Contemporary Theories of Justice

Contemporary Views
of Justice and the
Social Contract
“What is Fairness or
Social Justice in Today’s
Three Major
Conceptions of Justice
In Contemporary
• Libertarian
• Egalitarian
• Contractarian
Libertarian View of
Justice in the Social
• Liberty is the ultimate moral
• Individuals have rights to life,
liberty, and property that
society must recognize.
• The purpose of government is
to protect these rights of
individuals from being violated
by others by force or fraud.
• Except for this, individuals can
pursue their own actions and
Libertarian . . .
• Negative rights are
emphasized; the individual has
the right to noninterference, the
right to be left alone; to pursue
the good life as personally
• Positive rights are deemphasized. The common
good is not a concern, as
working for the common good
would require society to take
one’s resources (in the form of
taxes) to do things other than
what the individual may want
or may benefit him.
Libertarian . . .
• The assumption is that leaving
everyone alone to pursue personal
best interests, protected from being
harmed by others, will result in the
greatest common good.
• Programs of social good/welfare are
prohibited as unjustified violations
of individual rights, requiring that
resources be taken from some
against there will and be given to
• An open and free (unregulated)
marketplace is the economic system
generally supported by libertarian
conceptions of justice.
• The less government the better.
Egalitarian View of
Justice In The Social
• Equality is the ultimate moral ideal.
• While differences among
egalitarians, all maintain the
importance of social equality in their
conceptions of justice.
• Hold that society (government) is
responsible for furthering and
promoting equality.
• Believe it is permissible and
necessary to restrict an individual’s
liberty in order to promote social
Egalitarian . . .
• Egalitarians stress positive rights
rather than negative ones.
Particularly the right to life’s basic
and important things: food, housing,
education, health care, and a
reasonable standard of living.
• Egalitarian criticism of
libertarianism is that the right to be
left alone (negative right) does not
mean anything if one lacks the
resources to pursue life while being
left alone.
• Economic views of egalitarians
would call for a significantly
regulated market to ensure a
measure of equality; with even
major businesses owned and
operated by government.
Distinguishing Between
Equality and Equity
• The Greek word from which we
derive the word justice is dike
• In Greek it meant “equal.”
• But, equal means “the same as.”
• Aristotle (and Socrates) believed
that there were many inequalities
that were also just. His view of
equity as justice is at its root an
argument for inequality, though not
• So, as we have seen, Aristotle
argued for a view of justice which
advocated equity (proportionality
based on relevant factors), not
• Libertarianism emphasizes justice
as equity, with justice being
distributed based on merit: one’s
effort, skill or contribution.
• Egalitarianism emphasizes justice
as equality, with justice being
distributed based on need.
• It is important to note that there are
no purely libertarian or purely
egalitarian governments. (Socialism
is a form of government that is
based on egalitarianism.—but no
pure socialist governments.)
Declaration of
“…all men are created EQUAL and
are endowed by their creator with
certain inalienable rights, among
which are life, LIBERTY and the
pursuit of happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a thoughtful student of
the Enlightenment in Europe and
took his emphasis on equality from
the writings of Rousseau and his
emphasis on liberty from Locke;
along with Hobbes, the three most
influential political philosophers
writing on the social contract.
Contractarian View of
Justice in the Social
“How is it possible that there
may exist over time a stable and
just society of FREE and
EQUAL citizens profoundly
divided by reasonable religious,
philosophical, and moral
John Rawls
A Theory of Justice
Tension . . .
• Justice creates the circumstance
under which cooperation is both
possible and necessary.
• It is not possible to have a social
contract that promotes cooperation
unless there is a system of justice.
• Justice presupposes conflicts of
interest. If never any conflicts
among people we would need no
theory of justice, or a “social
• The values of liberty and equality
often conflict and thus compete with
one another.
• What happens when your liberty
precludes my equality, or vice versa?
John Rawls’
Contractarian Theory
of Justice
• Blends libertarian and egalitarian
views, attempting to balance the
ideals of liberty and equality.
• It does so by emphasizing, as a
moral requirement, that those who
have more than enough, help those
in need.
• Accepts the egalitarian criticism of
negative rights, thus wants to
advocate for working for the
common good.
• But also accepts the the libertarian
view that one’s liberty should not be
unduly violated.
Rawls . . .
• Rawl’s approach to justice is an
attempt to answer his question of
how we can have a society of
individuals who are both free and
equal, as our Declaration of
Independence suggests.
• In actuality his is an attempt in a
theory of justice to preserve as
much liberty as possible while
creating as much equality as
• But, in doing so acknowledging that
we are never completely equal, or
totally at liberty.
How Does One
Establish A Just
Society…One That
Provides For As Much
Equality and Liberty
As Possible?
• Rawls asks that we imagine a group of
free, rational, and impartial people trying
to decide what moral (social) rules they
would be willing to live by before
knowing what position they will occupy in
the society that would be created by these
• This is Rawl’s famous “veil of
ignorance.” It is a metaphor to suggest
viewing a society but not seeing clearly,
that is, seeing what our place is in that
“Veil of Ignorance”
• Behind such a “veil of ignorance,”
individual circumstances are
unknown, and so individuals
designing the social contract would
make decisions about its terms in
accordance with only the most
general desires for the basic human
• They would consider everyone’s
needs alike since their individual
personal needs would be unknown
to them at this time.
