Is it all Rawls?


How do we achieve a just and fair society? Throughout our lifetimes we have witnessed a political pendulum – swinging backwards and forwards between left and right. And almost every week we see proposals from the Government and the Opposition which we want to assess in terms of social justice. A recent example was the removal of tax credits before the benefits of higher minimum wages. Another was denying tax relief on mortgages being used for buy-to-let houses. Is there a way of assessing such judgments?

The philosopher, John Rawls (1921- 2002), described a methodology called the ‘veil of ignorance’. Rawls was an Episcopalian, and he is regarded as one of the great moral philosophers of our time. He proposed a theoretical group of law makers who were given the task of reviewing social laws. The common characteristic of the group members is that, at the time they make their decisions, they are ignorant of the position they themselves will be taking up in the revised society. A successful entrepreneur might favour lower top rates of taxation, while those in the poorest circumstances might judge that they would benefit from higher rates made available to relieve their poverty. To avoid such partialities, the lawmakers do not know what in fact their social status, their wealth, their intelligence, their health, their religious belief etc will turn out to be. Thus, they will have a direct motivation to legislate for justice and fairness for all.

So our first consideration of Rawls might lead us to legislating for a society of radical equality. But would that lead to the Marxist cry: from each one according to his ability, to each one according to his need? Or would it take into account the general benefits of a competitive society, albeit nuanced to protect the vulnerable classes? Perhaps the legislation would focus on the greatest good for the greatest number, thus following the utilitarian theory of moral philosophy.

Of course the group behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ is hypothetical. Rawls is not proposing that the group should actually be set up, let alone expecting its members to be placed in a random position in their revised society – by way, presumably, of drawing lots. But we should consider it as a gauge to check whether we judge the proposal to be fair. What would such a group, should it exist, say about accepting refugee immigrants – if it is possible that refugee status is the short straw they may personally pick?

There is another point which we might want to consider. We are quite good at forming opinions about different conditions in society from outside. But this I see as a two-dimensional approach. The three-dimensional approach requires us to use our imagination to look at a situation from the point of view of those we consider. Thus, if I am to be a Syrian refugee, I must imagine what it is to have escaped from a terrible situation, travelled with my young children over several borders, coped with cold, heat, hunger and thirst over many weeks, and am now attempting to cross the last border which would open a new life to all of us. Would that exercise help us to make a fairer decision? But we would also have to imagine being a resident in the destination country who cannot get a child into a good school because places are taken up by immigrants. For we might turn out to be refugee or existent resident.

But Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ requires us to do that exercise. Our decisions cannot be restricted to bleak logic, they must incorporate the richness of subjective feelings. And here, of course, we link with the Christian requirement to love our neighbour as ourselves. This does not asks us to provide the kind of charity we ourselves need or would like to have. But it does ask us to look at the unique needs and wishes of our neighbours, and to respond in love to those. To do that, we must put ourselves emotionally in the place of our neighbour. It might seem strange to take from a dry philosopher a deeper understanding of Christian charity. But I am happy to do that.

Tell us whether you think that Rawls’s ideas are valuable, or, perhaps, you can think of better ways to provide social justice. May be he has missed an important counter argument. Test your ideas with examples. Are his ideas really related to the Christian imperative, or is that just a conceit of mine? What changes in our own society might be introduced as a result of Rawlsian thinking?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Is it all Rawls?

  1. Galerimo says:

    Thanks Quentin – I am still hoping you will throw us an easy bone to chew on but you never do. It’s Christmas after all and nothing if further from Santa Claus than John Rawls. Here’s the usual struggle to rise to the question.

    I think Rawls certainly does provide a useful perspective for the achievement of justice in trying to reconcile liberty and acknowledge difference at the same time. HIs “veil of ignorance” strategy is a bit too idealistic even for me. A bit off the planet. Its like trying to play God I think. Who could possibly be that objective and fair all at the same time.

    The creator of the most just society doesn’t seem to exist because we don’t know what a just society is or how it could function.

