Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the Two Functions of the Principles of Justice in A Theory of Justice

So the other day I finally started reading Rawls' A Theory of Justice. I'm going to spend a lot of time trying to feel this book out, since it's pretty darn important that I get it right. In this post I want to trace a single stream of Rawls' thought, connecting the choice of the appropriate conception of justice to the determination of how we should conceive of the original position.


Rawls thinks that in evaluating political institutions, we must first focus on the question of whether or not they are just. He writes (3):
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

But whether or not we find that a set of institutions is just will turn on the conception of justice that we use to evaluate those institutions. He thinks that while people may hold different conceptions of justice, the concept of justice itself, where basic social institutions are concerned, is uncontroversial (5):
Those who hold different conceptions of justice can...still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.

So ignoring for now the question of whether or not we agree that this really is the concept of justice we all share in thinking about social institutions, we can see that for Rawls, the concept of institutional justice makes two demands of a social system: (1) Basic rights and duties must be assigned in a manner free of arbitrary distinctions; and (2) The rules adjudicating competing claims to the advantages of social life must produce a "proper balance." Our individual conceptions of the justice of social systems, then, will similarly need to do two things: 1) They need to specify what distinctions are significant in assigning basic rights and duties; and 2) They need to define what counts as a "proper balance" between the competing claims to the advantages of social life. Rawls writes (5):
Men can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, which are included in the concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret according to the principles of justice he accepts. These principles single out which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties and they specify which division of advantages is appropriate.


So, then, how are we to decide which particular conception of institutional justice is right? Here Rawls seeks to utilize an intellectual crutch to help us think about the decision. He proposes that we imagine ourselves as people at a hypothetical negotiating table at the beginning of a society who are trying to determine what principles should govern the choice of institutions in the society. We are to imagine that we are all destined to be born into whatever social system is put into place on the basis of our decision, but we are deprived of certain pieces of information about who we will become. Rawls writes (11):
Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

But why should we think that the results of this thought experiment will be relevant? Who cares what people in such a ridiculous set of circumstances would think? And won't the conception of justice that we choose in such a situation simply reflect the choice of what information we were allowed to consider?

Rawls is quick to clarify. He acknowledges that clearly, the features of the choice situation are no small matter; in fact, the design of the "original position" is a critical part of the choice of the appropriate principles of justice. He writes (14):
...justice as fairness [the name of Rawls' theory], like other contract views, consists of two parts: (1) an interpretation of the initial situation and of the problem of choice posed there, and (2) a set of principles which, it is argued, would be agreed to.

The design of the initial position, he contends, is meant to help us abstract away the things that we think are morally irrelevant in choosing an appropriate conception of justice. We don't know who we're going to be when we're in the original position, or what we're going to value, because those sorts of things aren't supposed to matter in thinking about justice. Rawls explains (16-17):
One should not be the somewhat unusual conditions which characterize the original position. The idea here is simply to make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice, and therefore on these principles themselves. Thus it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles. It also seems widely agreed that it should be impossible to tailor principles to the circumstances of one's own case. We should insure further that particular inclinations and aspirations, and persons' conceptions of their good do not affect the principles adopted.

So, then, the way we are supposed to think about the original position is to first deprive all the people at the table of the information that we think is irrelevant to making their choice. We are then supposed to ask what kind of decision they would make.


Now, Rawls insists that we add a further condition: the people at the table in the initial situation are completely self-interested. He writes (12):
One feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested. This does not mean that the parties are egoists, that is, individuals with only certain kinds if interests, say in wealth, prestige, and domination. But they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another's interests.

Now, it's not clear to me exactly what Rawls means by this. Two possibilities come to mind: 1) People in the initial situation should not care about the other people in the situation; their focus should be entirely on the people who will be born into the social system that will be produced by their decision, each of whom they have a chance of coming to be; and 2) People in the initial situation should focus only on the self-regarding interests of the people who will be born into the social system that will be produced by their decision.

It seems to me that (1) is reasonably plausible. The initial position is just a thought experiment, and so the interests of the imaginary people in the initial position are irrelevant. So if Rawls means (1), then that's fine. But if Rawls means (2), then I can only ask...well...why? It seems like Rawls is going to talk about it later (he notes section 25, entitled "The Rationality of the Parties"), so I'll hold off on passing final judgment. But it does seem rather curious that we would want to ignore any interest that people have in the fellow members of their societies in thinking about what kind of society they would want to live in. For the time being, I'm just going to assume he means (1) until I see any indication otherwise.


Here's something puzzling to me:

As we saw, the initial position is supposed to help us choose a conception of justice by abstracting away all of the irrelevant things we might otherwise consider in trying to make the choice. And remember, the conception of justice that we choose is supposed to do two things: 1) Assign basic rights and duties; and 2) Define what distribution of social advantages is appropriate. Is it really going to be the case that the relevant considerations for choosing the principles for (1) are going to be the same as the relevant considerations for choosing the principles for (2)? Are they at least not necessarily the same?

