Justice, political philosopher John Rawls looks at the idea of social justice and the individual rights of the individual by redefining the last 200+ years of the American experience. In general, he looks at the manner in which the Founding Fathers were correct by basing their views on previous social contract theorists like Locke and Rousseau. For example, there is a clear linkage between John Locke and Rawls that validates the ideas of liberalism within American society. In fact, Rawls notes that the American Experience extended the concept of justice far beyond hat any of the Enlightenment philosophers ever hoped (Rawls, 1957).
Rawls (1921-2002), an American philosopher who focused on moral and political philosophy, believed that the principles of justice are the models that rational individuals who are free would choose as basic ways to cooperate within their society. He called this position the original position, in that it was the most favored choice for an individual situation. This idea encompassed two overall principles of justice: 1) they must match what an informed individual requires in a free state regarding various circumstances; and, 2) they would most likely be chosen in the original position by rational individuals. In effect, the original position should engender a moral position of justice that is both workable and intuitive (Rawls, 2001).
Rawls’ original position is a hypothetical presumption that deals with the way people view situations that are relevant to their situation. to maximize agreements about the political and economic structure of their society so that they can live together in harmony — or what Rawls’ calls a “veil of ignorance.” This veil is not negative, but informative in that each person lacks some knowledge. Rawls notes: “no one knows his place in society, his class, position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his , and the like” (Rawls, 1999, p. 118). To put in a relevant example, in an imaginary society, one may or may not be wealthy, intelligent, physically adept, or born into a preferred class. An individual may occupy any position in this society once the veil is lifted, and the idea is that all parties must consider society from the perspective of all its embers, from the better off to the middle range to the worst off.
The Difference Principle is part of the idea of distributive justice. We know that the wealth of a nation is not fixed, but can vary between industrialized nations, work effort, expertise and even natural resources. The Difference Principle is based on Rawls’ two principles of justice: 1) Each individual has an equal claim to a set of basic rights and principles (like Locke and Rousseau). Those liberties are not granted by anyone but are natural rights; 2) Cultural, social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: a) attached to positions open to all and, b) they should be of more benefit to the least advantaged members of society (Rawls, 1999). The “difference” is that theoretically those with varying degrees of income will still work toward the overall benefit of society because the greater the overall benefit to society, the more chance everyone has to benefit. This might be an idea of the trickle-down effect — the more wealth coming into the top level, eventually benefits the lower levels.
Rawls has a notion that everyone in society will be utilitarian in their approach — regardless of their current income, education, or class. In general, actions have quantitative outcomes and the ethical choices that lead to the “greatest good for the greatest number” are the appropriate decisions, even if that means subsuming the rights of certain individuals. It is considered a consequential outlook in the sense that while outcomes cannot be predicted the judgment of an action is based on the outcome — or, “the ends justify the means” (Robinson and Groves, 2003). Deontology, of course, is comparable, but alternative paradigm of thinking. With deontology, the actions themselves must be ethical, or the outcome is a moot point and can never be moral. Deontology tells us that there indeed norms and truths that may be divine in nature; actions may be moral or immoral, right or wrong, and by predisposition we are more wired to those actions that have kept humanity alive for millennia — the utilitarian actions of sacrifice and obligation. Moral obligation is based on rationalism, then, and is the way most to head, and wish to respect. Deontology then, is “the means justify the ends” (Kamm, 2007).
Rawls believes that each member of society will act in a utilitarian manner — the ends will justify the means — so if some must suffer now, they will endure in order to benefit later. The means to that will also be rational and noble, and accepted. However, history does not support the idea that the difference principle would be valid for the Rawls’ Original Position. Welfare Societies in the United States and Europe have a four-decade pattern that those who are at the bottom of the economic chain are neither content nor will they exhibit patience to actualize. Certainly some will voluntarily break the pattern and move upward; but many are demotivated and end up in a multi-generational trap in which they cannot financially move off state benefits because they are actually dissented by penalties if they work. Maximizing this stratum requires intestinal fortitude as well a cogent plan for actualization, apparent in the fact that strict compliance with the principles of utilitarianism is necessary to enforce justice and equity (Waldron, 1986).
Kamm, F. (2007). Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities and Permissible Harm. New York: .
Rawls, J. (1957). Justice as Fairness. Philosophical Review. 54 (22): 653-62.
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Boston, MA: .
Rawls, J. (2001). A Theory of Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Robinson, R., & Groves, H. (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. New York: Icon Books.
Waldron, J. (1986). John Rawls and the Social Minimum. Journal of Applied Philosophy. 3 (1): 21-33.