A Theory of Justice by John Rawls:

A Parable & Many Resources

written & compiled by David B. Richardson

A Parable of Social Justice...

For a moment, if you will, please imagine that you are a disembodied soul, a spirit (as it were). Further, please imagine that you are about to take birth somewhere on Planet Earth. Suddenly, you find yourself in a space with many other disembodied souls who are also about to take birth on Planet Earth...

You and your fellow spirits have some knowledge of the world into which you are about to be born, but it is limited. You know, for example, that the essential things of life, the "basic goods," are not evenly distributed in the world you are about to discover: you know that a relatively small number of people have an immense abundance of these basic goods, that a somewhat larger number have a moderate store of these basic goods, and that a significantly larger number than these have so little of the basic goods of life that their happiness and well-being are impaired.

Furthermore, neither you nor your fellow spirits have any idea which condition of life you will be "born into" -- you might be born among the very poor, among the moderately well-off, or among the most-privileged.

Now, just to make the story a little stranger, let's suppose that it is possible for you to discuss these facts with your fellow disembodied spirits, and that you are permitted, if you wish to, to enter into agreements with them -- binding contract agreements -- that will govern (to a degree) how the society into which you are about to be born will be structured: particularly, how it will address the unequal distribution of the basic goods of life.

At this "Constitutional Convention of Disembodied Spirits", one of the spirits, let's call her "Spirit Ananda', suggests, "Well, since there's a pretty good chance each of us will be born poor, why don't we require that the basic goods of life be redistributed among all our citizens EQUALLY, and as soon as possible! What do you all think?" And there is much nodding of heads (to the extent that this is possible among spirits) and enthusiastic agreement.

But then another spirit, let's call her "Spirit Prema", suggests an adjustment to this idea. "My dear Spirit Ananda (and other esteemed spirits), I have heard rumors that in our world-to-be there are some situations in which the least advantaged of our citizens, those at the 'bottom of the heap' of basic goods, can actually be HELPED -- can be made better off -- if we allow certain limited inequalities of basic goods in the general society. Now, none of us knows if this rumor is true: but if it should prove to be true, shouldn't we agree that we will allow some limited inequalities in the distribution of the basic goods of society IF AND ONLY IF those at 'the bottom of the heap', the least advantaged, should be helped by this?!"

There is a thoughtful pause at Spirit Prema's idea and the rumble of conversation amongst the spirits. After much reflection, the Constitutional Convention of Disembodied Spirits reaches a broad consensus that they like Spirit Prema's adjustment to Spirit Ananda's basic rule. Indeed, even Spirit Ananda acknowledges that it is an improvement.

In the end, the following is resolved by the Convention: "We, the Disembodied Spirits About to be Born, in general convention assembled, hereby enter into the following agreement, and resolve to be bound by it after we are born:

"We will structure our society in such a way that the basic goods of human life (not only wealth, but also opportunities, freedoms, and all other basic goods) will be EVENLY DISTRIBUTED amongst all our citizens with the following special exception: if it is found that some limited inequalities in the distribution of these goods actually benefit the least advantaged of our citizens, we will allow for such inequalities provided that they are carefully monitored, frequently reviewed, and governed by law."

And with this resolve (and a few others we will not discuss at this time) the Consitutional Convention is dismissed, and the spirits, confident they have done a good job, each plunge into the Cosmic Whirlpool that will result in their human birth on Planet Earth.

Of course, by now some of you will have recognized the origin of this curious little scenario. Though it is imperfect, and though the story-telling elements are my own, it is based on a book that is considered by very many (including myself) to be the most significant work of political philosophy of the last half of the 20th century. Indeed, I suspect that this book and the literature it fosters will be studied for centuries to come and will have a significant influence on how the institutions of justice are forged on our little planet. While I have significant disagreements with the author, I have enormous respect for the work he has produced...

The book is A Theory of Justice by the late Harvard Professor John Rawls ( ISBN: 0674000781 , Belknap Press; Revised edition (September 1, 1999) ):

A Theory of Justice at Amazon.com

The scenario described above, with such imperfections as I may have introduced into it, is based on Professor Rawls' notion called "The Original Position", which is introduced in chapter 1, part 4.

A far more sophisticated summary of "The Original Position" may be found here:

"The Original Position" at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Though I have significant disagreements with Professor Rawls, I find that I am definitely in the "same neighborhood" as the good professor philosophically. Prof. Rawls is NOT easy to read, but those who persist shall (I believe) be rewarded for their efforts.

Of course, the great question is, are there inequalities in the distribution of the basic goods of society that can actually benefit the least advantaged as well as the "average" citizen?

My own feeling is that there are. I've often said that capitalism is like cholesterol: there's good capitalism and bad capitalism. My view is that the democratic structures of a just society should maximize the more benign and helpful forms of capitalism while diminishing to the uttermost its hurtful manifestations. The goal is to implement "the rising tide that lifts all boats" of which U.S. President John F. Kennedy spoke. A wisely, compassionately-managed capitalist system (in the spirit of John Maynard Keynes and John Rawls) would combine the powerful incentive of personal-reward-for-beneficial-innovation-and-efficiency with the socially-minded incentive of the overall good of society. (At this stage in the development of human consciousness, the personal-reward motive is relatively strong in human psychology, while the socially-minded incentive is relatively weak. Over time, we hope these two will change position, but we MUST NOT BE NAIVE !!! We must meet people where they are, not where we want them to be!)

Can we structure our societies to take advantage of human self-interestedness? Can we achieve, in the best way, the condition described by Adam Smith in "The Wealth of Nations" (1776, "Adam Smith" at Wikipedia.org ) in which, as each person seeks to promote his or her own self-interest, the good of society is advanced "as if by an invisible hand"?

It's a tall order! Not easy, but worth pursuing. Looking at history, I find that Communist systems are like airplanes that cannot get off the ground (owing to the small aggregate wealth they produce). On the other hand, Capitalist systems are like airplanes that can easily get off the ground, but they tend to stray FAR off course. (They are very good at producing enormous amounts of aggregate wealth, but not particularly good at distributing this wealth fairly or justly.) The goal must be to get the airplane aloft and carefully to keep it true-to-course: to keep it focused on the well-being of society at large, and particularly of the least advantaged.

This is, of course, only my opinion....

- David B. Richardson


Some useful resources on John Rawls' ideas:

Professor Rawls' "Justice as Fairness: a Restatement" (written with Erin Kelly) is also well worth reading:

Justice as Fairness at Amazon.com

The Cambridge Companion to Rawls is also helpful in understanding the work of this significant thinker:

The Cambridge Companion to Rawls at Amazon.com

Martha Nussbaum's fine article, "The Enduring Significance of John Rawls" can be read in its entirety here:

at the "Chronicle of Higher Education"

Here are two fairly good brief online summaries of "A Theory of Justice" for those who are interested:

Peter Jedicke's Summary

David Piccard's Summary

Another good review of some of Rawls' ideas:

John Kilcullen's outline

There's even a slide show (with 23 slides!) and of course, a Wikipedia.org article:

"A Theory of Justice" slideshow

"John Rawls" at Wikipedia.org

May the well-being of the least advantaged among us always and forever be enhanced! (And thereby may the true well-being of ALL be promoted!)

David B. Richardson
Berkeley, California
June, 2005

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