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  • Today, we turn

  • to the question of distributive justice.

  • How should income and wealth and power

  • and opportunities be distributed?

  • According to what principles?

  • John Rawls offers a detailed answer to that question.

  • And we're going to examine and assess his answer to that question today.

  • We put ourselves in a position to do so last time.

  • By trying to make sense of why he thinks. That principles of justice

  • are best derived from a hypothetical contract.

  • And what matters is that the hypothetical contract be carried out in an original position of equality

  • behind, what Rawls calls, the veil of ignorance.

  • So that much is clear?

  • Alright, then let's turn to the principles

  • that Rawls says would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance.

  • First, he considered some of the major alternatives.

  • What about utilitarianism?

  • Would the people in the original position choose to govern their collective lives

  • utilitarian principles, the greatest good for the greatest number

  • No, they wouldn't, Rawls says.

  • And the reason is,

  • that behind the veil of ignorance, everyone knows

  • that once the veil goes up, and real life begins,

  • we will each want to be respected with dignity.

  • Even if we turn out to be a member of a minority.

  • We don't want to be oppressed.

  • And so we would agree

  • to reject utilitarianism, and instead to adopt

  • as our first principle, equal basic liberties.

  • Fundamental rights to freedom of speech,

  • freedom of assembly, religious liberty,

  • freedom of conscience and the like.

  • We wouldn't want to take the chance that we would wind up

  • as members of an oppressed or a despised minority

  • with the majority tyrannizing over us.

  • And so Rawls says utilitarianism would be rejected.

  • "Utilitarianism makes the mistake", Rawls writes,

  • "of forgetting, or at least not taking seriously,the distinction between persons."

  • And in the original position behind the veil of ignorance, we would recognize that and reject utilitarianism.

  • We wouldn't trade off our fundamental rights and liberties for any economic advantages.

  • That's the first principle.

  • Second principle has to do with social and economic inequalities.

  • What would we agree to?

  • Remember, we don't know whether we're going to wind up rich or poor.

  • Healthy or unhealthy.

  • We don't know what kind of family we're going to come from.

  • Whether we're going to inherit millions

  • or whether we will come from an impoverished family.

  • So we might, at first thought,

  • say, "Well let's require an equal distribution of income and wealth."

  • Just to be on the safe side.

  • But then we would realize,

  • that we could do better than that.

  • Even if we're unlucky and wind up at the bottom.

  • We could do better if we agree to a qualified principle of equality.

  • Rawls calls it "the Difference Principle".

  • A principle that says, only those social and economic

  • inequalities will be permitted that work to the benefit of the least well off.

  • So we wouldn't reject all inequality of income and wealth.

  • We would allow some.

  • But the test would be,

  • do they work to the benefit of everyone including those,

  • or as he specifies, the principle,

  • especially those at the bottom.

  • Only those inequalities would be accepted behind the veil of ignorance.

  • And so Rawls argues, only those inequalities that work to the benefit

  • of the least well off, are just.

  • We talked about the examples of

  • Michael Jordan making 31 million dollars a year.

  • Of Bill Gates having a fortune in the tens of billions.

  • Would those inequalities be permitted under the difference principle?

  • Only if they were part of a system, those wage differentials,

  • that actually work to the advantage of least well off.

  • Well, what would that system be?

  • Maybe it turns out that as a practical matter

  • you have to provide incentives

  • to attract the right people to certain jobs.

  • And when you do, having those people in those jobs

  • will actually help those at the bottom.

  • Strictly speaking, Rawls's argument for the difference principle

  • is that it would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance.

  • Let me hear what you think about

  • Rawls's claim that these two principles would be chosen

  • behind the veil of ignorance.

  • Is there anyone who disagrees that they would be chosen?

  • Alright, let's start up in the balcony, if that's alright.

  • Go ahead.

  • OK, your argument depends upon us believing that

  • we would argue in said policy, or justice from a bottom.

  • For the disadvantaged.

  • And I just don't see from a proof standpoint,

  • where we've proven that.

  • Why not the top?

  • Right, and what's your name? - Mike.

  • Mike, alright, good question.

  • Put yourself behind the veil of ignorance.

  • Enter into the thought experiment.

  • What principles would you choose?

  • How would you think it through?

  • Well, I would say things like, even Harvard's existence

  • is an example of preaching toward the top.

  • Because Harvard takes the top academics.

  • And I didn't know when I was born how smart I would be.

  • But I worked my life to get to a place of this caliber.

  • Now, if you had said Harvard's going to randomly take 1600 people

  • of absolutely no qualification, we'd all be saying,

  • "There's not much to work for."

  • And so what principle would you choose?

  • In that situation I would say a merit based one.

  • One where I don't necessarily know, but I would rather have a system that

  • rewards me based on my efforts.

  • So you, Mike, behind the veil of ignorance,

  • would choose a merit-based system,

  • where people are rewarded according to their efforts?

  • Alright, fair enough. What would you say?

  • Go ahead.

  • My question is, if the merit-based argument is based on

  • when everyone is at a level of equality?

  • Where from that position, you're rewarded to where you get,

  • or is it regardless of what advantages you may have

  • when you began your education to get where you are here?

