In Chapter Two of A Theory of Justice, Rawls gives his preliminary conception of justice which is to guide his discussion of what he called the two principles of justice in a society. He says: “All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to anyone’s advantage” (p.54). And he adds quickly: “Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all” (Ibid.).
What caught my attention was what he said about injustice; it was a frank, straightforward and one may argue a simplistic description of what injustice was—perhaps something that a student in high school will automatically parrot to his teacher. Yet upon reading those lines again, I realized that the simplicity of the statement corresponds to the simplicity of the matter: injustice is really when there are inequalities among men that do not benefit all. Such inequalities may be regarding the basic liberties among men such as “freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought” and “freedom of the person” (p. 53); and other inequalities may part of those the second principle is concerned with, the unequal “distribution of income and wealth” and “design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility” (Ibid.). In a word, injustice is the unequal recognition our liberties as individual human beings, and the failure of a society to grant equal opportunities and benefits to its members. Whenever one’s basic liberties are not recognized, and whenever a person is not given opportunities that is open to all—that is really injustice.
I appreciate Rawls’ formal description of what justice and injustice is because it reminds me, and us, how simple justice can be—that when you dig through and bracket what past societies and governments throughout history have tried to do (mostly in vain) in upholding the ideal of justice, that is, when you get to the bottom of things, as it were, justice as a principle and a value can be evident to any rational being. And I believe that what is evident shines in its humble simplicity; that the values we esteem and fight for are those values that are clear to our minds. What troubles us as students and thinkers who come very late in the day is that the idea and value of justice have been, as it were, soiled and buried by historical events that have transpired, and theoretical revisions that have been made, since we recognized the necessity for justice in a human being’s life which transpires in a society. As we often do with what we usually hold most dear to us, we tend to forget what justice is about as we have become lost in the labyrinthine universe of laws and of the judiciary, and have been outraged by social and political crises in history which may have led us to go farther and farther away from where we discovered the basic ideals of justice. Today the letters of the law have imprisoned its spirit, and the cacophony of self-serving protests have drowned out the silent voices and pleas of those who need justice the most. We have too many lawyers, as F. Sionil Jose lamented last Sunday morning in the papers, perhaps too many philosophers with their own theories about what is the best form of society, and too many activists that do not see what is beyond their noses. Like a treasure that was once discovered deep into the earth, the avalanche of history has covered over it and in its wake we have to ask again what justice is all about. So as Plato asked through the mouth of Socrates in The Republic two thousand four hundred years ago, we have to ask anew what dike, harmonia, and justice are as we have once again become perplexed.
Which brings me back to Rawls’ basic description of justice as the assignment and protection of basic liberties which safeguard our humanity (covered by the first principle), and the equal availability of opportunities and benefits to all members of a society (covered by the second principle). Rawls would later on in the chapter qualify what would be a just scheme of institutional forms for the benefit of all—one that is “equally open” and to “everyone’s advantage”—and it is important to note there that social inequalities or differences of opportunities are also to be allowed if they are to be advantageous to all. But that is rushing ahead again without stopping to see where the first few steps brought us. Before we become lost again with those detailed qualifications I find it necessary to stress that the basic ground or the fundamental principles of justice on which any complex and intricate social and economic structure may stand is still the ideal and virtue of recognizing that to be a man is to be a man among equals first of all, a free citizen among other free citizens.
Before a man draws his card from what Rawls calls the “natural lottery”—the results of which can only both distinguish and thus separate a man from others because of the differences in talents and abilities, race and historicity, accident or fortune—; that is, before we become differentiated by fate or fortune, we must recognize from an original position and behind the veil of ignorance that when it comes to our liberties and freedoms no one indeed is privileged or favored. The role of a just society then is to render back to a man what may be lost in natural differences that divide us and distinguish us from one another, in order to grant to him what he may have lost along life’s way. And the reason Rawls thinks it necessary to make up for, and readjust as it were, what social contingencies may have arisen after the natural lottery was to me a significant one: because differences in lot and standing are not only arbitrary but more so amoral. This leads Rawls later on to discount the systems of natural liberty and natural aristocracy—so treasured, so prevalent today—which both only reinforce and prolong the differentiation and inequality between individuals, because they are at bottom not only unjust but also immoral (pp. 64-65).
This tells me two things. First, conceptions of justice are to be informed by conceptions of morality. There is still space for ethics in social institutions and that also means that we who try to be philosophers can still be accommodated in what seems to be a system which is closed unto itself because it deals with real injustices while we thinkers appear to them as only dreaming of ideal theories of justice that are usually too good to be real.
Second, it is the duty of society to see through the differences among its members and bring everybody back to the status of co-equals. Even if I, by no fault of my own, was born deficient physically or otherwise, or even if I was thrown, as Heidegger would say, into a life I did not choose and was born into a class of lower social standing due to “losing out” in the natural lottery that in the first place I did not know I participated in—that even if I have become powerless over a fate I can no longer surpass, I can trust that the society I belong to will do its best to give me what I cannot give myself, that is, the liberties and opportunities that I deserved from the start. All is not lost for a man who lost out on the natural lottery as long as he is part of a just society. And this rediscovery reminded me that under the debris of history, a society was at best simply a fellowship of co-equals which strives not only for what is good for a few or for the most, but for the good of each and every one of its members as best it can.
First of a series of a beginner's reflections on A Theory of Justice by John Rawls