John Rawls An Egalitarian Theory of Social Justice

In the essay An Egalitarian Theory of Social Justice author John Rawls argues should be the main priority of any organization or agency.  He further states that justice should be the aim of these institutions and that institutions that do not demonstrate just behavior should undergo changes that cause them to become just, or they should be eliminated. The primary reason behind this argument is that Rawls wishes to create a theory of social justice that is both more general, and more theoretical than the theories of social justice promoted by previous theorists in the field of social justice such as Rousseau, Locke, or Kant. It can be argued the Rawls theory provides a simple set of guiding principles which should rule a fair and just society.

Rawls Arguments
    Rawls conceives of the idea of justice and fairness being equivalent in an equal society. He argues that there are two basic principles or ideas that are commonly applied to fairness and justice. The first proposes that people are assigned basic rights in duties in a fair and just manner. The second principle claims that inequality can only be seen as just if all members of a group gain from the situation. . It can be argued that Rawls primary motivation in this essay is to argue that societies that are based on equality and democratic ideals do not tolerate injustice, or unfairness as part of the society.

    The Original Position stated by Rawls argues that it is necessary to restrict principles of justice that focus on specific circumstances. For instance, one would not argue that a specific principle of justice is fair or, unfair based upon wealth or social position. Judgments based on these surface characteristics would not support a society that does not tolerate unfairness or injustice.

Rawls concept of the veil of ignorance argues that in a fair and just society one should look at issues of justice as if one was unaware what socioeconomic status, social class, religion, or ethnic or racial group the person who the situation applied to was from. For instance, judgments of guilt or innocence would be made based on the actual crime, not on what job a person held or who their parents were.

    The Veil of Ignorance is more a theoretical concept than anything else, since it is part of human nature to be judgmental about ones fellow human beings. Even if one had no knowledge of a persons socioeconomic status, the other person would still be judged based upon physical characteristics or personality traits. Therefore, Rawls concept of the veil of ignorance is not suited when applied to real life situations of justice or injustice.

Rawls bases the concept of the original position and the veil of ignorance on two basic principles of social justice. Principle one argues that all people should have equal access to basic human rights, freedoms and liberties. (Rawls, 677) This is essentially stating that equality and justice for all should be a ruling principle of a fair and just society. If all people do not have equal access to the same exact rights and freedoms that a society can be determined to be neither just, nor fair. This principle is a basic concept in theories of social justice. Justice for all is simple to understand and clear cut.

    Rawls second principle in his original position argues that inequality should be set up so that they are advantageous for all citizens in a fair and just society and equally possible for people in any walk of life. (Rawls, 677)  This essentially means that no matter what circumstances a person is born to, they should have equal opportunity to succeed in their chosen life goals, and equal opportunity to fail as well. Rawls argues that both principles should act as the very basis for a fair and equal society. Without these principles as a core to all of a fair and just societies societal and cultural norms and values than a fair and just society is no longer fair or just, and it is potentially doomed to failure.

    Rawls further argues that these principles define the differences between equal liberties that every citizen has, and those aspects of society that create inequality, injustice and unfairness. (Rawls, 678) There are two types of liberty that Rawls designates as the fruits or results of the first principle in the original position. These are political liberties, and personal liberties. Political liberties include the right to vote, freedom of speech freedom of religion and the right to run for political office. Private liberties focus more on personal rights such as owning property, bearing arms, and the right to be free of illegal search and seizure on the part of the government. Finally, Rawls argues that the second principle is applied primarily in terms of socioeconomic status and power distribution.

    The original position and the veil of ignorance help to determine a fair position because they force a person to look at what they know to be fair and justice, and how a person is actually treated due to socioeconomic factors, racial and ethnic groups, gender and religion and to compare the two in order to find a position of justice and equality that is truly fair and equal. These principles essentially force a person to acknowledge a fair and just position and to base their judgments on the facts of a case or situation rather than looking at superficial elements that the person has little control over.

