Episode 85: Rawls on Social Justice

On John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971), most of ch. 1-4.

What makes for a just society? Rawls gives us a thought experiment: Imagine you don't know whether you're rich or poor or any of the other specifics of your situation (he calls this going behind "the veil of ignorance" into the "original position"). Now what principles would you pick to determine basic social institutions? Would you choose a caste society where you might be born an untouchable and be screwed? Rawls thinks that in this position you would instead support his basic rules of justice, which are (in short) to make sure everyone has basic liberties, and, more controversially, to allow only such inequalities as bring up the fortunes of those least well off. So you can allow super riches so long as doing so means that the poorest will be less poor than with any other arrangement; the default position is everyone getting an equal share of society's wealth unless you can demonstrate that letting some have more will benefit all.

This theory has been massively influential, and you can easily read it into Obama's speeches. Even many defenders of free-market capitalism do so on basically Rawlsian grounds. The founding fathers (Mark, Seth and Wes) and an especially energetic Dylan debate whether this original position is really coherent and whether it yields the principles that Rawls wants it to.

Read more about the topic and get the text, then listen to Seth's introduction.

End song: "Yours to Keep," by Mark Lint & the Madison Lint Ensemble, featuring Bob Linsenmayer. Read about it.

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation. Remember please to do any holiday shopping at Amazon you may do through PEL's Amazon link in the right margin of partiallyexaminedlife.com.


  1. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    I originally struggled with Plato’s Republic in the original greek, and now I struggle with Rawl’s Republic in the original rationalistic english.

    Thank you PEL for your patience and ability to bring Rawls’ content into a reasonable form for consideration, which is ironic because his project is supposed to start not only from a rational thought experiment, but ipso facto assuming that the individual having the thought experiment is rational (although some might argue that into the night).

    Equal liberty and fair distribution of inequality were summarized by Seth. He said, “If Rawls just said if you and ten other people were going to form a community in order to work together to benefit each other, everybody is going to work together because the overall benefit is greater when you work together than when you work individually, and you understand that when people work together they take on different roles that there are structures that need to be put in place, there are general rules of conduct that need to be observed, and there needs to be someway of adjudicating disputes and of distributing the benefits that get generated when everybody works together.”

    ” Now, imagine that you were going to do this but you didn’t know in advance that you were going to be in position one or position ten, how would you go about doing that? And his conclusion is that anybody that is faced with that position would want to structure society in such a way that they wouldn’t necessarily want people to be equal, and they would deny workers the fruits of their labor, all they would want is that you would have some measure against being exploited or forgotten by everybody else.” One person cuts the birthday cake and someone else selects the piece (p. 85), although “pure procedural justice is impossible, ” and slavish obedience to procedural justice may not lead to what is fair.”

    Mark then stated:
    “There’s some actually really interesting things in here, reflective equilibrium [coherence of one’s beliefs], ideal [the thought experiment] versus non-ideal ethics [failed states of the ideal], compliance theory [start with the ideal] versus partial compliance theory [we do not have to comply with unjust laws, etc].”

    Regarding the veil of ignorance, what appears to be the fulcrum for all of Rawls’heavy lifiitng, the Stanford Encyclopedia states:

    “Parties do not know:

    The race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, wealth, natural endowments, comprehensive doctrine, etc. of any of the citizens in society, or to which generation in the history of the society these citizens belong.

    The political system of the society, its class structure, economic system, or level of economic development.

    Parties do know:

    That citizens in the society have different comprehensive doctrines and plans of life; that all citizens have interests in more primary goods.

    That the society is under conditions of moderate scarcity: there is enough to go around, but not enough for everyone to get what they want;

    General facts about human social life; facts of common sense; general conclusions of science (including economics and psychology) that are uncontroversial.”

    Rawls’ theory is a yeoman’s effort which was rewarded during a time when analytic thinking held sway, but just doesn’t have enough horsepower to carry into this brave new world–the integration of rationality and experientiality. However his “veil of ignorance” is foundational to a new approach incorporating his very useful ideas.

  2. Roy Spence says

    I have some sympathy for your opening remarks on the difficulty in reading A Theory of Justice. (However, I had to read it twice.) As an alternative to reading the original A Theory of Justice from 1971, there is a more mature statement of the theory in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement written in 2000 and edited by Erin Kelly. The latter is only 202 pages and presents the main arguments with a revision to his principles of justice. There is also a chapter on various social systems with their political, economic and social institutions.

