Rawls’s Second Principle: Compromise or Clusterf*#$?

Rawls's principle 2a, to remind you, is (quoting from wikipedia here):

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that (Rawls, 1971, p.302; revised edition, p. 47):

(a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (the difference principle).

This has appeal to modern liberals because it acknowledges two conflicting moral intuitions. On the one hand, fairness = equality, right? On the other hand, enforced equality is horribly soul crushing (as amply illustrated by this short story we occasionally refer to, "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut).

So the talented and hard working can fly free, but not so fast, Randians and your ilk: you didn't build that, i.e. great human beings can't thrive in a barren wasteland, but require social institutions so that they don't have to spend all their time grubbing around for basics like food and shelter. The fact that you pay money for such food and shelter isn't enough to absolve you from your debt to society: no, you have to face up to the reality that we're all in this together, you and even the people that don't share your values and/or that you personally despise, so any rise in affluence on your part comes with it an obligation to help out those the least well off.

So Rawls thinks he's cut the gordian knot regarding these fundamentally differing types of intuitions. What does he think he's doing here? As discussed on the podcast, he's both a foundationalist of a sort, in that this original position is supposed to free us up to get at the essence of fairness which we can then apply to the creation of political institutions, and he's a modern anti-foundationalist who instead uses the method of reflective equilibrium: start with the beliefs and intuitions that we already have and try to make them consistent. If you can do that and come up with a foundational principle, as Rawls thinks that he has in this case, then the outcome is the same as if he were a foundationalist through and through and just took this version of fairness as his bedrock in the way that utilitarianism takes the principle of utility.

I want to contrast that with my own historically minded moral skepticism stolen mostly from Nietzsche. I often give the example here of abortion: I think we have two intuitions in us given our evolutionary and cultural history: on the one hand, we morally acknowledge beings as having moral worth only insofar as they resemble us, in particular as intelligent beings who can socially interact with us. So if aliens come down and they can talk to us and look us in the eye, they'll have rights even if they look like lobsters. Within the development of this intuition we can see some development: you might think that someone having a different skin color or language makes them different enough to disqualify them, but given proper exposure to such people and thought about what the essence of this intuition is, it's clear that it's the mental that's important here. On this logic, conversely, if someone looks like a person but is brain dead, or hasn't developed a brain, or is a fetus, then it isn't a person but an it.

However, we have this other instinctive intuition that makes us gush at anything that looks like a baby, whatever species. So fetuses sure do look like babies.

I take what I call foundationalism to be a type of moral realism: there really is a matter of fact about what justice is and whether a fetus counts as a person for moral purposes. Of course, the term "foundationalism" refers to an epistemic pattern of justification, not to an ontology, but these usually go together in a philosopher's full picture: we somehow get access to the big foundational ontological fact (maybe it's right in front of us, or we have to perform some mental machination to see it for what it is, or maybe we can only grasp it through faith), and that sets the stage for the rest. Moral dilemmas like abortion get solved dogmatically by referring to some notion of personhood like "a person is anything with a soul" or "a person is anything with the faculty of reason."

A believer in reflective equilibrium may well still be a moral realist, believing that there is some fact of the matter about a fetus's moral personhood, but might also think that the best we can do to determine the truth of the matter is to work with all the data we have and make a compromise among our current intuitions. While this type of ethicist is no longer a dogmatist, there's still the regulating principle (which is a nice way of saying dogma) that there is a right answer.

As a moral skeptic, I'm more willing to say that we just have these competing intuitions, and that's the end of the story. We may have to pick some principle to go with for legislative purposes, and there will be plenty of non-arbitrary reasons for doing so, but the fundamental moral situation is tragic (as discussed in the MacIntyre episode; he attributes this idea to Sophocles): I think intuition, reflectively considered, simply gives us incompatible directives, and so no consistent, complete, non-arbitrary, intuitive, and totally rational system of morality is possible. Since one has to choose to act in some way or other regardless, and you we have this set of moral intuitions and reflective considerations, I think reflective equilibrium is definitely the ticket to figure out how to actually live, but I think this should definitely not be mistaken for the act of discovering moral principles that are already written into nature.