Here's why I ask:

It seems to me that when we think about assigning basic rights and duties, we think that there are very few distinctions between people that are really relevant. And Rawls seems to capture this intuition in all of the considerations he abstracts out of the initial situation. We don't think that rights or duties should depend on personal identity, social circumstance, personal interests, or our own conceptions of the good. These things aren't supposed to matter. And for assigning basic rights and duties, it seems like we would want to rule that these things are irrelevant.

But in talking about how the advantages of social cooperation are distributed, it's not entirely clear that these same considerations are irrelevant. Imagine that Mark, Rita, and Beatrice are the only three people in their society, and they all live as subsistence farmers. They honor the boundaries of their respective plots, and the third party is always relied on to settle disputes. They are generally pretty happy with their peaceful coexistence. One day, Beatrice invents a new game and sets to work in her scant spare time producing the equipment to play it. She then insists that Mark and Rita pay her a small bit of what they produce if they want to play the game. They happily oblige, and inequality is born. In this illustration, it's clear that we have a situation where everyone is being made better off by their social arrangement; Mark and Rita gain because they get to play a game that they enjoy, and Beatrice gains because she gets to enjoy their company as well as the payment they provide.

But now imagine that we turn to the question of whether everyone is getting an appropriate share, and we use Rawls' tool. We think of Mark, Rita, and Beatrice all at the beginning of their society, trying to decide what rules to adopt for distributing the advantages of social cooperation. Is it really true that the personal identity of these three is irrelevant for thinking about who should get what? Should we expect Beatrice to agree that the appropriate way to settle the issue is to pretend that all three of them had an equal chance to be her, and that she could just as easily be the one paying? I at least don't think it's obvious that Beatrice should be willing to grant this.

And even if Beatrice should grant this, is it really for the same reasons that she ought to grant the irrelevance of personal identity in assigning basic rights and duties? It just seems to me that if the considerations that are relevant in choosing each set of principles are going to line up, it's going to be a coincidence. But maybe Rawls defends this way of doing things later; we'll have to see. Maybe I've already missed something! If anyone's actually reading this post, do you know why Rawls structures things this way?


Something else that has me confused:

How does the original position contribute anything to the process of assigning basic rights and duties? Rawls tells us that our conception of justice is supposed to "single out which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties" (5). And in designing the thought experiment that is supposed to help us decide how to do this, we are supposed to abstract away "those aspects of the social world that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view" (14). It seems to me that if we can design the original position, then we must already know "which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties." So what are we gaining through the thought experiment?


My notebook is riddled with nitpicks, reservations, and qualms about this whole thing, and I'm sure I could go on all night -- I'm equally sure most of my objections would be dumb. So I think that for now, I'm happy to leave it at this. I've at least gotten a post up about the book, which has actually been more difficult than you might imagine (this is the fourth try, if my memory serves me correctly). Believe me, there will be more.


Dan Waxman said...

As far as I can tell, most of your puzzlement can be explained by Rawls' methodology of reflective equilibrium - I'm sure you know the basic idea, where there is some interplay between considered judgements about particular cases and the general unifying principles which lie behind them, until no cognitive dissonance remains. Rawls' takes it as one of the fixed points of our considered judgements that no-one deserves their natural talents because they are arbitrary from a moral point of view; so I guess what he wants to say is that Beatrice should grant that all three of them had an equal chance, because to do otherwise would be to privilege factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view.

But I don't think this works - Rawls makes what Susan Hurley calls the egalitarian fallacy when he reasons from "it would be arbitrary from a moral point of view if distribution X (an unequal distribution) came about" to "it would not be arbitrary from a moral point of view if distribution Y (equal, or maximin, or whatever) came about." If you want to read her stuff on luck and egalitarianism, check it out at - IMO it's a great paper, and it devastates most of the appeals to luck or moral arbitrariness you'll see in the literature.

Lester Hunt said...

Dan W.,

For some reason that link doesn't work for me. Folks might try this one:

Danny Shahar said...

Dan, I agree that that's what Rawls would want me to do, but I don't think he's provided a compelling reason for thinking that they actually are irrelevant. In Elements of Justice, Dr. Schmidtz notes that Rawls responds to Utilitarianism by noting that it "...fails to acknowledge that individuals entering into cooperative ventures are separate persons contributing to those ventures in pursuit of their own legitimate hopes and dreams. Failing to respect their separate projects and contributions is unjust. It may be the fundamental injustice" (185). But doesn't it seem like Rawls is making the very same mistake?

In any case, thank you both for the link to the article; I'll check it out when I get a chance.

Neverfox said...


Great analysis. You articulate many of the reasons why I find Rawls less than satisfying. Given the large impact of his work, it is important to bring these issues to light. I highly recommended that you check out Dr. Long's analysis of Rawls' methodology here (p. 23-25). I think you will find that it is a valuable adjunct to your observations.

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