Doneer aan de Mr. Hans van Mierlo Stichting

John Rawls (1921-2002)

john-rawls‘A good man who gave priority to the right’

He was a polite, modest man with a stutter and “a bat-like horror of the limelight” as one of his obituaries put it. But John Bordley Rawls (1921-2002) was also the creator of the “veil of ignorance”, the “original position” and the “difference principle”. And, with A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, the author of some of the                                                                                       most influential books of liberal                                                                                                     philosophical thinking.

This article can be found in the idee nr. 6 2014.

By Herman Beun

His modernisation of social contract theory was heavily influenced by Kant; in Rawls’ view, members of a community need only limited consensus over the “good” (what it means to lead a good and fulfilling life) in order to be able to reach decisions that are widely accepted as just, or “right”. But do his theories still work on a European and global level, or are views of the “good” too far apart there to warrant meaningful decision-making?

John Rawls was born in Baltimore, Maryland (US) to a well-off family. His father was a mostly self-taught tax lawyer and constitutional expert, his mother a women’s rights activist and an active member of the Democratic Party. Rawls was the second of five children, all boys, two of whom died during his childhood as a result of infections they caught from him. The first time this happened was when he had diphtheria as a seven year old, and one of his younger brothers caught the disease from him and died. Only a year later the same thing happened when the young Rawls was suffering from pneumonia and another brother was fatally infected. Understandably the loss of his brothers traumatised him deeply, and contributed, as he later admitted, to the development of a severe stutter that he would keep for the rest of his life.

Rawls entered Princeton University at the outbreak of World War II. He obtained his BA summa cum laude in 1943, after which he joined the US army as an infantryman. He fought in the Philippines and New Guinea. The war, worldwide and in the Pacific, contributed strongly to his developing interest in politics and international justice, and when it ended Rawls went back to Princeton for a PhD on ethical decision-making. He completed his thesis in 1950 and taught at Princeton for two years. He then went to Oxford, where he met Isaiah Berlin, and in 1953 he went to Cornell University in New York. Between 1960 and 1962 he was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before moving to Harvard in 1962, where he stayed for the rest of his professional life.

Building on ideas he developed in his thesis and later at Oxford, he published “Justice as Fairness” in 1957, an article that was his breakthrough and which already contained two of the concepts that made him famous: the ‘original position’ and the ‘veil of ignorance’. Rawls needed these concepts for the modern, moral twist he wanted to give to social contract theory, which is the Enlightenment model of society as the product of an imaginary contract between its individual citizens. Enlightenment philosophers – most famously Rousseau – who had only just freed the individual from the shackles of God and feudalism, invented the social contract in order to legitimise the idea that free individuals could be ruled again.

The starting point for their reasoning was a hypothetical, lawless “state of nature” which inevitably leads to what Hobbes called a “war of all against all”. To prevent such a situation, they argued, individuals would be only too happy to enter a “social contract” under which they surrendered some of their freedoms and rights in return for protection and social peace. Hobbes contended that people negotiating from within the state of nature on a set of principles and rules to govern them would conclude that handing power to an absolute sovereign was the most reasonable solution.

Rawls, who was not happy with the outcomes of earlier contract theorists, reasoned that the main problem was that they allowed the hypothetical negotiators to take into account too much information about their fellow negotiators, like gender, wealth, social class, talents and skills, religious convictions, et cetera. Therefore he took a more abstract approach, by replacing the “state of nature” with the equally hypothetical “original position”. In order to make sure that negotiators in this “original position” would be impartial while devising a set of principles to rule them, they had to take place behind a “veil of ignorance” which shielded them from any information about their fellow negotiators and themselves that could influence their judgment unfairly. As Rawls specified it himself: “Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.”

Rawls argued that the veil of ignorance forced any reasonable person in the original position to choose for a society that was based on fundamental rights and liberties compatible with similar liberty for all (the “liberty principle”). The participant would also choose for a society in which wealth and other advantages were attached to positions and offices open to all, and where income differences would neither be too great nor too small, but just great enough so their existence could reasonably be expected to be to everyone’s advantage (the “difference principle”).