“Veil of Ignorance” . . .
• In Rawl’s view, rational beings will
be somewhat adverse to risk, and
each one would want to make
certain that, if in the natural lottery,
that is, birth into the world, he or she
winds up on the bottom of the heap,
in terms of merit or worth (skill,
effort, or contribution), the bottom is
as attractive as possible.
• So, JUST social rules are the ones
that rational people would adopt
behind the “veil of ignorance.”
Rawls Maintains The
Rules Would Accord
With Three Principles:
1. Principle of equal liberty:
Each person is to have an equal right
to the most extensive system of
liberties comparable with a similar
system of liberty for all.
2. Principle of fair opportunity:
Persons with similar abilities and
skills are to have equal access to
office and positions of the society.
3. Principle of difference:
Social and economic institutions are
to arranged so as to to benefit
maximally the worst off.
Principles Applied
• Thus in this hypothetical just society
everyone would have:
– equal liberty or freedom., and
– equal opportunity.
• But, because skills, effort and
contributions will vary, individuals
will fare differently socioeconomically.
• Therefore, the society would be
structured so as to maximally benefit
those worst off socio-economically,
while preserving as much liberty and
opportunity as possible.
• Rawls theoretical approach is
supported by Peter Singer’s notion
of equality, in which he views
equality as the “equal consideration
of interests.” This is what Rawl’s
approach accomplishes.
Unfortunate, Not
Rawls thus acknowledges that in this
hypothetical society, as well as in a
real society, inequalities are going to
emerge in wealth and social
standing. They are inevitable. A true
egalitarian society (everyone truly
equal in all things) is not possible.
But, this will still be a just society as
long as the people at the top of the
heap are there based on merit (skill,
effort or contribution). It may be
unfortunate that some are less well
off, but it is not unfair.
Unfortunate, Not
• Human sentiment supports this view.
We have little difficulty accepting
the status of those we believe are
where they are due to meritorious
effort; but we do have difficulty with
those who have done so by not
playing by the rules…fairly.
• While socio-economic inequalities
are not inconsistent with a equitable
view of justice, severe inequalities
are often the cause of political
discord, and potential undermining
of societal structure and stability.
• In other words, severe inequalities
distort the evaluation of
contributions by both the
advantaged and the disadvantaged,
leading to outcomes that are unfair
as judged by natural standards of
• Aristotle in discussing what form of
political life is best recognized this
and as a practical matter argued that
a “middling possession” of wealth is
best. The overly wealthy tend
toward arrogance, the overly
indigent toward malice; the former
will be consumed by contempt and
the latter by envy.
Rawls’ theory recognizes the
destabilizing effect of too much
inequality by maximally
benefiting the least well off,
thus avoiding extremes of
socio-economic status.
• America’s philosophical basis
of justice is in social contract
• Which theory best represents
America as you see it today?
Evaluation of Justice
• How is America doing as a
“just society?”
• What is our social health?
• Are the inequalities in socioeconomic well-being so
extreme as to threaten the social
The Index of Social Health,
United States,
1970 – 2006
17% Drop
Social indicators include:
• average earnings
• poverty
• inequality
• child abuse
• health care
• drug abuse
Index of Social Health
and Gross Domestic
Product, 1959-1996
Some Interesting
Statistics ...
• The median income of the upper 20% of
Americans is 12 times the median income
of the lower 20%. For all other
industrialized nations it is approximately 6
• Since 1968 the average earning differential
between the top 20% and the lower 20%
has doubled .
• The share of total net worth of the top
0.5% of the population rose from 26% to
31% from 1983 to 1989.
• The top 1% of the population owns more
than 40% of the nation’s wealth; double
what it was in the 1970s.
• Bill Gates has more personal wealth than
45 % of the population combined.
From the
Washington Post
• Ratio of executive pay to worker pay has
exploded from 42 to 1 in 1980, to 419 to 1
in 1998.
• Had worker pay risen as fast an executive
pay, the average worker would earn more
than $110,000 a year, compared with the
$29,000 they do earn, and the minimum
wage would be $ $22.08/hour rather than
• Average compensation for a chief
executive in 2006 was $15 million .
• In 1998 the pay of executives rose 36%
compared with 2.7% for average blue
collar worker.
• Two-thirds of Americans earn less than
New York Times
“Gap Between Rich and Poor
Found Substantially Wider”
• Richest 1% of Americans (2.7
million), will have as many
after tax dollars to spend
($515,600/family) as bottom
100 million ($620billion).
• This ratio has more than
doubled since 1977.
• Average income of poorest 20%
of Americans is $8,800, down
from $10,000 in 1977.
“The income gap in America is
eroding the social contract. If
the promise of a higher
standard of living is limited to a
few at the top, the rest of the
citizenry, as history shows, is
likely to grow disaffected, or
Lester Thurow
MIT economist
in “How Much Inequality Can A
Democracy Take?”