This essay examines John Rawls’ Theory Of Justice’, and argues two things– (a) that liberal ideas of justice must be based on a comprehensive moral theory, or are meaningless, (b) that Rawls’ theory is compatible with either intuitionism and utilitarianism, and thus that instead of having created an alternative to these two, he may in fact have reconciled them.
Liberal ideals of justice must be based on a comprehensive moral theory, or are meaningless.
Rawls advocated the view that the principles of justice should not be grounded in any deeper moral theory, or claims to moral truth, because he wanted his theory to be neutral between competing conceptions of the good within a pluralistic society. He believed that the role of political philosophy is to establish consensus-based social stability between opposed moral theories, rather than to argue for, and justify the imposition of any particular broader moral theory. Consequently, he claimed that his theory of justice stands alone, completely removed from any comprehensive moral theory, or any claims about moral truth. In his words, it is “political, not metaphysical”.
Yet if justice is divorced from any underlying moral theory, it seems to lose its practical worth, for how then are we to know whether we should or should not comply with its dictates? Justice cannot apply to every aspect of life, or else it would be a comprehensive moral theory, which Rawls claims it is not. It then follows that there are certain situations in life which should be adjudicated by justice and others that should be adjudicated by deeper moral beliefs. Yet how are we to know which is which? It would be fanciful to suggest that the dictates of justice will never come into conflict with deeper moral beliefs. If this were the case, Rawls’ philosophy would be defunct, as a consensus would already exist.
So given the inevitability of such conflicts between individual deeper moral theories and justice, what reason is there for complying with justice over one’s morality? Presumably Rawls would like us to do so, yet without referencing a deeper moral theory, Rawls can only argue that we should from the standpoint of his own theory of justice. However this is rather circular: justice is arguing for justice. Such an argument is hardly likely to seem convincing, considering that in the other corner, morality is arguing for morality. The individual is given no reason whatsoever to favour justice over their own moral beliefs. Thus, if Rawls, or any liberal, wishes not only to provide a theory of justice, but also an argument as to why people should follow that theory of justice, they must, at some point, reference moral truth.
Rawls’ theory is compatible with an underlying moral basis of both intuitionism or utilitarianism.
There are two assertions here, the first of which should not be controversial: that Rawls’ principles of justice are compatible with a deeper moral basis in intuitionism. Intuitionism is not a moral theory as such, but is simply the belief that we are best guided in moral matters by our feelings, rather than by clearly defined principles. A state however, will inevitably need laws, lest it descend into chaos. Thus, a theory of justice which is grounded in intuitionism will represent the way of structuring social institutions which best fits with our moral feelings. This is perfectly compatible with Rawls’ theory of justice, and indeed describes well his method of “reflective equilibrium”.
However, the second assertion made by point B will inevitably be controversial. This is that Rawls’ theory is compatible with a deeper moral basis of utilitarianism. Rawls, obviously, would completely reject the charge that his theory of justice is compatible with a deeper moral basis of utilitarianism. In fact, his theory was concocted as an alternative to utilitarianism, which he objected to because it gives moral weight to unfair preferences, and because it subjects people to what he calls “the calculus of social interests”. His theory of justice, on the other hand, affords people equal, inalienable rights that cannot be overruled, even if doing so would maximize utility.
In the vast majority of circumstances, this guarantee of individual rights seems intuitively desirable. However, it is easy to imagine situations in which it seems counter-intuitive to demand that it is always immoral to infringe individual rights for the sake of utility. Consider for example, if a doctor could by briefly incapacitating a person against their will extract a rare vaccine from their blood which would lead to a cure for cancer. Intuitively, the doctor does seem justified in infringing the individual rights of the healthy person for the sake of “the calculus of social interest”. I will assume that most people will share this intuition. This is a crucial assumption for my argument, yet I believe that it is a safe one. It is simply intuitively implausible, I will maintain, to say that it is morally wrong for the doctor to briefly incapacitate the person against their will to extract the cure for cancer. Consequently, any moral theory which implies as much t is implausible as well.
We have now established two points: the first is that Rawls’ theory needs to be based in a comprehensive moral doctrine, and the second is that in order to be plausible, such a doctrine must be able to account for our intuitions that while the dictates of justice are desirable in most circumstances, in others, like that given above, they are not. The question now is which comprehensive moral theory explain why the dictates of Rawls’ theory of justice seem so intuitively desirable in everyday life but not in the above scenario?
