POLITICAL THEORY – John Rawls


Many of us feel that our societies are a little
– or even plain totally – ‘unfair’. But we have a hard time explaining our sense
of injustice to the powers that be in a way that sounds rational and without personal
pique or bitterness. That’s why we need John Rawls, a twentieth-century
American philosopher who provides us with a failproof model for identifying what truly
might be unfair – and how we might gather support for fixing things. Rawls: http://media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/35/100835-004-0A003A0A.jpg Born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA in 1921,
Rawls—nicknamed Jack—was exposed, and responded, to the injustices of the modern
world from a very young age. As a child, he witnessed at first hand shocking poverty in
the United States, http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-qhA2oMrxkIQ/Tj6AiqtlZqI/AAAAAAAAErs/djyozUjG9A8/s1600/There%2527s_no_way_like_The_american_way.jpg the death of his brothers from an illness
he unwittingly transmitted to them, and the horrors and lawlessness of the Second World
War. http://haveblogwilltravel.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/old_town_warsaw_waf-2012-1501-311945.jpg All this inspired him to go into academia:
he wanted to use the power of ideas to change the unjust world he was living in. It was the publication of A Theory of Justice
in 1971 that properly made Rawls’s name. http://c2.bibtopia.com/h/565/846/734846565.0.m.jpg Having read and widely discussed his book,
Bill Clinton was to label Rawls ‘the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century’–
and had him over to the White House for dinner on a regular basis. What, then, does this exemplar of fairness
have to tell the modern world? TEXT: 1. Things as they are now are patently
unfair The statistics all point to the radical unfairness
of society. Comparative charts of life expectancy and income projections direct us to a single
overwhelming moral. Here are three important example charts but
we probably should re-draw them (a small graphic design task) for the film so that we haven’t
stolen theirs: http://pgpf.org/sites/default/files/sitecore/media%20library/PGPF/Chart-Archive/0015_life-expectancy-full.gif I’d also suggest the first graph on this
website–it’s from a video: http://ethericstudies.org/responsibility/one_percent.htm Here’s for the whole world:
http://thesocietypages.org/graphicsociology/files/2009/05/conley_champagne_distribution.png But day-to-day, it can be hard to take this
unfairness seriously, especially in relation to our own lives. That’s because so many
voices are on hand telling us that, if we work hard and have ambition, we can make it.
Rawls was deeply aware of how the American Dream seeped through the political system
and into individual hearts – and he knew its corrosive, regressive influence.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/THIS_IS_AMERICA…_WHERE_EVERY_BOY_CAN_DREAM_OF_BEING_PRESIDENT._-_NARA_-_515762.jpg He was a statistician who knew that the rags-to-riches
tales were overall so negligible as not to warrant serious attention by political theorists.
Indeed, mentioning them was merely a clever political sleight of hand designed to prevent
the powerful from having to undertake the necessary task of reforming society. Rawls understood that debates about unfairness
and what to do about it often get bogged down in arcane details and petty squabbling which
mean that year after year, nothing quite gets done.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/Barack_Obama_presidential_debate_preparations.jpg What Rawls was therefore after was a simple,
economical and polemical way to show people how their societies were unfair and what they
might do about it. TEXT: 2. Imagine if you were not you Rawls intuitively understood that a lot of
the reason why societies don’t become fairer is that those who benefit from current injustice
are spared the need to think too hard about what it would have been like to be born in
different circumstances. So he devised one of the greatest thought experiments in the
history of political thought, He called it: ‘the veil of ignorance.’ Show in text: THE VEIL OF IGNORANCE and show a picture Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in a conscious,
intelligent state before our own birth, but without any knowledge of what circumstances
we were going to be born into; our futures shrouded by a veil of ignorance. Hovering
high above the planet (Rawls was fascinated by the Apollo space programme), we wouldn’t
know what sort of parents we’d have, what our neighbourhoods would be like, how the
schools would perform, what the local hospital could do for us, how the police and judicial
systems might treat us and so on… satellite view: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/Flat_earth_night.png The question that Rawls asks us all to contemplate
is: if we knew nothing about where we’d end up, what sort of a society would it feel
safe to enter? The ‘veil of ignorance’ stops us thinking
about all those who have done well and draws our attention to the appalling risks involved
in entering, for example, US society as if it were a lottery– without knowing if you’d
wind up the child of an orthodontist in Scottsdale, Arizona one option//example: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8340/8240125300_bb65771f96_b.jpg or as the offspring of a black single mother
in the rougher bits of eastern Detroit. one option/example: http://pixabay.com/p-279457/?no_redirect Would any sane birth-lottery player really
want to take the gamble of ending up in the society we now have? Probably not–they’d
insist that the rules of the entire game had to be changed. Otherwise it would be too risky. TEXT: 3. You know what needs to be fixed Rawls answers the question for us: any sane
participant of the veil of ignorance experiment is going to want a society with a number of
things in place: they’ll want the schools to be very good, the hospitals to function
brilliantly, unimpeachable and fair access to the law and decent housing for everyone.
The veil of ignorance forces observers to accept that the country they’d really want
to be born randomly into would almost certainly be a version of Switzerland or Denmark. In
other words, we know what sort of a society we want to live in. We just haven’t focused
on it properly until now – because the choices have already been made. Rawls’s experiment allows us to think more
objectively about what a fair society looks like in its details. When addressing major
decisions about the allocation of resources we need only ask ourselves: ‘how would I
feel about this issue if I were stuck behind the veil of ignorance?’ The fair answer
emerges directly when we contemplate what we would need in order still to be adequately
positioned in the worst case scenario. TEXT: 4. What to do next A lot will depend on what’s wrong with your
society. In this sense, Rawls was usefully undoctrinaire – he recognised that the veil
of ignorance experiment throws up different issues in different contexts: in some, the
priority might be to fix air pollution, in others, the school system. But crucially, Rawls provides us with a tool
to critique our current societies based on a beautifully simple experiment. We’ll know
we finally have made our societies fair when we will be able to say in all honesty, from
a position of imaginary ignorance before our births, that we simply wouldn’t mind at
all what kind of circumstances our future parents might have and what sort of neighbourhoods
we might be born into. The fact that we simply couldn’t sanely
take on such a challenge now is a measure of how deeply unfair things remain – and
therefore how much we still have left to achieve. All this John Rawls has helped us to see.

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