John Rawls 'thought experiment' for Public Thanksgiving
sabez at u.washington.edu
Wed Nov 27 10:09:50 PST 2002
Rawls death on Sunday presents an opportunity to reflect on his ideas.
This essay and the thought experiment described complements the obituary I
sent out yesterday. STephen
JOHN RAWLS AND THE PUBLIC MEANING OF "THANKSGIVING" By Matthew Miller
Tribune Media Services
The death this week of John Rawls, the most influential political
philosopher of our era, suggests a natural sermon at this season of giving
thanks. For Rawls' contribution was a relentless focus on the role luck
plays in human affairs, and how we would order society if we were properly
grateful for good luck and compassionate toward the luckless.
Rawls developed this idea in his seminal 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice."
It's a dense and at times forbidding work, but the kernel at the heart of
Rawls' thinking is simple and compelling.
The way to create the rules for a just society, Rawls argues, is to first
imagine everyone in an "original position" behind a pre-birth "veil of
ignorance," where no one knows what their own traits will be - whether
they will be rich or poor, beautiful or plain, smart or less so, talented
or not, healthy or disabled. Only in this situation - where people don't
know what place they are destined to occupy in society - can we see what
kind of social order they would agree in advance was fair.
Rawls uses this thought experiment to focus our thinking on the central
role he sees luck playing in life. There's the pre-birth lottery that
hands out brains, beauty, talent and inherited wealth. There's a
post-birth lottery that (via family) bequeaths values and schooling. "The
institutions of society favor certain starting places over others," Rawls
writes. "Yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions
of merit or desert."
Rawls' point: The vast inequalities of wealth and position we observe stem
primarily from advantages for which people can't take credit. Behind a
pre-birth veil of ignorance, therefore, Rawls suggests that we would agree
these inequalities are just only if they most benefit those who end up not
winning the pre-birth lottery and if the top spots in life are open to
everyone in a system where we've made a serious effort to equalize
As Rawls puts it: "The natural distribution (of advantages) is neither
just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at
some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and
unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. "Undeserved
inequalities call for redress," Rawls concludes, "and since inequalities
of (inherited) wealth and natural endowment are undeserved, these
inequalities are to be somehow compensated for ... to provide genuine
equality of opportunity."
What does that "compensation" amount to in practice? To Rawls, equality of
opportunity primarily means that "the government tries to insure equal
chances of education and culture for persons similarly endowed and
motivated, either by subsidizing private schools or by establishing a
public school system." He also says government should guarantee a "social
minimum," his phrase for a decent floor of existence for society's less
lucky. Beyond these specific measures, Rawls' just society is imbued with
a genuine commitment to equal opportunity, but not to such old-time
left-wing fetishes as equal incomes, or equal "outcomes."
Conservatives tend to fear that government efforts in this regard lead us
down a dangerous path. For Rawls and his intellectual heirs, the better
balance, and bottom line, is clear: In "justice as fairness (Rawls'
shorthand for his approach), men agree to avail themselves of the
accidents of nature and social circumstances only when doing so is for the
"We Rawlsian liberals," Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman told me, "think
that we have a special responsibility to arrange the starting points of
American citizens in a way worthy of their claim to equality, but we don't
have a responsibility to save them from their mistakes as grown-ups."
"The idea," says the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, another pupil of Rawls,
who teaches at the University of Chicago, "is to set some limits on the
power of luck to deform human lives."
We're lucky to have had Rawls here to call us toward these principles. Yet
we can't give thanks for his contribution without noting how far we have
to go to take luck as seriously as he urged.
Columnist Matt Miller is a senior fellow at Occidental College in Los
Angeles and host of "Left, Right & Center" on KCRW-FM in Los Angeles.
mattino at att.net
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