Rawls is arguably the single most important political philosopher of the 20th century.  His goal is to defend a view that can be called 'liberalism'.  We will have to see what this means.    

Rawls believes that there are many good things, values, one might want in a society.  People differ on which things they think are valuable, on where valuable thinks rank compared to other valuable things, and on which values should be a matter of social concern and which a matter of private concern.  Rawls is a pluralist.  To be ideal, a society must have many good things.  For example, it must be just, reasonably efficient, free in both the negative and positive sense, stable, and so on.  But of all the valuable things we might want in society, justice is the most important.  

Rawls’ Job is to discover the principles of justice for the Basic Structure, that is, the constitution, economy, etc.  This basic structure defines a great deal of our life prospects.

Rawls assumes a)strict compliance theory and b)and that the circumstances of justice obtain:  moderate scarcity, that is, social cooperation is useful and not impossible.

Political Social Contact Theory:   Historically, social contract theory  was understood to be a way to provide legitimacy for governments:  a government is legitimate if it was the result of an actual or contract or it is consented to by current citizens, whatever its origins.  But we are interested in a moral contract theory:  We are selecting the principles of morality, not legitimate governments.  Political social contract theorists, like Locke, assumed that there was a God-given morality.  We are no longer assuming this.  

Rawls Basic Idea:  

a)Moral principles are chosen, not discovered

b)The correct moral principles for the basic structure are those that 

i.would be chosen 

ii.by the group, not the individual

There are several ways this basic idea could now be cashed out turning on the phrase 'would be chosen'.  a)We can imagine real people in the real world getting together and choosing principles.  We would then have to figure out what they would choose and go with those.  Note this is still in the realm of hypothetical contract since we do not actually get everyone together to make the choice.  b)We can imagine a choice situation rather different from the real world. Of course, an explanation must be given for the particular details of the choice situation. 

The Original Position Argument: Rawls takes the second approach.   Now versions of this idea go back to Kant, and we will take him up a bit.  For the moment, just note that Rawls is very much inspired by Kant.  

The Conditions on the Original Position


i.All general knowledge that is relevant or the best we have

ii.Veil of Ignorance

iii.No particular knowledge our your place in society, your wants, desires, conception of the good, etc.

iv.Knowledge that the circumstances of justice hold in your society

v.Knowledge that the people in society are capable of a sense of justice and have rational life plans.


i.Ends-means rationality

ii.Mutual disinterest

iii.No envy

iv.Want more rather than less of the primary goods

v.View selves of representatives of continuing lines

Why these conditions?  

a)Lets focus on the veil of ignorance.  The idea is that justice is supposed to be impartial.  And therefore, the choice situation must reflect this impartiality.  Let us consider some ways impartiality can fail if we lacked the veil of ignorance.  The majority can impose on a minority.  The powerful can coerce the weak.  So we need a choice procedure that rules such things out.  In the real world it is very hard to set up a truly impartial decision procedure.  There are some safeguards, e.g., secret votes. But these have limits.   How can we force impartiality?  A number of approaches have been suggested by various authors, including 

i.Rawls’ veil of ignorance

ii.Golden rule

iii.Ideal observer

The Two Principles of Justice.  Rawls gives several versions of these principles, the later a bit more precise than the earlier. But the basic idea is this. 

b)First, the Greatest Equal Liberties Principle: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with  a similar liberty for others.  

i.voting, eligibility for office. 

ii.speech, assembly and conscience

iii.person and property

c)Second, the Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be set up so that they are 

i.Reasonably expected to be to every one’s advantage, and in particular that of the least well off group.  

ii.Attached to positions open to all

d)These are lexically ordered.

9.Illustrations of the Difference Principle

a)Suppose there are two people, P1 and P2, and suppose that if we distribute, say, money equally, everyone gets $10.  Unequal distribution, say, according to contribution where people have different abilities or skills, can increase the total available.  Should we allow these inequalities so as to get the greater total?  Only if it benefits the least well off.  

Example I

Equal Distribution

Unequal Dist Violating the Difference Principle

Unequal Distribution in Accordance with the Difference Principle

An Even Better Distribution

Add Charts

Example II

Explanation of “Open to All”:  There are two possible interpretations

a)Formal Equality of Opportunity.  

i.The idea is that we simply take off all restrictions and let the cards fall where they may

b)Fair Equality of Opportunity

i.The idea is that we should try to mitigate at least some social, economic and natural inequalities so as to “level the playing field.”

