We're All Rawlsians Now!

By Lawson, Robert A. | Ideas on Liberty, June 2002 | Go to article overview

We're All Rawlsians Now!


Lawson, Robert A., Ideas on Liberty


In the 1970s Richard Nixon famously remarked, "We're all Keynesians now." Fortunately, the president overestimated the long-run influence of John Maynard Keynes's ideas among economists. For modern philosophers, it might be appropriate to rephrase Nixon's line and say, "We're all Rawlsians now."

John Rawls, the Harvard University philosophy professor, truly has had as much influence in philosophy as Keynes did in economics. As with Keynes, it remains to be seen if Rawls's ideas will remain in vogue in the generations to come or if he is destined to a marginal role in the history of philosophy.

John Rawls asked a simple question, "What makes for a just society?" The problem in figuring out if society is just or not is that we all already live in society, and we know, roughly, how we are going to fare in it. Rich people, pretty people, and smart people are naturally going to be inclined to say that their society is just, while poor, ugly, and dimwitted people are more likely to think society is unjust. So simply asking people what makes a society just won't work.

This is where the creative mind of Rawls comes in. He asks us to engage in a thought experiment. Let us imagine that we could wear a "veil of ignorance" that would block out all knowledge of our future condition in society. That is, imagine that we could not know whether we would be rich or poor, pretty or ugly, smart or dimwitted, white or black, or whatever. Then and only then, Rawls concluded, could we get people to decide in an unbiased way what a just society should look like.

To carry things along a bit more, Rawls even speculates on how people, all of whom are behind this veil of ignorance, would conceive of a just society. His speculation, which has inspired thousands of disciples in philosophy and elsewhere, is that rational people would consider a society just if it maximized the standing of the least well-off. This has become known as the maxi-min hypothesis: a just society maximizes the minimum person's welfare. Let us leave aside the question of whether the maxi-min hypothesis is what we would all agree to behind the veil of ignorance. Instead we will consider the implications of the maxi-min hypothesis, assuming it is correct.

Simple followers of Rawls have argued that the maxi-min hypothesis calls for income equality, but such is not the case. Rawls himself acknowledges that income inequality is allowable if it is a means for improving the status of the lowest rungs of society.

As an example, consider two societies. Society A has three people with $1,000 each-perfect income equality. …

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