Rawls's Defense of the Liberal Democratic Welfare State


CHAPTER EIGHT of ECONOMIC JUSTICE by Stephen Nathanson  [Prentice Hall, 1998]


In this chapter, I will consider some of the central ideas developed by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice [Harvard University Press, 1971]  There are several reasons for discussing Rawls's views at this point. First, many people regard A Theory of Justice as the most important philosophical work on justice in this century. Second, because Rawls defends a form of welfare state, his theory can help us deepen our understanding of the moral basis for the welfare state. This is espe­cially important because welfare state institutions have been subjected to much hostile criticism. lf Rawls's theory can help expose the flaws in these criticisms, it will provide a valuable addition to my discussion.

Finally, by examining Rawls's theory, we can begin to approach the ques­tion of how extensive a welfare state is required by justice. Many different kinds of welfare state are possible. Some provide minimal resources to their citizens, while others are very generous. We need to know which type is required by justice. Only by determining this can we evaluate the economic systems of actual societies and decide which ones, if any, are just. We can look to Rawls's theory for guidance here, since it contains both a justification for a liberal democratic welfare state and a criterion for deciding how much a welfare state should provide to its citizens.





Rawls's justification for the welfare state has some distinctive features. In order to clarify them, it will be useful to contrast Rawls's method of argu­ment with the method I have used in this book. I have proceeded by identi­fying the primary moral values that underlie major arguments for and against different economic systems: the promotion of well-being, the alloca­tion of goods in accord with desert, and the protection of liberty. My argument proceeds by comparing each system's success in advancing these values. It is a cumulative argument, resting on several different values and a mixture of theoretical and practical considerations. While I have tried to argue care­fully and systematically, there is a certain lack of unity in my approach, since it focuses on multiple factors that need to be weighed and balanced. Recognizing that many different factors and values are relevant, I try to wade through the plethora of relevant reasons, impose some order on them, and then, by evaluating the most central arguments, arrive at a conclusion.

Rawls employs a different, quite distinctive method of argument. While he sometimes considers familiar arguments and values, his basic method involves the construction of a single criterion for evaluating different conceptions of justice.

Rawls's criterion derives from the social contract tradition in political philosophy. He argues that the correct principles of justice are those that would be agreed to by people designing the basic institutions of their society. Instead simply asking which principles of justice are true or which ones we appeal to in ordinary life, Rawls asks which principles we would choose if we were writing the social contract that contained the fundamental rules to govern our society.

Rawls's theory contains two main parts. The first part defends the social contract method and describes the conditions under which people make the choice of principles. The second part describes the principles of justice and defends them by showing why they would be chosen for  inclusion in an ideal social contract.





If we ask what principles people would choose to govern their society, it may not be clear how this will help us find the correct principles of justice.  After all, people disagree about what the principles of justice are and what kind of social, political, and economic system justice requires. If we simply ask what  principles people would choose to govern their society, We will get many different answers rather than a single one.

In order to solve this problem, Rawls proposes that we describe the situation in which people choose principles in a special way that differs from actual circumstances. Rawls calls his theory "justice as fairness" because the situation in which the principles will be chosen must be fair. In addition, it must possess other features that make the principles credible.

To begin the search for the principles of justice, then, we are to imagine a group of people in what Rawls calls "the original position," a hypothetical situation in which no rules yet exist. Neither the people involved nor the situation are real. Both are idealized, and the first part of Rawls's thought experiment involves deciding what requirements to place on these people in order to ensure that the principles they would select are correct.

One restriction is that people in the original position must be regarded as having an equal voice and as agreeing freely to whatever principles they adopt. To see why these conditions of equality and uncoerced agreement are important, imagine a group that agrees to appoint George as the dictator of all and accepts the principle "do whatever George says." They select this principle because George has a powerful weapon and has threatened to kill everyone who opposes this rule. Because people accept this principle only under the threat of force, we would not take it seriously as a principle of justice. We will treat principles that emerge from the original position as correct only if they emerge from the free, uncoerced consent of equal parties. So, we are to imag­ine that the people in the original position are free and equal in this way.

