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Alfredo Lucero-Montaño

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Notes on Rawls' A Theory of Justice



The original position is the appropriate initial status quo, which insures that the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair. The parties are equal, that is, all have the same rights in the procedure for choosing principles. The basis of equality is taken in these respects:


a) systems of ends are not ranked in value:


b) each man is presumed to be rational person and mutually disinterested in one another's interests, and to act upon whtever principles are adopted; and


c) no one knows his place in society, or his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities.


These conditions with the veil of ignorance define the principles of justice as those which rational persons concerned to advance their interests would consent to as equals when none are known to be advantaged or disadvantaged by social and natural contingencies.


The principles of justice that would be chosen in the original position are:


1) each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others;


2) social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are    both


a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantange, and


b) attached to positions and offices open to all.


These principles  primarily apply to the basic structure of society . They define the equal rights and duties of citizenship, and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages (wealth and income, authority and responsibility). The second principle applies to the distribution of income and wealth; this distribution needs not to be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage. The principles must be arranged in a serial order with the first prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure of equal liberty and equality of opportunity cannot be justified or compensated by greater social and economic advantages.


Primary social goods are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any of theses goods is to everyone’s advantage. Injustice is simply inequalities that are not to benefit of all. The conception of justice imposes no restrictions on what sorts of inequalities are permissible; it only requires that everyone’s position be improved. The principles of justice, being arranged in serial order, do not permit exchanges between rights and liberties and economic and social benefits. This suggests that primary social goods mark a division in the social system. The rights and liberties referred to by these principles are those that are determined by the public rules of the basic structure. This rules, defining basic liberties and rights, apply to everyone equally and that they allow the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all. While the second principle insists that each person benefit from permissible inequalities in the basic structure. This means that it must be reasonable for each relevant representative man defined by the structure (a person holding a social position), to prefer his expectations with inequality to his expectations without it.


Combining the principle of fair equality of opportunity with the difference principle we arrive at the conception of democratic equality. The outcome is that the higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme, which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.


The difference principle can be illustrated by considering the distribution of income among representative individuals of social classes, per example, between a starting out member of the entrepreneurial class and one who begins in the class of unskilled workers. According to the difference principle the initial inequality in life expectations is justifiable only if the difference in expectation is to the advantage of the representative man who is worse off. The difference principle justifies these inequalities if the expectations of the worst off are maximized, and when the expectations of the better off can improved the situation of those worst off.


The principle of fair equality of opportunity is related to the idea of pure procedural justice. The principle of open positions expresses the conviction that if some places were not open on the basis fair to all, those kept out would be right in feeling unjustly treated, even though they benefited by the efforts of those allowed to hold them, because they were excluded of from the wealth of office and the experience of realization of self which comes from the exercise of social duties. In justice as fairness society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, the basic structure is a public system of rules defining a scheme of activities where men together produce a sum of benefits and assigns shares as a matter of pure procedural justice. The two characteristic features of procedural justice are: an independent standard for deciding which outcome is just and a procedure that guarantees to lead to it. The pure procedural justice obtains when there is no independent criterion for the fair result: instead there is a correct procedure such that the outcome is fair, whatever it is, provided that the procedure has been properly followed.


How expectations are to be estimated? When applied to basic structure the difference principle requires that it is necessary to have an ordinal measure of the expectations for each representative individual but these measures must make sense in interpersonal comparisons. The difficulties of these comparisons must reflect values which it makes sense to pursue, and one way is to identify the least advantaged representative man as the position from what the social system is to be judged.


The basis of interpersonal comparisons is made in terms of expectations of primary goods. These expectations are defined as the index of these goods that a representative man can look forward to. The good is the satisfaction of rational desires (final ends and interests). The person’s good is determined by what is for him the most rational plan of life given the present circumstances, that is, given the necessary primary social goods available to him. How are the different primary social goods to be weighed? Assuming that the fundamental liberties are always equal, and there is fair equality of opportunity, the primary social goods that vary their distribution are the powers and prerogatives of authority, and income and wealth. Here the only index problem is that of weighting the primary social goods for the least advantaged group, since least authority is associated with lowest income. The interpretation of expectations by the difference principle (that some can have more if they are acquired in ways improve the situation of those who have less) represents an agreement to compare men’s situations solely by reference of primary social goods it would be rational for them to prefer. This seems a feasible way to establish a publicly recognized objective measure


The circumstances of justice may be described as the normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary. Although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is marked by conflict and identity of interests. The principles of justice are needed for choosing among the various social arrangements that determine the division of advantages and disadvantages. These requirements define the role of justice. The background conditions may be divided into two kinds:


1) the objective circumstances: the condition of moderate scarcity (the naturals sources are not so abundant);


2) the subjective circumstances: the relevant aspects of the subjects of cooperation (the diversity of needs and interests lead men to make conflicting claims on the natural and social resources available, but these claims are assumed as interests of a self that regards its conception of good as worthy of recognition and as deserving satisfaction, in other words, the parties take no interest in one another’s interests).


In short, circumstances of justice obtain when mutually disinterested persons put forward conflicting claims to the division of social advantages under conditions of moderate scarcity.


