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A Critique of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice Essay


John Rawls is undoubtedly one of the most debatable political philosophers of our time. His theory on justice- specifically focusing on social justice- has brought to light several criticisms from friends, colleagues, and other philosophers.

While not out rightly declaring he is wrong, I cannot help but find a few flaws in what his concepts of theory and social justice postulate.

In order to explain my point of divergence from Rawls’s theory, it is paramount that we first look at Rawls understanding of the concept of justice. According to Rawls (4), justice is

“…..a set of principles required for choosing the various social arrangements which determine the division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares. These principles are the principles of social justice; they provide a way of assigning duties and privileges in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social corporation” (p. 4).

This is a description of what justice is meant to be and look like. It is the desired result as well as the intended course of action to achieve justice. Rawls further agrees that different parties with different concepts of justice can still come to an agreement as far as they seek to make this decision under what he describes as “a veil of ignorance”.

Under this veil, individuals are to come upon a rational decision by using certain principles. This principle in particular requires an agent in the process of decision making to assume a hypothetical position where he or she does not know or care about his personal attributes, assets, societal status and other personal details as well as those of the other people.

The individual should make the decision behind this veil. In so doing, he is more likely to come up with a more just conclusion.

Social justice is derived from judging an individual’s character and actions and paralleling them to the immediate individuals and their actions towards him as well as others. All available evidence is looked at and objective moral criterion is established.

This view can best be summarized as giving a man his due in the context of his relation to others and others to him. Social justice is pegged on the obligations an individual owes to others and others to him. This directly translates to “rights”.

Rights should be the criterion which determines whether the actions an individual commits are just or not. They should also be the ones determining what actions an individual should take against other individuals. Hospers (616) argues,

“….but must not justice be embedded in the concept of human rights… if each man has a right to his life, the products of his labor and his own free and independent judgment, justice will not be violated. Provided these rights are in the legal system of the nation and no exception made…” (p. 616).

Rawls theory makes individual rights subject to societal approval in the process of dispensing justice. He presents situations where individual’s rights may be revoked or overlooked in the process of delivering judgment. The assumption Rawls makes to the effect that in so doing the least advantaged individual benefits more from such an agreement is wrong (Sandel 2).

Rawls’ Response

Justice is that decision upon which free individuals who are equal will come to agree on as the basic terms on which cooperation in the society will be achieved. Such individuals will not regard their colleagues as deserving more or less than what they have agreed on.

They will not base such a decision on their individual strengths, achievements or position in society since they are all equal at that particular point of judgment. In such a position, each decision seems to be more driven by the inherent moral values an individual has at heart.

Their judgment is neither clouded by bad experience nor poisoned by individual desires. It is instead fuelled and championed by what they feel is right and rational. This however can only be achieved under conditions that are hypothetically fair for this judgment.

Justice as a form of fairness is the idea that drives such an endeavor. For any individual or group in the society to come up with justice as a fairness principle, they must all resume the original position.

Such a position where an individual is not tied or bound to any personal conflict of interest presents one with the clarity and rationality to make a decision. In such a position, an individual weighs the probabilities of outcome and bases judgment on such options as the most detrimental of all results.

The concept of a “veil of ignorance” does not undermine individual rights. Rights are inherent and irrespective of the annotations and writings that brought them to life, they have always been with an individual. In deciding justice under the veil of ignorance, one does not rebuke his rights or those of other individuals in the society.

The veil of ignorance clouds perception and eliminates the possibility of bias. It however does not undermine an individual’s inherent feelings and desire to achieve. In the original position, one views himself as having no claim over his personal achievements. This is a position of belonging and should not be confused with a solitary act of separating an individual from the concepts of his or her rights.

The claim of such personal effects and attributes belonging to the society immerses an individual in the process of society building. This individual will undertake his personal life and achievements while reflecting on them as a contribution to the society.

The first principle further advocates for these individual rights but against the outlook of society. Each person “……(is) to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with (a) similar liberty for others” (Rawls, p. 53).

The difference principle agitates for correction in the distribution of wealth in the society. This principle benefits the less advantaged members of the society. It is noted that injustice does not actually manifest in a particular group of individuals in the society.

On the contrary, it chooses to prey on a specific congregation of people. The less advantaged are to be thus considered whenever making a decision for it to be considered as fair.

Cohen’s Criticism of Rawls’ Theory of Justice in Rescuing Justice and Equality

The principles of justice as proposed by Rawls have been a subject of contemptuous debate. From teacher to student, many philosophers have come up in defense of or against Rawls and his theory of justice. A particular response by Cohen in his book Rescuing Justice and Equality has drawn a lot of attention over the years, provoking deep thought and analysis of justice and its manifestation in society.

In the essay, Cohen primarily targeted Rawls’ idea of the difference principle. He tries to portray its impracticality to society and poses a variety of situational conditions that should be considered when using this principle.

This essay will dwell on that argument from a more simplified and practical point of view. Many people primarily do agree that whereas Cohen’s was a just and vigorous attack on Rawls’s theory, he might have failed to put his arguments in a comprehensible and easy-to-grab at-first-read manner.

The Difference Principle

Rawls believes that a certain set of principles are needed to govern decision making for society to envision justice and present it to its members. The difference principle which states that “…….social (and) economic inequalities are to be arranged (so that they are) to be of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society” (Cohen p.47) is one of these principles.

It attempts to govern decision making based on resource allocation. It assumes a semblance of justice by making it appear more beneficial to the less privileged. Cohen poses a very thought provoking question:

“……suppose once again that we are inclined to believe that inequalities are justified only if they are strictly necessary to benefit the worst off but we find, to our dismay that we simply cannot work hard without unequalizing incentive.

