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A Theory of Justice | Main Ideas

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Veil of Ignorance

Rawls's theory is set apart from other contract theories by its use of a simplification device known as the veil of ignorance, which covers the self-knowledge of the persons who meet in the original position to choose principles for a society of which they would like to be citizens. The veil of ignorance is a hypothetical device that could never actually be realized as part of the conditions of contract-making, but it has very interesting and significant justifications and implications.

The veil of ignorance is an equalizing device. Everything that could distinguish one person from another is hidden by it. It erases identity and the knowledge of one's circumstances, but it does not erase egoistic concerns. Everything but the mutual disinterest and rational self-interest of the parties is removed, and it is from this state of sharply diminished personhood, where the person becomes nothing but ego and capacity to reason, that principles of justice emerge that embody the values of empathy, community, and human dignity. The reader may feel this seems to embody a type of irony, or a paradox, for it is surely not what one would expect from such a situation when considered at first glance.

Another effect of the erasure of identity in the veil of ignorance is that the persons become identical to one another, down to their process of reasoning and their conclusions. This sameness is part of the point of the veil because Rawls needs a unanimous contract to be the starting point for his theory. There are no clashes of opposing interests in the original position, and unanimity is inevitable. Therefore, they might as well be one person instead of many identical persons. Rawls points this out when he writes, "Each is convinced by the same arguments," and, therefore, each participant in the original position necessarily has the opinion of all the others.

Primacy of Liberty

The basis of a just society is individual liberty in the form of a complete and equal scheme of rights for each citizen. Rawls makes this notion the subject of his first principle of justice, and he places it as a constraint on all further principles. If equal liberty is not upheld, justice is not present. Reductions in liberty cannot be compensated for by other advantages, like increases in wealth; nor can the liberty of some be reduced in order that the many gain an advantage. In Rawls's words, each individual is inviolable in the sense that nothing can touch their liberty, not even the claims of an entire society.

Liberty means specific liberties, like freedom of speech, but it also has a higher-order meaning: the ability to choose and carry out one's plan of life in reasonably favorable circumstances. This ability is closely related to one part of Rawls's fundamental conception of personhood: "a person may be regarded as a life lived according to a plan." Liberty, then, is fundamental to who we are as creatures, and to diminish liberty is to diminish humanity. Moreover, each person has an equal claim to liberty by view of another aspect of their personhood: their status as moral beings. Moral personhood is the capacity to have a sense of the good and a sense of the just. This capacity is the justification for liberty for all, and liberty is the means by which this capacity is awakened or actualized.

Difference Principle

The difference principle is the second principle in Rawls's theory of justice as fairness; it comes into play only when the first principle of equal individual liberty is met. It deals with the reality of economic inequalities and seeks to constrain those inequalities in a manner in accord with the ideal, captured in the first principle, of the equal worth of each human being regardless of circumstances. Economic inequalities are permissible only if they benefit all of society, but in particular the least advantaged. This is determined conceptually against a background of the notion of an equal distribution of goods in society. If inequality will raise prospects for all above the level that exists at equality, it is just and permitted. The use of the difference principle instead of some other principle, like the principle of efficiency, to order the economic system in justice as fairness is particularly humanitarian. The free market is restrained, and supports are offered by the government to ensure that inequalities are managed and compensated for by equal access to opportunity. And the burden of those inequalities is lightened by features such as the social minimum. The difference principle ensures that the economic system of justice as fairness operates in service of the individual, not the other way around.

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