Victor Nuovo: Rawls considered equal treatment for all


40th in a series

In 1971, Harvard University Press published “A Theory of Justice.” Its author was a professor of philosophy at Harvard, John Rawls (1921–2002). It is a work of profound scholarship, and, during the half century since its publication, it has become a classic, or, at the very least, a classic of political liberalism. I will conclude this series of essays on the life of the mind in America with a brief account of it, for although Rawls’s book was written for scholars and not the general public, its theme concerns us all.

To begin with, Rawls takes it as given that all of us human beings are born or created free and equal; also that we are social animals, fashioned by nature to live in communities; further, that we are all rational beings capable of knowing truth and of distinguishing truth from falsehood, right from wrong. Because we are rational social animals, we are committed to living together according to the rule of law, and so we, the people, have founded our civil society upon a fundamental law that provides basic rights and liberties to all persons, all of whom it declares are free and equal; this law is subject to amendment and improvement so that over time our common life might be made more just, and our civil society grow to be more perfect and more lasting, for civil societies are living entities whose nourishment is truth and justice, whereas lies and injustices are poisons that kill it. As Rawls put it, “Justice is the first virtue or excellence of social institutions, just as truth is of systems of thought.”

So, what is justice? It is neither a Platonic idea nor a divine truth sent down from heaven. It is a principle of common sense, a pragmatic principle. William James would have approved. Justice is the sort of principle that finite beings, rational social animals, ordinary human beings, might come up with when deliberating together how to constitute themselves into a civil society. Under what sort of rule should they live? These framers of a fundamental law do not dwell in ivory towers, rather they have both feet on the ground, trying to decide what sort of rules would make it possible for them to live together in peace; being just is for them an existential matter, a matter of being or not being. It is also for us.

Before getting into details, these framers of a fundamental law must decide upon a basic principle upon which their system of government, its structure, institutions and laws, is to be founded. It must be taken as given that the blessings of liberty must be made available to everyone without exception to realize and enjoy; from which it follows all persons be treated fairly; from which it follows that justice is fairness.

This is the thesis of Rawls’s book: justice is fairness. And the reason why Rawls’s theory has been so widely and enthusiastically acclaimed is because its thesis seems self evident, so that one need not go through the long and tedious argument that Rawls presents to justify it. As social beings, we all desire to be treated fairly by every authority, especially by our government, and by each other. Who would take exception with this?

But it is not enough to declare that justice is fairness. Since it is a practical principle, we must determine how it is to be applied to all without exception, for ours is a democratic civil society.

So, how is justice to be applied? Rawls had less interest in how justice would work in an ideal society, than in how it works in American society as it currently exists. Thus, he observed that even though our law declares that we are all free and equal, economically and socially we are not in fact all equal. We are not all rich, nor do we all have the same social and economic advantages. And although through taxation there is some redistribution of wealth, it is not enough to overcome inequality. And although we have no hereditary privileged class, wealth and education are not equally provided to all; not everyone enjoys the benefit of education at elite institutions, or the social connections that will give them an advantage over poorer, less well-connected students. These inequalities are unjust, but it would require a revolution and complete remaking of our civil society to rectify them.

Rawls’s way of addressing these inequalities is not revolutionary but progressive. It has two parts. The first part is an affirmation of the principle of equal rights. He calls for the enactment of “the most extensive of rights and liberties compatible with a system of equal rights for all.” According to this principle or rule, American society must advance on a path towards full equality. But equality does not give anyone the right to infringe upon the liberty or well-being of others. For example, it does not give one the right not to be vaccinated or not to wear a mask, because this supposed right impinges on the right of others to be safe. The same applies to the right to bear arms. Because guns are lethal weapons, no one has the right to carry them in public places in a manner that may be threatening to others. It applies also to speech, for words can cause harm. For example, we are not free to utter racial slurs.

The second is a principle of equal opportunity; it is a method of compensation whereby the less advantaged are provided with the greater benefits, which will gain them the equal and in some instances greater advantage. It’s all right for the rich to get richer, but  only if it does not cause the poor to get poorer, only if they get richer too. It is all right to amass wealth, but only if a significant portion of that wealth is used to benefit the poor and disadvantaged, so that they too can enjoy the benefits of prosperity. The purpose of taxation is a fair redistribution of wealth. The policy of affirmative action in giving disadvantaged persons preference in opportunities for employment is another application of Rawls’s principle. It’s only fair. Hence, it’s the right thing to do.

I could write more. But I want to conclude this essay with a tribute. In 1971, the late Stanley Bates joined the faculty of Middlebury College. For almost a quarter century, we were colleagues, and we became close friends. Stanley had been a student of John Rawls at Harvard. He not only understood Rawls’s theory of justice, he lived it. He taught me a great deal, for which I will be always grateful.

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