A political philosophy for our times

To conduct ourselves justly towards others, we have to ignore criteria such as their gender, race, religion

By Author D Samarender Reddy   |   Published: 23rd Sep 2020   12:05 am Updated: 22nd Sep 2020   10:53 pm

To empathise with people and understand their situation and concerns better, we often have to put ourselves in their shoes and think. That way we can come to an impartial and fair assessment of the situation they are in. One philosopher who seems to have taken this common sense principle to heart and come up with a startling and groundbreaking theory in political philosophy is the late John Rawls.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) notes, “John Rawls (b. 1921, d. 2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. His theory of justice as fairness describes a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. His theory of political liberalism delineates the legitimate use of political power in a democracy, and envisions how civic unity might endure despite the diversity of worldviews that free institutions allow.”

Original Position

Rawls, who was a professor at Harvard University, wrote the seminal work ‘A Theory of Justice’ in 1971. In it, he employed the famous thought experiment, which he christened the “original position.” When we have to conduct ourselves in a just manner towards others, we have to ignore certain criteria, such as their gender, ethnicity, race and religion. Rawls’ “original position” encodes our intuitions about which criteria are relevant, and which irrelevant, for the purposes of thinking meaningfully about justice.

The original position is a purely hypothetical and abstract scenario in which a group of people sets about to decide about the political and economic institutions of a society that they would have to live in. In doing so, each deliberates behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is, ignorance of his or her age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, wealth, religion, and natural endowments (such as intelligence and abilities). They also do not know the social, political and economic milieu of the society. Rawls specifies a few other conditions, which we will not go into here, under which each individual deliberates in order to design a social structure that will secure oneself maximal advantage possible under such circumstances.

Rawls goes on to show that under such conditions one errs on the side of caution because, hypothetically speaking, one does not know what position s/he would occupy in that society (given that one is operating behind a “veil of ignorance”). One would not want to disadvantage certain groups into which one might well fall once the arrangements are agreed upon and the “veil of ignorance” is lifted.

 political philosophy

Two Principles

Specifically speaking, according to Rawls, they would agree on two broad principles. Firstly, they would want equal basic liberties for each citizen compatible with similar liberties for others. These basic liberties are those characteristic to the liberal tradition, such as freedoms of expression, association, and conscience along with democratic rights. But liberties are of little worth when there are wide disparities in the population, with highly marginalised groups. So, you will need to address such inequalities under the second principle: (a) fair equality of opportunity to offices and positions, and (b) only such inequalities which are of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of the society (the “difference principle”).

The kind of political setting Rawls’ theory favours is either a property owning democracy or democratic socialism, but not a welfare state. The government of a property owning democracy needs to ensure widespread ownership of productive assets and broad access to education and training. Democratic socialism would operate along similar lines, but would feature worker-managed firms. The aim of both is to ensure social and economic equality under conditions of liberty for all citizens, including the least advantaged.

Four Roles

As SEP notes, “Rawls saw political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles in a society’s public life”: Help discover grounds for reasoned agreement in a society where sharp divisions can threaten to lead to conflict. For instance, Hobbes’ Leviathan was an attempt to solve the problem of order during the English civil war, and the Federalist Papers emerged from the debate over the US Constitution; Help citizens to orient themselves to what it is to be a member of a certain society, and how the nature and history of that society can be understood from a broader perspective; Describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people. Yet within these limits, philosophy can be utopian: it can depict a social order that is the best that we can hope for; Showing us the way in which our society’s institutions… are rational, and developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational form, and that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly and corruption.

SEP goes on to say that “Rawls viewed his own work as a practical contribution to resolving the long-standing tension in democratic thought between liberty and equality, and to limning the limits of civic and of international toleration. He offers the members of his own society a way of understanding themselves as free and equal citizens within a fair democratic polity, and describes a hopeful vision of a stably just constitutional democracy doing its part within a peaceful international community.”

Rawls’ theory has had its detractors. One of them was his own colleague at Harvard, Robert Nozick. Nozick pointed out, among other things, that any redistributive schemes of income and wealth in society would lead to transgressions on the liberty of individuals given that we have inalienable rights over the property we have earned justly. The other challenge to it is by a group of thinkers dubbed as communitarians. Communitarians, such as Michael Sandel of Harvard, argue that Rawls wrongly abstracts from one’s social self. Such a self “unencumbered” by particular community bonds and commitments is not the right one to make claims about justice.

(The author is a writer and poet; preview his poetry at https://a.co/fyEOQFa)

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