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This month’s philosopher of the Left: John Rawls

John Rawls (1921-2002) is often said to be the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century. He was a professor at Harvard University in the right-on seventies. His most famous work is A Theory of Justice (1971). He refined it endlessly which made an already over-elaborate theory even trickier. His theory is intricate, full of jargon and somewhat contrived. Still it reflects something that many, perhaps most, reflective liberals, would find fair.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to balance liberty and equality, the basic components of justice and fairness, in his theory of “justice as fairness”.

Utilitarianism advocates the greatest good for the greatest number. It is an appealing practice, possibly the dominant theoretical driver of liberal democracies (The Fine Gael website says that it is Enda Kenny’s long-standing political priority), but it does not have any theoretical justification – unlike Christianity for example which claims to be rooted in the Bible and natural law. Rawls feels the need to find a justification for the theory he is going to offer. He roots it in the idea that if we could work out what people would decide was just if they had no knowledge of the situation they are in, that decision would stand even when they do know the situation they are in. He infers a sort of social contract among people from what he says they would do in this “original position” operating under such a “veil of ignorance”.

We would, Rawls argues abstractly, affirm a first principle of equal basic liberties, thus protecting the familiar liberal freedoms of conscience, association, expression, to vote and the like. However, he damagingly says that equal basic liberties must be preceded by meeting very “basic needs” for economic goods – in effect opening his theory to the usual tin-pot dictator excuses for violating rights to free speech etc.

Rawls conservatively considers that demanding that everyone have exactly the same effective opportunities in life is a nonstarter since it would undermine the very liberties that are supposedly being equalised. Being American he assumes that free people would not want to be equal, that there are no “lasting benevolent impulses”. The most he would demand is fair equal opportunities not the same opportunities.

So, he said, we would agree a two-part second principle requiring fair equality of opportunity – and the famous (and controversial) difference principle. This second principle demands that those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances, and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged.

Rawls further argued that these principles were to be “lexically ordered”, i.e. he gave priority to basic liberties over the more equalityoriented demands of the second principle.

His theory can justify a sort of Tony Blair/Gordon Brown half-baked egalitarianism. The sort that balks at saying it wants an equal (or even “socialist”) society but happily lends its support to fairness. To equality of opportunity. Where he differs from them is that leftish governments now speak the language of community, not of individual rights; and of desert rather than the difference principle. Confusingly, this puts him both to the right and left of them.

Rawls justifies inequalities provided they are necessary to increase the amount of stuff we all have. And provided they are not to the detriment of the very worst off. But the likes of Blair and Brown have a lax view of what is “necessary”. And so Rawls’ thinking can be used to justify shoulder- shrugging at inequalities in society.

For example, if (as may well be the case) allowing corporate executives to earn annual incomes of ten of millions of dollars helps to generate the economic dynamism that raises living standards, including those of the poor, such inequalities are allowable. If it does not, however, they are not. Interestingly this seems to cut across orthodox contemporary leftish views that all things being equal the rich should be allowed to get richer, and not be taxed for the sake of it. So again Rawls is both to the right and left on the issue of inequalities in society.

Of course his “liberal” orientation and even a half-baked egalitarianism has ruled Rawls out of the American debate. And he isn’t exactly a staple of the Irish discourse either