Rawls’ approach to making moral choices, by hypothetically outsourcing them to reasonable people behind a veil of ignorance, shows how much of his thinking he owes to Kant and his categorical imperative (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction”). Like Kant, he was strongly convinced that our ability freely to choose our own ends is a fundamental characteristic of human nature. Both see it as a moral duty to respect our fellow citizens’ capacity for autonomy and to let them live according to their own convictions and ideas. His approach to political justice is to give priority to the “right” (justice), over the “good” (specific conceptions of what it means to be a good person and to lead a fulfilling life).

To strive for
But like many other political philosophers who tried to eliminate the Good from the equation, Rawls does not succeed in doing so entirely. His own theories, including the set of conditions surrounding the original position negotiations and the principles of justice that result from them, do seem to point to an underlying idea that a community of free, authentic and responsible individuals is something to strive for – and to considerable confidence in the logical inevitability of their choices.

There is also his outspoken criticism of utilitarianism (in the classic, Benthamian form) and other theories based on a single value system, like Marxism, Christianity or Islam, for allowing that individual rights be trampled if it sufficiently increases general well-being in the rest of the population or some greater good. “Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some can ever be made right by a greater good shared by others,” he writes in the opening paragraphs of A Theory of Justice. So underlying his own universal theory of justice, there is clearly some conception of the Good which may be implicit but is nonetheless strong enough to reject other conceptions.

On a different level there is the communitarian argument of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor that theories of justice cannot be universal, but depend on the life, traditions and institutions of particular societies, and therefore vary from context to context. Even where basic conceptions of the Good are similar, like between Europe and the US, different priorities may still lead to different theories of justice: an American for instance seems more likely to sacrifice a social or economic right when it conflicts with a civil or political right than a European. And there is the argument of the American publicist and philosopher Michael Walzer, that political arguments and ideas need to resonate with the habits and traditions of a particular society in order to lead to effective change. Politicians trying to define what society should look like by abstracting from particular contexts, and trying to convince people with arguments that ignore those contexts, are doomed to fail.

Rawls tried to address the criticism in later work by removing some of the most universalist claims. He does so most notably in Political Liberalism, stating that his method is meant to be used in a liberal-democratic political culture where people are willing to find a consensus because they share a “thin” conception of the Good (while “deeper” conceptions may vary individually). In his last book, The Law of Peoples (1993), which addresses how states could interact at an international level, he even allows for the presence of non-liberal societies in his international system, as long as they have an internal “common good conception of justice”, “a reasonable consultation hierarchy” and secure basic human rights.

There may be important lessons here for liberals trying to apply Rawls in the 21st century. Throughout most of Rawls’ life, western countries were still in the process of constructing their welfare states. Questions concerning the redistribution of wealth, access to work and education, or the participation of specific groups in society had to be solved for relatively homogeneous societies and within national borders.

Today, the same problems have to be solved on a much larger scale, because European integration, immigration and globalisation confront us with the effects of policies and inequalities across national borders. And this is where the challenge lies. As Rawls admitted himself, his method requires at least some shared understanding of the Good in order to come to a set of governing rules which are acceptable to all. But judging from the political success of movements opposing EU decision-making, transatlantic trade negotiations and immigration, that acceptance is considerably less evident than it was a few decades ago. This may be a sign that at least some of the objections raised by Rawls’ critics may be right.

This does not necessarily mean that Rawls’ theories cannot be applied to the diverse yet strongly integrated world of the 21st century. But if liberals want to continue in their vein, and if they really believe in the justice of the institutions they build, they may need to turn the implicit conceptions underlying liberal ideals into an explicit, “thicker” conception of the Good that resonates across cultural and national divides and that is strong enough to support the institutions that come with far-reaching global integration.

Rawls himself, in any case, always took his critics seriously. He dedicated much of his working life to dealing with their arguments, investigating and addressing them, making considerable adaptations to his theories along the way.


Herman Beun works as a staff member in the Dutch parliament on European Affairs. He is a speaker for the Van Mierlo Foundation.

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Laatst gewijzigd op 22 november 2018