December 23, 2016
Chapter I. Justice as Fairness
There are nine sections to Chapter one:
- The Role of Justice
- The Subject of Justice
- The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice
- The Original Position and Justification
- Classical Utilitarianism
- Some Related Contrasts
- The Priority Problem
- Some Remarks About Moral Theory
1. The Role of Justice
When he begins his Theory of Justice, Rawls defines the role of justice as “the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought” (3). In other words, justice must be something that one strives for in any ordered social system. In that it is “the first virtue,” Rawls likens justice to the highest moral good that a “social institution” strives for, and in so doing, compares it to the idea that truth is the highest moral good that can be had in any “system of thought.” If any thought is put forward that is untrue, then it runs the risk of being revised or dismissed outright. Social institutions should meet the same criteria regarding justice: if the institution is incapable of justice, then it should be revised or dismissed. There is ample evidence this is not the case in the United States of America. In particular around the treatment of poor and working-class citizens who are primarily indigenous, black, and brown people. There are historical inequities built into the social institutions of the U.S. that, according to Rawls, are supposed to promote justice as a “first virtue,” yet became tools for meting out injustice; working opposite of their moral good.
The idea that justice can be manipulated runs counter to Rawls teaching. For Rawls, “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override” (3). “Each person” does not denote a citizen, rather it indicates a person who “possesses an inviolability founded on justice; a person must not be violated or forced upon by injustices. In contrast to utilitarianism where the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few, Rawls states “the welfare of society as a whole cannot override” the inviolability of that person. This is how precise and singular justice is; it cannot be infringed upon by any other body. The simplicity behind utilitarian ideals drives the people who believe the will of the law determines the ethics behind it to co-opt an idea of justice that is anathematic to what Rawls proposes. Rawls idea of justice “denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others,” an idea that baffles many people because it is easier to interpret a “greater good” argument rather than look for a deeper, more nuanced answer to questions that challenge their own sense of subjective moral understanding (3).
Rawls ends his introduction of justice as virtue with the following premise: “Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising” (4). These “first virtues” cannot be weakened without destroying their ideal. Therefore, truth and justice should not be so easily used when they do not apply. There are no subjective truths, and there is no subjective justice according to Rawls.
At this point, Rawls defines what society is for him. Right now, I will outline some of this and move on to some of the keys Justice’s role. The idea is that as a part of a society that fostered the ideas behind the book, I am aware of some of the social norms and functions of the democratic society that allows for justice to take shape.
The principles of social justice are “a set of principles…required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine [the] division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares” (4). “Various social arrangements” are made to “determine” who benefits from those arrangements. Rawls defines social justice based on some share of “advantages” that equates to a “proper” distribution among people. This automatically relegates social justice to an idea of subjectivity based on what people determine as “proper,” and as such, minimizes Rawlsian definitions of justice to little more than high ideals. The problem with that minimization is that justice, like truth, either is or is not; it is a “first virtue” that is dichotomic; it is or it is not. Rawls principles of social justice are not independent of justice but are needed to ensure that justice is achievable.
This does not mean that people are willing to cooperate on what justice is. However, Rawls answers this with the following: “Those who hold different conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life” (5). This allows Rawls to move forward with his argument for justice by institutions with “no arbitrary distinctions” made about who those institutions serve. This definition is key to building on the principles of social justice that empower justice.
To this point, Rawls is discussing what justice is and how a community can be built around its ideals. To contest this, he points to three specific problems that might deter a community:
- The plans of individuals need to be fitted together so that their activities are compatible with one another and they can all be carried through without anyone’s legitimate expectations being severely disappointed.
- The execution of these plans should lead to the achievement of social ends in ways that are efficient and consistent with justice.
- The scheme of social cooperation must be stable: it must be more or less regularly complied with, and its basic rules willingly acted upon; and when infractions occur, stabilizing forces should exist that prevent further violations and tend to restore the arrangement.
These three problems are “problems of efficiency, coordination, and stability,” and justice in a social body is contingent on these issues being addressed properly (6).
December 24, 2016
2. The Subject of Justice
Rawls focuses his topic to social justice and “the primary subject of justice [as] the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (6). Rawls distinguishes “major social institutions” as an interpretation of “legal protection” over such varied ideas as “freedom of thought…private property in the means of production, and the monogamous family” (6). The idea is that major social institutions are macro-systemic and sit atop a social hierarchy. These macro-systemic institutions serve as de facto starting points, and as such, denote an intuitive inequality based on asymmetries that build over time. In the United States of America, the social institutions are built on notions of white privilege hard-wired through hundreds of years of racial normalization. Because of this history, macro-systemic imbalances in its major institutions create distinct advantages for white, anglo-Saxon, protestant males while creating distinct disadvantages for black women. Rawls points to this inequality when he states “not only are they [inequalities] pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life” (7). The fact of the matter is, justice is ineffective in macro-systems if those social institutions that are its foundations and starting points for people are built to create a distinct advantage for one over another.
December 27, 2016
That these institutions may create a disadvantage is what Rawls warns of when he states “the basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start” (7). It is not just that there is a type of injustice prevalent in life that results from how institutions treat people, it is that those injustices exist at the beginning of a person’s life, and are deeply embedded in the structure that those institutions build. These institutions, instead of preventing injustice, create injustice when favoring one person over another, and doing so in a pervasive manner that contaminates similar institutions and spreads that contamination throughout the social body. “Not only are they pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert” (7). This introduces the idea that a starting point does not allow for any “merit or desert” behind it because there is no action considered before the starting point. The state is not supposed to preordain who will benefit rather than who will not benefit from its allotment of resources; it is supposed to allow for the same chances equally. If it does not serve each person equally, it cannot provide a real form of justice.
Therefore, “the justice of a social scheme depends essentially on how fundamental rights and duties are assigned and on the economic opportunities and social conditions in the various sectors of society” (7). Justice is incapable of being truly meted out without the understanding that society itself must play a part in providing true equality in its institutions. The “economic opportunities and social conditions” that are integral to the life of a social body cannot be weighted in any one direction without a dealing a significant blow to the idea of justice. In the social scheme of the United States, the advantages created and maintained for the white, anglo-Saxon Protestant male shifted privilege in his favor, creating wealth and power that cycles and maintains that privilege. The antithesis to this privilege is the handicap placed on being born black in the United States, and being the target of policies that “various sectors of society,” namely those sectors that benefit from privilege, continue their privilege from. In both cases, that privilege is the key to justice; whether it actually exists in its correct form or it is incapable of being.
What follows is a blueprint for how Rawls will address “the subject of justice.” He limits the “scope of our inquiry…in two ways:” (7)
- Rawls is “concerned with a special case of the problem of justice…If one supposes that the concept of justice applies whenever there is an allotment of something rationally regarded as advantageous or disadvantageous, then we are interested in only one instance of its application” (7).
- Rawls wants to “examine the principles of justice that would regulate a well-ordered society…thus [he] considers primarily what [he] call[s] strict compliance as opposed to partial compliance theory” (8).
For Rawls, there is going to be a more “advantageous or disadvantageous” instance of a “concept of justice” which warrants the attention of inquiry. Further, “strict compliance” theory rather than “partial compliance theory” plays a role in what it is Rawls determines of greater importance. “Partial compliance theory” is based on what Rawls calls “pressing and urgent matters” and are “things that we are faced with in everyday life” (8). His distinction at this point between the two is to build a foundation to show others why “a conception of justice for the basic structure is worth having for its own sake” (8). If a person can be shown how justice can establish itself in the daily operation of life, then it is possible to show that person how Rawls’ definition of justice can work.
Rawls claims “that the nature and aims of a perfectly just society is the fundamental part of the theory of justice” (8). Rawls argues from the ideal position of a society that understands justice as a virtue and delivers on those promises of justice for all within its social institutions. However; social institutions themselves are not always clear to Rawls and because of that lack of clarity in basic structure, he moves on to prepare his argument with two more criteria:
- I shall proceed by discussing principles which do apply to what is certainly a part of the basic structure as intuitively understood
- I shall then try to extend the application of these principles so that they cover what would appear to be the main elements of this structure.
