Rawls - SN.docx

18 Pages

Course Code
PHIL 320
Jennifer Johnson

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And A Theory of Justice begins with these famous words. Rawls says, after saying what he hopes to do in the book, that "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thought." He says, "Just as a theory, however elegant and economical, must be rejected or revised if it's untrue, so, too laws and institutions, no matter how efficient or well arranged, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust." This is an articulation of what Rawls sees as the central commitment of a certain outlook of the legitimacy of government. A Western picture--and perhaps more general picture--according to which, a social structure, an arrangement of fundamental institutions by which lives are governed, is legitimate if and only if the institutions which it supports are just. So just as a theory which is extraordinarily elegant but false should be rejected on the grounds that it's untrue, so too, says Rawls, should a societal structure which is elegant but unjust be rejected. He goes on to identify what he sees as some fundamental commitments of this sort of picture. He writes, for example, that "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." Now we thought about this question--the question of the trade-off of goods across individuals--in the context of our discussion of consequentialism on the one hand and other moral theories, deontology and virtue theory on the other. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that entering into a social contract with one another--whereby as a way securing the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we subject ourselves to a rule of law, which we thereby take to be legitimate--is central, both to the social contract tradition as articulated in Hobbes and his successors, Locke and Rousseau and Kant, and to this document, which all of us have presumably encountered previously. Moreover, continues this document, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute a new government.” What kind of new government? What's Jefferson's answer? A new government, where “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.” So the idea that we set out to create a government that gains its legitimacy through our recognition that thereby our self-interest is advanced is a central notion to the American political tradition. Chapter 2. Rawls on Justice [00:11:33] So how does it manifest itself in the particular text that we're thinking about today? How does John Rawls, in this book from the 1970s, attempt to give contemporary voice to this set of concerns that 200 years prior to him were given voice to by Thomas Jefferson and 150 years prior to that were given voice to by Thomas Hobbes? So Rawls begins by saying what it is that he takes society to be. Society, that which we're trying to identify a set of characteristics for, is “a more or less self-sufficient association of persons, who in their relations to one another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding” and who, “for the most part, act in accordance with them.” You'll recall that at the end of the Prisoner’s Dilemma lecture last week and also in our readings for last Thursday, we looked at mechanisms other than the ones that Hobbes identified for enforcing social contract. Hobbes thought the most effective way was the imposition of a sovereign, whose threat of penalty and punishment would hold people to behave in certain ways. So Rawls has told us what it is that he thinks a society is for the purposes of discussion. It's “a more or less self-sufficient association of persons, who in their relations to one another recognize” something--that is “certain rules of conduct--as binding” and, “for the most part”--not always, I know some of you talk on your cell phone while you drive--“act in accordance with them.” These rules “specify a system of cooperation that's designed” to do what? It's designed to do the thing that Thomas Hobbes was talking about in Leviathan. They specify “a system of cooperation that is designed to advance the good of those taking part of it.” The legitimacy of government on this picture derives from the fact that it is to the advantage of those who participate in it. However--and this is the perplexing feature that makes political philosophy a discipline of great intellectual interest--“although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” it is, says Rawls, undeniably typically “marked by conflict as well as identity of interests.” Why is this? It's because while there is an identity of interests--because social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. That is, we get dividends as the result of not having to expend our energy on protecting ourselves from the threat of others' harm. Each of us--as we know from the last two lectures--is better off when we can count on others to be cooperative. It is nonetheless the case that there is a conflict of interests in any society since “persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits of their collaboration are distributed.” Roughly speaking, each prefers a larger to a lesser share. If there are cooperation dividends, that is good and produces a reason for cooperation. But when there are cooperation dividends, each of us--reasonably enough--wants as many of the dividends as we can get. And the consequence of that is that although “society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” it's typically “marked by conflict as well as identity of interests.” So this gives rise to the next level question. When we read Hobbes we read only the very beginning of his discussion of the social contract. Rawls is now turning to a question beyond that. Namely, what set of principles ought we to adopt, given the fact of conflict? Given that we want cooperation, we want some sort of societal structure. As a result we're going to end up with more stuff than we would have had if we hadn't been cooperating. How should that stuff, how should those goods--some tangible, some intangible--be