Returning to the notion of justice, Rawls thinks that that instead of a cobbled together hash of conflicting intuitions, his principles constitute what anyone in the appropriate epistemic position would agree to, and so can serve as a foundation. But I think his compromise doesn't do justice to either intuition. On the one hand, it would allow really really large gaps between rich and poor so long as doing this results in the poor being better off than they would be otherwise. The fairness-as-equality intuition shouldn't be satisfied by this. OK, due to the Harrison Bergeron factor, there should be common-sense limits on how equality is imposed, but that doesn't make it less unfair that some people are much more talented than others. While Rawls's principles doesn't allow such talented the whole pie, it still allows them much more of it so long as the pie gets bigger (and so do the sizes of crumbs going to the less fortunate) by doing so. Likewise, for familiar reasons, Rawls's principle doesn't satisfy the libertarian sense of fairness: I worked for it (and/or it was based on my natural gifts), therefore it's mine.

I buy the principle myself; I think it's a reasonable compromise between disparate parties who have to live together, and I think my "you didn't build that" argument is pretty good. But I don't pretend that this is a dictate of pure reason, pure rational deliberation by those putting their personal interests aside (that putting aside being essentially the definition of rationality in the sense of impartiality). As a rule of thumb (which is all the moral skeptic really gets), the principle seems to constitute a pretty good guide for considering social policies, but I'd want to look at the particular policy in question, and it may be that in some particular case, one or the other intuition would win out over the compromise/rule.

The problem is not that since no rules are binding, you get arbitrariness, nihilism, and irreducible subjectivity. The problem is that the competing carefully considered intuitions, and thus the competing moral directives, don't dissolve into a glorious and permanent synthesis just because you come up with a decent sounding compromise. Rather, they have to be renegotiated when considering new challenges, and in the case of legislation, in a public forum where each of these intuitions gets its staunch defenders whose wills have to be mediated by government. To put it in Nietzschean terms, the problem is too many incompatible virtues, and this is less a "problem" to be solved than simply the human condition, whether we're considered as individuals or as a polity.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Seth B. says

    Good post.

    Here’s a thought experiment I’ve been thinking about, that I think captures some of the ambivalence I have about Rawls beyond the: ‘how do I have preferences if I don’t exist yet’ problem.

    Consider a society of 4 individuals. Their only choice is who to have a conversation with. Whether by nature or nurture, two become good conversational partners, and two are boors. Suppose only two people can have a conversation at a time, and that the quality of a conversation between two high types is much better than the quality of a conversation between a good conversationalist and a boor, which is better than the conversation of two boors. How is it most just for society to be organized?

    Rawls: Clearly, each good conversationalist should be paired with a boor. This is fairest, because the boors didn’t choose to be boors behind the veil of ignorance.

    Utilitarian: Because the conversation of two good conversationalists is so much better than any other possible conversation, this is on average utility maximizing. Pair the two good conversationalists and the two bad conversationalists.

    Virtue Ethicist: The good conversationalists deserve to practice their art at the highest level. Pair the good speakers together and the two bad speakers together.

    Traditional Social Contract Theorist: Let people form pairs on their own. Naturally, this means that the high types talk to each other, leaving the boors to speak with each other.

    So we can generate a situation where Rawls seems to radically diverge from all other approaches.

    • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says


      While “citizens may have greater or lesser skills, talents, and powers ‘above the line’ required to cooperate, but differences above this line have no bearing on citizens’ underlying equal status “[right to participate in equal distribution of primary goods], I don’t think this refers to equality of skills, talents and powers such as conversational ability.

      Further, “citizens are also conceived as rational: they have the capacity to pursue and revise their own view of what is valuable in human life.” So perhaps behind the veil of ignorance, the boors would prefer being with the boors and the conversationalists would prefer being with the conversationalists if they were being rational.

