Is there a way to really get our societies to be fair for everyone?

This was the question John Rawls (1921-2002), American political philosopher and author of A Theory of Justice, attempted to answer. His work centres on social justice, privilege, and the distribution of resources in a society.

Rawl’s cake

Imagine it’s your birthday. Your parents decide to throw a party for you and your friends. When it’s time to cut the cake, your mother tells you, “You can cut the cake in whatever way you want to but you can’t choose the slice that you’ll get to have”.

Maybe you’d like a bigger slice of that cake. But since you don’t want to risk getting a small slice, you decide to cut equal sizes for everyone. Now you and your friends are happily munching away, knowing the cake was distributed as fairly as possible.

Fairness demands ignorance

Rawls thought most people’s definition of justice reflected what was good for them instead of anything shared or universal. You might think justice means owning the resources you’ve inherited, or you might think justice is about redistributing them. Whether intentionally or not, we all define justice in a way that gets us a little higher on the ladder. (Big slice for you, small slice for everyone else.)

To get to the core of things, Rawls asks us to imagine a situation where society doesn’t exist yet and no one knows where they will end up in life. What kind of society would you join knowing you could be somehow disadvantaged? If you entered this new world with no parents from childhood, a physical disability, intellectual impairment, financial hardship, or no access to school, what would you want it to be like?

If we each play along with Rawl’s hypothetical, we are likely to imagine fairness in a particular way. Rawls thought we would only join a society where everyone, no matter what circumstances we were born in, has their needs met.

Inequality needs to benefit everybody

Rawls’ conception of justice was based on society’s equal distribution of resources according to two principles.

The first principle is the equality principle. This says everyone should have access to the broadest possible range of civil liberties. Here the only limitation on our freedoms is what is necessary to give other people the same level of freedom. For this system to be fair, you can only be as free as everyone else.

The second principle is the difference principle. Any inequalities in society are only justified under two conditions:

1. There must be equality of opportunity. If there are going to be inequalities – like some people earning more money than others – they should be available to everyone. For example, if access to education increases people’s earning capacity, everyone should have the same access to education so everyone has the same chance to grow their wealth.

2. If there are any social disadvantages, they need to benefit the least advantaged people most. Rawls thought we should only be permitted to grow our personal wealth if we used it to benefit the poor. He wanted to keep the socioeconomically disadvantaged within a reasonable distance of the financially elite by redistributing resources. This was what he saw to be the fairest possible system.

If we were to imagine what the difference principle might look like in practice, it could be policies permitting people to leave inheritance to their children if the state is allowed to tax and distribute it to the poor.

Rawls’ challenge for political philosophy is to question whether a merit based system is as fair as people think. Was it only your work that got you to where you are today or did luck also play a role? If it was the latter, what does that tell us about justice?

Be consistent

Rawls was dedicated to finding the most reasonable political system possible. He believed the first step was to fill our parliaments with reasonable people. It might sound like a no brainer, but by reasonable he meant those with consistency and coherence between their various opinions and beliefs. He called this “reflective equilibrium”.

Imagine someone believes if employees do the same work, they should receive the same wage. Imagine they also opposed striving for pay parity between men and women. Rawls would say this person’s political beliefs are incompatible and therefore unreasonable. To achieve reflective equilibrium, one of these views will have to shift.

In fact, Rawls thought achieving genuine reflective equilibrium was impossible. Instead, we should try to get as near as we can to perfect synergy.

For those of us interested in ethics and politics, the reflective equilibrium is an important idea. We often form opinions based on gut reaction, instinct, or by focussing on the specifics of a situation.

Each of these approaches can at times be unreasonable and inconsistent. By forcing us to test how our different beliefs fit together, Rawls encourages us to do something very basic but very important: make sure our set of beliefs make sense.

First published March 2017. Updated August 2018.