Selecting Fair Principles of Social Justice

What we’ve described here is similar to the method Rawls recommends for selecting fair principles of social justice. Rawls is aiming at a conception of justice as fairness in the sense that social systems won’t advantage any particular kind of person at the expense of others. Rawls’ proposes that we can get onto the ideal of justice as fairness in this sense by means of a thought experiment that involves reasoning from what he calls “the original position.” In the original position, we imagine that we are perfectly rational agents with full information about the consequences of the various possible social arrangements. We are then given the task of designing the principles of justice that will structure our society and we are expected to do so with an eye to what will be in our own best interest. But then there’s a catch. In reasoning from the original, we operate behind a veil of ignorance about our own personal circumstances and characteristics. So in the original position, behind the veil of ignorance, I must think about what set of social institutions will work out best for me without knowing whether I will be weak or strong, healthy or diseased, clever or dull, beautiful or ugly, black or white, born to a wealthy family or a poor one and so forth. If I am rational and self interested, I will want to set things up so that I can substantially enjoy the benefits if I have characteristics that are highly valued in my society and I put them to good use. But at the same time, I will want to hedge my bets to assure that I still have a decent life in case I am not so lucky or my best efforts fail.


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Of course, the original position thought experiment is just that, a thought experiment. No one could actually place themselves behind the veil of ignorance, nor reason perfectly rationally about all the possible social arrangements that might result from her choice of principles. Still Rawls has devised a way to think about what is fair when things all other things aren’t equal, and we can apply this to approximate relatively impartial judgments about what a fair society would look like.


On the basis of the original position thought experiment, Rawls argues for two principles of justice as fairness:


The Equal Liberty Principle: Each person is to be granted the greatest degree of liberty consistent with similar liberty for everyone.


The Difference Principle: Social practices that produce inequalities among individuals are just only if they work out to everyone’s advantage and the positions that come with greater reward are open to all.


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