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A Special Supplement: A New Philosophy of the Just Society

Some actual resulting inequalities are justifiable, because they lead to benefits which the least benefited people in society enjoy; they are not deserved, but because of their effects they are fair. Rawls’s principle of justice allows, for instance, that some men should earn wealth and privilege by labors and risks which would not have been performed and incurred in the absence of these incentives—if the poor benefit from these labors and risks no less than those who have earned wealth and privilege. It can be just, in his view, that the artist, inventor, or entrepreneur who has risked failure, unlike the humdrum administrator, should be rewarded for success disproportionately. No doubt exceptional power and willingness to labor and to take risks are finally attributable to accidents of heredity and environment; and in that sense (if it is a sense) they do not deserve the exceptional rewards that they earn. But it is fair that they should get them if others benefit even more.

The objection can be made, and will be made, that a blind chooser might, not irrationally, just choose to gamble, and prefer a social order where the winner takes all, or virtually all: he may prefer to take the risk of being a slave if he has a chance of being a master. The rationality of choosing fairness in social arrangements is not like the rationality of choosing consistency in beliefs; there are tenable alternatives to fairness, but not to mere consistency. But Rawls would reply that such alternatives are not interesting because they are not usually held by those who think about morality and who attach value to justice as a virtue. Suppose a rational man, ignorant of his own social placing and natural gifts, chose to gamble, and consequently chose a social order that leaves nature’s inequitable distribution of liberty and goods uncorrected: he might believe that there was some ultimate justice in another world, or even that there was some cosmic justice in nature’s distributions; but he would scarcely have a use for the concept of social justice.

Professor Rawls arrives, from the premise of rationality in blind choice, at the principle of justice which social democrats have always groped for: when they have presented socialism as aimed at social justice, they have had in mind the principled redistribution of advantages which are randomly distributed in the natural order, since they depend on accidents of heredity and geographical environment and inheritance. Rawls adds an extra liberal scruple, in the spirit of J.S. Mill, in stating the principle of justice with reference to a supreme good, liberty, rather than by referring to the positive goods, such as welfare or happiness.

For him the disadvantaged are all those who, in one way or another, lack the liberty to do what they in fact want to do, whatever that may be; this is where they principally differ from the fortunate, who have inherited or acquired the freedom to act as they please or as they think right. The social order must be an engine geared to correct the differentials in liberty unless they have a function in increasing liberties available to the disadvantaged: the whole social order must perpetually redistribute unequal liberties rather as a genuinely progressive tax system perpetually corrects the otherwise widening differentials in wealth.

It is a noble, coherent, highly abstract picture of the fair society, as social democrats see it. In England, books about the Labour Party’s aims—for example, those written by Douglas Jay and Anthony Crosland since the war—needed just such a theory of justice as this, stated in its full philosophical generality. This is certainly the model of social justice that has governed the advocacy of R.H. Tawney and Richard Titmuss and that holds the Labour Party together. Society must repair the cruelties of nature, and it exists not only to preserve law and order but also to correct the natural differentials between the strong and the weak, and to give institutional support to self-respect, which is for Rawls a primary value.

This is not the moral philosophy of communism, any more than it is of high capitalism. “Socialist competition” in the Soviet Union has in fact allowed immense inequalities to exist provided that they are marginally efficient in adding to the total common pool of economic advantages; this is the kind of defense that was offered, in the time of unapologetic capitalism, for child labor and the rejection of the Factory Acts.


It is important that a “Theory of Justice” should be understood as one conception of justice among others in the tradition of speculations on justice. Each rival conception is still associated with the same concept and has an overlapping history. The classical conception of social justice, continuous from Plato and Aristotle, is of a harmony of pre-existing and recognized spheres of interest, which allots different roles to different classes and which can be modified only by agreed and rational procedures. The two notions, 1) of what is fitting and due to a particular status and role, and 2) of the recognized necessity of following the prescribed procedure when charges are to be made, constitute the classical notion, before the modifications of liberal thought.