11.The Two Principles and Liberal Society:   Earlier I said that Rawls is a defender of liberalism. But what does that mean?  One way to understand is by classifying various modern political ideologies in terms of various interrelated values, e.g., 





e)utility (welfare)

12.Different political ideologies try to balance these in different ways.  For example

a)Libertarianism: Gives a nearly absolute priority to liberty, both 

i.Economic liberty: free market capitalism

ii.personal Liberty: thought, discussion, action etc.  

b)Conservativism:  Tends to emphasize greater liberty in the economic sphere and tends to emphasize greater social control in the personal sphere in the name of traditional and communal values.  In the extreme version, it becomes a kind of communitariansim

c)Liberalism :  Tends to emphasize more control in the economic sphere, e.g., more redistribution of wealth.  This in the name of equality and welfare, perhaps.  Tends to emphasize more liberty in the civil and person sphere.  

13.Rawls Two Principles as Liberal Principles

a)Separate the civil from the economic sphere and gives absolute priority to personal and political liberty concerns over economic concerns.  

b)His two principles take on the job of mitigating, as best we can, the effects of unequal starting points, especially social ones, but also natural ones.

c)Takes on the job of benefiting the economically least well off.  

14.Defense of the Two Principles of Justice, that is, of Liberalism

a)Lets pause for a moment and look at something we did not yet talk about.  We know that Rawls believes in his two principles of justice.  But what I did not tell you is a bit of background on this.  

b)When Rawls first wrote, he thought that the leading moral/political theory of the day was utilitarianism.   We will look at utilitarianism shortly, but for the moment, think of it as the view that 

i.We should arrange our institutions so as to (try) to maximize total (or average) utility. 

ii.Of course, it is an empirical question as to how to do this and utilitarians have gone in different directions on this matter

c)Rawls wanted to find an alternative to this utilitarian establishment.  So when he tries to defend his two principles, he is assuming that there are two choices, utilitarianism or his theory.  So he tried to argue that his two principles would be chosen over utilitarianism.

d)We, however, might want to also ask about how two other theories might fare: libertarianism and egalitarianism.  And it should not be hard to bring his discussion to bear on these alternatives since, in fact, he has things to say about these two alternatives.  

e)So what Rawls has to show is that if given a choice between 


ii.Radical egalitarianism

iii.Political Utilitarianism

iv.The two principles of justice

A)Greatest equal liberties principle

B)Difference principles with fair equality of opportunity

people in the original position will choose the two principles.  

f)Actually, things are more complex since in the essay you guys are reading, he adds another possibility.    

i.A principle consisting of 

A)The greatest equal liberties principle

B)Restricted average utilitarianism:

1.The guarantee of a minimum

2.fair equality of opportunity.  

15.Basic Theory of Rational Choice

a)Expected Utility Theory:  Suppose we have two choices, A and B.  We do not know for sure what will happen if we choose A or B, but we know the possible outcomes and probabilities.  We choose the act with the greatest expected utility.  For example:

EUA= $5 (.4) + $20 (.6) = 14

EUB= $12(.8) + -$2 (.2) = 9.2

Here we choose A.

b)Rawls calls this into question not in general, but for the choice facing people in the original position.  But lets see where we might end up if we assume people in the original position will use expected utility theory to make their choices.  

16.The Original Position and Expected Utility Theory:  

a)In order to apply expected utility theory to the choice people face in the original position, we need to take each political theory, ask what the possible outcomes are for individuals if society adopts that theory, and assign these outcomes probabilities.  We then do our expected utility calculation and choose whichever political theory will, if adopted, produce the highest expected utility for the individual.  

b)This seems to be an impossibly difficult task.  

i.It is hard to know what society will look like in any detail on any of these theories. For example, on the egalitarian approach, we know we will all be equal, but we have no way to know how high the equal level of welfare will be.  Similarly, we know there will be rich and poor on the libertarian approach, but we have no way to know how many will be rich or poor.  

ii.This means we will find it impossible to assign probabilities to possible outcomes.  

17.The Harsanyi Argument:  We can bypass all this complexity and show that if people in the original position adopt the expected utility theory of rational choice, and if we make one other assumption, they will adopt a kind of utilitarianism.  

a)The Principle of Insufficient Reason (The Laplacean Principle):  When you are going to do an expected utility calculation, and you do not have any grounds for assigning probabilities, assume they are equal.  

b)If we do this, people in the original position will choose utilitarianism, or more specifically, average utilitarianism.  Ask class why.  

18.Rawls's Alternative Theory of Rational Choice:  Rawls does not reject expected utility theory or the principle of insufficient reason in general, but he thinks that because of special features of the original position choice, people in the original position will adopt a different approach to rationality.  

a)The maximin theory of rational choice.  

19.What about their situation will make them think in terms of maximin rather than expected utility?  

a)The people in the original position have no reliable basis for estimating the probabilities of the possible social circumstances that affect the fundamental interests of the people they represent.

b)They have reason to think that people in the real world will not much care about what they can get beyond the minimum. 

c)The worst outcomes of some other alternatives are seen as intolerable.  

