John Rawls and justice ethics

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In my continuing series of posts on ethical systems and their relation to how our brain makes decisions, I have shifted to the vector of models that I call “empathy-based ethics.” The ethical ideal of justice as articulated by the late John Rawls fits well into this vector.

Rawls, who died in 2002, was honored in 1999 by President Bill Clinton with the National Medal of Arts. Said Clinton at that time, “Almost singlehandedly, John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate helped the least fortunate is not only a moral society, but a logical one. Just as impressively, he has helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.” [1]

In his seminal 1971 book A Theory of Justice, Rawls took on weaknesses in both John Stuart Mill’s classic Utilitarian Model (the greatest good for the greatest number) and Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative (the best rules apply to everybody). He suggested that we ought to envision ourselves wearing an imaginary “veil of ignorance,” where we set the rules of an ethical society not by quantifying the greatest good or the most universal principle, but rather by imagining that we ourselves do not know whether we would be born rich or poor, male or female, privileged or not. We, by wearing this imaginary “veil,” don’t know how we ourselves will rank in the world’s hierarchies.

Rawls was acknowledging through this concept of the “veil” that all of us are beneficiaries of the “birth lottery,” where the tiny probabilities of conception, multiplied by billions of people and billions of “conception-prone activities,” have placed many of the readers of this post living in comfortable families and in stable societies, while billions of other people emerge into poorer circumstances. He posits that most of us, if we did not know what lay “on the other side of the chute,” would set the rules such that the most disadvantaged of the society were provided for, and we would advocate for incentives and rewards for people to rise above that position.

In other words, if you were born with physical disabilities, or perhaps of you had lost your job and home through no fault of your own, how would you want society to treat you “fairly”? This, according to Rawls, is “justice.”

Rawls saw this system of justice as being implemented via two primary principles. The first is that each person should have an equal right to the most basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for all. Second, each person should have an equal opportunity to enjoy these rights and privileges. Such a system does not deny the opportunity for profit. Indeed, if the making of a profit provides (in accordance with the first principle) non-exploitive employment to a poor person, then it is beneficial to society, according to this model of ethics.

It remains a mystery to me why two very basic questions are not asked constantly by members of the press in their reporting of governmental affairs:

  1. The Kant Question: Why is this exception to the rule that is being considered (for instance, a tax deduction or credit) justified in treating one group favorably over another?
  2. The Rawls Question: If you were born in the shoes of someone more disadvantaged than yourself, would you see this proposed law or rule as being “just and fair”?

We can debate long and hard over which liberties, as defined by Rawls, are so “basic,” that they should be guaranteed to all. Most of the developed world has, for instance, put basic healthcare on that list while, unfortunately, the United States, despite its great collective wealth, refuses to do so.

As an example of injustice, most tax deductions and credits in U. S. tax law apply to less than one in one thousand taxpayers (less than 0.1%). Many apply to less than one in ten thousand (0.01%). And far too many were written by lobbyists to apply to just a small handful of taxpayers (as few as one). This political favoritism clearly has exacerbated economic injustice to new heights.

In other legislation, especially in the 2017 revisions to the U.S. Tax Code and the 2018 U.S. budget deliberations, we see favor after favor being given to the most powerful, while the poorest Americans are either given the tiny “leftovers” or are overtly punished for their poverty.

But nobody ever said that people are elected to Congress for their commitment to fairness and justice…


  1. Clinton, William J. “The National Medal Of The Arts And The National Humanities Medal.” The National Archives. 29 Sept. 1999.

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