Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice

A summary of and some thoughts on my reading of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice (revised edition) (1999) section 3 "The Main Idea of a Theory of Justice":

Traditional social contract theories are a set of rules for those entering a given society, or under a given governance structure. John Rawls abstracts this idea and considers social contract theory from a pre-societal position, which he calls the Original Position. Starting the construction of our social contracts from the Original Position allows us to engineer a society that has justice built in to its structure, rather than trying to make the most of an existing structure which may have injustice and inequities built in to it. From the Original Position we are to develop principles that " and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association".

Social contract theory is by its own terms social in nature. It relates to how we govern and interact as a society. The rights that we accord to each other relate to how we treat each other, both directly and in terms of access to and use of the technosocial system which we inhabit. Our interests are shaped by our psychology and our physiology; the architecture of our personhood and its embodiment. Rights relating to these are (relatively) fixed to that embodiment, but rights relating to the society that we inhabit are relative to what is available.

Rawls points out that the Original Position is not intended to be a historical state, it is a hypothetical state. By starting from the Original Position we consider how things should be. Rawl's hypothetical starting point includes a 'veil of ignorance'. In constructing a society and rights we should do unknowing of our particular circumstances and interests. In this way we can create for all, not just for ourselves or our own world view. A simple analogy is of cake cutting; if one cuts a cake into portions without knowing (or being able to influence) which portion they will receive, then they will be best served by cutting the cake into equal portions or at least with no portion smaller than the minimum acceptable size. In this way looking after your own interests also looks after the interests of others.

Although those born into a society have not explicitly agreed to the social contract, but in a justly organised society its citizens should be able to reflect and recognise that even if their personal circumstances are not to their liking that the societal structures are just and fair (assuming of course that they are!). Recognition from citizens of what makes for a just society, and assuming these are (largely) realised, and that it "...meets the principles which free and equal persons would assent to under circumstances that are fair" provides implicit consent.

Rawls argues that in the Original Position people are likely to adopt some mix of two strategies; the first is "equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties" and the second is the 'minmax' strategy which accepts inequalities providing they bring around "...benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged of society".

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