The picture of the social order and the natural order that underlies this classical conception is not that the social order properly corrects the arbitrary, and rationally unintelligible, distribution of natural advantages: but rather that the social order properly reflects the hallowed distinctions of degree, status, and role that are perceptible in the natural order, which itself has a harmonious structure pleasing to the Creator. The social order is sick and liable to violence, total disorder, and death when it no longer reflects, as in a mirror, the due subordinations and separations of degree that nature everywhere requires. Examples would be the subordination of female to male, of children to parents, of subject to monarch, of the layman to the priest, and so on. These subordinations, and many like them, represent natural law, in the classical conception. It is evident in the light of reason, for example, that it is just and fitting for parents to care for their young children and for subjects to be loyal to their sovereign. The moral laws are an extension of principles that are innately intelligible to us, and they are not invented, but rather discovered, by us.

The liberal conception of justice, so clearly articulated by Professor Rawls, opposes the designed and invented moral order to the blind causality of the natural order, the moralized and socialized citizen to the natural man. Moral custom and rule are not second nature, but human artifice. In nature the strong prevail and are served by the weak, and form an aristocracy or tyranny: for nature is the domain of mere causality, of a kind that does not conform to the intelligible purposes of a Creator, or to a principle of Sufficient Reason, which might be the last remnant of a cosmic justice and harmony. Equal liberty, and the requirement that each man counts for one in reckoning the common good, are in practice recent inventions, principles of 1789. To their Tory enemies, they are abstract principles of moral geometry, unnatural and unhistorical and therefore delusive: for custom, second nature, prescribes naturally intelligible duties and obligations filling different ranks and roles, both inherited and properly acquired.

The liberal idea of a just society is presumably at home in the United States, and not at war there with notions of legitimacy. The Burkean belief that a just social order, with its inherited degrees and subordinations, reflects a deeper natural order can scarcely have much hold in a freely competitive and socially mobile capitalism. On the contrary, the conservative philosophy of a society which has not been preoccupied with legitimacy and which has had no aristocracy, as in the United States, will rather stress that inequality is the natural result of competition, and will try to justify the inequalities by a strictly utilitarian argument: that is, that the social order ought to be an efficient instrument for maximizing welfare and happiness; and justice and fairness in distribution ought to be no more than useful means to this end. Thus it is argued by conservatives in the US that over-all economic growth has been worth its costs in inequality and injustices.

Professor Rawls’s theory of justice arises from a repudiation of this utilitarian ethics as inadequate to the moral point of view: fairness is for him an irreducible requirement of the moral point of view, and he argues that the efforts of Hume and Mill and Sidgwick to show that justice is a dependent value, dependent on utility, all fail to meet our intuitions.

The enemy on the other side from utilitarianism is intuitionist ethics, which Professor Rawls also rejects: for the intuitionist does not believe that there is a rationally chosen supreme governing principle, either simple of complex, which explains the variety of moral injunctions that we respect. He does not believe that the duties that fall under the heading of being just and fair can be seen as dependent upon a social contract, in which a rational man recognizes a social commitment that other rational men will equally acknowledge. Rather he may believe that the duties and obligations that constitute being just are a specific part of the right way of life which a reflective man imposes on himself as a personal morality and which are binding on him and are independent of any social contract. I write “may believe” because I am choosing what seems to me the most plausible form of intuitionism. The duties and obligations to be just arise not only from his position as a rational member of society subject to a contract but also as a personal morality, representing an opinion about how respect-worthy human beings should behave toward each other, even outside a social order.

The form of intuitionist philosophy that Professor Rawls rejects is that of the Oxford philosopher, the late Sir David Ross. Such a moral philosophy is indeed unacceptable, in so far as it implies that men have a special power of reasoning, or source of knowledge, called “intuition,” which explains our moral judgments. Divorced from such claims, however, a moral philosophy not unlike Ross’s intuitionism seems to me nearer to adequacy than Professor Rawls’s social contract theory. For it seems to me an error of emphasis to explain the virtue of justice, and even more the other essential virtues, as rational consequences of planned co-operation in a rational social setting.

This is one aspect of the virtue of justice and of its function among the virtues; but one may think that it is a derivative, and not the central one. To adopt the moral point of view, one may argue, is to think what kind of character and aims men should have, or try to have, and what kind of life they should lead. This entails having a picture of the wholly admirable man, and of an entirely desirable and admirable way of life. This interpretation of “the moral point of view” Professor Rawls calls “perfectionism,” and he allows that some moral thought is of this kind; but he claims that it is not as fundamental as thought about the necessary bases of rational cooperation, at least where justice and right conduct are to be explained.