      So I think that the focus on conversational ability misses the aspect of justice as equality of primary goods, and that citizens might resolve this issue rationally.

      (quotes from SEP)

      From Wikipedia: ” Demanding that everyone have exactly the same effective opportunities in life would almost certainly offend the very liberties that are supposedly being equalized.”

      • s. wallerstein says

        I agree with Wayne.

        Rawls’ original position is not about how we distribute conversational opportunties, but about how we distribute goods like healthcare or education or a clean environment.

        So, for example, we pay a skilled surgeon much more than we pay a bus driver, because the surgeon’s skills as well as his willingness to attend emergencies at 4 AM benefits the least well-off (in terms of saving lives) in a way that compensates for the income difference. Similarly, we might pay a business person more if they generate
        sufficient jobs that compensate for the income differences. I suppose how we decide how, for example, the difference in income is compensated by more jobs is a matter thought out, not by mathematical formula, but by reflective equilibrium in the original position.

        • Seth B. says

          wallerstien & Wayne:

          I disagree with the premise that there is a fundamental difference between ‘primary goods’ and the pleasure of conversation. You yourself suggest the inconvenience of waking up at 4am as a valid consideration. Why not who pays attention to you? I know I think the latter is much more important. And besides, ‘conversation’ is just an example.

          Wayne: I am confused why you would think a Boor would agree to talk to another Boor behind the veil of ignorance. The pairing of Boors with good Conversationalists raises the access to happiness of the most disadvantaged. This pairing makes the worst off person in society better off, and by my understanding of the veil is therefore the society we choose.

          • s. wallerstein says


            A good conversation is very important to me. Otherwise, I would not be intervening in this discussion.

            However, in my experience good conversation is not all that important to most people. In fact, it seems to me that most people are positively hostile to what I (and I would wager) you would consider to be a good conversation.

            Still, the main difference between a good conversation and good healthcare in the context of Rawl’s original position is that the latter can be delivered in a fairly standard manner, at any hour of the day, to anyone, even to someone who is hostile to medical procedures and needs to be sedated.

            On the other hand, good conversation cannot be standardized and cannot be forced. That is, it’s easy to establish by law that a doctor is required to attend all emergencies cases and if they refuse to (because they want to watch TV, etc.), they will be fired or fined or lose their right to practice medicine.

            Holding a good conversation just does not work if one does not want to. If you tell the most brilliant conversationalist that they’ll go to jail if they don’t say something brilliant, they’ll probably be unable to say something brilliant.

            So conversation is a bit like the sex act insofar as it does not work if one is forced. In liberal societies, both conversation and sex are considered to be “private” affairs: that is, one decides whom one will converse with and have sex with and the state does not infer in the process.

            One reason why whom one converses with is considered to be private is that having a good conversation depends on factors such one’s disposition, one’s chemistry with the other person, shared interests with the other person, shared cultural codes with the other person and that cannot be regulated by law or by state fiat.

            Healthcare is another issue. In most advanced societies, people are considered to have a right to healthcare. Healthcare, as I outlined above, can be distributed (line-up to get your vaccine, etc.) as impersonally and impartially as water or electricity.

  2. wayne says

    Seth, since you are not a boor, and you clearly enjoy good conversation I can see why this is confusing to you. My understanding of the nature of a boor, someone of low stimulability, is that they are acting as they prefer, with little interaction and that they would prefer others of low stimulability as well–birds of a feather kind of thing, shared values. In fact I think boors would dislike conversationalists–but who am I to say?

  3. asdf says

    Ayn Rand actually did address Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” in one of her books. I forgot her exact critique but it was something along the lines of “the entities Rawls is describing (i.e. Platonic floating pre-birth entities in a veil of ignorance deciding what rules of society they want to be born into) have nothing to do with human beings so his entire book is irrelevant to the question human justice. Anybody convinced by Rawls argument is merely equivocating between these entities and humans”.

    Basically, her strategy is to dismiss Rawls by calling his concepts “the arbitrary”. i.e. concepts not formed through the process of measurement omission and hence not worth serious pursuit.

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