John Rawls’ Conception of JusticeJune 27, 2021
We all want to advance and defend our own interests.
To do this, we need to work together. Rules are needed to work together. Fair and equitable rules should be applied equally to everyone regardless of social status. The principles of justice must be chosen behind a veil of obscurity.
In his book “A Theory of Justice”, first published in 1971, philosopher John Rawls advocates a reassessment of justice in terms of, in his own words, “justice as fairness”. His approach coincides with the tradition known as social contract theory, which sees the rule of law as a kind of social control into which individuals, as it brings benefits beyond what they can achieve on their own. Rawls’ version of this theory includes a thought experiment. In this experiment, people are left unaware of their place in society, or are placed, in Rawls’s words, in their “original position” where the social contract is made. Rawls deduces from this the principles of justice that “all rational beings will agree on”.
Imagine a group of strangers stranded on a deserted island and, after all hope of being rescued, decide to start a new society all over again. Each of the survivors wishes to advance their own benefits, but at the same time sees that they can only do so in one way or another by working together, in other words by forming a social contract. The question is: How do we begin to establish the principles of justice? What laws will they make? If they really want rational and impartial justice then there are countless rules that need to be reduced immediately. For example, a rule such as “If your name is John, then you will always eat last”—even if your name is John and it works for you—is neither rational nor neutral. According to Rawls, what needs to be done in this type of position is to cast a “veil of ignorance” over the realities of our lives, such as who we are, where we were born, and then ask what rules would be best for our lives. What Rawls means is this: the only rules upon which all parties can be rationally agreed will be rules that are sincerely impartial and without, say, race, class, creed, natural talent, or disability being recorded. In other words, if I don’t know what my place in society will be, the most rational method that will suit my interests would be to use my vote for a world where everyone is treated fairly.
It is important to note that for Rawls this is not really a story about how justice unfolds in the world. Rather, it shows us a way to test our theories of justice against an unbiased benchmark. If they do not meet the desired criteria, they think that it is not only our compassion but our mind that fails the class.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook