ever demonstrated how this noble-enough idea would work fairly in practice.  My feeling is that it would be far better to address the problem of money-controlled politics from other angles—such as not allowing groups of people, be it corporations or unions, to donate to politics as a group—but limiting political contributions to individuals —which could then be (at least ideally) somewhat regulated along the one-person, one-vote way of thinking (not sure how that would work with the whole competing Freedom Of Speech interpretation of campaign support).

9)  Civil Disobedience and Unjust Laws:  Rawls  attempts to justify Civil Disobedience while at the same time insisting that an individual has a duty, in a generally Just society, to obey individual laws even when they feel they are unjust.  I feel guilty not giving this more space, and I encourage you to read Rawls’ ideas on Civil Disobedience and the obeying of unjust laws.  I will say that, similar to his attempt to come up with a formula for deciding between competing liberties, Rawls fails to come up with any good rule for determining when Civil Disobedience is acceptable—and indeed, even when so-called Civil Disobedience crosses the line into outright criminal activity.  Nevertheless, he does about as well as anyone ever has done with this fuzzy area.  He tries to say that Civil Disobedience is differentiated from other run-of-the-mill lawbreaking because it appeals to the “sense of justice” of the community and is not merely an attempt by an individual to keep his own personal situation from being negatively affected by a law.  Of course, who is to say which one of us has the proper “sense of justice” when it comes to a certain issue.  Still, Rawls gives lots of good food for thought here, and his words about Civil Disobedience should be part of any course or book upon the subject.

10)  Duty To Do Favors:  This is one of Rawls’ noble feelings of heart that he attempts to support with hard facts and reasons, but he doesn’t quite succeed.  Not to say that he is wrong when he says that we should do favors for each other, but I feel he fails to prove his point with sound argument.  He basically says that we are all better off helping each other.  But I don’t see that he disproves the idea that I should just set back and let everyone else do all the helping.  Who is going to notice if I hold back and let someone else help that little old lady cross the street?  It’s kinda related to the idea of the Ring Of Invisibility:  if one is certain of not being caught, should one still do the “right” thing?

Thank you Rawls, for providing one of the great books of political thought.  Of course, if you really cared about posterity, you would have made it a tad shorter.


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

Perhaps The Greatest Work Of Philosophy Of The Last Fifty Years

John Rawls And The Veil Of Ignorance

Decoupling Inequality from Injustice

Rawls’ View Of Good Government

The Rawlsian Four Branches Of Government


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