JOHN RAWLS AND THE PUBLIC MEANING OF "THANKSGIVING"
By Matthew Miller
Tribune Media Services
'The death this week of John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of our era, suggests a natural sermon at this season of giving thanks. For Rawls' contribution was a relentless focus on the role luck plays in human affairs, and how we would order society if we were properly grateful for good luck and compassionate toward the luckless.
Rawls developed this idea in his seminal 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice." It's a dense and at times forbidding work, but the kernel at the heart of Rawls' thinking is simple and compelling.
The way to create the rules for a just society, Rawls argues, is to first imagine everyone in an "original position" behind a pre-birth "veil of ignorance," where no one knows what their own traits will be — whether they will be rich or poor, beautiful or plain, smart or less so, talented or not, healthy or disabled. Only in this situation — where people don't know what place they are destined to occupy in society — can we see what kind of social order they would agree in advance was fair.
Rawls uses this thought experiment to focus our thinking on the central role he sees luck playing in life. There's the pre-birth lottery that hands out brains, beauty, talent and inherited wealth. There's a post-birth lottery that (via family) bequeaths values and schooling. "The institutions of society favor certain starting places over others," Rawls writes. "Yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert."
Rawls' point: The vast inequalities of wealth and position we observe stem primarily from advantages for which people can't take credit. Behind a pre-birth veil of ignorance, therefore, Rawls suggests that we would agree these inequalities are just only if they most benefit those who end up not winning the pre-birth lottery and if the top spots in life are open to everyone in a system where we've made a serious effort to equalize opportunity.
As Rawls puts it: "The natural distribution (of advantages) is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. "Undeserved inequalities call for redress," Rawls concludes, "and since inequalities of (inherited) wealth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for ... to provide genuine equality of opportunity."
What does that "compensation" amount to in practice? To Rawls, equality of opportunity primarily means that "the government tries to insure equal chances of education and culture for persons similarly endowed and motivated, either by subsidizing private schools or by establishing a public school system." He also says government should guarantee a "social minimum," his phrase for a decent floor of existence for society's less lucky. Beyond these specific measures, Rawls' just society is imbued with a genuine commitment to equal opportunity, but not to such old-time left-wing fetishes as equal incomes, or equal "outcomes."
Conservatives tend to fear that government efforts in this regard lead us down a dangerous path. For Rawls and his intellectual heirs, the better balance, and bottom line, is clear: In "justice as fairness (Rawls' shorthand for his approach), men agree to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstances only when doing so is for the common benefit."
"We Rawlsian liberals," Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman told me, "think that we have a special responsibility to arrange the starting points of American citizens in a way worthy of their claim to equality, but we don't have a responsibility to save them from their mistakes as grown-ups."
"The idea," says the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, another pupil of Rawls, who teaches at the University of Chicago, "is to set some limits on the power of luck to deform human lives."
We're lucky to have had Rawls here to call us toward these principles. Yet we can't give thanks for his contribution without noting how far we have to go to take luck as seriously as he urged.'