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Theories of Justice Essay

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Theory of Justice is a work of political philosophy and ethics by John Rawls. It was originally published in 1971 and revised in both 1975 (for the translated editions) and 1999. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempts to solve the problem of distributive justice (the socially just distribution of goods in a society) by utilising a variant of the familiar device of the social contract. The resultant theory is known as “Justice as Fairness”, from which Rawls derives his two principles of justice: the liberty principle and the difference principle.

Objective

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality. Central to this effort is an account of the circumstances of justice, inspired by David Hume, and a fair choice situation for parties facing such circumstances, similar to some of Immanuel Kant’s views. Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. These parties are recognized to face moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic.

They have ends which they seek to advance, but prefer to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms.

Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation (the original position with its veil of ignorance) within which parties would hypothetically choose mutually acceptable principles of justice. Under such constraints, Rawls believes that parties would find his favoured principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over varied alternatives, including utilitarian and right-libertarian accounts.

A society, according to Utilitarianism, is just to the extent that its laws and institutions are such as to promote the greatest overall or average happiness of its members. How do we determine the aggregate, or overall, happiness of the members of a society? This would seem to present a real problem. For happiness is not, like temperature or weight, directly measurable by any means that we have available. So utilitarians must approach the matter indirectly. They will have to rely on indirect measures, in other words. What would these be, and how can they be identified? The raditional idea at this point is to rely upon (a) a theory of the human good (i. e. , of what is good for human beings, of what is required for them to flourish) and (b) an account of the social conditions and forms of organization essential to the realization of that good. People, of course, do not agree on what kind of life would be the most desirable. Intellectuals, artists, ministers, politicians, corporate bureaucrats, financiers, soldiers, athletes, salespersons, workers: all these different types of people, and more besides, will certainly not agree completely on what is a happy, satisfying, or desirable life.

Very likely they will disagree on some quite important points. All is not lost, however. For there may yet be substantial agreement–enough, anyway, for the purposes of a theory of justice –about the general conditions requisite to human flourishing in all these otherwise disparate kinds of life. First of all there are at minimum certain basic needs that must be satisfied in any desirable kind of life. Basic needs, says James Sterba, are those needs “that must be satisfied in order not to seriously endanger a person’s mental or physical well-being. Basic needs, if not satisfied, lead to lacks and deficiencies with respect to a standard of mental and physical well-being. A person’s needs for food, shelter, medical care, protection, companionship, and self-development are, at least in part, needs of this sort. [Sterba, Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. , 1995). A basic-needs minimum, then, is the minimum wherewithal required for a person to meet his or her basic needs. Such needs are universal.

People will be alike in having such needs, however much they diverge in regard to the other needs, desires, or ends that they may have. We may develop this common ground further by resorting to some of Aristotle’s ideas on this question of the nature of a happy and satisfying life. Aristotle holds that humans are rational beings and that a human life is essentially rational activity, by which he means that human beings live their lives by making choices on the basis of reasons and then acting on those choices. All reasoning about what to do proceeds from premises relating to the agent’s beliefs and desires.

Desire is the motive for action and the practical syllogism (Aristotle’s label for the reasoning by which people decide what to do) is its translation into choice. Your choices are dictated by your beliefs and desires–provided you are rational. Such choices, the reasoning that leads to them, and the actions that result from them are what Aristotle chiefly means by the sort of rational activity that makes up a human life. We may fairly sum up this point of view by saying that people are “rational end-choosers. If Aristotle is at all on the right track, then it is clear that a basic-needs minimum is a prerequisite to any desirable kind of life, and further that to live a desirable kind of life a person must be free to determine his or her own ends and have the wherewithal–the means, the opportunities–to have a realistic chance of achieving those ends. (Some of these Aristotelian points are perhaps implicitly included in Sterba’s list of basic needs, under the head of self-development. ) So what does all this do for Utilitarianism? Quite a lot.

We have filled in some of item (a) above: the theory of the human good, the general conditions essential to a happy or desirable life. The Utilitarian may plausibly claim to be trying to promote the overall happiness of people in his society, therefore, when he tries to improve such things as rate of employment, per capita income, distribution of wealth and opportunity, the amount of leisure, general availability and level of education, poverty rates, social mobility, and the like. The justification for thinking these things relevant should be pretty plain.