A second condition is that people in the original position must be rational. The reason for this is obvious. If they are not rational, we will have no reason to take seriously the results of their deliberations. We must be assured that the principles are not tile result of irrational acceptance.

Third, Rawls proposes that people in the original position must have a good understanding of human nature and human societies. The principles of justice are meant to provide a workable basis for social life. If their accep­tance rests on false beliefs about individuals and social institutions, this will discredit them. The principles must be based on good information about human beings and human society.

A related point concerns the motivation of the people in the original posi­tion. Suppose that they are all extreme altruists and always put the interests of others first. While we might admire them for their virtue, we might also think that the rules that a group of saints would accept might not be suitable for normal people to live by. Normal people have a mixture of motivations. We may care about other people generally, but we tend to care most deeply about advancing our own interests and the interests of people who are near and dear to us.

To take account of these facts about human motivation, Rawls assumes that people in the original position are concerned with advancing their own inter­ests. They want to make sure that their own lives will go well, and they want principles of justice that will protect them from various kinds of bad conditions.

In addition, Rawls supposes that these people are, as he says, "mutually dis­interested." That is, when they deliberate about what principles to adopt, they do so from a perspective of concern for themselves and not for others. Each is trying to strike the best bargain for himself and does not worry about others. This does not mean that Rawls thinks that actual people are selfish or egotisti­cal. Rather, he thinks that if we make the principles acceptable to people who care about themselves, then those principles will protect the basic interests of all. Again, we would not want principles that presuppose extreme altruism. The most credible principles are those that would be acceptable to "mutually disinterested" people who are concerned with advancing their own interests.





One of the most important, conditions that Rawls places on the people in the original position is the "veil of ignorance." According to Rawls, the people in the original position must be ignorant of any particular facts about them­selves. They cannot know who they are, what features they possess, or what specific position they will occupy in society. This may seem like a strange con­dition, but it is crucial to obtaining agreement on rules that are appropriate.

To see why the veil of ignorance is necessary, imagine that A and B are in the original position and are considering whether to adopt rules that permit slavery. If they know that A will be a master and B will be a slave and if they are concerned about pursuing their own advantage, then A will favor a sys­tem that permits slavery while B will reject this system. Agreement will be impossible, since both will simply reason in an unconstrained way about what will benefit them. We all recognize, however, that the claim "this will benefit me" or "this will harm me" is not an argument for the justice or injustice of an institution. The veil of ignorance is a means for disallowing such claims. 

To see how it works, consider A and B again. If we place them behind the veil of ignorance, then neither knows whether he will be a slave or a master. Since neither one will want to be a slave and since neither one can know in advance what status he will have in a slave society, they must reject slavery altogether. In order to prevent themselves from being treated in an intoler­able way, they must adopt principles that prohibit anyone from being treat­ed that way. The only way to prevent the possibility of being a slave oneself is to adopt a principle that prohibits the institution of slavery. The veil of ignorance forces this choice, acting as an information shield that makes it impos­sible to adopt rules that advantage some at the expense of' others.

This example highlights one of the key features of Rawls's view. There are certain conditions (such as being a slave) that any person would find intolerable. In order to protect oneself from being in that position, each per­son in the original position must insist on principles that guarantee no one should be in such a position. The resulting principles of justice prohibit forms of treatment that no one would want for themselves.

To summarize Rawls's method, then, he argues that the correct principles of justice are the ones that would be chosen by people who are free, equal, rational, knowledgeable about human nature and society, concerned about promoting their own well-being, mutually disinterested, and ignorant of their own identity and place in society. To say that a principle of justice is correct is to say that it would be chosen by people in this situation.





Rawls believes that people in the original position would choose two basic principles of justice, one for distributing basic political and civil liberties and one for distributing social and economic goods.

