Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Excerpts from James Sterba's chapter on "Toulmin to Rawls" in Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy Ed. Cavalier, Gouinlock and Sterba (MacMillan/St. Martin's Press, 1990).

Now the basic idea of Rawls's social contract theory, as expressed in'Justice as Fairness', is that

A practice is just if it is in accordance with the principles all who participate in it might reasonably be expected to propose or to acknowledge before one another when they are similarly circumstanced and required to make a firm commitment in advance ("Justice as Fairness" pp. 659-60).

For Rawls a social contract is a hypothetical not an historical contract. Thus Rawls does not claim that people actually agree to a particular set of morally defensible principles of justice. Rather Rawls claims that people would agree to such principles under certain specific conditions.

Later in 'Distributive Justice' and subsequently in A Theory of Justice, Rawls makes it explicit that the most relevant condition required for this hypothetical contract is a veil of ignorance which deprives people of the knowledge of the most particular facts about themselves and their society. According to Rawls, morally adequate principles of justice are those principles people would agree to in an original position which is essentially characterised by this veil of ignorance.

Rawls's purpose in introducing this veil of ignorance is to remove from consideration certain particular facts the knowledge of which might lead people in the original position to favour principles which are not just. For this reason people in the original position do not know their place in society, their natural or acquired traits or abilities, what conceptions of the good they have, nor what their particular goals are. In addition, they do not know the particular political, economic or cultural characteristics of their own society nor do they know to which generation they belong. However, they do know that they are contemporaries, that they are in the circumstances of justice so that human cooperation is both possible and desirable and that they are each capable of a sense of justice. Moreover, there is no limit to their knowledge of general information such as is contained in political, social, economic and psychological theories. According to Rawls, the veil of ignorance has the effect of depriving persons in the original position of the knowledge they would need to advance their own special interests.

While the veil of ignorance does significantly restrict the knowledge of persons in the original position, Rawls believes that it still provides them with enough information to agree on just principles for regulating all subsequent criticism and reform of the basic structure of a society. This follows from the fact that when considering the basic structure of a society what is at issue are only primary social goods, that is, goods which are generally necessary for achieving whatever goals one happens to have. Thus persons behind the veil of ignorance would still recognise the importance of acquiring goods of this sort because they are the type of goods one would want regardless of whatever else one wants. Moreover, Rawls assumes that persons in the original position would ordinarily want more primary social goods rather than fewer. Allowing for an acceptable minimum, persons so situated would strive to maximise their index of primary social goods regardless of how others fared. This means that persons in the original position would not be influenced by affection, envy or rancour. For example, they would not choose to lower their expectations merely to avoid raising the expectations of someone else. Rather each would seek to maximise his own expectations even when this required that others have even greater expectations.

Rawls maintains that people in the original position would choose the following special conception of justice:

(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

(2a) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and
(2b) are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls claims that the first principle would be taken to have priority over the second whenever the liberties guaranteed by the first principle can be effectively exercised by persons in all social positions. This means that when this condition is satisfied, liberties are not to be sacrificed for the sake of obtaining increased shares of other social goods. For example, it would not be considered just for a society to give up freedom of the press in order to achieve greater economic benefits. But when the liberties guaranteed by the first principle cannot be effectively exercised by persons in all social positions, Rawls argues that people in the original position would favour the following general conception of justice:

All social values -- liberty and opportunity, income and wealth and the bases of self-respect -- are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to the advantage of the least favored.

Rawls also holds that a priority would be assigned between the two parts of the second principle, that 2b would be given priority over 2a, whenever the opportunities guaranteed by 2b can be effectively exercised by persons in all social positions. Thus, when this condition is satisfied, it would similarly be considered unjust to sacrifice basic opportunities to attain larger shares of economic goods. Similarly, Rawls allows that when this condition is not satisfied, people in the original position would be willing to dispense with this priority in favour of the more general conception of justice. According to Rawls, for societies that can satisfy the conditions for effective exercise of basic liberties and opportunities, it is these two principles, with their priority rules, that would be chosen by people in the original position.

Rawls believes these two principles would be chosen because the original position is a situation in which the maximin rule for choice under uncertainty applies. Since the maximin rule assumes that the best one can do is maximise the payoff to the least advantaged position, the principles that would be chosen by people in the original position are considered to be the same as those rational individuals would choose for the design of a society in which their enemy would assign them their position, which, of course, would be the least advantaged position. This is not to say that people in the original position believe that their place in society is so determined because then their reasoning would be based on false premises, and Rawls finds that unacceptable. Still the principles that people would select in both situations would be the same, according to Rawls, because both situations are such that the maximin rule for choice under uncertainty applies.

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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)