It is not obvious how the issue can be settled between Rawls’s social conception of morality and the perfectionist who, like the intuitionist, stresses a moral ideal independent of a social contract. Against Professor Rawls I would cite two kinds of evidence: first, evidence from the history of reflective moral opinions, not all of which can be interpreted in his terms, and all of which can be interpreted in perfectionist terms. Secondly, the psychology of the moral sentiments, which suggests that guilt or shame about injustice and unfairness, and natural respect for their opposites, extends to more primitive relations between people than are imagined by his hypothesis of a rational choice of an unbiased social order.

For many reflective moralities, e.g., Spinoza’s, the institutions that determine the social order are merely the machinery that makes a desirable, natural, and admirable way of life possible: the approved social practices are not the center and starting point of moral concern. There have, moreover, been prevailing moralities that have not taken the distribution of goods within society but rather the relation between persons and the law as the center of virtue: a morality derived from the Old Testament would be of this kind, and will stress the necessity of justice.

The second argument, from the psychology of moral sentiment, associates the virtue of justice mainly with the notions of guilt and innocence, of law and due procedures of law, of reparation, of impartiality in judgment, and only secondarily with the rational distribution of goods in society. This family of moral ideas has primitive origins in personal history, and the trace of these origins is never lost. Evidence for this view can be found in studies of the concept of justice in Greek thought and literature (e.g., by Atkins), in social anthropology, and in psychoanalytical speculations and case studies. And the literature of jurisprudence, centered on the notion of justice, plays only a very small part in Professor Rawls’s book: too small a part, I think.

Moral philosophy, which is the inquiry into reasonable foundations for morality, does not achieve strict proofs, but only the description of possible foundations for moral judgment; and among possible foundations a choice must be made. Rawls’s suggestion that rational choice of an unbiased social order, where individual differences are unknown and discounted, is the foundation for ordinary moral judgments is a persuasive and powerful suggestion, and the fact that this reviewer cannot accept his foundation for his moral judgments, because another possibility—the “perfectionism” that Rawls discards—better fits his intuitions, reflects the fact that moral opinions may differ; for the philosophical difference probably follows a difference of emphasis in moral attitudes.

It is to me surprising, for example, that rationality should enter into the definition of “good” as a predicate, and also into the formal account given of the good, and of the good for X (pp. 399-400): surprising that the good for a man is elucidated by a rational plan for his life. “Rational” seems to me intelligible as an essential predicate of the choice of means toward ends, while the connection between rationality and some of the more important virtues and human aims seems to me, in all other respects, contingent and variable. This difference in theory probably reflects a difference in direct moral opinions: the dispositions and patterns of activity and enjoyment that Rawls and I most admire, and would like to possess and to follow, probably diverge at crucial points, if only slightly.

Again throughout most of his book justice appears as a feature of a well-ordered society rather than strictly as a virtue, that is, as a feature of a man’s character and of his dispositions as manifested in his behavior. The last chapters try to correct, or at least to supplement, this defect in the account of morality; not, I think, altogether successfully, because Rawls’s social contract theory makes right conduct prior to, and independent of, the goodness of a person.

Professor Rawls will also be criticized because he sometimes seems to suggest that the choice of a just social order is necessarily the choice of a rational man, and that any other choice would be irrational: for example, that the gambler, who chooses a social order that allows natural advantages to have their unmitigated effects, is irrational. He may also be attacked, though unfairly, because his model of justice in a well-ordered society is an abstract model, and he pays no attention to the dominant powers of corporations, unions, the military machine, the secret police, the mass media, which make American democracy less than a liberal democracy; and no provision is made for the citizen’s need for fuller participation in government, a critic may say. The answer is that Professor Rawls is providing a theoretical reconstruction of the notion of justice, and not of all the virtues of a good society and of a good life: and he is not concerned with the practicalities of political science or with the theory of democracy.

His argument is at most points wonderfully clear, and the book is a permanent refutation of the reproach that analytical philosophy cannot contribute to substantial moral and political thought. The substance of a critical and liberal political philosophy is here argued with an assurance and breadth of mind that put the book in the tradition of Adam Smith and Mill and Sidgwick: in the best tradition of British moralists, revived now at Harvard.

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