Here is the first principle:


Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of

basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. (250)


The "basic liberties" that Rawls has in mind here are things such as freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, freedom  of political participation, and the protections of the "rule of law" (such as prohibition of arbitrary arrest, guarantees of due process of law. The liberties protected by the  first principle are the familiar liberties of a liberal democratic state. They provide e people with  rights to influence the political process as citizens, and they create  a system of immunities from interference by the government. In a just society everyone will possess these liberties equally.

While these political  and civil liberties may not seem related to issues of economic  justice, the political and economic realms are interconnected in many ways.  No state, Rawls thinks, can be just if it does not provide its citizens with these basic liberties. This is true even if it succeeds in making people economically prosperous. Rawls thinks that the political and civil liber­ties are so important, that he gives them priority over economic rights.  He does this  by saying that his first principle has "lexical priority'' over the sec­ond principle. The basic political and civil liberties come first; they  may not be traded away or denied in order to promote economic progress.

Rawls's second principle concerns the distribution of 'social and economic goods. He develops it  in two stages. In the first version, he writes:


Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are  both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (60)


This principle expresses three important ideas. First, it tells us that justice permits "social and economic inequalities"; it does not require that everyone have the same  amount of resources. Second, however, it requires that the overall system of distribution must be advantageous to all. Third, it  insists that if higher rewards attach to some occupations, the opportunity to obtain those occupations must be open to all people.

As stated, this principle is not very definite about the nature of a just dis­tribution of resources. Rawls considers several ways of making the principle more specific and finally settles on the one he calls "the difference princi­ple."   Its  job is to tell us how much economic inequality is permitted by the principles of justice. The new version of the second principle contains two new features. It reads as follows:


Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. (83)


One change is contained in condition (b). It specifies that the greater rewards that attach to certain positions in society are just only if everyone has "fair equality of opportunity" to compete for those positions. The ideal of "fair equality of opportunity" requires that a just society provide some degree of education and training to everyone, independent of their ability to pay for it. If justice is to permit the greater rewards that go with some occupations, then the competition for those positions must be fair, and in order for the competition to be fair, people must have more than a legal right to apply for positions. They must also have some resources invested in the development of their skills so they can compete effectively. This is the moral basis for the view that government must provide everyone with a free education, at least up to a certain grade level.





Many people think that if government provides free education for all, that is enough to create fair opportunities, and no further action is required to achieve economic justice. Rawls disagrees, and this is why he adds condition (a) to the second principle of justice. This condition, known as the "differ­ence principle," says that economic inequalities are just only if their exis­tence is "to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged." This means that economic inequalities can be just but only if they are part of a system that maximizes the well-being of those who possess least.

In order to make clear how the principle works, it will be useful to recall a comparison discussed in Chapter 4. Consider the following distributions of resources:



Situation A

Situation B

Situation C

Person 1




Person 2




Person 3





Situation A is a pure egalitarian distribution: Everyone has exactly the same amount. In situation B, one person has more than the others, but the oth­ers' holdings are increased too. If we assume that giving person 3 less than 2000 would result in less than 1250 for persons 1 and 2, then situation B satisfies the difference principle. Rawls would say that the move from A to B is just.  By contrast, if we move to C, person 3 improves his holdings, but I and 2 are not brought up. Situation C is unjust according to the difference principle.

While this chart illustrates the key idea of the difference principle, there is one way in which it misrepresents Rawls's view. Rawls is concerned with what he calls the "basic structure" of society. He is not concerned with the amounts of resources that particular individuals possess. So, in making these comparisons, we should be thinking not about particular persons but rather about socioeconomic groups. The following chart better represents Rawls's concerns (although he does not identify these specific groups).



Situation A

Situation B

Situation C

Unskilled worker




Skilled worker




Company Executive






Rawls is concerned with the level of resources going to persons occupying particular social roles or statuses. That is what the basic principles of justice are about. They are a means of judging the basic structure of society and only apply secondarily to individuals.

Rawls's adoption of the difference principle shows that he accepts the idea that a system that permits inequalities may provide incentives that will result in benefits for all. Inequalities can be just if they have this positive effect.

