I have never understood the appeal of John Rawls’ so called theory of justice which he examines in a book of the same name.
I read it in Law School, and it struck me then as now as amateurish, lazy, sloppy and sophomoric thinking about a deep subject men like Aristotle and Aquinas and even Hobbes had already examined with greater clarity and rigor. His is a second rate mind.
John Rawls’ theory was that justice consists of considering in the abstract from behind ‘the veil of ignorance’, that is, without knowing your rank in society, what kind of society would be best.
His conclusion was that a modern socialist welfare state would take care of the lower ranks well enough so that if you, not knowing where you would be placed in the ranking, want to make prudent provision for your own wellbeing, you would support a welfare-state socialism out of your own self interest.
A minor flaw here is simply to assume that the man behind the veil of ignorance would act in his own self interest rather than in the interest of the society whose ranking system he is being asked to decide. An ancient Jew might want a king, for example, because he honestly sees that kingship is needed to organize his people against the surrounding enemies, and to be like other nations, without ever once hoping he himself would get the job.
More to the point, the crippling flaw in this theory is that Rawls assumes by hypothesis that the positions in the social rank are arbitrary.
He has the hypothetical person deciding in which society to live make the decision ‘behind the veil of ignorance’ that is, not knowing his own capacities or merits or birth.
He assumes, without ever examining the assumption, that there is no justice in the ranking, and can be no justice. The one thing the veil of ignorance removes is your knowledge of what you did to earn or to deserve your rank.
In other words, Rawls asks the reader to decide about how society should be ranked without saying, or even hinting, what the ranking is based on.
If the ranking is based on birth, as it is in a class society of commoners and nobles and royalty, Rawls’ argument might almost make sense for someone more afraid of being born a commoner than eager to be born royalty, and unwilling to take the risk on the throw of the dice of fate.
Because of course bolder men would always vote for a birth-class society because the prospect of being royalty to them is worth the risk of being common. Men more adverse to risk, like Rawls, base their thinking on envy, and the envious would rather eliminate the royalty altogether than run the risk of being born a commoner.
But if the crippling flaw is taken away, and the society is not just a choice between a monarchy or a socialism, then Rawls’ theory is reduced to nonsense.
An American would always choice a free society over the soft injustice of the Welfare state or the hard injustice of Monarchy. The American would say, “Stuff your welfare bullshit. Make the rules JUST, give me liberty, and I do not care where I might be in when the veil of ignorance is lifted, and I find myself poor or rich. Give me liberty, and if I am poor I will make myself rich.”
The one thing Rawls leaves out of his theory of justice is justice.
The one option never explored is the option of leaving every man to enjoy the fruits of his labors in peace, each owning what he earned.
Instead his discussion is about how to divvy up the loot among pirates, that is, how to distribute unjustly acquired goods that fall upon you by happenstance, luck, or whatnot.
This flaw in Rawls can be made clear if we look at the analogy of a law court. Instead of the jury deciding the case on the merits, a veil of ignorance is placed on the murderer, on his victim’s widow, and on the judge, and the three of them get to vote on how severe the punishment shall be without knowing which one of them is the guilty party. By the John Rawls theory, each man out of self interest should vote for the punishment to be minor, or to have no punishment at all, because there is one chance in three that he himself is the murderer. By that logic, no one would vote to live in a society with a death penalty, because when the veil lifts, he might be the murderer.
But in real life is it not a matter of random chance whether you are a murderer, and the decision about the death penalty should not be based on self interest, but on what is a fair recompense for the magnitude of the crime. In reality, the decision should be made not based on self interest but what is best for serving the interests of justice.
Men who do not take self interest as their primary motive in voting for the laws would always vote for the death penalty, and run the risk that when the veil of ignorance is lifted, he would go to his deserved hanging without complaint because he would deserve it.
The idea that Rawls is attempting to assassinate with his argument is the idea that liberty is unfair, but he does this without ever once mentioning liberty. He speak only of the advantages of birth and happenstance, as if the prosperous and successful men in America got there by dumb luck.
Ever since I first read his trashy book (sometime in the Second Millennium) I had thought he was British. It was on that basis that I did not utterly condemn him. For I thought that if he were British, of course, his ignorance would be excusable. The only thing the poor English have ever known are Monarchy and Socialism, a system based on class, and a system based on envy.
However, an alert reader points out that this panderer of social justice is an American. I hang my head in shame for a nation that produces only intellectuals who despise America and all for which she stands.