John Rawls, Constructing an Ideal Society, and Thai Food

On the eve of the U.S. Presidential Elections 2016, under the regal gaze of the recently-deceased Thai King Bhumibol, over steaming tom yam seafood soup and larb moo at Plus Sixty 6 (1A Short Street), we were having a spirited discussion about the political philosophy of John Rawls.

Thai food at Plus Sixty 6, Short Street, Singapore

It is the nature of any human society that there will be differing views about:

  • what an ideal society would look like, what values it would embody;
  • what system of government would be best to achieve such an ideal society, etc

Rawls thought that political philosophy could discover common ground on which the various factions in a society come build a reasoned agreement on these two points.

Rawls starts from several presuppositions*:

1. Presuppositions about the government of society

Rawls assumes a society governed by a democratic system, not, eg. a monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship.

2. Presuppositions about the citizens (cooperative, reasonable, rational)

Reasonable citizens, who want to cooperate with one another on mutually acceptable terms, will see that a freestanding political conception generated from ideas in the public political culture is the only basis for cooperation that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse.

Rawlsian citizens are … reasonable and rational. The idea that citizens are reasonable is familiar from political liberalism. Reasonable citizens have the capacity to abide by fair terms of cooperation, even at the expense of their own interests, provided that others are also willing to do so…Rawls calls this reasonableness the capacity for a sense of justice. Citizens are also conceived as rational: they have the capacity to pursue and revise their own view of what is valuable in human life. Rawls calls this the capacity for a conception of the good. Together these underlying capacities are the two moral powers.

3. Presuppositions about the conception of an ideal society by Rawlsian citizens

The three most fundamental ideas that Rawls finds in the public political culture of a democratic society are that citizens are free and equal, and that society should be a fair system of cooperation.

Rawls sees justice as fairness as answering to the demands of both freedom and equality, a challenge posed by the socialist critique of liberal democracy and by the conservative critique of the modern welfare state. Justice as fairness sets out a version of social contract theory that Rawls believes provides a superior understanding of justice to that of the dominant tradition in political philosophy: utilitarianism.

First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:

  • They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
  • They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

Rawls’s conception of society is defined by fairness: social institutions are to be fair to all cooperating members of society, regardless of their race, gender, religion, class of origin, reasonable conception of the good life, and so on.

Rawls also emphasizes publicity as an aspect of fairness. In what he calls a well-ordered society the principles that order the basic structure are publicly known to do so, and the justifications for these principles are knowable by and acceptable to all reasonable citizens. The idea behind publicity is that since the principles for the basic structure will be coercively enforced, they should stand up to public scrutiny.

Thai food at Plus Sixty 6, Short Street, SingaporeAnd so he thought that common ground could be found:

on the basis of public reason:

it is unreasonable for citizens to attempt to impose what they see as the whole truth on others—political power must be used in ways that all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse.

…Rawls extends this requirement of reciprocity to apply directly to how citizens explain their political decisions to one another. In essence, public reason requires citizens to be able to justify their political decisions to one another using publicly available values and standards.
Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on fundamental political issues by reference only to public values and public standards.

The public values that citizens must be able to appeal to are the values of a political conception of justice: those related to the freedom and equality of citizens and the fairness of ongoing social cooperation. Among public values are the freedom of religious practice, the political equality of women and racial minorities, the efficiency of the economy, the preservation of a healthy environment, and the integrity of the family as securing the orderly reproduction of society from one generation to the next. Nonpublic values are the values internal to associations like churches (e.g., that women may not hold the highest offices) or private clubs (e.g., that racial minorities are rightly excluded) which cannot be squared with public values such as these.

Similarly, citizens should be able to justify their political decisions by public standards of inquiry. Public standards are principles of reasoning and rules of evidence that all citizens could reasonably endorse. So citizens are not to justify their political decisions by appeal to divination, or to complex and disputed economic or psychological theories. Rather, publicly acceptable standards are those that rely on common sense, on facts generally known, and on the conclusions of science that are well established and not controversial.

The duty to abide by public reason applies when the most fundamental political issues are at stake: issues such as who has the right to vote, which religions are to be tolerated, who will be eligible to own property, and what are suspect categories for making employment decisions. These are what Rawls calls constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice. Public reason applies more weakly, if at all, to less momentous political questions, for example to most laws that change the rate of tax, or that put aside public money to maintain national parks.

Citizens have a duty to constrain their decisions by public reason only when they engage in certain political activities, usually when exercising powers of public office. So judges are bound by public reason when they issue their rulings, legislators should abide by public reason when speaking and voting in the legislature, and the executive and candidates for high office should respect public reason in their public pronouncements. Significantly, Rawls says that voters should also heed public reason when they vote. All of these activities are or support exercises of political power, so all must be justifiable in terms that all citizens might reasonably endorse. However, citizens are not bound by duties of public reason when engaged in other activities, for example when they worship in church, perform on stage, pursue scientific research, send letters to the editor, or talk politics around the dinner table.

The duty to be able to justify one’s political decisions with public reasons is a moral, not a legal, duty: it is a duty of civility. All citizens have full legal rights to free expression, and overstepping the bounds of public reason is never itself a crime. Rather citizens have a moral duty of mutual respect and civic friendship not to justify political decisions on fundamental issues with partisan values or controversial standards of reasoning that could not be publicly redeemed.

bento lunchbox: quinoa, larb moo, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes

and a practical way of public reasoning is by donning the veil of ignorance:

The most striking feature of the original position is the veil of ignorance, which prevents other arbitrary facts about citizens from influencing the agreement among their representatives. As we have seen, Rawls holds that the fact that a citizen is for example of a certain race, class, and gender is no reason for social institutions to favor or disfavor him. Each party in the original position is therefore deprived of knowledge of the race, class, and gender of the real citizen they represent. In fact the veil of ignorance deprives the parties of all facts about citizens that are irrelevant to the choice of principles of justice: not only their race, class, and gender but also their age, natural endowments, and more. Moreover the veil of ignorance also screens out specific information about the citizens’ society so as to get a clearer view of the permanent features of a just social system.

and so ultimately by working the constructivist muscle:

Political constructivism is Rawls’s account of the objectivity and validity of political judgments. The original position embodies, Rawls says, all of the relevant conceptions of person and society and principles of practical reasoning for making judgments about justice. When there is an overlapping consensus focused on justice as fairness, the original position specifies a shared public perspective from which all citizens can reason about the principles of justice and their application to the society’s institutions. Judgments made from this perspective are then objectively correct, in the sense of giving reasons to citizens to act regardless of their actual motivations or the reasons they think they have within their particular points of view. Political constructivism does not maintain that the principles of justice are true: questions of truth are ones about which reasonable citizens may disagree, and are to be addressed by each citizen from within their own comprehensive doctrine. Judgments made from the original position are, however, valid, or as Rawls says, reasonable.

*because the Stanford Encyclopaedia entry is more useful than any explanation I could have coughed up, I’ve let them explain Rawls here.


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