In earlier chapters, this incentive argument came up as part of an argu­ment for capitalism and the market system. As we saw, many people claim that greater rewards for some can lead to increased productive activity and thus to a greater pool of resources for increasing everyone's well-being. A major argu­ment for market capitalism is that it has this effect. Its defenders claim that while some people acquire more resources than others, even those at the bot­tom are made better off by the general increase in social productivity.

By embracing this argument, Rawls seems to accept the logic of what is sometimes called "trickle down" economics. This is the view that greater benefits for wealthy people "trickle-down" to -- and thus benefit -- less well-off people.

Rawls's difference principle differs from "trickle-down" economics in a number of significant ways, however. First, it makes benefits for less well-off people a necessary condition of the justice of greater rewards for others. If the benefits for all that are said to arise from providing incentives do not actually occur, then Rawls requires that a purely egalitarian distribution be created. While most "trickle-down" theorists do not take equality seriously, Rawls sees it as the point to which we should return if increased rewards to some do not in fact benefit all.

Second, the expression "trickle down" suggests that the wealthy will have large amounts of resources while the amount that reaches people at lower levels will just be a trickle, a small amount.   Rawls's difference principle, how­ever, demands that inequalities be set up so as to maximize the well-being of people at the bottom of the economic ladder. This strongly suggests that a substantial amount of resources (not just a trickle) must find its way to poorer  people if the holdings of the better off are to be justified.

Finally, since Rawls's theory requires that inequalities must maximize the well-being of the poor in order to be just, this suggests that every increase in inequality must be justified in terms of its improving the lot of the least well off. Only if it has this effect can an inequality be justified. For this reason, it might be more appropriate to call Rawls's view a "trickle-up" theory, since every movement of resources upward and away from equality must be justi­fied by its tendency to promote the well-being of the least well off. Rather than simply hoping that the benefits of inequality will trickle down, Rawls's difference principle requires them to benefit the least well off. If they do not, then justice forbids them, and an equal distribution would be required.





How does Rawls defend the difference principle? How does he show that it expresses the correct principle of justice regarding the distribution of social and economic goods?

Recall that for Rawls the best way to show that a principle of justice is correct is by showing that it would be adopted by people in the original position. This is precisely what Rawls tries to do for the difference principle.  He tries to show why the difference principle would be adopted in the original position by people who are free, equal, rational, knowledgeable about human nature and society, concerned to promote their own well-being, mutually disinterest­ed, and ignorant of their own identity and place in society.

The argument for accepting the difference principle has two parts because the principle itself has two parts. The first part states a presumption in favor of an equal distribution, while the second describes a condition under which an unequal distribution becomes permissible. So, in showing why the difference principle would be chosen, we need to know why people would choose equality as the starting point and then why they would be will­ing to move away from equality.

Why would they choose equality as a starting point? Each person is concerned with advancing his own interests and is not interested in advancing or diminishing the interests of others. That means that each one wants the best possible result for herself and does not have either an altruistic desire to make others better off or a hostile desire to make them worse off. So, each person will want as good a personal situation as possible.

In addition, because the terms of the contract must be acceptable to all, each person knows that an arrangement that makes some people better off than others will be rejected by those who do less well. At this stage, there is no reason to accept such inequalities. So, as a first step, the proposal of an equal distribution is the only one that would be agreed to by all.

Once we have gotten to this point, then the question is: Why  would peo­ple ever agree to anything other than an equal distribution?  The answer is that if an unequal distribution will make every person better off, then every­one would accept this -- again because all are concerned with advancing their own interests.

Recall the choice discussed earlier.




Situation A

Situation B

Unskilled worker



Skilled worker



Company executive




If we begin with the strict equality of situation A and can then show that allowing company executives to be better off, will result in improving everyone's situation, then both the skilled and unskilled workers will find situa­tion B preferable to situation A.

Now consider a different choice, a move from situation B to situation D.



Situation B

Situation D

Unskilled worker



Skilled worker



Company executive




By moving to situation D, two groups are made better off, but people in the lowest position are made less well off. This move would be condemned by the difference principle, since it creates inequalities that are not "to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged."

