Monday, 9 May 2011

Rawls' Two Principles of Justice

The bulk of Chapter 2 of A Theory of Justice is taken up with discussion of Rawls' two principles of justice. The two principles are, however, refined over the course of the discussion that Rawls has of them. So, when they are first introduced in section 11 it is only in a provisional and tentative form, with a revision emerging of the second principle already in section 13 and the final version of the two principles not being given until section 46, which is in Chapter 5! It is also not until section 39, also in Chapter 5, that Rawls gives a fuller defence of the priority of the first principle over the second one. 

With all these provisos in place I intend in this posting to discuss the preliminary account of the two principles in sections 11-13, from the first tentative formulation to the revision of the second principle in the latter section. The first statement of the two principles in section 11 is as follows:

"First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.
Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all."

So the first principle specifies an equality of access to basic liberties and the second, more complicated principle, refers to two limitations on inequality, the first limitation concerning a form of recognition of prudential concerns and the second referring to openness of offices. Rawls immediately indicates, however, that the second principle is ambiguously formulated which is why it becomes necessary to determine the sense of the principle more carefully, leading to its reformulation in section 13.

The principles are principles of social justice and are meant to apply to the "basic structure" of society as indicated in  section 10. The formulation of the principles helps, however, to understand the nature of this "basic structure" somewhat more fully as the two principles show that this structure has distinguishable parts as some elements of it are concerned with liberties and others with inequalities. The basic liberties specified by the first principle are said to be given in a "list" and whilst some parts of this list are standard (freedom of speech and assembly for instance), others are rather more expansive and would take a lot more working out than is just given by listing them (such as freedom from "psychological oppression"). 

The second principle has caused much wider debate and controversy than the first despite the fact, as just indicated, that the first refers to a list of liberties that are far from all standard or clearly formulated. The second principle applies to distribution of income and wealth and to "the design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility". It is this reference to "differences in authority and responsibility" that is the first clue to how part of the second principle will subsequently be labelled the "difference principle".  The second part of the second principle indicating the openness of offices is also indicated by Rawls to be the means of application of the second principle suggesting that the division of the two parts of its formulation is due to the first part defining a general meaning or sense of the principle whilst the second part defines its application, a suggestion we will have to further test.

The principles are also given in a serial order with the suggestion that the first principle is prior to the second and hence that justifying the ordering of the principles will be Rawls' way of responding to intuitionist scepticism. The point of this ordering is to say that violation of the equal provision of liberties cannot be compensated for by means of greater social or economic advantages (a kind of riposte to the Leninist view that increases of equality make up for deprivation of freedoms). However, adding to questions about the understanding of the first principle is Rawls' point that it is possible for the basic liberties to conflict with each other and, due to this point, it turns out that none of the specific basic liberties is absolute. Nothing is said, however, about rules for priority in relation to such clashes of basic liberties. Further, other liberties which are generally recognised are not to be understood on Rawls' construal as "basic" and this includes freedom of contract, at least as understood by "the doctrine of laissez-faire". This restriction on liberties that indicates some are not "basic" requires further argument.

Rawls also suggests that the two principles are a special case of a "more general conception of justice" and this more general conception is specified as follows:

"All social values-liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect-are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage."

This "general" conception is still defined in social terms so is perhaps the general principle of social justice as far as Rawls is concerned and it is, noticeably, defined in egalitarian form. It still also contains the prudential reference that was noted above to be part of the second principle. The notion of injustice also emerges in a suitably general form once we have this formulation as indicative of the presence of inequalities that do not have general benefit. The vagueness of the formulation requires Rawls to begin the refinement of the position up to this point.

The beginning of this refinement is to introduce the notion of "primary goods" that are distributed by the "basic structure" of society and are indicated by Rawls to be "things that every rational man is presumed to want". Note the great generality of this description. However, as warned back in section 9, Rawls proceeds by simplifying assumptions and here the assumption is that there are "chief" primary goods (the primary "primary goods") and they are "rights, liberties, and opportunities, and income and wealth" although a promissory note is indicated that in the third part of the work self-respect will also emerge as having a central place.

The point about the "chief" primary goods is that they are social in character and distinct from such "natural" primary goods as health as the latter are not so directly under the control of the basic structure (although provision of means to ensure good health as an equally available primary good surely does relate to matters over which the "basic structure" has control). 

Having introduced the notion of social primary goods Rawls next asks us to imagine an initial arrangement where all these goods were equally distributed. The question in relation to this situation is whether there are means of ensuring that there are improvements for all that could be made upon it. Given the lexical priority of the two principles this could not involve violations of the first principle being accepted in return for improvements in general equality but there is nothing to prevent acceptance of some forms of inequality if they would render the liberties of the first principle more generally available in practice. 

Interestingly, Amartya Sen, in his recent book The Idea of Justice has objected to the priority given to the first principle on the basis of its alleged extremity but Rawls already indicates in section 11 that he understands that the initial response to the lexical priority of the first principle might take this form and he refers forward again to section 82, part of the very last chapter of the book (Chapter IX) where a reply is allegedly given to this type of objection.

