Politics and Morality: John Rawls’ Awesome Theory of Social Justice


John Rawls (1921-2002) was an American professor and philosopher whose magnum opus, A Theory of Social Justice was one of the most important works on politics and morality to come along in a very long time.

While Enlightenment philosophers started with God-given rights (Locke) or scientifically determined utility (Bentham) Rawls said forget all that and let’s just do a thought experiment.

Imagine you had to design a social order, including economics, politics, etc., and you didn’t know if you were going to be rich, poor, male, female, black, white, or have a high or low IQ. What you know about the world is that it’s a “world of moderate scarcity.” Not a third world country, but not a country with superabundance, either.

You might be a white, well-off male or you might be a black, low-income female or any mixture on the continuum. You do not know. Now what will your laws look like? Would you take all the money from the wealthiest and pass it out to the poorest? No, because you might be one of the wealthy and that does not seem fair. Would you leave the poorest without medical care, housing or food? No, because that might be you and you would like, at the bare minimum, to stay alive.

This applies to resources but it also applies to liberties. “The way to think about it is from the standpoint of the most adversely affected person,” Rawls said, because you don’t know who you’re going to be. Take freedom of religion for example. You may belong to the most accepted religion in the land, but you also might belong to a small, generally despised religion. Religious freedom-wise you are the most disadvantaged person.

As the most religiously disadvantaged person, what kind of laws will you write regarding freedom of religion? Something like the First Amendment that says that the government can neither interfere with your religious beliefs nor set up a religion as the state-favored one?

How about freedom of speech? You have things to say that are extremely unpopular. Popular speech, after all, needs no protection. What kind of laws will you write regarding freedom of speech?

Rawls basically forces the reader to put him or her self in the shoes of the most disadvantaged person and then asks, “What do you need? What do you want?” However, you don’t get to loot everyone else, because you might also be one of them.

What is fair? This actually gets back to the oldest and most universal law of morality: “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” but adds a twist: “You” and “others” is not fixed in place-you could be anyone in the society you are setting out to create.

What do you think of Rawls’ idea? If leaders shaped society with the best interest of each citizen always in mind, would we have a more just society?



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