Would we not think that the distribution was becoming more just if and as we become more able to work hard with less unequalizing reward and therefore to the greater benefit of the worst off?” (Cohen p.154).

The argument here is further clarified by the next question posed by Cohen. He asks:

“Suppose differently, thus far that it is not possible to run an economy efficiently, nor therefore, to the benefit of the worst off, without assigning high rewards to well placed people, but now for purely organizational rather than for motivational reasons” (Cohen 156).

The question poses a rather daunting overall query. Would it be just to do so? In his arguments, Cohen displays the injustice presented by Rawls’ difference principle as a bid to present justice. In other words, he shows the irony of how Rawls’ efforts to present justice end up bringing injustice instead.

While it would seem justified for the worst off members of the society to benefit from most judgments, it is still unjust for the better placed in the same society to suffer the losses that arise from their hard work.

They should be left to enjoy the fruits of their hard labor. This in essence is a reward to them and should be geared towards their motivation rather than the process of delivering justice to the less deserving.

While many issues are pegged on moral tributes, justice cannot solely be determined by such morally arbitrary concepts. Delivering justice while presenting a socially-contemplated inequality is not just an antonym to justice; it could also serve to derelict the society.

Inequality and Justice

In its canonical form, the difference principle declares that equalities are unjust if they render the worst off better off. Rawls however does not draw that conclusion openly. Rawls seems to be at liberty, saying “…….inequality is unjust unless it does not harm the badly off (while thinking) equality is unjust unless it does not harm these worse off individuals as well” (Cohen 158).

With this kind of reasoning, the difference principle might as well speak for both. However, Rawls chooses to see it fit that inequality has a case to answer while equality does not. Why should it be that inequality which seems to harm a worst off person is unjust while that which benefits the worst off person is fair?

Veil of Ignorance

With reference to Cohen’s argument, we can take the example of the tales of Robin Hood. Supposedly, he would rob from the rich and give to the poor. Supposing we took the original position and had to make a decision while under the hypothetical position behind the veil of ignorance. Remember behind this veil, we are not aware of our individuality or that of other people in the society.

Aspects such as talent, wealth and family status are oblivious to our knowledge. How then does robbing from the rich to give to the poor an act of justice. We do not recognize their individuality and are in no position to determine their source or means of livelihood.

Luck or maybe some unforeseen force found it fit for them to be better off than the rest. Robbing them and giving their possession to the poor, no matter how charitable the act may seem, does not sound justified based on morality and good practices in the society.

Talent and Equality

Rawls’ basis or his starting point for equality- where talent is involved- moves in a different direction from that of Cohen. Rawls posits that differences in talent do not justify inequality if the original position was indeed that of equality (Cohen p.168). Rawls view of talent and its reward to the individual is somewhat vague as is displayed in the difference principle.

This is in contrast with the moral and arbitrary presupposition of individuality and background. It is not the individuals’ fault if they happen to benefit from the growth of their talent. Incentives offered from such fronts should be regarded as personal motivation and need not be regarded as a basis of presentation of inequality and therefore lack of justice in the society.

Trying to achieve equal distribution of justice by letting individual talent benefit the worst off in society is inconsistent and primarily an infringement on one’s personal ambition. It is such thoughts that promote complacency in the society where people are not motivated to perform.

Rawls In Light of Cohen’s Criticism

In this section, the researcher looked at Rawls’ theory of justice and how it has been criticized by Cohen in his writing. In this section, the researcher will critically analyze whether Rawls’ theory can be redeemed from Cohen’s critique.

From the outset, the researcher would like to point out that while the theory has some strong premises, it has some fundamental flaws and weaknesses that may make it irredeemable.

Belief that Rawls’s theory of social justice is somewhat redeemable from Cohen’s attacks is to me untenable. Whereas Rawls’s theory is indeed an ideal and very well proposed argument, it is not practical at this time and age in society. Society is changing at a tremendous rate.

Some of the concepts that were once considered the beacons of justice and its delivery in the society are no longer practical at this time of societal complexity. Rawls proposes a theory that in light of the presented criticism, seems to undermine the principle of human rights. Human rights have become the solid guides to the concept of societal justice.

Their infringement and denial to any individual irrespective of position constitutes injustice. The process of deciding justice and its course of direction should not be made from the original position presupposed by Rawls.

Justice in the society should be arrived at via a carefully examined and detailed procedure encompassing liberties, evidence, rationality and morality.

Cohen makes it clear when he says that while human nature may seem generally unjust, justice is inherent in humanity and can prevail. In other words, justice is to be found in each and every human being in the society.

The problem is making the various members of the society behave in a just manner. It is not that incentive given on the basis of human nature presents injustice. He states that inequality will always be present and part of humanity due to the difference in human nature (Cohen pp. 168-170). Justice, however, should not be pegged on these inequalities.

A better and more subtle method of dealing with inequality should be identified. This method should not in my opinion infringe on individual rights. An individual in society may be directly responsible for their position in society.

However, they cannot be directly held responsible for the position of other individuals in the society unless they commit an act that will directly tamper with the rights of the others.

Works Cited

Cohen, Gregory. Rescuing Justice and Equality. Oxford: Harvard University Press, 2008. Print.

Hospers, John. An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. 2nd ed. 1967. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall. Print.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard: Harvard Press, 1977. Print.

Sandel, Michael. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019, April 6). A Critique of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-critique-of-john-rawls-theory-of-justice/

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IvyPanda. 2019. "A Critique of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice." April 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-critique-of-john-rawls-theory-of-justice/.

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