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A Special Supplement: A New Philosophy of the Just Society

The moral point of view, for Rawls, precisely consists in the principled rectification of nature’s casualness in distribution. If there is an inequality that we are to accept as reasonable, we must be able to accept it on quite impersonal, objective grounds, discounting altogether our own distinctive needs and interests. For example, restrictions upon freedom of choice in education or medical services may be justified by the net increase in access to these services for the least fortunate. A rational social order, founded upon principles of justice, is to be contrasted with a natural social order, which arises from the blind and natural forces of social competition and heredity.

Professor Rawls is developing, in the lucid language of the modern theory of rational choice, a philosophical position that was common to Rousseau and Kant. In Rousseau a man has a sense of himself as a potential member of a community of free and equal rational beings, while he also finds himself actually constrained by social arrangements that he had no part in making or approving, and that are the outcome of social competition. The basis for a social contract, which moralizes the social order and makes it acceptable to free and reasonable men, is the requirement that each citizen should think of himself only as a citizen when communal decisions are to be made. He should abstract himself altogether from his own contingent interests and preferences, and his own status and opportunities as an individual.

As citizens of a single community, men who would be in conflict with each other in pursuit of their own interests as individuals can reach agreement on the principles and policies that serve their common interests as citizens. These agreed upon common principles and policies must be precisely those that strengthen the community as a community rather than merely increasing the aggregate welfare or satisfaction of individuals. Then self-respect is preserved, because men are no longer at the mercy of the whims of others.

Kant, following Rousseau, similarly argued that every man thinks of himself as belonging to an ideal community of rational beings, as well as having interests that are distinctive and gifts and abilities that are distinctive. The king in his palace and the peasant in his hovel are equal when they meet each other as rational men, quite apart from every contingent attribute that they possess. Whatever their different abilities and interests and opportunities, there is a common ground on which they can meet as rational beings who are ready to listen to argument on matters of principle in an objective, impersonal spirit. They can address each other as equals if and only if they each respect the capacity to follow general principles that exists in themselves and in others.

Hegel reasonably insisted that this conception of morality as the recognition of a common rationality, beneath the arbitrary trappings of natural and social differences, marked a modern spirit, the spirit of the Enlightenment, with its Utopian ideals of the kingdom of reason on earth. Though the idea is traceable to the Stoics, it is principally a Christian idea, which survives in the Enlightenment and in Kant without its dogmatic religious supports. It seems to be a secularized, philosophical version of the notion of the individual soul having its own history, and its own realm, independent of the worldly history of a person: a conception that was soon to be transcended, Hegel believed, in the coming age of political planning, when the individual would learn to define himself by his place in the historical process and in the structure of the state.

Rawls acknowledges that his conception of justice represents a Kantian social ideal that has certainly not prevailed in the minds of men at all times and in all climates. His assimilation of the philosophy of politics to the philosophy of language implies that one can arrive by reflection at the most general principles of the particular social morality within which one lives, and which is one morality among others, as one’s native language is one language among others. We have reliable intuitions about the misuses and solecisms that are intolerable in speech, and some insight into why they are intolerable: so also, Rawls’s method implies, for rights, duties, and obligations in the moral system which we have internalized, as we have internalized the syntactical forms that determine propriety of speech in our language.

In both cases it is still an open question whether there are some common, or even universal, deep-level principles which all moralities, or all languages, in some way exemplify. No one knows. But at least different moralities play a recognizably similar set of parts in the social lives that are governed by their superficially diverse rules. One does not need to be suspicious of the genuineness of the claims that our own morality makes upon us merely because our own morality is in fact only one among many. This is the relativist’s error. Shared loyalty to some one morality is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of human dignity and self-respect, as the shared discipline of some one language is a necessary though not a sufficient condition of rationality.

But there is a point at which the analogy breaks down, because a morality is a less strictly organized and clearly identifiable entity than a language, and also because a morality is something that one accepts and believes (or believes in), while a language is something that one learns and uses. Also one can, and in rich countries one often does, make up one’s morality for oneself: but not one’s language. Lastly, commitment to a particular morality is of overriding importance, while commitment to a particular language, though important, is not overridingly so.

