Post No.: 0533
It’s been a while since Post No.: 0458 but let’s get back to exploring the thoughts of John Rawls, the ‘veil of ignorance’ and his concept of liberty and equality.
…Both Immanuel Kant and John Rawls reject the view that individual rights should be protected insofar and as long as doing so maximises overall happiness in society. Instead, they both believe that rights set limits on what can be done in the name of maximising overall happiness (or maximising any other ends or conceptions of ‘the good life’).
Rawls rejects utilitarianism because he argues that once the veil is lifted, everyone would wish to be treated with respect and basic individual liberty (e.g. one could end up as a minority group member and wouldn’t want to be oppressed by the overall will of the majority). He also argues that we could do better than ‘an equal distribution of wealth for all’, even if we end up unlucky and at the bottom, by agreeing to the ‘difference principle’ – which states that only those social and economic inequalities that work to the benefit of the least well-off shall be permitted. He therefore doesn’t believe that a distribution is just if and only if everyone gets an equal share.
Rawls’s thought here is that if a departure from strict equality makes everyone better off then no one should object against it. So not all inequality of income and wealth will be rejected. But he suggests that only inequalities that work to the benefit of the least well-off would be just and accepted behind the veil of ignorance. Thus a person can earn millions for him/herself, as long as doing so also works to the advantage of the least well-off. It’s about attracting the right people to the right jobs, and having these people in these jobs so that they actually help those at the bottom.
But the reality test is will they work to the benefit of everyone, including (or especially) those at the bottom? And did Rawls mean just ‘to the benefit’ or ‘to maximise the benefit’ of the least well-off? This question is important because almost anything can be argued to be to the benefit of another (e.g. a dictatorship could be argued to be to the benefit of the people because at least there’d be stability – but it’d hardly be maximally ideal for them).
Remember that behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment, one won’t know whether one would be born in a rich or poor country, whether one would inherit wealth and power or be impoverished and underprivileged, be born healthy or unhealthy (e.g. with cerebral palsy), be male, female or some other gender, be black, white or some other colour, etc. thus one won’t know if personal endeavour and furry effort can bring one all of the opportunities that’ll be available to others (e.g. one could be born too short to realistically ever become a top basketballer no matter how much one practices playing basketball).
Imagine if you were born destitute in a poverty-stricken country – realistically, no matter how smart you are or how much personal hard work you put in, you won’t likely get the opportunities to go to an elite university and succeed from there. A very poor child in these circumstances would need to put his/her family’s survival before his/her own education (e.g. immediately start working as soon as they physically can to secure basic food and clean daily water), and that’ll have path-dependent knock-on effects throughout his/her personal life.
Even the culture we are brought up in will affect us and our choices massively, and this we do not choose and cannot reasonably shape as a developing child either when we’re absorbing culture rather than influencing it. A person may have talents that aren’t rewarded in the society they are raised in, but which may have been or would be highly rewarded in another country or time. For instance, playing videogames was merely seen as a lazy leisure activity up until relatively recently – but top gamers are now highly paid and prized in a growing number of countries, so if you were a top gamer even just a couple of decades ago, you’d have missed out on these modern lucrative esport opportunities. Or you might have a certain brand of fuzzy humour that isn’t valued in your country thus your nascent comedic ambitions gets snuffed out when young, but this talent would’ve been nurtured and would’ve landed you a primetime TV slot in another country. One doesn’t choose to be born or raised in one country or time or another so it’s down to luck, which one cannot claim credit for.
Even if we just look at the situation in the US – at 38 colleges in America, including 5 in the Ivy League, more students came from families from the richest 1% than the bottom 60% of the income scale, according to 2013 data; and of course no one chooses their parents. Thus although a meritocracy is ideal – in reality, not all efforts are equally rewarded and not all people have the same opportunities. And hence for a meritocracy to truly work – one needs to set up a system that benefits the least well-off and seemingly least capable too. It might appear ironic or contradictory to give unequal treatment in order to achieve an equality in opportunities but we must be careful not to fetishise merit because some differences in ability are borne from differences in initial privilege.
The distribution of income and wealth shouldn’t be morally arbitrary – it shouldn’t be based on factors for which people cannot claim (full) credit for their own outcomes. Rawls agrees with libertarianism that ‘birthright’ (like in an aristocratic or caste system) is unjust and that there should be an equality of opportunities. But he believes that’s not enough – because if you let everyone enter a race but people start at different starting points then that race isn’t going to be fair; thus libertarianism is influenced by morally arbitrary and unjust factors such as whether one was born into wealth and power or not i.e. a free market with a ‘formal equality’ of opportunities is still morally wrong, unjust and arbitrary. A ‘fair equality’ of opportunities or a fair meritocracy, on the other paw, would set up institutions to bring everybody to the same starting point before the race begins. The present reality is hardly like this more moral and just ideal though. Woof.
Yet for Rawls, even this is insufficient. Even if social and economic factors were levelled out at the start – natural talents (genetics and other natural attributes one still never chose, earned or can therefore claim credit for) would still create a natural lottery or moral arbitrariness i.e. outcomes based arbitrarily on anything that one didn’t ultimately choose and hence cannot ultimately claim credit for, such as accidents of birth, socio-economic advantage or biological luck. Mental disabilities are not people’s choices, and so mental abilities are not people’s choices either. “There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.” This is why Rawls postulates that departures from an equal distribution of shares are permissible, and only permissible, if they raise the expectation of the least advantaged member of society, and that distributive shares should not be influenced by such chance contingencies as accidents of birth or good fortune.
Both Rawls and Robert Nozick agree though that it can sometimes be wrong to perform an act that maximises overall utility, for they both reject utilitarianism. Rawls argues that, even if it would maximise overall utility, it’d be unjust for the government to enact a policy that violates his two principles of justice, which are – “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.” And “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” These principles encompass equal liberty or egalitarianism, and the difference principle. Nozick, meanwhile, argues that it’d be unjust for the government to enact a policy that violates people’s natural rights even if doing so would maximise overall utility in society.
Rawls and Nozick both agree that to maximise utility by imposing burdens on some individuals is to treat all of society like a single person – but society isn’t like a single person thus utilitarianism is mistaken in this regard, they argue. They both agree that the law should embody no single particular conception of the good life to the exclusion of other equally reasonable conceptions of the good life – the law should set a fair framework within which individuals can pursue their own various conceptions of the good life. The law should protect individuals’ natural rights.
But whereas Rawls thinks that it matters not just how much utility is produced in aggregate but also how this utility is distributed (his two principles of justice) – Nozick more simply believes that separate persons have rights that make it impermissible to take from one person to give to another. Nozick accepts economic inequality and Rawls doesn’t condemn all economic inequality, but whereas Nozick would say that inequality is justifiable as long as the economic goods were acquired in accordance with the principles of justice in acquisition (initial holdings) and justice in transfer (a free market) – Rawls would say that whether the society is just or not depends upon whether the inequalities are working to the benefit of the least advantaged, as constrained by principles that guarantee fair equal opportunities and equal liberties. Nozick doesn’t care about a fair equality of opportunities whilst Rawls does.
…Once more, I’ll have to continue this thread in a future post, but I promise this time that you won’t need to wait long.