  • I think what the question you're asking is saying that

  • if we want to look at, whatever, utilitarianism, policy,

  • do you want to maximize world wealth.

  • And I think a system that rewards merit

  • is the one that we've pretty much all established,

  • is what is best for all of us.

  • Despite the fact that some of us may be in the second percentile

  • and some may be in the 98th percentile.

  • At the end of the day it lifts that lowest based level,

  • a community that rewards effort as opposed to an differences.

  • But, I don't understand how you're rewards someone's efforts

  • who clearly has had, not you, but maybe myself,

  • advantages throughout, to get where I am here.

  • I mean, I can't say that somebody else

  • who maybe worked as hard as I did

  • would have had the same opportunity to come

  • to a school like this.

  • Alright, let's look at that point. What's your name?

  • Kate. -Kate, you suspect that the ability

  • to get into top schools may largely depend

  • on coming from an affluent family.

  • Having a favorable family background,

  • social, cultural, economic advantages and so on?

  • I mean, economic, but yes, social, cultural.

  • All of those advantages, for sure.

  • Someone did a study, of the 146 selective

  • colleges and universities in the United States.

  • And they looked at the students

  • in those colleges and universities

  • to try to find out what their background was, their economic background.

  • What percentage do you think, come from the bottom quarter

  • of the income scale?

  • You know what the figure is?

  • Only three percent of students, at the most selective colleges and universities

  • come from poor backgrounds.

  • Over 70 percent come from affluent families.

  • Let's go one step further then, and try to address Mike's challenge.

  • Rawls actually has two arguments, not one,

  • in favor of his principles of justice.

  • And in particular, of the difference principle.

  • One argument is the official argument,

  • what would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance.

  • Some people challenge that argument, saying,

  • "Maybe people would want to take their chances.

  • Maybe people would be gamblers behind the veil of ignorance.

  • Hoping that they would wind up on top."

  • That's one challenge that has been put to Rawls.

  • But backing up the argument from the original position

  • is the second argument.

  • And that is the straightforwardly moral argument.

  • And it goes like this,

  • it says,

  • the distribution of income and wealth and opportunities

  • should not be based on factors

  • for which people can claim no credit.

  • It shouldn't be based on factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view.

  • Rawls illustrates this by considering several rival theories of justice.

  • He begins with the theory of justice

  • that most everyone these days would reject.

  • A feudal aristocracy.

  • What's wrong with the allocation of life prospects in a feudal aristocracy?

  • Rawls says, well the thing that's obviously wrong about it is

  • that people's life prospects are determined

  • by the accident of birth.

  • Are you born to a noble family or to a family of peasants and serfs?

  • And that's it. You can't rise.

  • It's not your doing where you wind up

  • or what opportunities you have.

  • But that's arbitrary from a moral point of view.

  • And so that objection to feudal aristocracy

  • leads, and historically has lead, people to say,

  • careers should be open to talents.

  • There should be formal equality of opportunity

  • regardless of the accident of birth.

  • Every person should be free to strive, to work,

  • to apply for any job in the society.

  • And then, if you open up jobs, and you allow people to apply,

  • and to work as hard as they can, then the results are just.

  • So it's more or less the libertarian system that we've discussed

  • in earlier weeks.

  • What does Rawls think about this?

  • He says it's an improvement.

  • It's an improvement because it doesn't take as fixed

  • the accident of birth.

  • But even with formal equality of opportunity

  • the libertarian conception doesn't extend that,

  • doesn't extend its insight far enough.

  • Because if you let everybody run the race,

  • everybody can enter the race, but some people start

  • at different starting points, that race isn't going to be fair.

  • Intuitively, he says, the most obvious injustice of this system

  • is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced

  • by factors arbitrary from a moral point of view.

  • Such as, whether you got a good education or not.

  • Whether you grew up in a family that support you

  • and developed in you a work ethic

  • and gave you the opportunities.

  • So that suggests moving to a system of fair

  • equality of opportunity.

  • And that's really the system that Mike was advocating earlier on.

  • What we might call a merit-based system.

  • A meritocratic system.

  • In a fair meritocracy the society sets up institutions

  • to bring everyone to the same starting point

  • before the race begins.

  • Equal educational opportunities.

  • Head start programs, for example.

  • Support for schools in impoverished neighborhoods.

  • So that everyone, regardless of their family background,

  • has a genuinely fair opportunity.

  • Everyone starts from the same starting line.

  • Well, what does Rawls think about the meritocratic system?

  • Even that, he says, doesn't go far enough

  • in remedying, or addressing,

  • the moral arbitrariness

  • of the natural lottery.

  • Because if you bring everyone to the same starting point

  • and begin the race, who's going to win the race?

  • Who would win?

  • To use the runners example.

  • The fastest runners would win.

  • But is it their doing

  • that they happen to be blessed with athletic powers to run fast?

  • So Rawls says, "Even the principle of meritocracy,

  • where you bring everyone to the same starting point,

  • may eliminate the influence of social contingencies and upbringing,

  • ...but it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined

  • by the natural distribution of abilities and talents."