Lesson 9: John Rawls– Equality for All (Sandel, Chapter 6)

John RawlsWe’re looking at how we find the moral principles to determine what is right, just, and good. Kant believed we could this with human reason alone. Theoretically, every rational individual will come up with duties natural to all people.

John Rawls, probably the most distinguished writer on justice in recent time, sees the same limitations that Bob cited in his comments last week. He does not base his theory of justice on natural reason, but rather on a hypothetical social contract or agreement on what a community will regard as fair. Its first principle would be fairness is what rational, self-interested people choose in a purely egalitarian situation. He describes this as coming up with the “rules of game” from behind a “veil of ignorance.” This veil hides all distinctions, such as birth, education, talent, skill, and situation.

His second principle states that any action benefitting the powerful must also benefit the weak. It recognizes once we establish a fair situation and fair rules, we immediately lose them as all the factors of distinction come again into practice. Because the strong are always going to do better, even on a level playing field, we have to come with compensations for the weak if we are to maintain equality.

That means those accepting Rawls’ theory must discuss what the legitimate expectations or entitlements of persons would be in a community advocating equality for all. Rawls would not base these on virtue or moral deserts, as these bring in again some of the distinctions he is trying to eliminate. Instead he based them simply on the “rules of the game” set from behind the “veil of ignorance.” Of course, he recognizes the rules for equality can change in different historical periods.

What are the legitimate expectations citizens have for the government in our day? Is it simply law and order, defense of our persons and rights? Does it extend to education? The ability to feed a family? Care for the elderly? Health care for all?

What are examples of the difference principle? A lot of people point to the “trickle down” economic concept, believing wealthy people will produce jobs enabling poor people to improve their standard of living as well. Studies of the radical separation of the rich and poor in recent years show this fails to meet Rawls’ test. Other candidates might be the graduated income tax, food stamps, head start, and college scholarships.

Some believe the “care for the needy” found in the Bible is an example. Certainly the Old Testament Torah defines justice as non-partial fairness and then immediately stipulates this includes care for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the slave, and even animals, those who can not compete. Jesus “Parable of the Laborers’ Wages” is based on the owner enabling all his employees, no matter how long they worked, to feed their families.

I think Rawls has a better take on biblical equality than people who read this as God’s “preference for the poor.” I think the biblical perspective is better described as “care for the weak.” Jesus speaks of his Father ignoring distinctions when he sends rain on the good and evil. So does Paul, when he proclaims “justification by grace through faith.” Jesus’ “Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man” makes it clear the modern problem is first recognizing there is a poor man outside our door.

How about taking a crack at the questions embedded in the lesson? What do you think are legitimate expectations of our government? What do you suggest as examples of the difference principle? Another question for pondering might be how we can approximate the “veil of ignorance” for determining the rules for fairness? Does the secret ballot in a democracy serve the purpose? Is it enough?

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    What can we expect governement to do? In a democracy a government can do anything that the people vote for and are willing to pay for with, of course, the expection of things that violate basic rights in the nation’s constitution. Norway does a lot more than Italy because the Norwegains have voted for a more extensive welfare state and pay very high taxes. Of course not everyone in Norway agrees, but the majority rules. This type of government role tends to be more easily accomplished in more homogeneous nations.

    What a government can do is also limited by the nations’s wealth. Norway’s large oil reserves allow it to do things that Bulgaria could not do even if the people voted for them.

    When government raises taxes a lot and has more rules and regulations, this inevitably limits human freedom to do what one want to do without any government interference. In a democracy the people can decide the extent to which they accept such limts for the “common good.”

    Some raise the argument that even if the people vote for and pay for a much more extensive government, this inevitably will lead to the threat of a tyrannical government. When government gets too big it inevitably will “go bad.” In a sense the people will democratically “dig their own grave.”

    A brilliant discussion of how one can maintain democracy without any one group or region gaining control of the goverment and surpressing the others is still the Tenth Federalist Paper of James Madison.

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