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- Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice;
- Rawls's 'a Theory of Justice': An Introduction;
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By insisting on the imperative priority of this principle of freedom, they would express the idea that the prime quality of an institutional system is equal respect for the moral independence of its citizens, allowing everyone to reach his own ends as long as they are compatible with an equal right to do so for all; and they would affirm their will to guard against any use of coercion by the state to force their consciences or oblige them to adopt objectives, values, or lifestyles to which they do not adhere.
They would also stress that a social order can only be legitimate if everyone has an equal right to take part in making collective decisions. With these two aspects—equality of rights and equality of the power to participate—the principle of freedom would show the paramount importance that the partners attribute to the idea that everyone has equal moral importance, that everyone has the right to the same respect, that no one can be sacrificed to the wellbeing of another.
Once basic freedoms were guaranteed, the partners could reflect on the sharing of the material benefits of social cooperation, and here Rawls thinks that their basic intuition would be to refuse all criteria of an obviously arbitrary or contingent nature. They would naturally reject race, sex, or condition of birth, but also any distribution that might be influenced by social origins. Instead they would choose a principle of fair equality of opportunity guaranteeing that given equal vocations and qualifications, individuals would have a fair and equal opportunity to reach the same social positions.
Would that be enough to satisfy their aspiration to the respect of equal moral status? No, for such a system would give rise to a meritocracy in which the most gifted would receive a greater share of social resources. For the distribution of talents and aptitudes is just as arbitrary as social origins, and even if it were possible to evaluate the contribution of each one to the collective task, it would be unfair to calculate rewards in consequence, since this contribution always results from personal qualities for which their owners cannot claim responsibility and that to a certain extent were only arbitrarily attributed to them.
The partners would conclude that since individuals have the same moral value, they have the right to identical resources. If we reflect upon this but a little, we see that this is common sense: why in fact should individuals claim a greater share of social resources on the pretext that fate or nature has favored them by giving them the qualities demanded by society? Therefore, this method of calculation tells them that it would be irrational to opt for an equality of resources if there is an alternative to equal distribution where all the partners would be better treated.
This is the meaning of the second principle of justice, that Rawls calls the difference principle. The reflection that leads to it is connected to considerations of efficiency and optimization: if distribution is equal, the most talented and energetic will have no reason to develop their qualities and put them to the service of the common good; if, on the other hand, they are promised more substantial benefits, this will stimulate their activity and the resulting multiplication of riches will be such that everyone will profit.
The partners would thus decide to allow inequalities on condition that part of the benefits generated by the activities of the most talented would accrue to the least favored. Such retribution for talent in the form of stimulation is not however a return to meritocracy, since the right of the most talented to earn more will come from a commitment made to them by the community—in exchange for their activity—and not as a result of their merits; it would always be subject to reevaluation, since society would be entitled to cancel or adjust the benefits in question every time they were seen not to be to the advantage of all members of society, and especially those occupying the least favored positions.
Talent does not mean a right to higher revenues, but it is legitimate to promise additional income to those who possess it in order to incite them to develop it for the benefit of all. The main lines of this theory are easily discernible: first of all, it is a liberal political theory, since its primary preoccupation is to preserve individual independence and guarantee all the freedoms indispensable to that end.
It not only does not impose any conception of the good life, it emphasizes both the right of each person to develop his own conception of good and the fact that a theory of the legitimacy of institutions must be based on a criterion exempt of any concept dealing with the way one should live. But this liberalism, contrary to that of its founders, tries to include the idea of equality by stressing that it is not possible to stop at equal rights and that we must, as much as possible, ensure that everyone has more resources to build his existence than he would have in any alternative social organization.
It is the basis of the difference principle, which states that no one has the right to keep for himself all the benefits that he acquires from the favorable and morally arbitrary circumstances in which he finds himself and that inequalities are only legitimate if everyone benefits—not necessarily in the same proportions—from the extra riches that they make possible.
The requirement of equality leads to the imperative maximizing of the position of the least favored; only the fact that the poorest are convinced that the whole system tries to better their situation, and that in every alternative system of distribution their fate would be still less enviable, can give them the feeling that they are living in a legitimate political system and free them from the idea that they are victims sacrificed to the wellbeing of others. Let us consider two of the most important.