Would the move from B to D he rejected in the original position?  Rawls argues that it would. Because the veil of ignorance prevents people from knowing what position they will occupy in society everyone knows that they may end up in the lowest position. For that reason, they will want to ensure that the position of the least well off is as good as possible.

But, one might object, why wouldn't people in the original position be willing to gamble? It they permit inequalities like those in situation D and if they wind up in a better position, their gains will be larger. Maybe those larger gains are so good that they are worth the risk that one might lose and end up in the bad position.

Rawls rules out this gambling strategy, claiming that people in the origi­nal position would follow what is called a "maximin" strategy. They will aim not for the highest possible winnings but rather for a situation in which, even if they lose, their losing situation will be as good as possible. They will want to prevent finding themselves in an intolerable position.

To illustrate this, recall our discussion of slavery. If one chooses a slave system, that would be a huge gamble. One could win big by being a master or lose badly by being a slave. People looking for the biggest gains will take this risk, but, Rawls says, because this is such an important choice, rational people in the original position will be very conservative. They will not gamble in this way because the costs of losing are too great. To lose and find one­self a slave would be intolerable.

So, the general outcome of the original position deliberations is that peo­ple will accept a principle that permits only those inequalities that make the position of the worst off as good as possible. This is precisely what the differ­ence principle does.







Earlier in this chapter, I contrasted the wide-ranging, informal arguments that I have used with the theoretically unified method that Rawls develops through his use of the social contract idea. In addition to his "official" social contract argument for the difference principle, however, Rawls has another informal argument for it. Since this informal argument contains some important ideas, I will briefly describe it here.

When Rawls first introduces the second principle of justice, it does not include the difference principle. It says:


[S]ocial and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) rea­sonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (60)


The difference principle is introduced later as the proper interpretation of the second principle. Before adopting it, Rawls mentions two other inter­pretations and explains why he rejects them.

The first interpretation involves what he calls the "system of natural liber­ty." By this, he means libertarian capitalism, a pure market system. According to this system, any distribution is just as long as (a) it is not the product of force or fraud, and (b) everyone has a right to compete for higher-paying positions.  Within this system, having a "right to compete" means that there are no legal prohibitions on eligibility for positions. No one is prohibited by law front com­peting  for positions that carry greater social and economic rewards.

In the system of natural liberty, then, different people compete for posi­tions, and those who win better positions acquire a greater share of' resources. No limit is placed on the amount that anyone can acquire. Nor is anyone guaranteed access to any resources.

Rawls rejects this libertarian system because he thinks that the distribution  of resources it produces will be too heavily influenced by the


prior distribution of natural ... talents and abilities . . . as these have been devel­oped or left unrealized, and their use favored or disfavored ... by social circum­stances [,] ... accident and good fortune. (72)


Rawls's concern is that if we simply let people compete for resources, then whether people win or lose will be heavily influenced by the natural talents that people have (or lack) plus the beneficial or harmful social circumstances in which people find themselves. Some people are born with traits that will make them good competitors in the market, but others are not. Some are born in social circumstances that are conducive to the development of traits and abilities that will help them succeed, but others are not. Among the fundamental determinants of success and failure, then, will be factors over which people have little or no control, and Rawls thinks this is unjust. As he writes,


Intuitively, the most obvious injustice of the system of natural liberty is that it per­mits  distributive shares to be improperly influenced by ... factors that are] arbi­trary from a moral point of 'view. (72)


Rawls's argument against the system of natural liberty has a good deal of plausibility. Few of us think that the accidents of birth and social circum­stance should determine a person's life prospects. That is the way a caste system or hereditary hierarchy works. Yet, the system  of natural liberty, Rawls suggests, is morally similar. People do compete and make efforts, but their ability to succeed depends to a great extent on the advantages and disad­vantages that they happen to have inherited from nature or acquired front their social circumstances.