distributed? So Rawls points out that a set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements, which determine this distribution of advantages. These principles “provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society.” Things like what the legal system looks like. Things like what the economic system looks like. Things like what the fundamental rights and responsibilities of citizens look like. And what they do is to define an appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Because, as we've already noted, social cooperation brings with it undeniable benefits but it also brings with it certain kinds of burdens. Your freedom is restricted in certain ways in a cooperative system. And it may well be the case that the benefits that accrue to the social system go to someone else. What Rawls calls the main idea of the theory of justice and how that fits with his notion of the veil of ignorance?  So the main idea of The Theory of Justice is, as I've pointed out to you already, something that is part of the social contract tradition.  Rawls explicitly says in the first footnote of the text we read for today that he's working primarily from the social contact picture as articulated in Locke, Rousseau and Kant, but that he is harkening back to Hobbes in it.  And this, as you know, is the following idea, that each of us recognizes that there's a certain advantage to living in a society where we're not constantly under threat, that each recognizes that non-threat can be achieved--this idea that you're not constantly at risk in this cold war of all against all.  That non-threat can be achieved only under general cooperation. And that general cooperation can be achieved only under some sort of implicit or explicit enforcement system.  So Rawls, with that social contract framework in mind, goes on to ask, what would it take to get a clear picture of what that enforcement system ought to look like if, as we recall, it's meant to be something, which is for the good of each of its participants? And here is what he says. He says, "The principles of justice,” of the basic structure of society, “are those that free and rational persons concerned to further their self-interest would accept in an original position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association"  That is there are four fundamental ideas that underlie this picture.  The rules that govern your society, the rules that govern a legitimate society, into which you ought to contract, are rules that you would accept if you were: o free, o rational, o self-interested o Equality o with respect to all of the other free, rational and self-interested individuals who are also contracting into this society. How can we possibly get there? How can we possibly determine what free, rational, self-interested and equal individuals would agree to, given that--as a matter of fact--we're not all equaSome of us were born into families of wealth and some of us were born into families of poverty. Some of us were born with certain sets of natural talents; others were born with other sets. Some of us were born with certain sorts of conceptions--or some of us were raised to have certain sorts of conceptions--of the good life. Others of us were raised to have others. Veil of Ignorance Rawls's idea is this: the principles that articulate the legitimate structure of society are those to which you would agree if you did not know which person you were going to be. So he asks you to imagine that you sit behind what's he called a “veil of ignorance,” where “no one knows his place in society, his class position, his social status, his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, his strength or his conception of the good.”  this gives equality From this position, where you don't know which person you are going to be, you get the fourth of our four requirements. You get equality. Because nothing particular about your self-interest will play a role. And having put yourself in this imaginary position, where ignorance brings with it a certain kind of ability to think clearly about the question, each party then freely determines on the basis rational self-interest. So that gives us freedom, rationality and self-interest. The framework that they think would be best. So the idea is this: a bunch of people who don't know what role they will play in society sit behind the veil of ignorance and think, how would I want society to be structured if I didn't know whether I was going to end up as a shepherd or a capitalist or a doctor or a construction worker or a police officer or someone who has difficulties with the authority of police officers or somebody who's differently abled or perhaps even as a Yale football player? And from behind this veil of ignorance, recognizing that any one of these identities could end up being the one that they would have, these individuals come up with a framework for how it is that society would be structured. So recognizing that they might be extraordinarily wealthy, they may take into consideration what it would take for society to allow individuals to flourish under those conditions. But they might recognize at the same time that they might end up as one of the construction workers. Perhaps they would end up as a doctor. Perhaps the set of abilities that they had would differ from those of the majority of the society and so on. So what you have in the articulation of the veil of ignorance as a way of thinking about this question, is Rawls's version of a theme that we have seen over and over and over again in this course. Hobbes says to you: When you think about political structures, think about yourself as not being different from everyone else. Be willing, he says, "to lay down your rights to the extent that others are willing to do this the same. Content yourself with as much liberty against others as others have against you." Mill says, "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Not the agent's own happiness, but the happiness of all concerned." And Kant, again givin
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