Intuitionism, of course, has no trouble accounting for any array of intuitions. On the other hand, proving that utilitarianism can also account for such intuitions will be no easy task. There is one very simple argument in its favour however, which is that in the example above, where we feel that the dictates of justice should not apply, it seems obvious that this feeling stems from the utility of gaining a cure for cancer. We consider the right of the person not to be briefly incapacitated against their will, and we consider the benefits of a cancer cure, and our intuitions are swayed by the greater good. In fact, in almost any scenario one can imagine in which it seems intuitively that the dictates of justice should not apply, the reason seems to inevitably return to the greater utility of not applying them.
Thus, if it seems intuitively that the dictates of justice should not apply on occasions when there are good consequences of ignoring them, it is only logical to suggest that the occasions when they should apply are when there are good consequences of applying them. This is simple. If I have certain rules about how to play tennis which do not apply on clay courts, then it is logical to presume that the occasions when the rules do apply will be when I am not playing on clay courts. Similarly, if utilitarianism can account for the occasions when we should not apply the dictates of justice, it is highly plausible that it can also account for the occasions when we should.
Most liberals will naturally reject this. They will argue that there are many occasions in which our intuitions tell us that we should apply justice, even if it does not lead to the greater utility. They will bring up such examples as the hospital scenario, where a doctor has an opportunity to kill a man and harvest his organs to save five people. Even though five lives can be saved compared to one, and thus a greater utility achieved, it still seems intuitively that it would be wrong to do so. These intuitions seem to favour a deeper moral theory which is centred on individual rights, rather than utility.
However, our argument is not about individual cases. The claim here is that the moral theory of utilitarianism can plausibly underlie the dictates of Rawls’ theory of justice. The question is this: what model of political justice would produce the most utility? If a plausible answer is a model like Rawls’ theory, then our point has been made. To argue against this assertion, one must show that there is a concrete model of political justice which would lead to greater utility than the one proposed by Rawls, and that such a model is intuitively undesirable.
But we do need to be clear about which utilitarianism we are talking about, because there are many. The version of utilitarianism which I believe can plausibly underlie Rawls’ theory of justice is one based on preferences, which takes into account the relative strength of preferences. This model, I will argue, can best explain our seemingly conflicting intuitions that while it can be moral to impinge upon individual rights in certain circumstances, that in everyday life they should be impervious to utilitarian calculations.Of course, preference utilitarianism can easily account for our intuitions that rights can in certain cases be justifiably infringed, yet can it also explain why it seems that in everyday life the state should not allow them to be infringed?
To answer this, we must ask: what system of justice will allow a state to best satisfy the preferences of its constituents? There is, of course, only so much a state can provide, yet perhaps the most valuable thing that a state can provide people with is protection of their individual rights. And this provision is valuable precisely because it correlates with such strong preferences amongst human beings.
The reason we demand the right to life, to freedom of conscience and to freedom of speech is because we value these things so highly. There is no right which does not correlate with an intensely strong human preference. Therefore, a state faced with the task of creating legislation which would guarantee the greatest satisfaction of preferences would naturally do well to guarantee individual rights. Seen in this way, rights are simply recast as extremely strong preferences. This accounts for our intuitions that justice should guarantee rights, even though it may be moral to infringe upon them in certain cases.
Moreover, there are other problems associated with rights that are also aided by this re-conceptualisation. There is the problem of how we are to know when something is a right or not. In creating legislation, this is dealt with simply by judging what it can be reasonably presumed that every human being has an intensely strong preference for. The answer to this will be, I believe, very close to the list of rights which Rawls’ guarantees. There is also the problem of how to proceed when rights conflict. While this will always be tricky, basing the state on a deeper doctrine of maximising preference satisfaction will at least give some grounds for an argument to proceed upon. A mere assertion of a list of rights provides none.
What I have tried to establish here, is first that Rawls’ theory needs to be based on a deeper moral theory. I have then tried to show why I believe that either utilitarianism or intuitionism can plausibly form such a basis. Rawls, of course, originally created his theory of justice as an alternative to this pair. In this, I believe he was unsuccessful. Yet if the above arguments are sound, his achievement may have been to reconcile the two.