    These principles are correct in that they demonstrate the dichotomy between two separate perspectives on justice. One argues that all should have the same basic liberties and freedoms whereas the other argues that social and political inequalities are a reality but that as long as even the most disenfranchised benefit in some way than one can still have justice within the confines of inequality.

Refutation of Rawls Argument
    I would argue against the two principles proposed by Rawls because human beings are not innately just, and even if one knows little about a persons socioeconomic status, they will still create circumstances of inequality and injustice based upon perceived characteristics of the other person. When you gather one, or more people in a group some will develop higher social status than others, because they have more wealth in terms of goods, or more political power. This will automatically create a situation of inequality between different groups of people. Hence this makes the first principle difficult to obtain under the best of circumstances. Even in the most democratic and just societies, these power imbalances exist, and as one cannot change human nature, it is near impossible to remove them from society.

    This also leads to problems with the veil of ignorance theory proposed by Rawls. Human beings are also judgmental. We judge people based upon what we know as fact, or based upon what we perceive about our fellow human beings. If one takes away the knowledge of all of the things that define a persons place in society such as religion, education, and socioeconomic status, we are left with perceptions, and judgments based upon perceptions can be even more superficial than judgments based upon what we know as truth about other human beings. While unjust and unfair decisions are made based upon knowledge of social class, financial status and religion, decisions based upon perceptions of race, religion, sexuality, and ethnicity may be even more unjust and unfair.

    It is human nature to treat others unfairly, and to judge people based upon how we perceive them. Thus it can be argued that the concept of the veil of ignorance is in and of itself damaging. Because without knowledge of a persons circumstances, one cannot determine if a situation is just or unjust, or fair, or unfair based upon factual information, perceptions are not factual information. Because knowledge of a persons circumstances including socioeconomic background, cultural and religious background and personal history are factual and objective, it is much simpler to make just and fair arguments based upon this information. Perception is by its very nature, subjective. People judge others on their race, their appearance, their gender, and their age. These are all things that one can tell simply by looking at another person but these judgments are not often either fair, or just.

    I would instead argue that while the impulse to create unequal and unjust social structures and the tendency to be judgmental do exist, they exist in equal measure with the desire for justice, fairness and equality. Therefore the refutation of Rawls arguments on the original position and the veil of ignorance are untrue. For if we share all of these traits in equal measure, than man can be guided into forming societies based upon Rawls principles. Societies that offer basic rights and freedoms to all that and judge through the veil of ignorance can be fostered, even in places where such societies do not exist. Therefore the arguments that oppose Rawls work are untrue at least in the sense that they are but one of the possibilities.

    Rawls concepts of the original position and the veil of ignorance are meant to be highly theoretical. This means that the refutation of his social justice theory cannot necessarily be held true, since Rawls never meant to make this theory applicable in real life situations. The objections also cannot be held true because they are based on a preconceived notion that all people are the same. This is not so, while human nature may mean that many human beings carry similar traits we are not all alike, and while some accept the status quo of the world being unjust, unfair and unequal, others have it in their nature to create change.

    Often those people who have an innate sense of justice and fairness try to create societies in which fairness and justice are core social norms and values. However these people must combat those that do not share their fair and just natures. Which means that while laws may be put in place to ensure fairness and justice, those who do not share the ideals of fairness and justice for all can corrupt those laws to their own purposes. This essentially goes to demonstrate that no matter how just or fair a set of ideals that one founds a society on these can change over time, depending on the makeup of the society.

    Rawls arguments provide an excellent basis for arguments about the central nature of justice and fairness. However it is only a theory, and while he does argue that societies built on principles of justice and fairness should not tolerate injustice or unfairness and that these things, should either be changed, or destroyed. However, implementing that idea in a real society with real people is difficult at best .Rawls theory is best left to theoretical rather than practical application of social justice

    It can be concluded, that Rawls supports his arguments on the nature of justice and fairness by the principles exemplified in his original position and this veil of ignorance theory.


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