John Rawls: Lesson 1
The Case for Equality/ John Rawls
“In a Theory of Justice (1971), he [John Rawls] argues that the way to think about justice is to ask what principles we would agree to in an initial situation of equality. Rawls reasons as follows: suppose we gathered, just as we are, to choose the principles to govern our collective life – to write a social contract. What principles would we choose”(141)?
“Rawls believes that two principles of justice would emerge from the hypothetical contract. The first provides equal basic liberties for all citizens, such as freedom of speech and religion. The principle takes priority over considerations of social utility and the general welfare. The second principle concerns social and economic equality. Although it does not require an equal distribution of income and wealth, it permits only those social and economic inequalities that work to the advantage of the least well off members of society” (142).
“How can principles of justice possibly be derived from an agreement that never actually took place” (142)?
The Moral Limits of Contracts
“To appreciate the moral force of Rawls’s hypothetical contract, it helps to notice the moral limits of actual contracts. We sometimes assume that, when two people make a deal, the terms of the their agreement must be fair. We assume, in other words, that contracts justify the terms that they produce. But they don’t – at least not on their own. Actual contracts are not self-sufficient moral instruments. The mere fact that you and I make a deal is not enough to make it fair” (142).
“Can consent create an obligation on its own, or is some element of benefit or reliance also required? This debate tells us something about the morality of contracts that we often overlook: actual contracts carry moral weight insofar as they realize two ideals – autonomy and reciprocity”(144).
“Consent is not a sufficient condition of moral obligation” (146).
“It [Sam’s inference] wrongly assumes that wherever there is an obligation, there must have been an agreement – some act of consent “ (149).
“In real life, persons are situated differently. This means that differences in bargaining power and knowledge are always possible. And as long as this is true, the fact of an agreement does not, by itself, guarantee the fairness of an agreement. This is why actual contracts are not self-sufficient moral instruments. It always makes sense to ask, ‘But is it fair, what they have agreed to’” (150)?
In this next lesson, we’ll imagine the perfect contract.Next lesson >