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An Outline of Justice as Fairness

Justice as fairness offers principles of distributive justice for governing the basic structure of a liberal democratic society. The basic structure includes such institutions as the government, the market, and the family (Rawls 1971, 7; Lloyd 1994; Okin 1994; Rawls 2001a, 162-168; Neufeld 2009; Cohen 1997). The principles are justified by appeal to hypothetical consent: just principles are those that idealized agents deliberating in idealized circumstances would choose (Rawls 1971, 17-21). In justice as fairness, the choosers are unaware of their native abilities, social starting position, and conception of the good (Rawls 1971, 136-140). They are mutually disinterested, perfectly rational, and desire terms of cooperation that allow them to exercise their two moral powers: their capacity for a conception of the good and their capacity for a sense of justice (Rawls 1971, 142-145). They aim to devise principles to distribute what Rawls calls “primary social goods.” These include rights, liberties, opportunities, powers, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect (Rawls 1971, 90-95). The principles that would be chosen, Rawls argues, are, first, a principle of equal liberty and, second, a principle stating under what conditions inequalities in wealth and income are just. Wealth inequalities are just so long as there exists substantive equality of opportunity and so long as the inequalities benefit everyone and at the same time maximally benefit the least wealthy, compared to other unequal arrangements. This second constraint on wealth inequality is called “the difference principle” (Rawls 1971, 60-64). These principles are just, Rawls says, because they are chosen in circumstances that are fair (Rawls 1971, 136).

Rawls’s theory rests on a presumption in favor of wealth equality - inequalities must be justified. The difference principle, which dictates which inequalities are permitted, presupposes that an equal division of wealth may not be Pareto efficient (Rawls 1971, 67-69).4 In other words, it might be possible to increase everyone’s share of wealth if inequalities are permitted as these might incentivize people to do certain types of work, for example, jobs that are especially challenging (Cohen 2008, 27-86). When people undertake these activities, the argument goes, the economy is more productive and hence the social pie is larger. Typically, those able to garner higher wages in a market arrangement are those with scarce talents. So, those able to garner higher wages are either those who have an uncommon natural ability - for instance, a beautiful singing voice - or those who have means to gain specialized training - for instance, a graduate education. Natural talents and family wealth, then, are advantages.

For Rawls, however, these factors are “morally arbitrary,” which is to say that they should not bear upon the issue of what share of goods one is owed, and so their influence on people’s life prospects should be minimized (Rawls 1971, 72-75). The difference principle minimizes the influence of scarce talents on individuals’ life prospects by allowing the uncommonly talented to have more wealth than others only when their having more increases everyone’s wealth and maximizes the wealth of the least wealthy (compared, again, to other unequal arrangements, such as laissez-faire). This approach, Rawls says, treats scarce talents as a common asset (Rawls 1971, 101).

A society governed by the principles of justice as fairness, Rawls says, would not be a welfare state. Rather it would be either a property- owning democracy (POD) or a liberal socialist regime (Rawls 2001a, 133-140; Thomas 2017, 178-205, 216-253; O’Neill and Williamson 2012, 1-14). Which of these two regimes would be best in practice should be determined by the historical circumstances of particular societies (Rawls 2001a, 139). Rawls discusses in detail only the first of these, contrasting it with welfare state capitalism (WSC).5

There is essentially one main difference between these two regime types, which has significant ramifications (O’Neill and Williamson 2012, 3-5). The difference is that POD is dedicated to a wide distribution in ownership of both physical and human capital - that is, in the possession of natural resources, means of production, and training. Under WSC, by contrast, capital is concentrated in the hands of few and the worst excesses of the free market are mitigated by a tax and transfer system ensuring a decent minimum standard of living. POD, then, prevents a small group from controlling the economy and, indirectly, politics.

The ramifications are as follows. First, welfare dependency and its stigma are essentially eliminated. All citizens are equipped with sufficient productive means so as to not depend on the state or charities.6 Under WSC, there is widespread economic inequality and there tends to develop a disenfranchised underclass whose members are chronically dependent on the state’s welfare programs. The least advantaged under POD are not, as they are in WSC, seen as objects of compassion or pity but rather as fellow citizens who are owed reciprocity for doing their full share (Rawls 2001a, 140). Second, because capital is widely dispersed and economic inequality minimized, POD, unlike WSC, ensures the fair value of the political liberties - citizens are genuinely equal in their opportunity to hold public office and to affect the outcome of elections (Rawls 2001a, 141). Third, substantive equality of opportunity is guaranteed under POD, but not under WSC. In the latter, the powerful wealthy are able to hoard opportunities for themselves and their descendants and ensure that safeguards for formal equality of opportunity are not converted into policies of substantive equality of opportunity. This, too, contributes to the existence of an underclass of people who lack the means to escape poverty (Rawls 2001a, 138).

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