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Do Rawls' two principles of justice contradict one another?


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Do Rawls' two principles of justice contradict one another?
Date: 8th January 2009 13:28

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 December with your essay for the University of London Politics paper, in response to the question, ''Rawls's two principles of justice contradict each other.' Discuss.'

Why does Rawls put forward principles which have such obvious potential to come into conflict? You say a bit about this, but it could be argued that this is the key to answering this question.

Rawls asks which system we would choose, if we did not know what our station in life was to be. The answer is (in effect) that you hedge your bets. You ensure that adequate provision is made of the worse-off, at the cost of putting restrictions on the freedom of those who are better off to choose what they do with the resources at their disposal.

There are two ways to reject this conclusion: Accept Rawls's starting point but argue that it does not lead to the consequences which Rawls claims; or to reject the starting point. From your essay, it wasn't clear to me which of these alternative strategies you would choose.

Another connected question relates to the alleged 'contradiction'. Suppose that we accept that there is a contradiction, or potential to conflict, between the first and second principle. Why is that an objection? Why would it be any different from a situation where values conflict and we find ourselves in a moral dilemma? Undoubtedly, there is a dilemma for anyone who values freedom for its own sake, yet also holds a view of justice according to which rectifying inequalities of distribution can be part of 'justice', when these inequalities become too great, in particular when those at the lowest end are suffering real hardship.

The difficulty in this area is identifying the relevant philosophical arguments. To argue from examples -- e.g. the highly praiseworthy efforts of Bill Gates -- doesn't cut any ice. Let's say that I am very rich and share Gates' sense of social responsibility. When it comes to an election, I still have to base my decision on which party to vote for on reasoned arguments. 'Everyone should be like me, then we wouldn't need taxes,' is not an argument because everyone is not like me. The facts speak for themselves. There are massive amounts of wealth that could be used to a charitable purpose, which the owners of that wealth -- with perfect justice and right -- choose not to do so.

Nozick dazzles the reader with arguments. But most of those arguments merely show that it is impossible to put forward any consistent principle, once one abandons the axiom that the consequences of any exchange cannot be wrong, if both parties freely entered into the agreement.

One substantial point that you make concerns the potential for conflict within Rawls's first principle: 'It is politically necessary for me to tolerate other persons' engagement in homosexual lifestyles, but my own comprehensive religion might dictate that homosexuals... engage in opprobrious acts that will eventually destroy the moral fabric of society.'

This is a problem which goes to the heart of J.S. Mill's Liberty Principle. People should be free to pursue their own plan for life and happiness. However, amongst these people are group A who believe that group B should not be permitted this freedom because it contradicts a basic religious or ethical principle held by group A. Enforcing the Liberty principle in effect involves imposing restrictions on the activities of group A. Mill himself was very clear that in his vision of the 'freedom of thought and discussion', the only moral system that would prevail in the end was his own belief that the single basis for making ethical judgements is the utility principle. The moral philosopher R.M. Hare echoes this view in his description of any moral system that is not based on preference utilitarianism as a form of 'fanaticism', that is to say, illicitly imposing one's own moral views on others.

How are we to avoid this conclusion? There is no 'consistent' formula. Once you accept that people have the 'right' to their own moral or religious views, the logical consequence is that you have to tolerate the empirical consequences of allowing these people the freedom to express their beliefs, which includes restrictions on the freedom of others. You can remove, e.g. the law against homosexuality from the statute books. You can't stop a church from refusing to employ a homosexual priest, if you value the freedom of the members of that church to express their beliefs, homophobic thought they may be.

I take this, not as further evidence of the incoherence of Rawls's views but rather the contrary: that once we see how deep the inconsistency or incoherence goes, we will not object to a view simply on the grounds of its inconsistency. A better approach is one that recognizes, pragmatically, that there will always be tension. The problem, and the challenge, is to hold on to all the things we consider important, not letting anything go, even at the cost of making life more complicated than we would ideally like it to be.

All the best for 2009,