  3. dmf says

    Rawls, and the reactions against him, can be understood as an interesting pivot point in Philosophy as many were turned off by his attempts to valorize principles/concepts and wanted instead to focus more on matters relating to the accomplishing/negotiating of specific tasks of actual politics/living (not unlike some of what Kuhn did for science studies), is this the end of Philosophy or just a practice “turn”?
    let me throw http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/williams-bernard/
    into the PEL mix.

  4. Jake Z. says

    I was reading the SEP entry on Rawls after listening to the podcast and found this interesting bit: “On this topic Rawls is adamant: unless there is public funding of elections, restrictions on campaign contributions, and substantially equal access to the media, politics will be captured by concentrations of private economic power, making it impossible for equally-able citizens to have equal opportunities to influence politics regardless of their class.”

  5. Tom V. says

    I think it was a good thing that you guys spent a lot of time on discussing the merits of the method Rawls uses to come to his theory, and not on the details of his theory. Making explicit and examining the most basic assumptions is a big part of what philosophy does after all.

    I think Mark – i believe this was also Seth’s conclusion in the end – was overall spot on with his criticism on Rawls approach when he compares it to the approach taken in the federalist papers. If the theory doesn’t take into account enough of the world as it seems to be working, what is the use and value of such a theory in the end?

    I once heard a very smart guy say that ‘A theory of Justice’ was one of the best attempts at a rationalistic theory because of it’s detail and meticulousness (is that a word?), and that the real value of it, is that it exemplifies best why rationalism doesn’t work. I tend to agree, being able to elliminate certain methods is no small thing.

  6. DJ says

    Really enjoyed this episode. During your discussion, the use of terms such as “equilibrium” and “rational agents” really brought game theory to mind. Do you think Rowl’s project is actually just an application of game theory (tried and tested in economics and diplomacy) to the field of ethics?

  7. Mitch Hampton says

    I think there has been some profound misreading, confusion and indulgence in non sequitur among the many critics of Rawls, whether they be communitarians, Marxists, or conservative traditionalist. What they fail to notice is that the good and goods are inextricably intertwined with justice and fairness. The artificial separation of the good and rights is a reactionary narrowing of what is meant by fairness. The panel mentioned genital mutilation and it is actually best condemned under Rawlsian principle I.e. it is profoundly unfair to violate and change the futures of females in ways that create unfairness and inequality from the beginning. Rawls is a deeply moral thinker and fairness is an issue that gets at the heart of I believe most violations of good. And that is but one example. Another form of critique is to be moralistic and overreaching and describe as objective good those things that are primarily personal preferences rather than innate or universal law. Yet this criticism fails. The original position is something we should be all striving towards, that is, to transcend current social limitations. He wants to discuss minimal human goods and by definition has to leave out certain important values, not because they aren’t valuable but because they are not absolutely mandatory and for all people in all times. His theory is an elegant balance between the extreme Left and Right which is one of the strengths.

  8. Mitch Hampton says

    I wanted to say that this is one of the most sophisticated and thorough philosophy programs out there. No matter the topic justice is done to that topic. I appreciate the blend of humor and serious rigor. Bravo to all involved.

  9. Profile photo of John Pellow says

    Question: Assume Rawl’s thought experiment was workable through some special technology which could make a group of individuals forget their race, place in society etc. but know all other aspects.

    Is it even feasible for this special group of people to achieve a prescribed set rules/laws which could work as well as what America has now? Would there be real collective deliberations where all conflict gets resolved?

    Note: I do not think what we have works well enough, but also don’t think anything achievable exists as a better alternative – yet.

    PS: Expression of thanks to Mark Wes Seth & Dylan. I find your podcasts immensely helpful and humorous.

  10. Profile photo of Victoria Adams says

    My problem with Rawl’s has always been that I just don’t think it would convince anyone that that did not buy the thought experiment of the original position. Surely a dedicated believer of some religion would reply that all this might be true if you were behind the vile of ignorance but they are not – they have revealed truth. Once they have this they just don’t need all these intellectual gyrations. It seems to be it is easily enough accepted by people that agree and unpersuasive to people who don’t


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *