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Leisure • Political Theory

John Rawls


Many of us feel that our societies are a little – or even plain totally – ‘unfair’. But we have a hard time explaining our sense of injustice to the powers that be in a way that sounds rational and without personal pique or bitterness.

That’s why we need John Rawls (1921-2002), a twentieth-century American philosopher who provides us with a failproof model for identifying what truly might be unfair – and how we might gather support for fixing things.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA in 1921, Rawls—nicknamed Jack—was exposed, and responded, to the injustices of the modern world from a very young age. As a child, he witnessed at first hand shockingly deprived areas of Maine, where many of his fellow Americans were evidently being denied the opportunities and support his loving attorney father and social activist mother were able to give him. Rawls also saw the arbitrariness of suffering when two of his brothers died from infections unwittingly contracted from him. If this was not enough, he saw the horrors and lawlessness of the Second World War in the final stages of the European campaign. All this inspired him to go into academia with a far from arcane mission: he wanted to use the power of ideas to change the unjust world he was living in.

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Rawls shone academically at Harvard and Cornell and gravitated towards the more worldly philosophers of his day, including Isaiah Berlin, H.L.A. Hart and Stuart Hampshire: all were out to change the world through their work and all became his friends. It was the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971 that properly made Rawls’s name – and is why we continue to revere him now. Having read and widely discussed his book, Bill Clinton was to label Rawls ‘the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century’– and had him over to the White House for dinner on a regular basis. 

Success never affected Rawls personally. He was a humble and kind man, who took the concerns of others seriously at a political and personal level. He did social work with children and deprived young adults in Boston where he lived. He looked after the financial interests of the children of a colleague who had died prematurely. He had exquisite manners. During a doctoral viva, an elderly Rawls once repositioned himself directly in front of the sun to ensure that one of his nervous young candidates would be spared any glare and so could best focus on the defence of her thesis. 

What, then, does this exemplar of fairness have to tell the modern world? 

1. Things as they are now are patently unfair

The statistics all point to the radical unfairness of society. Comparative charts of life expectancy and income projections direct us to a single overwhelming moral. And yet day-to-day, it can be hard to take this unfairness seriously, especially in relation to our own lives.

That’s because so many voices are on hand telling us that, if we work hard and have ambition, we can make it. Rawls was deeply aware of how the American Dream seeped through the political system and into individual hearts – and he knew its corrosive, regressive influence. Sure enough, there seem to be lots of people who bear out the morality tale to perfection; presidents who came from nothing, entrepreneurs who were once penniless orphans… The media parades them before us with glee. How then can we complain about our lot when they were able to get to the pinnacle?

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Rawls never accepted this. Certainly he was aware of the extraordinary success stories, but he was also a statistician who knew that the rags-to-riches tales were overall so negligible as not to warrant serious attention by political theorists. Indeed, to keep mentioning them was merely a clever political sleight of hand designed to prevent the powerful from undertaking the necessary task of reforming society.

As Rawls forcibly reminds us, in the modern United States and many parts of Europe too, if you are born poor, the chances of you remaining poor (and dying young) are simply overwhelming and incontestable. 

But what can we do about this? Rawls was politically canny. He understood that debates about unfairness and what to do about it often get bogged down in arcane details and petty squabbling which mean that year after year, nothing quite gets done.

What Rawls was therefore after was a simple, economical and polemical way to show people how their societies were unfair and what they might do about it – in ways that could cut through the debate and touch people’s hearts as well as minds (for he knew that emotion mattered a lot in politics).

2. Imagine if you were not you

A lot of the reason why societies don’t become fairer is that those who benefit from current injustice are spared the need to think too hard about what it would have been like to be born in different circumstances. They resist change from ingrained bias and prejudice, from a failure of the imagination.

Rawls intuitively understood that he had to get these people on board first – and somehow manage to appeal to their imaginations and their innate moral sense.

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So he devised one of the greatest thought experiments in the history of political thought, easily the equal of anything in the work of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. 

This experiment is called ‘the veil of ignorance’ and through it Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in a conscious, intelligent state before our own birth, but without any knowledge of what circumstances we were going to be born into; our futures shrouded by a veil of ignorance. Standing high above the planet, we wouldn’t know what sort of parents we’d have, what our neighbourhoods would be like, how the schools would perform, what the local hospital could do for us, how the police and judicial systems might treat us and so on…

The question that Rawls asks us all to contemplate is: if we knew nothing about where we’d end up, what sort of a society would it feel safe to enter? In what kind of political system would it be rational and sane for us to take root – and accept the challenge laid down by the veil of ignorance?

Well, for one thing, certainly not the United States. Of course, the US has a great many socioeconomic positions it would be truly delightful to be born into. Vast swathes of the country enjoy good schools, safe neighbourhoods, great access to colleges, fast tracks into prestigious jobs and some highly elegant country clubs… To be generous, at least 30 per cent of this vast and beautiful nation has privilege and opportunity. No wonder the system doesn’t change: there are simply too many people, millions of people, who benefit from it.

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But that’s where the ‘veil of ignorance’ comes in handy: it stops us thinking about all those who have done well and draws our attention to the appalling risks involved in entering US society as if it were a lottery, behind the veil of ignorance – without knowing if you’d wind up the child of an orthodontist in Scottsdale, Arizona or as the offspring of a black single mother in the rougher bits of eastern Detroit. Would any sane birth-lottery player really want to take the gamble of ending up in the 70 per cent of people who have substandard healthcare, inadequate housing, poor access to a good legal structure and a sloppy system of education? Or would the sane gambler not insist that the rules of the entire game had to be changed to maximise the overall chances of a decent outcome for any single player?

3. What you know needs to be fixed

Rawls answers the question for us: any sane participant of the veil of ignorance experiment is going to want a society with a number of things in place: they’ll want the schools to be very good (even the public ones), the hospitals to function brilliantly (all of them, even the free ones), they’ll want the standard access to the law to be unimpeachable and fair and they’ll want decent housing for everyone.

The veil of ignorance forces observers to accept that the country they’d really want to be born randomly into would be a version of Switzerland or Denmark – that is to say, a country where things are pretty good wherever you end up, where the local transport system, schools, hospitals and political systems are decent and fair whether you’re at the top or bottom. In other words, you know what sort of a society you want to live in. You just hadn’t focused on it properly until now.

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Rawls’s experiment allows us to think objectively about what a fair society looks like in its details. When addressing major decisions about the allocation of resources, to overcome our own bias, we need only ask ourselves: ‘how would I feel about this issue if I were stuck behind the veil of ignorance?’ The fair answer emerges directly when we contemplate what we would need in order still to be adequately positioned in the worst case scenario.

4. What to do next

A lot will depend on what’s wrong with your society. In this sense, Rawls was usefully undoctrinaire – he recognised that the veil of ignorance experiment would throw up different issues in different contexts: in some, the priority might be to fix air pollution, in others, the school system.

But when he addressed the US of the late twentieth century, Rawls could see some obvious things that needed to be done: education would have to be radically improved. The poor as well as the rich would have to be able to run for election. Healthcare would have to be made attractive at all levels.

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Rawls provides us with a tool to critique our current societies based on a beautifully simple experiment. We’ll know we finally have made our societies fair when we will be able to say in all honesty, from a position of imaginary ignorance before our births, that we simply wouldn’t mind at all what kind of circumstances our future parents might have and what sort of neighbourhoods we might be born into. The fact that we simply couldn’t sanely take on such a challenge now is a measure of how deeply unfair things remain – and therefore how much we still have left to achieve.

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