John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice Paperback – 27 Jan 2007
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paints a touching account of Rawls's early life, bringing out those aspects that might well have had a bearing on his later interest in questions of values and justice. (Jonathan Wolff, Times Literary Supplement)
About the Author
Thomas Pogge is Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and Professorial Research Fellow at the A.N.U. Centre for Philosophy and Public Ethics. He has published widely on Rawls, Kant, political and moral philosophy, and on issues in global justice.
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Let me first begin by providing a summary of the Rawlsian theory. The essence of Rawls’ approach to “Justice” is predicated on three elements;
Original Proposition: There exists a means and method for a society to establish a Contract amongst and between them. This Contract thus created in this society of the just is one that maximizes the return on every transaction to the least of the individuals in the society. This approach to contractarianism is one related to individuals in a non-bargaining environment establishing between and amongst them a “contract” to govern their society. There are two elements contained herein.
The first is the essence of a contract, and in fact a form of social contract between the members of society and amongst them as a whole. This is a restatement of the classic contractarian view of a society.
The second element is that of a view towards man as a constrained and unconstrained view of human nature.
The unconstrained view states that man, individually and in concert, has the capabilities of feeling other people’s needs as more important than his own, and therefore we all act impartially, even when the individuals own interest are at stake.
The constrained view is to make the best of the possibilities which exist within the constraint.
For example, the constrained view of universal service is one which would state that if it costs a certain amount to provide the service, an there is a portion of the society not able to purchase the service, then there is no overriding need to provide it if such a provision is uneconomical and places a significant burden on the other member of society. The unconstrained view, as a form of socialism, states that if there is the least of us in want then they should have access to it at whatever cost. Rawls approach to this contract is one wherein the individuals in the society collect themselves as individuals, and agree to a plan for the operations of that society, and they accomplish behind some veil of anonymity. That is no one has the benefit of knowing who may be getting more or less, including themselves.
First Principle of Justice: each person shall have equal rights and access to the greatest set of equal fundamental personal liberties.
Second Principle of Justice: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they both, (i) provide the greatest benefit to the least advantaged. and (ii) attached to positions available to each individual under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
This latter element of the Rawlsian world is often viewed as a Schupeterian form of socialistic control. If we were to define the public welfare by a function as some measure W, and each individual listed as a variable I, then the policy choice, which we would call P, is chosen such that the welfare is maximized for the least advantaged. What this states is that we want to maximize the society welfare subject to the constraint that no individual suffers due to the change or execution of a policy P.
We can compare this to the utilitarian school which states that we seek the maximization of the average welfare for all of society, sort of a raising of all the boats approach which is not constrained on what happens to any one individual, but to society as a whole. This approach is the basis of the Ramsey tax policy. The Ramsey approach is Rawlsian whereas the approach of an Adam Smith or other utilitarians is the average approach.
Now let me address several of the specific sections of the book. This is in no way inclusive; it merely highlights some of the worthwhile parts of the book.
pp 11-15. The involvement of Rawls in WW II is a major turning point in his life. He fought in the battle of Leyte in the Army as an enlisted man, albeit a college graduate. His decision, frankly a wise one to not obtain a commission, since if he had he could and most likely would have been drawn into Korea, did place him in places of significant carnage. I had written a book on Navy actions during Leyte, my father was there, and the brutal land as well sea engagements left lasting change on all the men involved. Although the author does reflect this it clearly is of interest to have explored this seminal event on the part of Rawls and better understand how this set the path for his future views of human existence and the relationships he would suggest imposed on society. In my experience interviewing dozens of men who fought there the effect was lasting and world view changing. Although presented, it truly deserves deeper understanding.
p 20. The author presents some of the conflicts during the 60s which further made for his world view, especially the perceived draft inequity. For example, for Rawls, he could not understand education deferments, that is, those, say studying engineering, being deferred while those, not in college, being drafted. In essence this was a utilitarian approach, in that it was assumed that the draft scheme benefitted society on average better than equality in the draft. To Rawls, the very poorest student or person should have equal treatment. One sees a kernel of his theory of Justice emerging.
p 28. The author starts with the statement: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions.” My concern here is several-fold. First, it is declaratory without a basis. Second, fails to define Justice, virtue, and social, and I will assume I understand the term institutions. This is a Rawls statement, the beginning of his work. The second part of the sentence missing is “as truth is of systems of thought.” Yes Rawls uses this in almost a Marxian declarative manner, or like Rousseau, man and his chains, but it leave one wondering what this justice thing really is. The author does begin defining it and his use of social justice for Rawlsian Justice is telling. For social justice had already had a long history in Progressive movements for almost a century by the time the book was published. Again one wonders how much of this also influenced Rawls.
p 29. The author discusses somewhat the origin of the Theory of Justice. One would like, as I have stated before, to have seen a more expansive overview, one linking a bit more of past social justice thought. I did find his analysis on this page reminiscent of Scholastic thinking and methodology.
p 30. There is a discussion of happiness. One is left asking what happiness is. This of course is a problem with many who approach this area, use of terms like happiness, fairness, all too often are in the eye of the beholder and have long histories of use by different people for different purposes. However the author will return to this important issue later.
pp 43-44. This is an excellent introductory approach to Rawls. The author clearly discusses the concepts of (i) consequentialism, (ii) humanism, and (iii) normative individualism, all elements of the Rawlsian theory.
pp 48-48. The discussion on the anonymity issue, the veil of ignorance, is reasonably well done. My only difficulty was the detailed discussion was less than fully descriptive.
pp 53-54. Here the author does go into some detail on Rawls own objections to happiness. This I found quite enlightening and exceptionally well done. The two objections to using happiness are clear and to the point and definitely worth spending some time on.
pp 67-67. This is the maximum versus average argument, it is my argument from Mill and the Utilitarians to Rawls and the Redistributionists. Rawls wants to consider the least of us in his use of Justice, Mill just wants to make sure on average we are all just fine. Mill and the Utilitarians have a more “democratic” metric, namely the group on average, and Rawls want to make certain that we do not disenfranchise anyone.
p 75. The author has an interesting discussion regarding the allocation of goods, redistribution and society. It is a critique of certain elements of Rawls but clearly worth examining.
pp 178-185. The author compares Rawls to some of his critics. He considers two at length, Nozick and Sandel. The Nozick opposition is characterized by three objections: (i) that Rawls is a redistributionist, and this violates fundamental property rights, (ii) that Rawls in his redistributionist view demands a sharing on equal basis denying individual contributory differences, and (iii) the Rawlsian view of collectivism, namely that any single individual benefits from the contributions of all in society and thus no individual stands alone, only on the efforts of all others in society. In essence Rawls is an anti-individualist, and Nozick is a libertarian. This is not exactly at total odds, but it is fairly close.
pp 185-188. Here the author does a comparison with Sandel and his communitarian views. Although, not at as great a set of odds as with Nozick, the author does a superb job in making these contrasts.
Overall the author provides a professional, articulate, accurate and highly readable and accessible overview and analysis of Rawls. As I have indicated the deeper analysis and understanding of Rawls the man would be exceedingly useful. For example, what led him to evolve these ideas, what resonances helped him along the way, why did he believe that he was right and others were in error? Understanding Rawls as a philosopher I believe requires understanding Rawls as a man. I have yet to fully see that task achieved. Yet this book is a very valuable contribution to that effort.
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