20.Simple Statement of Rawls Argument in Theory of Justice that the Two Principles Will be chosen in the Original Position.    

a)Given the nature of the choice, it is rational to use maximin as your theory of rational choice rather than expected utility theory combined with the Laplacean Principle.  That is, it is rational to choose principles that will maximize the position of the least well off.  

b)Utilitarianism is risky with respect to the least well off as compared to the two principles. 

i.It could require that one give up various important freedoms for the greater good. 

i.It could require that one sacrifice one's economic well-being to an extreme extent for the greater good.  

b)The two principles are not risky on either count.  Hence, they would be chosen by maximiners.  

2.This argument turns on the risks utilitarianism poses.  Since we do not know exactly what sort of system utilitarianism would require that we set up, there is an element of uncertainty here.  Still, Rawls is on strong grounds:  utilitarianism is risky for the least well off in a way that the two principles are not

3.Rawls would use a very similar argument against libertarianism:  it is risky for the least well off.  

a)Of course, libertarianism would not restrict our basic negative liberties the way utilitarianism might.

b)But it could restrict the value of those liberties.  If one is very poor, which might happen in a libertarian society, one's negative liberty to practice one's religion, to participate politically, and so on, may have little real value. 

c)And obviously, the least well of in a libertarian society might be desperately poor, unless people like Machan are right, which is unlikely. 

4.Rawls's argument against egalitarianism is a bit different.  

a)Egalitarianism is not risky the way the others are so long as there is a reasonable abundance. So long as there is a reasonable abundance, no one will be desperately poor. But:  

b)It is not clear that egalitarianism offers protections for basic liberties.  

c)Given the lack of incentives to work harder to get more, there is certainly a risk that people will not work much.  If this were to happen, the pie might be quite small and position of the least well off (which is everyone) might be quite poor. 

d)Even if the position of everyone is decent, everyone has reason to move from egalitarianism to the two principles since everyone will benefit.  

5.Big Picture:  Before moving on, it is worth stepping back to summarize and get a feel for the big picture.    

a)Let us remember that for Rawls, moral principles are a human creation.  We do not discover them, we choose them.  

a)When we are talking about the moral rules governing the basic structure of an entire society, we must think in terms of a communal choice, not a personal one.  

a)How might this go?  We could engage in a real conversation and try to reach unanimous agreement in the real world, or at least a majority agreement.    

a)Rawls thinks such a real world decision will be flawed.    

i.Real people are not well informed, even about their own self-interest, and certainly not about the nature of the things that affect their lives intimately.

ii.Nor are they particularly rational, even given the poor state of their information.  The reason poorly and offer have irrational biases.  

iii.People will be able to bring unfair pressure on others, for example, as often happens in the real world, employers might bring pressure to bear on their employees. 

b)So Rawls came up with the thought experiment:  an imaginary situation in which the above problems are removed.  It is a situation containing rational, well informed individuals who are fairly situated with respect to one another.  To make this real, we imagine them behind the veil of ignorance so that no one knows what position they will hold in the real world.  No one can argue based on individual bias.  No one can coerce one another to obtain greater benefits.  It forces people to take a wider point of view.  

c)Compare to Golden Rule Arguments.  

2.Rawl's Update on his Theory in Justice as Fairness Revisited:  In the 30 years since he wrote Theory of Justice, Rawls changed and developed a number of things.  A lot of this comes in Restatement. There is one development that I will direct your attention to.  

a)In Theory of Justice, his primary argument is that the two principles are to be preferred over utilitarianism on the grounds that the two principles do better than utilitarianism by the standard of the minimax theory of rational choice.  

b)By the time he wrote Restatement, he wanted to consider more alternatives to the two principles than just utilitarianism, or even libertarianism or egalitarianism.  He comes up with what many might consider a plausible contender, a modified version of the two principles:

i.The greatest equal liberties principle

ii.A principle requiring a decent minimum, and after that, utilitarianism.  

c)This is is similar to Rawls own two principles.  As a practical matter, they may end in the same place, or very similar places.  This is largely because of limits on our knowledge. The difference principle says to maximize the position of the least well off, while the contender says we should guarantee them a decent minimum.  Though these are different,  it could be that we are not able to tell, in the real world, how a set of institutions that gives a decent minimum might be improved to predictably produce better consequences for people at the bottom.  

d)Still Rawls thinks the distinction is important in theory if not in practice.  Why?  Because, he says, the difference principle contains an idea of “reciprocity.”  Now just what this is is not clear.  


i.The idea behind reciprocity in general is that when you help me, I return the favor.  

ii.In the context of the present discussion, it seems to mean that with the difference principle, people in one group only benefit if people in other groups benefit, and more specifically, the better off can increase their benefits only if the less well of receive more benefits.  

f)Why this would be of importance to the people in the original position I do not know.  But it does express an understanding of society:  I'm pulling for you, we are all in this together.  

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