Objecting to John Rawls & Egalitarianism

December 6, 2011

Political Theory


What gives rise to the concept of justice? The fact that man has to evaluate and make judgments about the world around him. The standard man uses to decide whether his value judgments are right or wrong is his system of ethics. Hence, the concept of justice, and ethics as a whole, presupposes a conscious entity capable of comprehending both its own existence and reality. In other words, justice is a function of identity, conciseness, and a perceivable reality. With this framework in mind, let’s examine John Rawls’s theory of justice.

John Rawls explains his theory using a thought experiment. He tells you to imagine yourself in a hypothetical reality not knowing any personal characteristics about yourself. He calls this the “original position”. Through this “veil of ignorance”, individuals must decide on how to set up a society by establishing certain principles of justice to govern themselves by. Rawls argues that given the uncertainty of how their life will turn out under the “original position”, rational men would abide by the logic of game theory, choosing the alternative that renders the best of the worst possible outcomes. Under these conditions, it is claimed that men will rationally choose to accept Rawls’s ethical doctrines.

Here is where I take objection to Rawls. Put simply, his theory of justice is rooted outside the conditions that make it possible. If men do not know their own identities, they logically will not be able to grasp the concept of justice, let alone decide what principles to live by. Without identity, a man cannot comprehend good or bad outcomes, since, as we established, the concept of good and bad applies only after one becomes aware one’s self. Making a “rational” choice on the basis of ignorance isn’t only contradictory, it’s impossible. I’d also point out the fact that any theory grounded in an unnatural hypothetical dimension (and not in reality) is itself inherently flawed and should be scrutinized accordingly.

The problem with most thought experiments is the author’s tendency to include or exclude specific information to support preconceived intended outcomes. In the case of Rawls, the agreement made by individuals in his “original position” depends very much on what he allows into the hypothetical framework, mainly the disembodiment of self under the “veil of ignorance”. There is no way of knowing whether Rawls designed his thought experiment in order to intentionally derive his theory of justice, or whether he genuinely used it as a means of intellectual exploration. Either way, this is definitely something worth considering.

Rawls’s irrational thought experiment (irrational because it does not correspond to reality), is then taken one step further. Since Rawls knows that ability and virtue cannot be “distributed”, he seeks to distribute the products of ability and virtue. He calls for equal results from unequal causes, or equal rewards for unequal performance. As he puts it:

“All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.”

Rawls suggests man is unfree due to his genetic makeup, subjecting certain individuals to the perpetual servitude of others. Since some men are born with certain advantages, like intelligence, they must live in atonement to those who weren’t. He states that “undeserved inequalities call for redress; and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for”. Fundamentally, there is no difference between this conclusion and that of racism or slavery. All hold a certain group of people accountable to others based on personal attributes outside of their control, be it the color of their skin or their natural abilities.

Rawls gets one thing right. He concedes that metaphysically given traits differentiating people’s productive capacity are neither just nor unjust. However, he goes on to argue that we shouldn’t let these “arbitrary” facts rule our social or economic lives. He advocates a theory of justice and governance that accordingly combats these facts of reality in order to establish a more equitable distribution of well being among those not “favored by nature”. One problem: if a natural fact is amoral (outside the bounds of morality), by what logic does it become a moral problem that must be addressed? Why should some people be obligated to atone for what is not an injustice? The dots just don’t connect here.

A critical component of the human condition Rawls overlooks is that of volition. Some people may be born with a higher level of intellectual capacity, a keen ability of problem solving, or a talent of some kind. However, if one chooses not to use or develop these abilities, they become useless. Ultimately, being successful is a choice that requires relentless hard work, not the benevolence of nature in distributing genetic gifts. What does Rawls have to say about John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edision, the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Carnegie Mellon, and the like who were born into poverty yet achieved more success than anyone in their given field? I think he’d rather not think about them.

Contrary to Rawls, freedom and equality are reconcilable. Equality, in a political sense, means one thing: equality before the law. Every citizen of the United States possesses certain unalienable individual rights that neither his fellow man nor the government can take away from him. Coincidentally, this was the view of our founding fathers, who believed justice exists in the voluntary exchange of individuals, not in the equality of outcomes or opportunities. They understood that men are born with different degrees of ability, and that each man should be allowed to achieve his full potential without governmental interference, so long as he does not stop others from doing the same. As James Madison states in the Federalist Papers, No.10:

“The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government”.

This is the nature of most of our political problems today: the friction between political and economic rights. Egalitarianism preaches the latter at the expense of the former, advocating an equality of outcomes or opportunities while destroying the idea of political equality under which we have equal individual rights. It is a philosophy that punishes some people for achieving what others cannot. It destroys the concept that this country was founded on, that “every man is created equal”. Above all, it implicitly declares your life to be the property of society, since, according to Rawls, you don’t inherently deserve anything you accomplish. Today, when the need for justice is at its highest peak, more and more people are preaching egalitarian notions inspired by John Rawls, while the concept of political equality seems to be vanishing.

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5 Comments on “Objecting to John Rawls & Egalitarianism”

  1. nluongo Says:

    I don’t think that Rawls says that people behind the veil of ignorance make their decision based upon some concept of justice at all. Rawls says that these people would structure society solely out of self-interest, not using some concept of what is right and what is wrong. This is why it is a question of game theory and not ethics. They are trying to maximize the outcome of their placement in society, and that is what leads them to take the safe route of making the less fortunate as good as possible. Rawls realized that we all have different senses of what justice is. That is why he created the veil of ignorance, to take the whole notion of justice out of the equation and force people to act based only on self-preservation, which is common to all of us.

    • afadel Says:

      I didn’t say people behind the veil of ignorance make their decision based upon a concept of justice. I said they are placed under these conditions in order to derive a concept of justice, and therefore a system of governance. I hold that it is impossible to grasp the concept of self-interest under a framework in which the “self” is forgotten.

  2. Janny Lockee Says:

    I agree with Rawls in that behind the Veil of Ignorance, people will choose to maximize their self-interest (to protect themselves from the state of nature). However, his Difference Principle doesn’t make logical sense to me.

    The State of Nature is unfair and unjust. Humans try to engineer a system (justice as fairness) to “fix” the state of nature. But isn’t fixing it in itself is a form of discrimination? Bill Gates should be forced to distribute some of his wealth (gained from his exceptional intelligence) to the disadvantaged people (due to their poor birth).

    My opinion is don’t try to fix the State of Nature. Just accept the fact that nature is unfair and arbitrary.

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