Without doubt, if there was a dominant figure in political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, it is the figure of John Bordley Rawls (1921 – 2002).
John Rawls Theory of Justice, Which is also a form of social contract, has been the main form of philosophical foundation of liberalism in its social aspect, as well as a point of reference for obligatory confrontation with other political currents.
The experience of the “home position”
Rawls’ theory of justice, which has at its heart the mental experience of the “original position”, exposed in his masterpiece “A theory of justice” (1971), is also a proposition on human subjectivity and the ultimate motives governing moral behavior.
The mental experience of the original position seeks to ground the basic principles of justice from a reflection which, by hiding some knowledge about our specific life circumstances behind a “veil of ignorance”, allows us to reflect in as free and equal people on what should be the basic principles of justice.
The influence of Kant’s moral imperative
John Rawls’ mental experience dates back to philosophers such as Hume or Kant. In fact, there is a clear relationship between the original position and the Kantian moral imperative, since the latter is grounded in the foundation of moral principles through reflection based on the rational capacity of the subject, and not in his belonging to a certain group cultural or historical.
The difference would be that, while Kant assumes that it is possible to arrive at these principles individually, Rawls raises the original position as a deliberation exercise between people who will occupy different places in society, even if at the time of the original position they do not know what these places will be.
Thus, it is not only an abstract deduction from universal moral principles made individually by each person, but it is also a form of social contract that lays the foundations of justice and the basic structure of the company.
Another difference from Kant would be that, although the former conceived of his categorical imperative as a principle to which any rational being can arrive, Rawls later rectified his theory to assert that his original position is only feasible in historical societies which recognize as their basis. principles of freedom and equality.
The veil of ignorance
As we have seen, Rawls assumes that people deliberate in the original position they do not know what place they will occupy in the future in society. They therefore do not know to which social class they belong or which positions of power they will occupy. They also don’t know what natural skills or psychological dispositions they may have that might be an advantage over others.
In fact, for Rawls, the natural lottery is neither fair nor unfair, but what it has to do with justice is how a society treats natural differences between people. Finally, these people know that they will have a certain conception of the good (of what should be a life lived in a meaningful way) which will guide their life, and that as rational beings, they will be able to reconsider and modify as they go. time.
Unlike other theories of justice, John Rawls does not presuppose any conception of historically inherited good that functions as the foundation of justice. If so, the subjects would not be free. By Rawls, the principles of justice are generated in the original position and do not predate this. These are the principles resulting from the original position which would mark the limits of future conceptions of the good chosen by each in his concrete life.
Thus, the participants in the original position are conceived as representatives of specific people. forced, however, to deliberate under the veil of ignorance.
Participants in the original position experiment
But these subjects are not entirely ignorant. They don’t know any details of their life as specific subjects, but they do. they are supposed to have scientific knowledge about human nature (Knowledge of biology, psychology, as well as a presupposition of the validity of neoclassical economic theory) that allows them to know how they will behave in their lives, so that they can negotiate with others on a footing of equality the best principles in rooted justice.
In addition, these people are presumed to have a sense of fairness, which means that they want to abide by the rules recognized as fair after the negotiation process.
Finally, Rawls presupposes that the subjects of the original position are mutually disinterested, which does not necessarily mean that they are selfish beings, but rather in the context of the original position. his only interest is to negotiate with limiting the veil of ignorance in favor of a specific future person they represent. Their motivation is this and not charity.
Principles of justice
From this Rawls extracts a number of primary social goods necessary for the development of “moral powers”, the aforementioned sense of justice, as well as the ability to review and pursue a particular conception of good.
these primary social goods are rights and freedoms, Opportunities, income and wealth or social bases to respect each other (such as an education that prepares us for life in society as well as a minimum income).
Rawls applies rational choice theory to the conditions of uncertainty of the original position in order to extract the principles of justice. The first principle extracted from the original position is that according to which each person must have the greatest fundamental freedoms possible to allow other members of society to have these freedoms as well. These freedoms are freedom of expression, association or thought. This principle underlies the idea of freedom.
The second principle underpins equality. According to Rawls, abstract rational subjects who deliberate in the original position would go so far as to assert that economic and social inequalities are permissible insofar as they work for the greatest possible benefit for the most disadvantaged in society and depend on positions open to all, on an equal footing.
What is the best way to organize the company?
Since the participants in the original position do not know what place they will occupy in society, i.e. they do not know what social or natural advantages they will have to compete for for the different positions and positions in society, they would come to the conclusion that the most rational and the safest is to maximize the minimums, the so-called “maximin”.
According to the maximin, the limited resources of a society must be distributed in such a way that the less fortunate can live in an acceptable way.
Moreover, it is not simply a question of equitably distributing a limited number of limited resources, but that this distribution allows society as a whole is productive and based on cooperation. Thus, inequalities can only be meaningful once these minimum needs have been covered for all, and only as long as they work in favor of society, especially the most disadvantaged.
In this way, the participants in the original position ensure that by occupying their place in society, they will live with dignity and will be able to compete for access to the various possible positions. When the participants in the initial position have to choose between different theories of justice, they will choose justice as the fairness proposed by Rawls rather than other theories such as utilitarianism.
Moreover, according to Rawls, his conception of justice as equity can be translated into political positions such as liberal socialism or liberal democracy, Where is the private property. Neither communism nor free market capitalism would make it possible to articulate a society based on justice understood as equity.
The legacy of John Rawls
Of course, a theory like Rawls’s, at the heart of reflections on politics and justice, has attracted much criticism. For example, libertarian thinkers like Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002) are against the redistribution of the ruling party, because it contradicts the fundamental right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
He also received criticisms of community thinkers for his conception of subjectivity. As his theory shows, for Rawls, human beings, in anything that meets the articulation of the foundations of society, can be reduced to rational (or, as he would say, reasonable) beings.
The company would be constituted with an agreement between equals prior to the different conceptions of the good. However, from communitarianism, it is argued that there is no possible subject that is not preceded by a conception of the good.
According to this view, we cannot make decisions that ground the principles of justice outside of the common values that have shaped us as subjects. These thinkers have a conception of the subject as constituted in relation to their cultural and social environment, so that subjectivity cannot be reduced to an abstract entity individual.
John Rawls is arguably the most impactful political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. His theories not only helped anchor certain political positions, but served as horizon from which to think about justice and politics, Even from opposing political positions.
- Freeman, S. (2017). Initial position. [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available here.
- Rawls, J. (1980). Kantian constructivism in moral theory. The Journal of Philosophy, 77(9), p.515.
- Rawls, J. (2000). A theory of justice (1st edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts [etc.]: Harvard University Press.