They are measures of the amount and the distribution of the means and opportunities by which people can realize their various conception of a desirable life. With these things clearly in mind the Utilitarian is in a position to argue about item (b), the sorts of social arrangements that will deliver the means and opportunities for people to achieve their conception of a desirable life. John Stuart Mill, one of the three most important 19th century Utilitarians (the other two were Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick), argued that freedom or liberty, both political and economic, were indispensable requisites for happiness.

Basing his view upon much the same interpretation of human beings and human life as Aristotle, Mill argued that democracy and the basic political liberties–freedom of speech (and the press), of assembly, of worship–were essential to the happiness of rational end-choosers; for without them they would be prevented from effectively pursuing their own conception of a good and satisfying life. Similarly he argued that some degree of economic prosperity–wealth–was indispensable to having a realistic chance of living such a life, of realizing one’s ends. So, ccording to Utilitarianism, the just society should be so organized in its institutions–its government, its laws, and its economy–that as many people as possible shall have the means and opportunity to achieve their chosen conception of a desirable life. To reform the institutions of one’s society toward this goal, in the utilitarian view, is to pursue greater justice.

In the 19th century utilitarians often argued for a laissez faire capitalist economy. More recently some of them have argued for a “mixed” economy, i. e. , a state regulated market system. Mill, interestingly, argued at the beginning of the 19th century for an unregulated capitalist economy, but at the end argued for a socialist economy (which is not the same thing as a “mixed economy”). (3) The protection of the sorts of liberties that were guaranteed in the United States   by the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. (4) Democratic forms of government generally.

The utilitarian rationale for each of these institutional arrangements should be fairly obvious, but it would probably contribute significantly to our understanding of utilitarianism to review, in more detail, some utilitarian arguments for (2) “free” market capitalism. This we shall do later, in the next section. Three Theories of Justice: Utilitarianism, Justice as Fairness, and Libertarianism (1) Utilitarianism A society, according to Utilitarianism, is just to the extent that its laws and institutions are such as to promote the greatest overall or average happiness of its members.

How do we determine the aggregate, or overall, happiness of the members of a society? This would seem to present a real problem. For happiness is not, like temperature or weight, directly measurable by any means that we have available. So utilitarians must approach the matter indirectly. They will have to rely on indirect measures, in other words. What would these be, and how can they be identified? The traditional idea at this point is to rely upon (a) a theory of the human good (i. e. of what is good for human beings, of what is required for them to flourish) and (b) an account of the social conditions and forms of organization essential to the realization of that good. People, of course, do not agree on what kind of life would be the most desirable. Intellectuals, artists, ministers, politicians, corporate bureaucrats, financiers, soldiers, athletes, salespersons, workers: all these different types of people, and more besides, will certainly not agree completely on what is a happy, satisfying, or desirable life.

Very likely they will disagree on some quite important points. All is not lost, however. For there may yet be substantial agreement–enough, anyway, for the purposes of a theory of justice –about the general conditions requisite to human flourishing in all these otherwise disparate kinds of life. First of all there are at minimum certain basic needs that must be satisfied in any desirable kind of life. Basic needs, says James Sterba, are those needs “that must be satisfied in order not to seriously endanger a person’s mental or physical well-being. Basic needs, if not satisfied, lead to lacks and deficiencies with respect to a standard of mental and physical well-being. A person’s needs for food, shelter, medical care, protection, companionship, and self-development are, at least in part, needs of this sort. [Sterba, Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. , 1995). A basic-needs minimum, then, is the minimum wherewithal required for a person to meet his or her basic needs. Such needs are universal.

People will be alike in having such needs, however much they diverge in regard to the other needs, desires, or ends that they may have. We may develop this common ground further by resorting to some of Aristotle’s ideas on this question of the nature of a happy and satisfying life. Aristotle holds that humans are rational beings and that a human life is essentially rational activity, by which he means that human beings live their lives by making choices on the basis of reasons and then acting on those choices. All reasoning about what to do proceeds from premises relating to the agent’s beliefs and desires.