One response to this problem is for society to use its resources to help people prepare to compete in the market. Instead of providing everyone with the merely formal, legal right to compete, proponents of fair equal opportunity acknowledge that everyone should have a fair chance to win. This requires providing all with education, training, and other goods that give them a real chance to succeed in the competition for more favored positions in society.

Rawls does not oppose these steps. He thinks they are necessary, but he does not think they are sufficient to guarantee that the resulting distribution is just. There are two basic reasons for this. First, even if the system succeeds in elimi­nating the advantages that some get through the social contingencies of being born into a well-off family, "it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents" (73-4). Even the most, effective program to even out social advantages and disadvantages would leave significant, morally arbitrary factors in place -- the advan­tages and disadvantages that come with genetic makeup. These would still play a very important role in affecting the outcome of economic competition.

The second problem is that the advantages and disadvantages that accom­pany social contingencies cannot be done away with. This is because the development of natural capacities is so heavily influenced by the family and the social position in which people find themselves. "Even the willingness to make an effort, to try," he says, "is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances." (74) As long as we leave the family intact, the advan­tages and disadvantages of social circumstance cannot be undone. Rawls is emphatic on this point. "It is impossible," he writes, "to secure equal chances of achievement" for all. Rather than denying this fact, he suggests that we "adopt a principle that recognizes this fact and also mitigates the arbitrary effects of the natural lottery itself" (74).

The difference principle succeeds where these fail. It does not make access to resources totally dependent on the contingencies of nature or social circum­stance. Taking seriously the moral worth of every member of society, it  guarantees a tolerable level of well-being for all. It does this by channeling the distrib­ution of goods through a system that permits  inequalities but only insofar as the, benefit the worst off. For Rawls, a just society will not simply consign those who cannot  compete effectively in the market to an intolerably low status.





Rawls's arguments give us another way to understand the moral basis for the welfare state. As we saw earlier, a welfare state is one that provides a legal right to access to at least some resources for all citizens, while at the same time per­mitting private property, a market system, and some degree of inequality.

Rawls has two main arguments why such a state is required by justice. First, and most important, it is the kind of state that we ourselves would choose if we were in the ideal circumstances of the original position. We would all agree to this kind of society because no matter what position we end  up occupying, we will have the same basic liberties as others. In addi­tion, even if we end up in the economically worst off position, the difference principle guarantees that this is the best we could hope for. If inequalities were done away with, our own less good position would be still worse. So, whatever inequalities exist are justified.

Rawls's second, more informal argument gives further support to the claim that a welfare state is superior to a pure market system. A pure market system rewards the winners of economic competition  and we might think that the winners deserve their superior rewards. On reflection, however,  it is clear that who wins is heavily influenced by natural and social contingencies, the luck of the draw that determines what our genetically inherited traits are and whether our social situation is conducive to developing the skills and traits necessary for successful competition.

For Rawls, there is nothing unjust about the fact that people acquire different  traits or circumstances, but it is unjust  if society allows inherited traits and circumstances to determine people's life prospects. As he writes:


The natural distribution [of  inherited traits] is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust  that  men are born into society  at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What  is  just  and  unjust  is  the way  that  institutions  deal with these facts... The social system is not an unchangeable order beyond human control. (102)


It is important, then, that we distinguish the natural order from the social order. While there are some facts of nature that we must simply accept, we do not have to accept social outcomes that are based on natural facts. Instead, we can and should alter social outcomes in accord with the princi­ples of justice. This is what Rawls's theory requires. As he says,


In justice as fairness men agree to share one another's fate. In designing institutions they undertake to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit. The two principles are a fair way of meeting, the arbitrariness of fortune. ...(102)


While Rawls draws on different arguments from the ones I have used, the result of his reflections is extremely friendly to the conclusions I have defend­ed. His criterion of economic justice permits significant economic inequalities, but it permits them only when they are necessary to make the position of the least well off as  good as possible. He believes that a just society cannot leave people at the mercy of the marketplace and rejects libertarian capitalism because it permits unjust inequalities. Rawls also gives priority to protecting political and civil liberties. For this reason, he would reject those forms of socialism that have been willing to sacrifice civil and political rights to achieve economic equality.  In addition, he rejects socialism because it insists on a stricter form of equality than is actually required by justice. These conclusions are all consistent with my  defense of a welfare state, and some form of welfare state seems to be best suited to realizing Rawls's principles.