The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure to that any principle agreed to be just. The aim is to use the notion of pure procedural justice as a basis of a theory, for the purpose to nullify the effects of specific contingencies. In order to do this parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance (hypothetical situation). It is assumed that the parties do not know certain kind of particular facts: their place in society, their fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, their conception of good, nor the economical, political and cultural circumstances of their own society. The only particular facts which the parties know is that their society is subject to the circumstances of justice. And is taken for granted that they have general information (laws and theories) about: human society, political affairs and economic principles, social organization, etc. The parties are obliged to evaluate the principles, in terms of the general consequences of their public recognition and universal application, solely upon these formal constraints and general considerations. This is to say that rational deliberation satisfying certain conditions and restrictions would reach a certain conception of justice. The veil of ignorance is the initial condition that meets these requirements, and guarantees that the same principles are always chosen.


The conditions of publicity and finality are main grounds for the principles of justice. The first confirming ground for the principles of justice can be explained as the strains of commitment. Assuming that the parties have a sense of justice and that they have taken everything into account, they can rely on one another to adhere to the principles adopted. The original agreement sets the limits upon what can be accepted under all relevant circumstances.


The second ground invokes the constraints on agreements. When the basic structure of society is publicly known to satisfy its principles, those subject to these arrangements tend to develop a desire to act in accordance with these principles: a conception of justice generates its own support. The principles of justice apply to the basic structure of the social system and to the determination of life prospects. If society is conceived as a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of its members, from the standpoint of the original position, the parties would adopt principles of reciprocal advantage, and would reject the principles that may have extreme consequences, for instance, accepting the sacrifice of their prospects for the greater advantages of others (principle of utility).


The public recognition of the principles gives greater supports to men’s self-respect and this in turn increases the effectiveness of social cooperation. Self-respect is defined in the sense that one’s plan of life is worth carrying out. Because self-respect depends upon the respect of others, the parties would accept the natural duty of mutual respect. A conception of justice should publicly express men’s respect for one another. When the principles of justice manifest in the basic structure of society –that is, everyone’s good is included in a scheme of mutual benefit— arises in men a desire to treat one another not as means only but as ends in themselves.


Liberty can always be explained by reference to the agents who are free, the restrictions that they are free from, and what it is they are free to do. Therefore the general description of liberty will be: this person is free from this constraint to do so and to do so is protected from interference by other person. Liberty in connection with certain structure of institutions is a certain system of public rules defining rights and duties. A greater liberty holds primarily for the system of liberty as a whole, and not for each particular liberty. We can distinguished liberty and the worth of liberty as follows: liberty is represented by the complete system of equal liberties of citizenship, while the worth of liberty to persons and groups is proportional to their capacity to advance their ends within the system framework. Freedom as equal liberty is the same for all, but the worth of liberty is not the same for everyone (greater power and wealth are greater means to achieve their aims). However the lesser worth of liberty is compensated whenever the difference principle is applied to the basic structure in order to maximize the worth to the least advantaged of the complete scheme of equal liberty shared by all.


There is a Kantian interpretation of the conception of justice from which the principle of equal liberty derives, that is, Kant’s notion of autonomy. Kant begins with the idea that moral principles (as legislation for a realm of ends) are the object of rational choice, and they define the moral law that men can rationally will to govern their actions in an ethical community. Finally, Kant supposes that this moral legislation is to be agreed to under conditions that characterize men as free and equal rational beings, here the description of the original position is an attempt to interpret this conception. Kant held that a person is acting autonomously when the principles of his action are chosen by him as the most adequate possible expression of his nature as a free and equal rational being; these principles he acts upon are not adopted because of social or natural contingencies. To act in such principles is to act heteronomous. The veil of ignorance is the initial condition that deprives the persons of the knowledge that would enable them to choose heteronomous principles. The parties arrive at their choice and act upon it in accordance with principles that they would choose as rational and independent persons in an original position of equality. The principles of justice are also categorical imperatives. Kant understands a categorical imperative as a principle of conduct that applies to a person in virtue of his rational nature. The argument for the principles of justice assumes that the parties desire certain primary goods, and this preference derives from general assumptions about rationality and the conditions of human life. To act from the principles of justice is to act from categorical imperatives in the sense that no particular ends or contingencies appear as premises in their derivation. The motivational assumption of mutual disinterest accords with Kant’s notion of autonomy. This assumption has been used to characterize the circumstances of justice and to allow the parties for freedom in the choice of adopting a conception of goodness. Here Kant’s relevant ethical idea is that a man realizes his true self when he acts form the moral law, whereas if he permits his actions to be determined by sensuous desires or contingent aims, he becomes subject to the law of nature. The noumenal self can choose any consistent set of principles and that acting from such principles is sufficient to express one’s choice as that of a free and equal rational being. The argument that shows which principles free and equal rational persons would choose is if we think the original position as the necessary point of view from which noumenal selves would express their nature. The desire to act justly derives from the desire to express our nature as a free and equal rational being. Liberty is in correspondence with a moral law that man gives to himself, and leads him to an ethic of mutual respect. Finally, the original position may be viewed as a procedural interpretation of Kant’s conception of autonomy and the categorical imperative.

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