    An enlightened dictator might be up to the job. Saddam Husein, hardly enlightened by justice but whom some would consider kept an Iranian society in a much more “controlled” and functioning state. Only some could be happy at the expense of the dreadful unhappiness of others. If you scale down the extremes of a regime such as this and come to the Australian society in which some of us live I wonder how more advanced we are. It seems we have solved the problem of refugees by only accepting those who come using conventional modes of transport. No boat people. This well ordered society that claims to be inclusive in its democracy has solved the big contemporary “problem” of refugees? Well anyone with a hint of humanity in them not to mention Christianity certainly does not think so. The right to maintain sovereignity over borders and at the same be a society that is open to those fleeing oppression is not solved by banging the door shut in people’s faces.

    I am inclined to take flight into idealism too, just like Santa Rawls to try and answer the question of a just society. Instead I will try my hand at pragmatism and suggest we just do the best we can with what we’ve got.

    Justice in its social application like happiness is more of a byproduct than a value that stands out on its own. Something that happens when things like feeding, clothing, housing are being done. It accompanies more than it ushers or promotes. And there is not a lot of it around either for Christmas.

    On a more graceful note to end – the quote that comes to mind is that I do not know what the future holds for us in terms of a more just society but I do know who holds the future.

  2. John Candido says:

    ‘Are his (Rawls’) ideas really related to the Christian imperative, or is that just a conceit of mine? What changes in our own society might be introduced as a result of Rawlsian thinking?’ (Quentin)

    I think that the Christian imperative is one of empathy and compassion. The application of these values to the problems facing society through a Rawlsian approach can be productive and beneficial. Changes that may eventuate as a result of Rawls’ approach could be related to employee participation in management, profit sharing with employees, the entire slant of any nation’s taxation system with progressive rates of taxation and eschewing regressive provisions such as a VAT in the UK or a GST in Australia, this arrangement is where the poor are paying a greater percentage of their income as tax.

    Chasing wealthy individuals and companies that illegally avoid income tax through the use of secrecy jurisdictions, business structures, internal loans from another part of the business internationally and applying them locally for tax avoidance purposes and the pernicious use of transfer pricing, also known as ‘base erosion’ or ‘profit shifting’.

    Compassion towards refugees fleeing persecution as adumbrated via international instruments such as the UN Refugee Convention, a more Keynesian approach towards economic theory that supplants the tomfoolery of fundamentalist, right-wing obsessions such as ‘balanced budgets’ that seeks to avoid national debt and deficits to an inordinate degree.

    That is an awful lot of work but a necessary use of our resources skewed towards social justice. It remains to be seen how all of this can get off the ground. Changes however worthy take a long time before they become policy and effectively delivered to people in society.

  3. John Thomas says:

    Very useful, Quentin. I’d often wondered about Rawls and his ideas [the peril of working in an academic library, where one sees many books by well-known authors …], now, thanks to your summary, I know much more. Sadly the categories, found here, can not be exclusive. The class of refugees might well be hiding a minority of Islamists, intent on creating mayhem (as indeed it might); if you were one such, you might be looking forward to coming to Europe to set off bombs. The existent residents might be a good lot, or include some wicked people

    • St.Joseph says:

      John Thomas.
      Also my thoughts.
      My Great grandfather emigrated from France with my great grandmother (maybe Grt Grt) to Ireland to marry.They eloped.
      My grandmother brothers and sister emigrated to America when the famine was on and also to Scotland.
      My parents came to England , 1936 my father to ride as he was a NHJ.
      So they are all immigrants up to a point,
      I have pity on those at this time that have to leave because of their countries wars.
      However I wonder why they ‘have to’ and that the problem can not be solved???

  4. Brendan says:

    This ‘ bone ‘ is too big for me , in that I can hardly get my jaws around it , let alone chew . There is just one little problem guaranteed to throw a spanner in the socio-political theorising of nation states – human nature. I marvel at EU Prime Ministers determination to resolve seemingly intractable problems…. one country is enough , but how on earth can one deal with the added complexity of twenty-eight ? ( We’ll leave that aside for the moment, I think . )
    Having run a small business , i could just about cope with the micro-economics ( seen and unseen ) without the mysteries of macro-economics with all its attendant nuances. There is no doubt in my mind that in practical terms I used my subjective ‘ Faith, ad lib. ‘ as a default position to survive the process. Nevertheless , the pursuit of justice, good ethics and morals in society is necessary for good polity . To paraphrase Archbishop Fulton Sheen…” democracy needs religion more than we need democracy , otherwise it will fall to the highest bidder ”. … I really believe that – no need for examples !
    I respectfully submit that I will feed off other posts and hope that The Spirit will enlighten me to some revelation concerning this perennial topic.

