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Mar 08 2005

A Theory of Justice

I have to confess that this blog has been guilty of false advertising. On the masthead, of all the items listed, the one thing I have not talked about is books and it is time to make amends.

But first some background. Last week, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening having an informal conversation with about 20 students in the lobby of Alumni Hall (many thanks to Carolyn, Resident Assistant of Howe for organizing it). The conversation ranged over many topics and inevitably came around to politics. I had expressed my opposition to the attack on Iraq, and Laura (one of my former students) raised the perfectly legitimate question about what we should do about national leaders like Saddam Hussein. Should we just let them be? My response was to say that people and countries need to have some principles on which to act and apply them uniformly so that everyone (without exception) would be governed by the same principles. The justifications given by the Bush administration for the attack on Iraq did not meet those conditions.

But my response did not have a solid theoretical foundation and I am glad to report that a book that I have started reading seems to provide just that.

The book is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, in which the author tries to outline what it would take to create a system that would meet the criteria of justice as fairness. The book was first published in 1971 but I was not aware until very recently of its existence. I now find that it is known by practically everyone and is considered a classic, but as I said elsewhere earlier, my own education was extraordinarily narrow, so it is not surprising that I was unaware of it until now.

Rawls says that everyone has an intuitive sense of justice and fairness and that the problem lies on how to translate that desire into a practical reality. Rawls’ book gets off to a great start in laying out the basis for how to create a just society.

“Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, not does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like…The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” (my emphasis)

In other words, we have to decide what is fair before we know where we will fit into society. We have to create rules bearing in mind that we might be born to any of the possible situations that the ensuing structure might create. Right now what we have is ‘victor’s justice’, where the people who have all the power and privilege get to decide how society should be run, and their own role in it, and it should not surprise us that they see a just society as one that gives them a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Rawls argues that if people were to decide how to structure society based on this ‘veil of ignorance’ premise, they would choose two principles around which to organize things. “[T]he first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate.”

Rawl’s argument has features similar to that young children use when sharing something, say a pizza or a cookie. The problem is that the person who gets to choose first has an unfair advantage. This problem is overcome by deciding in advance that one person divides the object into two portions while the other person gets first pick, thus ensuring that both people should feel that the ensuing distribution is fair.

(Here is an interesting problem: How can you divide a pizza in three ways so that everyone has the sense that it was a fair distribution? Remember, this should be done without precision measurements. The point is to demonstrate the need to set up structures so that people will feel a sense of fairness, irrespective of their position in the selection order.)

All this great stuff is just in the first chapter. Rawls will presumably flesh out the ideas in the subsequent chapters and I cannot wait to see how it comes out.

I will comment about the ideas in this book in later postings as I read more, because I think the ‘veil of ignorance’ gives a good framework for understanding how to make judgments about public policy.

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