The Rawls Dilemma
John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century, was born into a prosperous middle class family in Baltimore in 1921. He attended a private school in Connecticut and went on to Princeton.
Rawls’ internal life replicated the moral trajectory of many thoughtful people in the Western world, beginning with a deep interest in religion, sin and morality and ending by losing his faith and worrying about what guideposts might substitute for religious-based morality.
Rawls’ typically middle-class childhood was marred by two terrible events. When Rawls was seven, he contracted diphtheria. Rawls survived but his younger brother, Bobby, got the disease from Rawls and died.
A year later Rawls came down with pneumonia. Again, he survived, but he gave the disease to another brother, Tommy, who died.
These awful events led Rawls to think deeply about God’s relationship to the world and he eventually considered joining an Episcopalian seminary. His undergraduate thesis topic was “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.”
After college, Rawls entered the U.S. Army during World War II, serving as an infantryman in the Philippines. There he witnessed horrific battle scenes, observed the shocking aftermath of the atomic bombing of Japan, and eventually learned about the Holocaust. Later in his career, Rawls was further horrified by the War in Vietnam.
The accumulated impact of these events caused Rawls to lose his faith and to change his career path, becoming a political philosopher. The major challenge Rawls wished to confront was how a just society could be organized in such a way as to avoid both incremental progress (the defect in liberal democracies) and Rousseauian radicalism.
In 1971, Rawls’ magnum opus, “A Theory of Justice,” appeared, instantly marking Rawls as a major voice in political philosophy. Did “A Theory of Justice” succeed in describing a society free of the defects of liberal democracy and Rousseauian radicalism? Yes and no, as we will see.
Like his predecessors during the Age of Enlightenment, Rawls adopted a “social contract” theory of the relationship between people and their governments. That is, he agreed that people granted a monopoly on the use of force to governments in return for protection and preservation of certain important rights and freedoms.
Also like his predecessors, Rawls tried to imagine an era before governments were formed. But while Rawls’ predecessors tried to imagine what life was like in an actual state of nature, Rawls took a different approach, engaging in a thought experiment.
Imagine, he suggested, that we lived in a time before governments existed and that we had to envision the sort of society we would want to live in. What would that society look like?
Key to this thought experiment was the notion that we couldn’t know in advance what role we would play in the new society. We might be a poor sharecropper in Mississippi. We might be a struggling single mom in rural Maine. We might be Bill Gates.
Given those constraints, said Rawls, the government we would choose would be one characterized by radical equality. Not only would equality not depend on race, creed, color, gender or any other immutable quality, but it would not even depend – at least not entirely – on talent and motivation.
While Rawls recognized that talented citizens would likely fair better in his new society, he believed that the people in his thought experiment would also adopt the so-called “difference principle.” This principle requires that any inequality in the new society be tolerated only to the extent that it improves the lives of the less-advantaged.
Rawls called his approach “justice-as-fairness,” and it was a remarkable advance in our thinking about human societies. But consider this: although a Rawlsian society was radically more equal than any society in history, most of the criticisms of Rawls argued that he hadn’t gone far enough.
Feminist writers, for example, pointed out that merely offering women exact equality with men couldn’t possibly overcome centuries of patriarchy. Similarly, critical race theorists argued that merely offering African-Americans exact equality with whites couldn’t overcome the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and white privilege.
And there was another problem with Rawls’ idea of justice-as-fairness: he may have been wrong in describing the kind of society people would have selected.
In arguing that pre-governmental humans, imagining the kind of society they would want to live in, would choose radical equality, Rawls was thinking of our future relations in society with each other. But let’s remember that the first duty of a government is to protect its citizens.
Suppose it is the case that the more radically equal a society it is, the less competitive it will be with other, somewhat less equal, societies. Certainly the history of Communism in the USSR and socialism almost everywhere else in the world would tend to support this notion.
In that case, people might pause before choosing a radically equal society for fear that it would either fail (cf., the USSR) or find itself dominated by more competitive societies.
Suppose as well that a less equal society might produce enough wealth so that even the less well-off could live acceptable lives. The U.S. and China, both of which have consistently produced greater GDP than more equal societies, would be examples.
In that case, even people who fear that they could end up near the bottom of the new society might choose a less equal society, reckoning that a rising tide could raise all boats, while a falling tide could leave a great many boats stranded.
In short, Rawls’ idea of justice-as-fairness probably fails both because it didn’t go far enough to satisfy the claims of historically disadvantaged people and also because it failed to consider the competitiveness—or lack thereof —of a radically equal society.
On the other hand, Rawls did succeed in providing a thoughtful example of what a more just world might look like at some distant point in the future if liberal democracies continued to make incremental progress toward true equality.
But in the future, we’re all dead. Rousseau, meanwhile, turns out to be alive and well.
Liberal democracies do a slow job of correcting inequalities and, to the extent that correcting inequality is the most important objective of any just polity, it is safe to say that liberal democracy has lost its legitimacy—it has passed its expiration date and will have to be replaced by something else.
To make matters worse, equality isn’t the only challenge liberal democracies face. We’ll look at some of those issues next week.