  5. Nektarios says:

    It is a truism to say that mankind individually and together, swing between extremes.
    From much of what I have said over the last three topics or so, it is clear mankind is not that interested in Justice, not that interested in immigrants from war-torn areas, as our country conducts with America proxy wars all over the place.Not that interested in the poor and needy.

    It is clear that the business world with all its corrupt practices which are fellow human beings in love with power, with money, with self interest. It shows such are interested as far as people are concerned, in using them and paying them as little as possible, in some places it is as bad as slavery was.

    What we are looking at in all that is man in his fallen state. If the powerful, do not obey the laws of the land, some of the poor will resort to crime and this they have done and continue to do over centuries. But the criminal behaviour of the banks, business, politicians and others pales into almost insignificance.

    I have noted many philosophers over the years that I have read (in part), but when one takes a look at their own living, it does not match up to their own philosophy they would like everyone else to live by. Hypocritical, academic do-gooders.

    The fact that, be it philosophers, politicians, religious, at the present liberal and humanistic and atheistic times we are living in, they do not have the answers either. The sorrows and miseries of mankind continues, with no hope. And the hope such give, is temporary a best, but they will pay a heavy price later. No hope then for fallen mankind?

    Ah but their is hope, the only hope for mankind. There is nothing we or God can do about our fallen nature. What He has done is to convey to us in Scriptures the message of the Gospel. The message concerning Christ and all that He has done; and faith in Him alone save us.
    But God goes further, much further, He gives a new nature, a new heart and a right spirit within us.
    A new life with power to live it. So many Christians don’t realise what they have in Christ. It is nothing short of a full and perfect Salvation and will be fulfilled. A new destiny, Victory of sin, death and the devil.

    It is a oft hard lesson to take in, and that is, our sinnership and all that that means, and how that has been played out over the millenniums. There is none righteous, no not one.

    Man since the Fall has not evolved, he only has succeeded in getting worse as the effects of sin has taken hold stronger than ever as the centuries have past, and effects every part and leads to death in this life and in the life to come.

    If we see our need when hearing of the Gospel preached, then that person has if they close with Christ, (truly believe) will not perish but have everlasting life.

    We have looked to the so-called good, the famous,the intellectual, the merely religious, and while we have made some technological improvements in the world, overall, the optimism and intellectual philosophising of John Rawls, at the end of the day are idle speculations on man as if by nature he was good, which he is not. What is the value of John Rawls work? As he has forgotten or disbelieved the true nature of man – not much.

    • St.Joseph says:

      I follow you on parts of your post.
      However I am puzzled when you say the true nature of man.
      God sent His only Son who took on our nature so we could take on His.
      Jesus suffered and died on the Cross so that we could take on that nature.
      This is the season of Good Will to all men.
      Has Jesus really failed His Misson in the last nearly 2000 years. Have all the saints who have been martyred for their faith over the past centuries. died for nothing?
      Have I misunderstood you

      • Nektarios says:

        St Joseph
        Have you misunderstood me? Yes.
        We cannot of ourselves take on His nature, until God regenerates us from a nature that is dead in trespasses and sin. Then we hear the Gospel and are persuaded, that is, we believe with the mind and the heart that Christ died for our sin and rose again from the dead. Otherwise it would be a mere intellectual idea about Christ and no radical change would take place.
        This is indeed the season of Goodwill to all men – as every other season is, when we live and proclaim the good news of the Gospel and what Christ has done for us.

        Has Jesus failed in His mission? Obviously not, though I sometimes think we get distracted by this world and it’s thinking that denies Him, that He is the only Saviour of the World, Our Lord and our God.
        And for those who think their ideas are the truth, lets remind ourselves and those, that there is no other name in Heaven or on earth whereby we must be saved.
        His work of Salvation goes on to its completion, and on that day, we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Yes that is our God given Gift.
        However you seemed to imply that is was impossible for man to be saved.
        I am pleased you made it clear, Thank you.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Probably Me!!!

