Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Rawls’ Theory of Justice, Economics 12 and Enlightenment

In discussing RawlsTheory of Justice this week, you might find the above lectures and discussions on “What makes a fair start?” inspired by the former Harvard philosophy prof:

Rawls argues that even meritocracy—a distributive system that rewards effort—doesn’t go far enough in leveling the playing field because those who are naturally gifted will always get ahead. Furthermore, says Rawls, the naturally gifted can’t claim much credit because their success often depends on factors as arbitrary as birth order. Sandel makes Rawls’s point when he asks the students who were first born in their family to raise their hands.

Sandel discusses the fairness of pay differentials in modern society. He compares the salary of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,000) with the salary of television’s Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? According to John Rawls, it is not.

Touching on topics such as affirmative action policies, taxation, and just what should be done about inequality, Rawls provides an excellent point of crossing-over between our Economics and Philosophy classes this week.

If you are interested in pursuing the ethical, social and political import of inequality, Mr. Lloyd’s class has been reading and discussing the Globe and Mail‘s recent series, The Wealth Paradoxwhich tells the story of:

Canada […] at a crossroads. A gap has grown between the middle class and the wealthy. Now, that divide is threatening to erode a cherished Canadian value: equality of opportunity for all.

For those of us immersed in Rawls this weekend, what would he say about Canada’s “Wealth Paradox”? What about the Utilitarians? Immanuel Kant?

And for the economists in our midst, what is the epistemological basis for our understanding of inequality:

    • What do we know?
    • How do we know it?

If we look to gain such knowledge as a means to making our world more ethical, and more oriented toward justice, what is there to be known on the matter of inequality?

What questions must be asked?

And do these questions have answers sufficient that we can then act, and create systems of government and society that reflect our individual and collective notions of “justice”?

I look forward to engaging in this topic this week with the Philosophy 12 bunch, as well as our friends in AP Economics, and anyone else who finds themselves here, reading this post.

In the interest of enabling and creating a public sphere that might be equal to the tasks and questions raised by the ongoing Project of Enlightenment, where Kant (along with we here at Philosophy 12) invites you:

“Have the courage to use your own reason – That is the motto of enlightenment.”


4 Responses to Rawls’ Theory of Justice, Economics 12 and Enlightenment

  1. Kelly Bryant says:

    Mr. J,
    I literally just finished writing a paper on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, and my course readings have included Sandel, Kant, Nozick and Mill on the topic of justice. I will reiterate again just how applicable Philosophy 12 is for all of my current studies.
    I would argue that Rawls would see the divide between the wealthy and the poor which exists in Canada today as being completely unjust and illegitimate, to the point which significant redistribution must occur to recreate a just and egalitarian society. The crux of his argument is that the veil of ignorance prevents partiality on the basis of morally arbitrary reasons in determining a fair distribution in society. In Canada, we are seeing that that morally arbitrary reasons (the family you are born into, the colour of your skin, the education level of your parents, etc.) are becoming a basis for determining what each individual is able to achieve. Rawls’ two principles of justice, which account for equal freedoms and equal opportunities are not being realized in Canada (or arguably any society that exists outside of the pages of political theory textbooks) as the veil of ignorance and the original position are not, and realistically, never will be used in the creation of constitution and legislature. People are partial to their own cases. People are not naturally egalitarian or utilitarian. People, in their natural states (or the original position), are not, as utilitarians would have you believe, going to account for the benefits to others when making choices, especially if they are to be significantly disadvantaged by the said choice. Canada is a welfare state and does hold many principles of distributive justice. Reallocation occurs through taxation and social programs exist to attempt to even the playing field for the worst off. However, Rawls would see that the situation in Canada could never become just unless wealth was redistributed so that it accounted for the morally arbitrary advantages which some individuals hold and others do not.
    Assuming that Philosophy 12 is not miles past the topic of justice, I would recommend taking a look at Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, Utopia and the State, which is essentially his response to the philosophies of Rawls. He argues that everyone is entitled to that which they earn, and a distribution is just if it has been reached by legitimate means. Placing the two theories side by side, it is a very interesting comparison.
    Philosophy 12 is, as always, a very refreshing break from my real, for credit discussions of political theory, ethics, and philosophy.
    – Kelly Bryant.

    • bryanjack says:

      Thanks for the comment, your thoughts, and the recommendation of Nozick’s work, Kelly. I have (since I published this post) also heard that the Harvard prof Sandel has also written a critique of Rawls’ justice, centered mostly around the point you raise about the ‘veil of ignorance’ being basically an impossible position to adopt fully.

      We’re actually just getting into the good stuff, coming to justice this week and next with a series of blog posts and class discussions we’re hoping to share on #ds106radio (for real… not to be lost like our NotN presentation that didn’t quite come off), or G+ Hangouts. At least one of the days will revolve around democratic justice and other failings of society in living up to the one that lives in political science texts. This gulf is interesting to me, particularly the more I read of Mr. Kant, who would (likely) say that the ability to rationally conceive of an idea and articulate it logically leads to a moral obligation to ‘make it so.’ If we can accept this argument, what do you think is holding us back from realizing the “promise of Enlightenment”?

      It would be great if you (and maybe some other poli-sci folks you might know…) were able to join in on one or more of our conversations – I’ll post a schedule on the blog once we slot them into the next few days.

      In the meantime, Lazar and Aidan are delving into the “Ethics of Voting” in this post here: http://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/not-efficient-not-ethical-whats-the-point-aidan-lazar/

      Good to hear from you, and to know that Philosophy has served you well back east!

      Mr. J

  2. Kelly Bryant says:

    All theories, whether they be economic, political, or social, have inherent assumptions. These assumptions are what differentiate the real world from the world which we see on the pages of textbooks. While some people may feel that they have this moral obligation, there is not going to be buy in from all of society. And without that, there is not a harmonious idea of what is morally imperative, so theories will not become realities. They require cohesion, which is realistically impossible.

    • bryanjack says:

      That said, I suppose, should the goal revolve around creating *enough* social cohesion to bring about greater justice than presently experienced? I was watching another talk hosted by Sandel the other night (about the moral justification for wealth-redistribution) where someone in the audience said that those in favour of redistribution don’t put their best foot forward when they present the “selfish” argument for paying higher taxes: “You will have a better healthcare system if we all pay.” The more powerful argument, this person posited, was that members of a community (family, province, nation… planet?) have an inherent obligation to one another. We are all members of the same family, in other words, and thus taxation for the benefit of all not so much a case of taking from one to give to another, but something we all do for the good of all (which includes each of us).

      Globalization, and immigration no doubt make this sense of cohesion (especially on the global scale) particularly difficult to achieve. But difficultly is not sufficient to dismiss the idea altogether, I don’t think. In fact, doesn’t the burden of justification shift from those who would redistribute to those who would argue that this is *not* a moral course of action? What would the moral justification be for dismissing the creation of such social cohesion be?


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