Desire is the motive for action and the practical syllogism (Aristotle’s label for the reasoning by which people decide what to do) is its translation into choice. Your choices are dictated by your beliefs and desires–provided you are rational. Such choices, the reasoning that leads to them, and the actions that result from them are what Aristotle chiefly means by the sort of rational activity that makes up a human life. We may fairly sum up this point of view by saying that people are “rational end-choosers. If Aristotle is at all on the right track, then it is clear that a basic-needs minimum is a prerequisite to any desirable kind of life, and further that to live a desirable kind of life a person must be free to determine his or her own ends and have the wherewithal–the means, the opportunities–to have a realistic chance of achieving those ends. (Some of these Aristotelian points are perhaps implicitly included in Sterba’s list of basic needs, under the head of self-development. ) So what does all this do for Utilitarianism? Quite a lot.

We have filled in some of item (a) above: the theory of the human good, the general conditions essential to a happy or desirable life. The Utilitarian may plausibly claim to be trying to promote the overall happiness of people in his society, therefore, when he tries to improve such things as rate of employment, per capita income, distribution of wealth and opportunity, the amount of leisure, general availability and level of education, poverty rates, social mobility, and the like. The justification for thinking these things relevant should be pretty plain.

They are measures of the amount and the distribution of the means and opportunities by which people can realize their various conception of a desirable life. With these things clearly in mind the Utilitarian is in a position to argue about item (b), the sorts of social arrangements that will deliver the means and opportunities for people to achieve their conception of a desirable life. John Stuart Mill, one of the three most important 19th century Utilitarians (the other two were Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick), argued that freedom or liberty, both political and economic, were indispensable requisites for happiness.

Basing his view upon much the same interpretation of human beings and human life as Aristotle, Mill argued that democracy and the basic political liberties–freedom of speech (and the press), of assembly, of worship–were essential to the happiness of rational end-choosers; for without them they would be prevented from effectively pursuing their own conception of a good and satisfying life. Similarly he argued that some degree of economic prosperity–wealth–was indispensable to having a realistic chance of living such a life, of realizing one’s ends. So, ccording to Utilitarianism, the just society should be so organized in its institutions–its government, its laws, and its economy–that as many people as possible shall have the means and opportunity to achieve their chosen conception of a desirable life. To reform the institutions of one’s society toward this goal, in the utilitarian view, is to pursue greater justice.

In the 19th century utilitarians often argued for a laissez faire capitalist economy. More recently some of them have argued for a “mixed” economy, i. e. , a state regulated market system. Mill, interestingly, argued at the beginning of the 19th century for an unregulated capitalist economy, but at the end argued for a socialist economy (which is not the same thing as a “mixed economy”). (3) The protection of the sorts of liberties that were guaranteed in the United States   by the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. (4) Democratic forms of government generally.

The utilitarian rationale for each of these institutional arrangements should be fairly obvious, but it would probably contribute significantly to our understanding of utilitarianism to review, in more detail, some utilitarian arguments for (2) “free” market capitalism. This we shall do later, in the next section. What do you think a Utilitarian would say about universal medical care? Would he or she be for it or against it? What about affirmative action programs, anti-hate crime legislation, welfare, a graduated income tax, anti-trust laws?

For or against? What would decide the issue for a utilitarian? (2) Utilitarianism and Competitive Capitalism The key claim about market capitalism for the utilitarian is that free, unregulated markets efficiently allocate resources–chiefly labor and capital–in the production of goods. By a market is meant only any pattern of economic activity in which buyers do business with sellers. In the classical system of economics competition is presupposed among producers or sellers. Toward the end of the nineteenth century writers began to make explicit… hat competition required that there be a considerable number of sellers in any trade or industry in informed communication with each other. In more recent times this has been crystallized into the notion of many sellers doing business with many buyers. Each is well informed as to the prices at which others are selling and buying–there is a going price of which everyone is aware. Most important of all, no buyer or seller is large enough to control or exercise an appreciable influence on the common price…. The notion of efficiency as applied to an economic system is many-sided.

It can be viewed merely as a matter of getting the most for the least…. There is also the problem of getting the particular things that are wanted by the community in the particular amounts in which they are wanted. In addition, if an economy is to be efficient some reasonably full use must be made of the available, or at least the willing, labor supply. There must be some satisfactory allocation of resources between present and future production–between what is produced for consumption and what is invested in new plant and processes to enlarge future consumption.

There must also be appropriate incentive to change; the adoption of new and more efficient methods of production must be encouraged. Finally–a somewhat different requirement and one that went long unrecognized–there must be adequate provision for the research and technological development which brings new methods and new products into existence. All this makes a large bill of requirements. Rawls’s Theory of Justice as Fairness The reformulation of Utilitarianism we just saw comes from John Rawls, who did not present it as a version of Utilitarianism at all.