  6. Hock says:

    No matter how you divide things up it usually comes down to money somewhere along the line.
    Juts today our main news bulletins, in the UK, have been about the closure of the last coal mine and the end of coal mining in this country . An occupation that at one time employed a million men.
    There are many reasons for the closure but the main one seems to be finance , followed by the need for cleaner energy. The demand for coal is still there.
    Evidently it costs £43 per ton to mine coal here in the UK but it can be bought for £30 per ton from other parts of the world. Hence why pay £43 for the same product that can be bought for £30? Economic madness to pay the higher price one might claim.
    But wait. The reason is costs considerably more in the UK is down to higher wage costs but also very significantly the substantial costs of ‘safety at work’ policies and regulations.
    In the UK we have very strict policies while in the other coal producing countries such safeguards don’t exist to the same extent and indeed are often non-existent.
    So the UK government is happy to buy our coal from countries with deplorable safety records because it comes cheaper. But not in human terms.
    As individuals we probably have the same approach. Why buy at Tesco when Aldi is cheaper even though they employ less people ( this is conjecture on my part, but it looks that way to me.)
    So any hope of a just and fair society is really one of money and how it is shared out with a very self-interested, but perhaps natural approach, to life.

  7. Brendan says:

    Yes Hock , ironically we seem to be paying fifty-five million pounds a day into the EU ‘pot’ to keep the piece in Europe ; no matter that this voracious appetite of an ‘ organisation ‘ which has more hidden surprises for Britain than an inscrutable set of Russian nesting dolls . Are we to draw Russia in finally to – ‘ the club , at all costs ‘ – to keep the piece ? ( whoever thought an ex-KGB colonel would arise to power from the ruins of Communist Russian ) Maybe in a hundred years time China will be eligible ? Never mind ; we rush in ‘ fracking ‘ and free ourselves from possible future tyrannies !
    I wonder what Catholic founding fathers Delour and Adenauer would think of it all now ? Between collective amnesia and denial , and when all is said and done ones ‘ faith ‘ ( seen and unseen ) is the rock and anchor in the confusing puzzle of life …. and of course like John Rawls , we can dream.
    Mind you, I’m not sure where Wales would be if all the money were taken away ?

  8. Brendan says:

    Error – replace ‘piece ‘ with ‘ peace ‘.

  9. Brendan says:

    What do we all crave in our attempt at good relations with each other , whether it be as individuals or as nations ? – social-justice ; and the essence of that ? – TRUTH.
    Why is it I was made aware ( through attention to my religion ) for a long time that St.Maria Goretti was canonised (1950 ) after being stabbed to death ( aged 12 yrs. ) by a man after refusing his sexual advances ; and while new of the Ugandan Martyrs canonisation ( 1964 ) for a similar length of time , I was never similarly informed that they were killed for refusing the homosexual advances of their King Mwanga , until this week ?
    What price truth? – without it we are simply going nowhere .

  10. St.Joseph says:

    Pilate asked Jesus ‘What is Truth’ He was looking at it and did not know it.
    I was listening to Radio 4 this morning at 9am about a discussion about Space Travel and the future in ten thousand years the probablities of science,and new life on planets and the extinction of Earth.
    It made me very sad , no mention of God the Creator or our Spirit or Soul
    I have a feeling that the Second Coming of Christ won’t be long.Although He is already here in the Eucharist and in those who believe in Him!;

  11. Brendan says:

    Millenarianism comes in all forms , confounding even the most vivid imaginations. Catholic Millenarianism centres around Christs’ … ” we do not know the hour ”…. If He is perfectly happy to leave it to the Father – for we are secure in His hands , so be it . Our Faith is about the here and now . As for the past … ” let the dead bury the dead ”. Only children are frightened by ghost stories , St. joseph ! We need not fear speaking the ‘ truth ‘ in love and mercy. Let’s take Pope Francis’ words and good counsel into next year and beyond !

  12. St.Joseph says:

    But we must still remember the poor sinners wh do not know what they do.

  13. St.Joseph says:

    Should be ‘who’ above.
    I know Jesus said ‘Let the dead bury the dead’ but I feel that we can not leave it at that when it comes to Space Travel .We are here to look after Planet Earth Look at the state of it.
    I think of all the young people who are taken up with all this fantasy now especially with the millions who are going to see the new Star Wars film ,and then living with the pretence of new planets and Mars Plus the new space toys in their Christmas presents.
    We have to take some responsibility for the future of our children. and not let the dead bury them too.