Given that the two principles of justice are meant to apply to the "basic structure" they are institutional principles. So the basic liberties define "public rules" and the reference to "persons" is meant to indicate "representative persons". The description of "persons" in this way has particular importance in relation to the second principle as Rawls takes it to mean that it is possible (and, presumably, desirable) to "assign an expectation of well-being to representative individuals". This notion is one that evidently requires a lot more work, particularly given its general association with utilitarianism. However, the reference to "representative individuals" is also meant to rule out application of the principle to specific cases as might well be required by acts of charity (rather than justice). This is part of the limitation on the scope of intuition which tends to relate much more to individuals in a specifically particular rather than a representative sense.

The understanding of the second principle requires, however, much more deliberate attention and Rawls begins to provide this in section 12 when he addresses different interpretations of the second principle. The ambiguities he recognised in the formulation of the second principle lead him to consider possible interpretations of what could be meant by both the prudential reference of the second principle and by the notion of openness of offices. The notion of openness of offices is understood to be capable of being understood either as requiring that "careers are open to talents" or that there is "equality of fair opportunity". Similarly the prudential reference to "everyone's advantage" could produce either a principle of efficiency or a difference principle.

Rawls tabulates these possibilities so that a combination of the openness to offices principle understood as openness to talents with the principle of efficiency would produce a system of "natural liberty". By contrast, if the principle of careers open to talents was combined with the difference principle we would have a "natural aristocracy". By contrast, the principle of equality of fair opportunity, if combined with the principle of efficiency would give "liberal equality" and, if combined with the difference principle, would give "democratic equality".

The combination that Rawls prefers is that of equality of fair opportunity with the difference principle, this is the formulation of the second principle that he wants us to accept. However, whilst this is the view that he wants us to take, the full argument for this requires reference to the original position and this reference does not happen until Chapter 3. So, once again, the argument here for rejection of the other interpretations of the two parts of the second principle, is not fully given as yet. It is only if the parties to the original position have structural reasons for rejecting the other interpretations of it that Rawls has here given that the conception of democratic equality should be accepted.

All interpretations of the second principle looked at assume acceptance of the first principle and this is taken by Rawls to suggest a basic free market system is adopted in practice (though without decision being required concerning the ownership of the means of production). To assess both the systems of natural liberty and those of liberal equality it is necessary to have a sense of the principle of efficiency and Rawls explains this as Pareto optimality. The problem with this principle, as far as Rawls is concerned, is that there are many efficient arrangements and the problem is how to choose between them. To do so requires going beyond the criteria of efficiency itself. 

In the system of natural liberty the principle of efficiency is constrained by formal equality of opportunity so that all have the same legal access to all positions. But this system does not have any means of ensuring that there is any similarity, let alone equality, between parties and is thus vulnerable to natural and social contingencies as determinative of all outcomes and this is taken by Rawls to mean that outcomes are determined by factors that are morally arbitrary. This argument is part of the source of the "luck egalitarian" interpretation of Rawls. 

The notion of "liberal equality" is one that intends to correct the determination of outcomes by natural and social contingencies that is the  basic mechanism of rewards in the system of natural liberty. This is done by the invocation of the principle of fair equality of opportunity. It basically suggests that for offices to be truly open there must be an effort to ensure that there are equal life chances. Hence we get something like a meritocratic system as the meaning of liberal equality (which was described by Henry Sidgwick as "ideal equality"). However even though the liberal conception is preferable to that of natural liberty in aiming to eliminate social contingencies it does nothing to affect natural contingencies having great weight. One of the reasons why natural contingencies would continue to have weight is also revealing, namely, that the continued existence of the family in the liberal notion ensures the importance of such contingencies. This almost suggests a communist element in Rawls' view and is certainly a further source for the luck egalitarian understanding of A Theory of Justice.

Natural aristocracy is not given much space as a conception by Rawls as it involves only formal equality of opportunity though it is meant to limit the goods available to those best placed in relation to ideals of service. Both liberal equality and natural aristocracy are viewed by Rawls as unstable as they are dependent on natural contingencies which are bound to be problematic morally. 

Given these assessments Rawls' preference for the notion of democratic equality emerges as a default position. However, the account of it has to include a defence of the difference principle, a principle meant to make the principle of efficiency more determinate. This involves the argument concerning incentives that Gerry Cohen has subjected to various objections in a number of publications as here Rawls indicates that the basis of inequality has to include the sense that lesser equality is justified if more equality would make everyone worse off. This conflicts directly with the "luck egalitarian" reading of A Theory of Justice. Interestingly, in defending the difference principle as a corrective to the principle of efficiency, Rawls concedes that the difference principle is intended to be a "maximising principle" and is hence part of his alternative to the principle of utility. The result of the discussion in section 13 is a reformulation of the second principle as follows:

"Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity."

Now the first part of the second principle has been understood as the difference principle and the second part as the principle of fair equality of opportunity. The difference principle's meaning is very carefully explained: "it applies primarily to the basic structure of society via representative individuals whose expectations are to be estimated by an index of primary goods". 

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