He presented it as a first approximation to a quite distinct conception of justice from Utilitarianism, a conception that he calls “Justice as Fairness. ” I presented Rawls’s idea as a reformulation of Utilitarianism, anyway, because it seems to me to be greatly clarifying of what’s wrong with Utilitarianism to have an alternative to compare it to, an alternative that blocks the kinds of fairness objections that are typically raised against Utilitarianism.

In Utilitarianism everyone, in a way, is given equal consideration at the outset inasmuch as everyone’s happiness is taken into consideration and is given the same weight in the reasoning by which a form of social organization is settled on as the one that, in the circumstances, yields the greatest average utility. But, as we saw, Utilitarianism may in some circumstances settle on a form of social organization that treats some people unfairly, by imposing undue burdens on them for the sake of the greater average utility or happiness of the whole social group.

In the light of this fact it is reasonable to conclude that something is wrong with the Utilitarian procedure for weighing the interests of the individual members of the social group in deciding on what forms of social organization best serve those interests. The procedure puts individuals at and undesirable and unfair risk of being sacrificed for the overall social good. In the principle that we suggested as a revision of Utilitarianism, people would not be put at quite the same risk.

Rawls in fact argues for a more elaborate principle of justice in social organization, one that we haven’t seen yet, and he does so by employing a hypothetical model of a situation requiring people to choose the fundamental principles by which the basic institutions of their society are to be evaluated and organized. He argues that in the hypothetical conditions under which the choice of principles is to be made, only fair or just principles can be chosen. He argues that this is so because of the hypothetical conditions he imposes on the situation of the people making the choice.

Then he argues that under those conditions people would choose the following conjunction of principles: The Equal Liberty Principle: Each person is to have the maximum civil liberties compatible with the same liberty for all. The Difference Principle: Inequalities are permissible only if (a) they can be expected to work to everyone’s advantage, especially to the advantage of the least well off, and (b) the positions, offices, roles, to which the inequalities attach are open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Libertarianism The Libertarianism, as the name suggests, emphasizes individual liberty as the central and indeed exclusive concern of social justice. A just society, according to the Libertarian, must grant and protect the liberty or freedom of each individual to pursue his desired ends. In the Libertarian view people are essentially rational end-choosers, to use our earlier term, and the kind of life appropriate to rational end-choosers requires them to be free to choose their own ends and free to pursue them without interference from others.

This may seem to imply that the Libertarian holds that everyone should be able to do whatever he or she wants, but really the Libertarian holds no such view. The Libertarian view is that each person should have the same freedom to pursue his chosen ends, that each is therefore obligated to refrain from interfering with others in their freedom to pursue their ends, and that the function of the state is solely to protect each individual’s freedom to pursue his chosen ends.

The Libertarian therefore conceives of everyone as having certain rights, which protect his or her liberty to pursue a desirable kind of life. What is distinctive about Libertarianism is its conception of the rights that each individual has. The libertarian philosopher John Hospers states the fundamental libertarian principle in a variety of ways that it may clarify the Libertarian view to repeat here. He says (in “The Libertarian Manifesto,” reprinted in Justice: Alternative Political Perspectives, edited by James P.

Sterba, Third Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999), pp. 24, 25): [E]very person is the owner of his own life[;]… no one is the owner of any one else’s life,             and… consequently every human being has the right to act in accordance with his own choices, unless those actions infringe on the equal liberty of other human beings to act in accordance with their choices No one is anyone else’s master and no one is anyone else’s slave.

Other men’s lives are not yours to dispose of. The rights recognized by the Libertarian include all the rights we called civil or personal liberties in our discussion of Rawls, but in regard to property the Libertarian favors a scheme in which each person has a quite unrestricted right to acquire property, including full “capitalist” rights to acquire ownership of the means of production and full rights of bequeathal.

Libertarians emphasize property rights as essential to the liberty essential to the life of a rational end-chooser. Property does not mean only real estate; it includes anything that you can call your own–clothing, your car, your jewelry, your books and papers. The right of property is not the right to just take it from others, for this would interfere with their property rights. It is rather the right to work for it, to obtain non-coercively the money or services which you can present in voluntary exchanges.

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