The absoluteness that we attribute to moral claims, which override all others, resides as much in the fact that they are moral claims as in their specific content. Two men whose lives are formed by conflicting moralities can at least recognize the legitimate absoluteness of claims which they would from their own standpoint reject because of the content or subject matter of the claims. They can acknowledge that their political antagonist is at least being governed by genuinely moral claims exactly as they are themselves.

Professor Rawls does not argue at length against moral skepticism. We do, he thinks, possess and use a concept of justice as fairness. “We” stands for the heirs of a European tradition of law and morality, and it is a tradition that has penetrated into many other places; nor is the concept of justice confined to this one tradition and unrecognizable outside it. The utilitarians, it is true, have given defective accounts of the concept. If you claim, as they do, that all the normative concepts of ethics must be analyzable in relation to measurable, positive goods such as happiness or pleasure, your account of justice is bound to be mysterious and resistant to analysis. For utilitarians, justice is in any case secondary, at best a means of maximizing welfare and at worst not independently identifiable at all. But for nonutilitarians justice is the first of the social virtues, and for Professor Rawls the notion of fairness in the distribution of advantages represents not only a social ideal but the first requirement of a society that is rationally acceptable to all its members.

The social order, in his view, will correct the premoral contingencies of the natural order, in which pestilence, famine, and war are distributed senselessly, as are opportunities for excellence. Inequalities, even gross inequalities, and restrictions upon freedom will persist in a rational social order. It may be the case that some doctors, for example, have more liberty or wealth than some of their patients; but the doctors’ advantage will be serving a legible purpose which everyone who discounts his own special interests will accept as being aimed at a better ultimate distribution: a distribution less disadvantageous to the least fortunate.

II

My first difficulty with Rawls’s argument begins here: the notion of fairness, and hence Rawls’s notion of justice, seems to involve attaching a sense to the notion of deserving; and this seems to me an utterly obscure notion, until some special explanation is attached to it. Consider this passage, in which the author’s strong ethical culture declares itself:

Perhaps some will think that the person with greater natural endowments deserves those assets and the superior character that made their development possible. Because he is more worthy in this sense, he deserves the greater advantages that he could achieve with them. This view, however, is surely incorrect. It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society…. Character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit.

But one may ask: Is there anything whatever that, strictly speaking, a man can claim credit for, or he can properly be said to deserve, with the implication that it can be attributed to him, the ultimate subject, as contrasted with the natural forces that formed him? In the last analysis, are not all advantages and disadvantages distributed by natural causes, even when they are the effects of human agency? And, if we are not strict theists, we will surely not suppose that there is cosmic justice in these distributions?

There seems in Professor Rawls to be an illegitimate (and Kantian) contrast between the essential rational man and his accidental trappings, which include his tastes and talents, and also his desires and interests. Professor Rawls insists that he does not rely on the notion of deserving in defining the original position from which a rational man, ignorant of his own social position and personal characteristics, would rationally choose a just distribution of liberties. This is true; for the fairness that results from the choice is achieved by making the choosers ignorant of all distinguishing facts about themselves, which might provide motives for choosing a social order that rewards some natural characteristics and social placings as against others. The fairness aimed at is the negation not only of aristocracy but also of meritocracy.

A principle of indifference, which counts each man as one merely by virtue of his openness to reason and the idea of justice, is a strong principle of equality: one that I happen to accept, but also one that has only a comparatively recent history, perhaps of two hundred years, of being accepted as normal and not eccentric. This principle of equality becomes a principle of fairness if one thinks of naturally acquired advantages as unearned and undeserved. But I think it would be better to think of all advantages, whether naturally acquired or conferred by men, as unearned and undeserved, and indeed to reject altogether the notion of deserving as having a place in rational and systematic ethics. After genetic roulette and the roulette of childhood environment, a man emerges, so equipped, into the poker game of social competition, within a social system determined by largely unknown historical forces.

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