“The various conceptions of justice are the outgrowth of different notions of society against the background of opposing views of the natural necessities and opportunities of human life” (9). The ideas of justice come from different experiences of people based on the conditions they find themselves. Rawls, in defining an objective justice, understands that there are different concepts of justice based on experience. The law enforcement officer may define justice according to the laws they enforce while the activist defines justice through examples of treatment by society itself. From this point, Rawls begins to define how he will argue for his objective definition of justice.
From here, Rawls starts to develop “what” justice is. To this point, Rawls has “distinguished the concept of justice as meaning a proper balance between competing claims from a conception of justice as a set of related principles for identifying the relevant considerations which determine this balance” (9). This distinction is based on a “proper balance” that can be struck that ensures satisfaction “between competing claims” that are based on different “conceptions of justice.” If a balance needs to be struck “between competing claims,” then all parties involved must be aware of their significance in creating that balance.
Rawls establishes his argument for justice with “the more specific sense that Aristotle gives justice, and from which the most familiar formulations derive…that of refraining from pleonexia” (9). Look for clarification in Nicomachean Ethics, 1129b-1120b5. Pleonexia is the type of greed that impedes justice. Rawls gives an example of “gaining some advantage for oneself by seizing what belongs to another.” For Rawls, the idea of “what properly belongs to a person” differs from Aristotle but this is not as important as “the justice of the basic structure” for which Rawls argues. The basic structure is the interpretation that institutes themselves must address a fair and equitable opportunity for all of the members of a society to which that institute belongs.
3. The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice
Rawls states that “the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association” (10). This is the foundation of how justice should be defined and understood as a starting point for all involved in a just society because all members of that society desire the same chance as any other member. This idea is what Rawls calls “justice as fairness” (10). Further, the starting point that all members start equally from is called “the original position of equality” and it “corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract” (11). Therefore, what Rawls proposes as his “original position” works in his theory of justice much the same way the state of nature may work for Hobbes. So, it is important to understand that the nature of the original position is that it must be kept as an equal position for all members of that society in order for the basic structure of that society to fit the definition of justice.
January 8, 2017
It is important to note that the original position is hypothetical and that there is no historical basis for its creation. However, the original position for justice as fairness constitutes a starting point that is asserted as fair and equal to all in that system. The original position, therefore, must follow through with certain characteristics that ensure fairness and equality among all its adherents:
- No one knows his or her place in society
- No one knows his or her class position or social status
- No one knows his or her fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities
- No one knows his or her intelligence, strength, etc.
- Rawls adds “I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.
The argument for justice as fairness hinges on these characteristics being met because, as Rawls asserts on page 11, “the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance,” and these above characteristics ensure that veil is assured. If no one knows his or her place in society, then “that ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances” (11). In other words, if no one is given a chance to stack the deck in their favor, he or she would be apt to maintain fairness for all based on the possibility they may end up on the losing end of social asymmetry.
Justice as fairness is only available through this general understanding; a basic level of agreement between all involved. Yet, as a theory, Rawls points out that “our social situation is just if it is such that by this sequence of hypothetical agreements we would have contracted into the general system of rules which defines it” (12). If through the original position that a society constructs its ideas based on interpretations made through his veil of ignorance, Rawls contends that society would adjust its “general system of rules” accordingly, and develop a system intent on justice as fairness. This system of justice would develop out a fair and equal system for its members because its members would be mutually aware of the dangers of being left on the wrong side of an advantaged/disadvantaged dichotomy.
Although the principles of justice will come from the original position, the question of “what” those principles will be will need to be answered. It is here that utility can factor in any definition of justice as fairness and Rawls dissuades the utilitarian towards two different principles:
- One requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties.
- 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.
Rawls contends that these two principles are key to justice as fairness. Both principles hinge on characteristics of the original position being met, while at the same time moving forward from that position with the understanding that people want to have the best outcomes possible for themselves.