  14. Brendan says:

    St. Joseph – There’s nothing wrong with looking heavenward . Generations to come will be more ‘ clued-up ‘ than earlier generations. Maybe Mars will be colonised by ‘ Earthlings ‘ in future . It would be quite something to think of Mass being said on another planet …. being relayed back to Earth ! What ever change comes in future ; God’s presence in our lives will never change …. until He returns.

  15. St.Joseph says:

    We will agree to disagree.
    I would prefer to look towards ‘Heaven’ which I believe is close at hand, when we all rise again please God at the end of time,in our earthly bodies as proclaimed in Scripture.
    Then I am more of a ‘romantic religious’ than a scientist.!

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brendan .
      Well I must say you and Quentin are very optimistic.
      We are not able to convert those here on earth, what possibility do we have on other planets.
      Happy Christmas to all.

      • Brendan says:

        As we know Christ left that a bit of an open question for us , until His return.
        Nadolig Llawen ! ( Happy Christmas)

  16. Peter Foster says:

    An argument against the efficacy of Rawls’ grand scheme is that much injustice comes from good people doing what they think is right.

    For example the Green Belt” laws established in 1935 and extended in 1947.

    Now a new house sold for £300,000, costs approximately £100,000 to build, £100,000 to purchase the land owing to the shortage of land, and a premium of £100,000 because of the shortage of houses.

    A sensitive way must be found to release a large amount of land in a controlled manner over time to reduce the price of land and thereby reduce the unjust shortage of housing and deplete the economically dysfunctional and unjust wealth in housing which is an artefact of the shortage of both land for building and of housing.

    Similarly as Catholics we should seek to disentangle the message of Christ from the cultural forms inherited by the Church.

    We could start by listing all the forms of knowledge current in the Fourteenth century when our moral theories were formed, and compare them with current knowledge. Don’t forget the building blocks of the world: earth, water, fire, and air; which in various proportions were used in a rational classification of everything in the world. One aspect of that theory was that women are inferior creatures to men. Its residue is still with us! Its residue is still with us! What other residues are there?

    • Vincent says:

      Peter, the only flaw in your argument is that you, too, are a good person doing what you think is right. I don’t think that your commonsense idea for dealing with the housing shortage is necessarily any better than Thatcher’s “house-owning democracy” looked like at the time. Of course with hindsight we can see some flaws in that now. What might your scheme look like through hindsight?

  17. Peter Foster says:

    Vincent. I am not sure whether you are defending the set in stone “Green Belt” or the Grand Schemes concept.

    With regard to land release we have the successful example of its use by British administrators in Hong Kong.

    With regard to failed Grand Schemes we have our own examples of nationalisation and the socialist experiment in Russia.

    I prefer Karl Popper’s argument that society is too complicated for detailed direct central control. You are always starting with a portfolio of problems that in fact require a next step to work towards an objective of justice or efficiency or other. It should be viewed as a matter of piecemeal problem solving.

    What are some of our problems?
    Housing; my starting point.
    68,000 children in care of whom less than 15% are achieving average level in education. [See the different way in Germany]
    A large prison population of whom one third have been through the care system.
    30,000 people parked on Methadone with a negligible interest in their rehabilitation.
    In 2008 there were 800,000 NEETS in whom there was no interest. [partly casualties of dysfunctional parts of state education]
    The cost of healthcare was increasing at 8% per annum which was unsustainable.
    Supervised care of the elderly similarily.
    Specific obesity and alcohol health problems.
    An inefficient and crumbling infrastructure.

    Those who try to solve problems are scorned.
    Our own grand schemers borrowed money on the international markets and passed the problem onto the next generation.

    Or Vincent: were you deflecting the reference to problems our Church?

    • Vincent says:

      No, my point was a simpler one. Merely using Rawls as a procedure to dissuade policy makers from being over-influenced by their personal interests is not enough to ensure the right long term answer to a problem. We have to be very good at examining possible outcomes. For instance, what might be the long term result of ditching the ‘green belt’?

      Rawls can help the quality of decisions, but the law of unintended consequences is always with us. Examples abound.

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