Rawls’s Political Conception of Justice

Rawls begins by identifying the system of basic institutions and social arrangements that “taken together as one scheme ... define [individuals’] rights and duties and influence their life prospects” in a constitutional democracy. Calling it “the basic structure,” Rawls tells us it comprises “the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements” (Rawls 1999, 6). Among the latter, Rawls includes the “family” (1999, 6) as the institutional arrangement through which society is reproduced “from one generation to the next” and through which children as future citizens are raised to have “the political virtues that support political and social institutions” (1997, 595-596). Rawls proceeds to ask whether there might be, implicit in the public political culture, a conception of the purpose or aim of the basic structure as a whole. Out of an account of the purpose or aim of the basic structure, he then constructs an initial choice situation. The initial choice situation serves to clarify what “requirements ... must be fulfilled in order for [the basic structure] to achieve [that] goal or aim” (James 2005, 301).

Following Aaron James, we put Rawls’s account of “the aim of the basic structure of a modern constitutional democracy” this way: it is “to create primary social goods, and to do so as a cooperative scheme ... for mutual or reciprocal advantage” (James 2005, 300; see also Rawls 2005, 16). To be sure, Rawls notes that the “public culture is not unambiguous: it contains a variety of possible organizing ideas” (2001, 25). Whether the one he chooses is, all told, the right idea to begin with depends on whether “the political conception of justice to which it. . . leads when worked out. . . coheres with our considered convictions of political justice” (26).

Rawls explains that this idea of the aim of the basic structure is “worked out in conjunction with [the] companion ... idea of citizens ... as free and equal persons” - an idea also gathered from the public political culture (2001, 5). We think of persons as free insofar as they have what Rawls calls two moral powers: the ability “to understand, to apply, and to act from . . . principles of political justice that specify the fair terms of social cooperation” (19), and the capacity “to have, revise, and rationally pursue a conception of the good” (19). We think of persons as equal insofar as they have “these powers ... to the requisite minimum degree ... to take part fully in the cooperative life of society” (20). That is, on Rawls’s view we conceive of persons as “engaged in social cooperation, and ... as fully capable of doing so . . . over a complete life” (18).

Rawls’s initial choice situation - which he calls the original position - is designed to model how individuals would reason were they as the political conception of the person describes them (2005, 26). For example, Rawls has parties choose principles behind a veil of ignorance that obscures “the particular comprehensive doctrines of the persons they represent,” as well as the particular social positions they inhabit. So, parties “do not know persons’ race and ethnic group, sex, or various native endowments such as strength and intelligence,” although with respect to the latter, Rawls stipulates that they know they will be “within the normal range” (2001,15). Also, parties to the original position choose principles for the distribution of what Rawls calls primary social goods: “basic rights and liberties, . . . freedom of movement and free choice of occupation, . . . powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of authority and responsibility, ... income and wealth,... [and] the social bases of self-respect” (2001, 58-59). Primary social goods are not “things it is simply rational to want or desire, or to prefer” (58). Nor are they “a kind of average of

190 Amy R. Baebr

what. . . comprehensive doctrines actually found in society . . . demand by way of institutional rights and claims and all-purpose means” (188). They are, rather, “various social conditions and all-purpose means, . . . things needed and required by persons seen in the light of the political conception of persons” (58).

Parties to the original position are aware of what Rawls calls “the circumstances of justice”: that there is moderate scarcity and that a “decent standard of living” requires social cooperation; as well as that people hold different systems of value, and that this is not avoidable, except through oppression (2001, 84). Parties aim to secure “the conditions adequate for the development and exercise of their moral powers.” Rawls stipulates that in doing so, parties “take no direct interest in the interests of persons represented by other parties”; this “reflects an essential aspect of how citizens are quite properly moved when questions of political justice arise about the basic structure” (85).

Aiming to secure, for the persons they represent, that the worst outcome is as good as possible, parties in the original position choose two lexically ordered principles for the distribution of primary social goods.

  • 1. Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; and
  • 2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle) (2001, 42-43).

Rawls explains that the first principle ensures the fair value of the political liberties - that is, that citizens have an equal chance to influence the political process (2001, 46). The first principle, he explains, is “preceded by a lexically prior principle requiring that citizens’ basic needs be met, at least insofar as is necessary for citizens to understand and to be able fruitfully to exercise those rights and liberties” (Rawls 2005, 7). Also, Rawls explains, his conception of justice “is incomplete” until additional principles for individuals are “accounted for” (1999, 293). He mentions the duty “to support and to comply with just institutions” (1999, 99), as well as a principle of “mutual respect.” The latter is

the duty to show a person the respect which is due to him as ... a being with a sense of justice and a conception of the good . .. [This] duty would be acknowledged [because persons’] self-respect and . .. confidence in the value of their own system of ends cannot withstand the indifference much less the contempt of others.

The principles of justice determine what Rawls calls “social positions” from which society’s institutional structure must be justifiable. Since the first principle of justice assigns to each the same wide array of rights and liberties, we can point to the social position of the equal citizen. To justify society’s basic arrangements to equal citizens is to show that they secure the relevant rights and liberties. Since the second principle allows inequalities in wealth and income, we can point to the position individuals inhabit vis-a-vis income and wealth. In this case, society’s basic arrangements must be justifiable to individuals who are the least advantaged. Rawls adds that people will, of course, occupy other social positions, but these should be conceived as the result of persons’ “voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association” and are not relevant to the evaluation of the justice of a society’s basic structure (1999, 82).

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