At the start of this chapter, I suggested that Rawls's theory might help us to do two things: understand more fully the moral basis of the welfare state and begin to determine how much a welfare state should provide for its citizens. Having described the basic components of Rawls's theory, I now want to see how helpful the theory is. My intent is not to  provide a complete assessment  of Rawls's theory. Instead, I will focus on three questions that are most relevant to my  inquiry into the nature of economic justice.

First, what is the value of  Rawls's social contract method?

Second, does the difference principle correctly state the requirements of economic ­justice?

Third, does Rawls's theory help us to decide what level of resources a just society will provide for its citizens?  [Nathanson’s answers to the second and third questions are not included in this selection.]





There are two extreme views that might be taken about Rawls's social contract method of argument According to one view (sometimes suggested by Rawls but never fully embraced), a social contract argument is the only appropriate kind of argument for defending principles of justice. The opposite extreme view is that social contract arguments are artificial, irrelevant, and unhelpful.

My own view is that the social contract argument is one form of argument we can draw on and that we should use it along with others. While it is not absolute­ly, necessary to inquiries about justice, neither is it pointless or irrelevant.

Why is the social contract method not necessary? Because there are many kinds of arguments that people give to defend views about justice, and any argument that can be seen to have a point merits consideration. Arguments need not take any specific form. They may appeal to general principles, or they may appeal to examples of just or unjust practices. They may invoke historical experience, economic theories, or theories of' human nature. Indeed, they may emerge from novels, stories, plays, and even from jokes and songs. Anything that seems relevant should be examined, whether it is cast in the form of a social contract argument or not.

To say this, however, is not to denigrate the contract method. Rawls's theory is, I think, very helpful in thinking about problems of economic justice. It is helpful in part because it changes our perspective in useful ways. All of us are used to a certain repertoire of slogans and arguments about wealth and pover­ty, justice and injustice. Often, when we engage in political and moral debate, we quickly settle into familiar ruts and simply reproduce the slogans and argu­ments we have heard before. We need ways to free ourselves from rigid, ritualized forms of thought, and Rawls's social contract method can help us do that.

In addition, since all of us have vested interests either in change or in the preservation of the current order, our reasoning may be influenced by con­cerns about our own personal well-being. While we know that the fact that an arrangement benefits ourselves is not strictly relevant to deciding whether it is just or unjust, we may nonetheless be influenced in our judg­ments by concerns about  our own well-being.

Rawls's contract method is helpful in two ways. First, by requiring a differ­ent kind of thought exercise, it helps us get out of the ruts of conventional thinking and thus makes possible a fresh view. Second, by imposing the veil of ignorance, it prevents us front giving too much weight to the advantages or disadvantages that we personally derive from our current institutions.  It forces, us to argue in ways that give equal weight to everyone's well-being.

That our thinking about justice can be contaminated by concern for our own interests is powerfully brought out by the nineteenth century econo­mist, Jean-Baptiste Say. He writes:

Persons, who under a vicious order of things have obtained a competent  share of social enjoyments, are never in want of arguments to justify . . .  such a state of society­. ... If the same individuals were tomorrow required to cast anew the lots assigning them it place in society, they would find many things to object to.

Say brings out the relation between our degree of personal contentment with a social system and our belief about whether the system is just. We feel that a social order is justifiable because it is fine for us. Say makes this vivid by imagining a lottery to assign new places. As he correctly notes, people's attitudes toward a system might well change if they could not count on retaining an advantageous position within it.'

The same kind of unsettling effect is produced by Rawls's thought exper­iment and by the prospect of renegotiating the social contract from a posi­tion of ignorance about our own situation. Whatever its faults, the method has inspired a great deal of new thinking. One can praise it for its fruitfulness without thinking it is the only legitimate form of social thought.