Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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." And so he thinks that the principle of eliminating morally arbitrary influences in the distribution of income and wealth requires going beyond what Mike favors, the meritocratic system.