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
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
"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
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) ):
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.
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
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:
as Fairness at Amazon.com
The Cambridge Companion to Rawls is also helpful in understanding the work
of this significant thinker:
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
"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
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