Thursday, April 28, 2011

Luck and Social Justice: Scanlon and Rawls

Last week and this Tuesday, we talked all about moral responsibility.  Today we shift directions to talk about social justice issues.  Social justice is a branch of theory that asks, "What makes a society good or just?"

Smart gives an example of a rich man who looks down on a poor person because he thinks, "We both had the same opportunities to be wealthy, but you chose to be poor".  This rich man thinks that it is just that some people are poor and have terrible lives because such people are responsible for their terrible conditions.  The basic idea is that people have freedom of will and adequate opportunities to succeed.  When we choose freely, we have no right to complain about the consequences because free choice legitimates outcomes.  Because society provided the poor man opportunities to succeed and the poor man chose instead to be poor, his poverty is deserved.  Along the same lines, someone might think that in a free market, everyone has an equal chance to succeed; this means that your actual condition (rich or poor) is deserved.  The freedom and opportunities available to everyone make the current socio-economic situation just.

Scanlon notes that there are flaws with the above argument. First, people often lack an opportunity to avoid their chosen condition.  People who are born into low-income families or neighborhoods have limited choices and opportunities, for example.  Someone who has to drop out of school at the age of 16 to work and help support his or her family certainly has less opportunity to attend college, for example.  Second, even when people do have opportunities to avoid poverty, free choices do not always necessarily make the outcomes legitimate.  It may be the case that individuals or societies still owe someone assistance.  For example, a person can freely choose to invest in the stock market and can be very careful but still lose all money because of an unlucky investment or a financial crisis.  This person may still be owed social support such as food stamps, health insurance or social security pension.

But let's get back to the basic questions of social justice.  Essential questions include, "When is a society just?"; "How much does a just society shape people's circumstances or hold people responsible for their choices?";  and (back to the main course topic) "To what extent does a just society reflect luck?"

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice was an influential book on the topic of social justice.  Rawls thought that social justice happens when we try to compensate for the lucky or unlucky circumstances that we are born into.  We can create principles of justice only when we set aside social and economic circumstances that "seem arbitrary from a moral point of view" (15).  Rawls notes that there are strong hierarchies that systematically shape our socio-economic status.  Where we are born into the hierarchy is a matter of luck.  A theory of justice should negate the unlucky circumstances that people are born into.

According to Rawls, justice is a kind of fairness.  Fairness is here means the same kind of fairness as we have when we play games.  For example, when you play pictionary with a group of friends, it will not be fair to put all of the good artists on one team.  Outcomes of social practices are fair if and only if we agree to the rules before we know whether the rules will benefit us more than they benefit others.  A social practice is just an activity that people perform together as a group for mutual benefit.  For example, if we play poker with a wild card, we will not choose the wild card based on what cards someones has in his or her hand.  We choose the wild card before the cards have been dealt.  In other words, we have to choose the terms of society in ignorance of our position of relative advantage (85).  Choosing the terms of a social practice without knowledge of how we benefit from those terms is a matter of pure procedural justice.

Fairness in the "basic structure" of society involves two things.  First, we must imagine that we are ignorant of our social position, class, gender or race.  This is what Rawls calls a "veil of ignorance".  Second, we then ask what rules or terms of society we would want (assuming that we don't know where in a social hierarchy we fall).  Because we don't know where we fall in the society, we will want to minimize risks about the rules of our society.  Rawls thinks we would want to follow the maximin rule, which means that we try to maximize the minimal position.  The thought is that you want to provide the best possible worst position.  Because it is possible that you will end up in the worst position, you will want that worst position to be as good as possible.  Such a society is a fair because the way of choosing rules and terms of society was fair.  Each person is represented as "free and equal" because principles of justice were chosen with everyone's interests being treated equally.  When we consider the interests of everyone equally from behind this veil of ignorance, this is what Rawls calls the "original position".

Now that we know how we can choose principles for a just society, we have to consider what principles we actually would choose when behind a veil of ignorance.

Rawls thinks that we would not accept utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is the view that we should maximize collective welfare.  In other words, utilitarians   Rawls thinks that utilitarianism will be rejected because it allows individuals to be sacrificed for the benefit of the majority.  For example, some people might lose freedom and liberty by being enslaved by other members of the society.  So long as slavery creates maximum pleasures for the most people, it can be justified by a utilitarian principle.  Another problem is that there is no limit to inequality in a society.  As long as the majority of people are happy and doing well, it will not matter if a few people are stuck with extreme poverty.  As long as the overall welfare is improved, a few individuals can be destitute or enslaved.  Because utilitarianism allows for the sacrifice of individuals for the benefit of the majority, Rawls does not think that we will accept utilitarian principles when behind a veil of ignorance.

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