Michael Sandels Critique of Rawls Theory of Justice

The purpose of the paper is to discuss Michael Sandels criticism of Rawlsian theory, especially regarding Rawls concepts of self and justice. Sandels criticisms are not a departure in orthodox thinking rather, they represent a formalist re-interpretation of concepts from which systems of thought are derived. The secondary purpose of the paper is to evaluate Sandels argument from an epistemological perspective. Epistemology is not only concerned with knowledge it is also concerned with the construction of ideals.

Sandel vs. Rawls On the Self
In the book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Sandel challenged the idea that the self is prior to its ends. For Sandel, the problem with Rawls concept of the Self is its tautological nature. Rather than asking Who am I as a natural precursor to identity, Rawls asked the question What ends shall I choose Sandel argued that the answer to the second question is already given  that the more important question is how to discern the possible results derived from the individual. As Sandel argued

One might describe a general account of these constituent features of our self-understanding by a variety of names a theory of the person, a theory of the moral subject, a philosophical anthropology. These descriptions carry differing, sometimes conflicting connotations, usually associated with the philosophical traditions from which they derive. To speak of human nature, for example, is often to suggest a classical teleological conception, associated with the notion of a universal human essence, invariant in all times and places. Talk of the self, on the other hand, tends to bias the issue in favor of individualistic notions and to suggest that the self-understanding involved amounts merely to the coming to awareness of an individual person (50).

Sandel vs. Rawls On the Concept of Justice
In the book A theory of Justice, Rawls tried to reconcile freedom and equality, nominally defining justice as fairness. Social contract is necessary for dispensing the basic principles of justice. Growth, either personal or social, is a regulative reference association. Because human beings are both rational and reasonable, the achievement of objectives is in agreement with acceptable principles. As Rawls noted.

The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice. Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising  Although society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.

Indeed, for Rawls, justice is the first virtue of social institutions  the single most important consideration in assessing the basic structure of society and the overall direction of change. The primacy of justice therefore is both a reality and an imminent character of human existence. As Rawls observed

A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust  Being first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising (3-4)  Justice as fairness is the outcome it articulates these opinions and supports their general tendency (5).

However, for Rawls, an affirmation of the basic liberties should be analyzed in terms of moral capacity and self-respect, not by adherence to the general theory of natural right. For the marginalized and poor, liberties do not represent meaningful options. If, for example, the same effective opportunities in life are equalized, then this is a sign that the liberties themselves are without value. There is though one liberty which should guarantee the worth of life - this is liberty which allows an individual to pursue personal goals in a society.

Now, there is a need to affirm a second principle  the difference principle. The principle ensures that those with comparable talents and skills have to face similar conditions in life, and that the inequalities in society should be to the benefit of the least advantaged (Rawls, 55).

According to Rawls, the principles of justice apply to the fundamental structure of social and political institutions. Rawls added that these principles should be ordered to prioritize basic liberties. As Rawls argued

Applied to the basic structure, the principle of utility would have us maximize the sum expectations of representative men  and this would permit us to compensate for the losses of some by the gains of others. Instead, the two principles require that everyone benefit from economic and social inequalities. It is obvious, however, that there are indefinitely many ways in which all may be advantaged when the initial arrangement of inequality is taken as a benchmark (12).

Now, the veil of ignorance is a method of determining the morality of a given issue based on the following principle suppose that all roles are redistributed from the individuals veil of ignorance, the individual will not know what role will be assigned only then will the individual consider the morality of a given issue. As Rawls observed

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of his psychology  These broader restrictions on knowledge are appropriate in part because questions of social justice arise between generations as well as within them  in order to carry through the idea of the original position, the parties must not know the contingencies that set them in opposition (137).

For Sandel, many of Rawls propositions are problematic. For example, Sandel criticized Rawls claim that justice is the prime manifestation of human existence. Justice is not only an important value, it is the means by which values are weighted and evaluated. Justice, in general, is the standard by which conflicting values are reconciled and competing conceptions of the good accommodated.

For Rawls, justice is a requirement of the essential plurality of the human species and the integrity of the individuals who comprise it. To sacrifice justice for the sake of the general good is to violate the inviolable, to fail to respect the distinction between persons. The problem with this claim is its epistemological character. Rawls failed to differentiate the means of assessment from the thing being assessed.

The tautological nature of Rawls claim is inherent in his theory of justice. As Sandel argued
Now the primacy of justice is a powerful claim, and there is a danger that the familiarity of one thought is apt to blind us to the boldness. To understand why it is intuitively appealing but at the same time deeply puzzling and problematic, we might consider the following reconstruction of the claim, designed to capture its familiarity and its force. To argue that to sacrifice justice to the general good is inviolable is to argue that there is a higher standard of human conduct (15).

At the same time, Rawls denied the existence of higher standards of human conduct. To evaluate justice based on justice itself is tautological.

Rawls difference principle also falls short of epistemological basis. The principle itself fails to take into account physiological and social evolution of behavior. As Sandel noted

For justice as fairness, the debate over the determinants of intelligence and the extensive social scientific literature it has produced are more or less behind the point. Once one rejects the notions of individual desert and fair opportunity as the primary bases of distributive shares, the distinction between genetic and cultural obstacles to success loses much of its moral interest. Once we agreed to regard the distribution of talents as a common asset, it matters little how some came to reside in you and other in me (73).

Even if some distinction between the essential and merely accidental characteristics of a person is valid, there seems to be no obvious reason why it must correspond to the distinction between natural and social assets. Rawls objection to the above proposition would still be stronger, for his theory of the person implies that no characteristic, whether social or natural can be essential in this way. As Sandel argued

By their intersubjective dimensions, the difference principle and the idea of a social union counter individualistic assumptions in two different ways, the difference principle by nullifying the arbitrariness that arises when natural assets are seen as individual possessions, the idea of a social union by overcoming the partiality of persons that appears when individuals are thought to be complete in themselves. In a social union, the members of a community participate in anothers nature and the self is realized in the activities of many selves (81).

Personal Critique
Sandels counterargument is insufficient because
He failed to take into account the fact that Rawls propositions were operating in an ideal ground
Rawls propositions are not manifestations of reality but what should or ought society should be organized

Rawls concept of justice is not tautological because it assumes that justice is an sufficient end (in short, it is a sufficient standard of human behavior)

To argue that the difference principle does not benefit the least advantaged in the society is irresponsible. Rawls framework of distributive justice pertains to the conduct or behavior of the least advantaged.

Sandel may reply by
Assuming that Rawls propositions were operating in an actual ground. There were instances where Rawls sais that he derived his propositions from observation
Rawls propositions may be distinct features of a social process
Epistemologically, the concept of justice is still tautological because it lacks sufficient theoretical grounding
And, the difference principle is a framework which explains not only the behavior of the least advantaged but all members of the society.

The problem with Sandels criticisms is its tautological nature. Criticizing Rawls using a recycled concept (the concept of justice) does not validate his own presuppositions. Indeed, Sandel committed a grave error when he assumed that Rawls concept of the veil of ignorance is only grounded in theory. The veil of ignorance is a utility concept used by many economists in analyzing economic behavior. This is not theory but an application of theory.


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