Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
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:
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
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