John Rawls (1921−2002)
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Last updated 2 Jun 2020
The American philosopher John Rawls explored the question of fairness via a concept known as the veil of ignorance.
This requires us to place ourselves in the position of others. It also requires us to consider the danger of being born into poverty. Rather than take that risk, Rawls assumed that people would want a fairer society with adequate housing, safe neighbourhoods, a good education system and an unbiased criminal justice system. Society can be said to be fair when we can state that no-one would care what circumstances we would be born into. When given the choice, we would prefer to live in a country like Denmark rather than risk the post-code lottery that characterised his native land.
Rawlsian philosophy ultimately seeks to promote the notion of ‘justice as fairness.’ The principles of justice are those everyone would agree to from a position of ignorance. To create a just society, we first need to agree on the principles behind justice. These can be established from his famous thought experiment. The original position means we are all equal in our ignorance. Under these conditions, we would agree to the liberty principle (such as freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary arrest) and the difference principle (in which inequalities are permitted provided they are positions open to all and benefit the least advantaged within society).
Rawlsian philosophy is unusual in its claim that we can establish something beneficial from ignorance. An analogy may be drawn with jurors who are prevented from accessing outside information because it might influence their decision. This conception of justice however is not accepted by everyone, and we should be wary of labelling fairness with social justice (not least the challenge posed by Robert Nozick, the conservative philosopher). Moreover, the veil of ignorance has been criticised for its assumption that individuals are risk-averse. Some people may be prepared to accept the risk due to the possibility of being born into favourable social circumstances.
Rawls also recognised the corrosive and regressive influence of the American Dream. According to Rawls, the ‘rags to riches’ narrative merely prevented the rich and powerful doing something about the profound unfairness of society. Instead, he sought to create a simple polemic way to improve society. Throughout his life, Rawls was deeply moved by the arbitrariness of suffering and offered inspiration for those who believed in the power of ideas to alleviate social injustice.