First of all, many readers of A theory of justice have been struck by a singular absence. Rawls says nothing about the value of justice as an individual virtue, except to state that the fair-minded man is one who supports fair institutions. A society is not fair because it encourages men to live well, because it cultivates the highest aspirations in them, or because it strengthens their moral ideas, but only because it treats its citizens impartially and equally.
In other words, politics have nothing to say about human ends; it is not for it to judge them but to provide the conditions of their legitimate compatibility and cohabitation, excluding only those that are not reasonable, i.
But do not politics lose all meaning when the community stops seeking the best way to live through them? What happens to human society if everyone chooses what seems good to him and only cares about others in a negative way and by leaving society alone? Is not this mutual indifference a form of contempt for others?
Is not liberty empty if it is reduced to an indistinct power of choice without principle? Are not shared moral ideals and ethical traditions that give meaning and richness to life what characterize an authentically human community?
Justice After Rawls
Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice Does this mean that liberalism gives a false image of society and man because the sharing of traditions and morals—even a religion—is the essence of all communities and that man is not a will or a being of choice, but above all a being who reflects on the good and only finds meaning in community life if he shares this reflection with others through its institutions? Or does it mean to the contrary that liberalism gives a true image of what man and society have sadly become with the impact of a modernity of which he is one of the essential elements?
The question of the purpose of human life is an essential question that must continue to be asked and will continue to be asked. It is also a question which must be debated, and men form and will form communities around the shared replies that they give to these questions. But these communities are voluntary, based on the conviction of their members who can enter or leave them according to whether they do or do not share the moral ideals expressed there, and the plurality of these communities and the ethical convictions present there is an irreducible fact of societies today.
Moreover, this plurality is reasonable, i. Someone who believes in heaven cannot accuse someone who does not of being out of his mind, and that would be for that matter the root of all intolerance. Public institutions cannot therefore adopt certain ultimate moral values without repressing others, and it is for this reason that they claim no concept of good: if they did, they would necessarily be tyrannical, for the reduction of pluralism is only possible through the use of force.
Politics, therefore, are based not on compromise, but on the search for a minimal ethical idea or one that is acceptable to all, and they find it in the concept of impartiality, i. The image of the human being that they promote and encourage is not a metaphysical concept, and liberalism does not define man as a being of will or free choice. They limit themselves to saying that each one of us would like to be governed by public institutions led and abiding by a representation of the human being as a free and equal person. Liberalism does not say that man is a being with choice, but that each citizen aspires to be governed by institutions that consider him as a being with choice.
Justice After Rawls - Oxford Handbooks
This is a political, not a metaphysical concept. Still it is a concept that we would wish our institutions consider when deciding what they may impose or demand from us. Sectarianism is completely mistaken when it says that liberalism forgets the reality of shared moral convictions and the structuring power of ethical ideals in building personality. To the contrary, it is because it is aware of their importance that liberalism wants to impede the action of coercive political institutions trying to impose one of these on those who do not accept it, and it is because it is aware that ideals that are imposed cease to be authentic that it demands the armed wing of the state to approach its dealings with citizens by representing them as beings who must be left free to choose how they wish to live.
The second debate brings still more concrete issues to the fore. Fair institutions are thus those where the lowest position is still higher than in any other possible social organization guaranteeing the same freedoms. For Rawls, this idea incarnates the ideal of reciprocity. But are all those who occupy the least favored position eligible for the same treatment?
Among them, some are certainly victims of their social origins, bad luck, or lack of natural capacities. But others may be responsible for their fate due to their choices, their imprudence, or their inertia.
This notion of responsibility seems essential in the context of fairness, and it seems contradictory only to consider positions in a distribution structure without asking who occupies them and why. It is certainly legitimate to organize institutions in a way that compensates for the losses of victims of fate, but choices made by individuals must be their own responsibility. The notions of merit and responsibility remain desperately elusive, and one of the ambitions of the reflection on justice to which Rawls gave such a strong impetus consists of breaking with a simplistic image that assumes that individuals, with their choices, talents, merit, energy, and contributions are intangible data that, to be fair, institutions should reward in appropriate proportion.
The social system, laws, education, habits, traditions, and inheritances—all these traits of our collective lives—make individuals what they are as much as they are made by them and to such an extent, that instead of asking who deserves what, it might be better to approach the question as Rawls suggested: imagine that the social system is the work of your worst enemy and he chooses your place in it. Would you consider this system legitimate? Attempting to reason from the viewpoint of the one who occupies the most uncomfortable position is perhaps not the worst way to reflect on equity.
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