Key Concepts of John Rawls' Philosophy
John Rawls was a 20th Century American philosopher who worked chiefly in the fields of ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of law. Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century and his landmark book, A Theory of Justice, is praised for having attempted to unite a lot of competing political theories that many had judged incompatible. In the 19th century, political philosophy had split between the socialism of Karl Marx and the concepts of personal liberty and freedom endorsed by John Stuart Mill. Rawls rejected both Marx's Communism and Mill's Utilitarianism to return to the social contract model of the early Modern period and draw influence from Locke, Rousseau, Hume and Kant to form his own version of the theory. Rawls philosophy, while widely praised, has spawned two books that have argued against A Theory of Justice, specifically. Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia argues against Rawls from a Libertarian perspective and Michael Waltzer's Spheres of Justice attempts to argue against Rawls from a more socialistic perspective. Nozick's book has become so associated with Rawls that the two works are usually taught together in the classroom.
Justice as Fairness
While Locke thought that personal liberty was the most important factor in the social contract and Rousseau thought that social autonomy was the key, Rawls based his contract on a different principle. Rawls claimed that his contract was based on "justice as fairness" and then set out to define what exactly fairness meant. While previous social contract theorists had used "the state of nature" as a starting point for their argument, Rawls rejected the state of nature thought experiment for a different thought experiment that he called "the veil of ignorance."
The veil of ignorance would be a state where each individual in society would be blind to any of the benefits or weaknesses that they would have in such society. They essentially would not know what talents they would have, any disabilities they might have, whether they would be born rich or poor, who their parents would be, what race, gender or religion they would be born into. To Rawls, this point was essential for the evaluation of what was fair because it took away the bias of arguing for what is in your own best interests. A person would really have to consider what society they would want to live in if they had no knowledge of where they would begin or where they might end up.
Rawls argued that this would result in a society where the least advantaged would get the most consideration. The first principle that he thought they would choose would be the concept of individual "rights" similar to what is argued for in Kant and to a certain extent in Locke. Rights to things like free speech, property, protest etc. would be rights that everybody would be allowed. Rawls did allow for the fact that these were basic rights and not absolute rights. When these rights began to infringe on the territory of the rights of others that is when there are limitations to those rights, including absolute property rights.
The second principle is equality of opportunity. Rawls argues that every effort must be made to give the least advantaged in society an opportunity to succeed. He also argues that public offices that make policy decisions must be open to all people, regardless of their station in life, through the Democratic process. Rawls is saying that society should compensate for naturally occurring inequalities, disabilities, racism, generational poverty, etc, that are not dependent on the willingness and effort made by individuals to succeed
Rawls argued that all human beings arrive at moral decisions from a process that he referred to as "reflective equilibrium." What Rawls means is that human beings often have principles that seem absolutist but when they are put in contradiction human beings look for a way to reconcile these principles. The examples of personal liberty and equality of opportunity in Rawls political theory are perfect examples of what he means.
This goes beyond political thinking. A person who has a certain religious belief may believe in the moral authority of the bible. When the bible condemns killing but also tells followers of Christianity to kill witches a person has to choose either one principle over the other blindly or upon reflection come to the conclusion that is "just" based on these two principles. Most followers of Christianity would agree that it is unjust to put to death someone who is a follower of Wicca. This majority has used their reflective equilibrium to arrive at a just principle to follow while at the same time still believing in the moral authority of the bible.
Rawls is in agreement with Hume when he thinks that principles about justice are in our basic nature as human beings. In order for a society to be able to exist that bases their laws and political beliefs of justice, there must be some kind of balance within society. This is the basis of the whole idea of a social contract between individuals in society. We make agreements that are based on our ideas about justice from these principles and use our reflective equilibrium to know when it was appropriate to apply one principle over another principle.
This is how competing principles such as personal liberty and equality of opportunity, rule of law and civil protest, democracy and individuality and other principles that contradict each other directly, can be valued by the same society at the same time, often in equal measure, while not causing the political system to collapse under the weight of these contradictions.