B1 Intermediate 10681 Folder Collection
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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."
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.
Now, how do you go beyond?
Do you bring everyone to the same starting point
and you're still bothered by the fact that
some are fast runners and some are not fast runners,
what can you do?
Well, some critics of a more egalitarian conception
say the only thing you can do is handicap the fast runners.
Make them wear lead shoes.
But who wants to do that?
That would defeat the whole point of running the race.
But Rawls says, you don't have to have
a kind of leveling equality, if you want to go
beyond a meritocratic conception.
You permit, you even encourage,
those who may be gifted, to exercise their talents.
But what you do, is you change the terms
on which people are entitled to the fruits of
the exercise of those talents.
And that really is what the difference principle is.
You establish a principle that says,
people may benefit from their good fortune,
from their luck in the genetic lottery,
but only on terms that work to the advantage of the least well off.
And so, for example,
Michael Jordan can make 31 million dollars but,
only under a system that taxes away a chunk of that
to help those who lack the basketball skills that he's blessed with.
Likewise, Bill Gates.
He can make his billions.
But he can't think that he somehow morally deserves
those billions.
"Those who have been favored by nature,
may gain from their good fortune but only on terms that improve
the situation of those who have lost out."
That's the difference principle.
And it's an argument from moral arbitrarianists.
Rawls claims, that if you're bothered by basing distributive shares
on factors arbitrary from a moral point of view,
you don't just reject a feudal aristocracy for a free market.
You don't even rest content with a meritocratic system
that brings everyone to the same starting point.
You set up a system, where everyone, including those at the bottom,
benefit from the exercise of the talents held by those
who happen to be lucky.
What do you think? Is that persuasive?
Who finds that argument unpersuasive?
The argument for moral arbitrarianists.
I think that in the egalitarian proposition
the more talented people,
I think it's very optimistic to think that they
would still work really hard, even if they knew that
part of what they made would be given away.
So I think that the only way for the more talented people to
exercise their talents to the best of their ability
is in the meritocracy.
And in a meritocracy, what's your name?
Kate, does it bother you, and Mike, does it bother you,
that in a meritocratic system, that even with fair equality of opportunity,
people get ahead, people get rewards that they don't deserve
simply because they happen to be naturally gifted.
What about that?
I think that it is arbitrary.
Obviously it's arbitrary.
But I think that correcting for it would be detrimental.
Because it would reduce incentives, is that why?
It would reduce incentives, yeah.
Mike, what do you say?
We're all sitting in this room and we have undeserved,
we have undeserved glory of some sort.
So you should not be satisfied with the process of your life.
Because you have not created any of this.
And I think, from a standpoint of, not just this room, us being upset,
but from a societal standpoint we should have some kind of
a gut reaction to that feeling.
The guy who runs the race, he doesn't...
He actually harms us as opposed to maybe makes me run that last
ten yards faster.
And that makes the guy behind me run ten yards faster
and the guy behind him ten yards faster.
Alright, so Mike, let me ask you.
You talked about effort before. Effort.
Do you think when people work hard to get ahead, and succeed,
that they deserve the rewards that go with effort?
Isn't that the idea behind your defense?
I mean, of course, bring Michael Jordan here,
I'm sure you can get him, and have him come
and defend himself about he makes 31 million dollars.
And I think what you're going to realize is
his life was a very, very tough one to get to the top.
And that we are basically being the majority oppressing the minority in a different light.
It's very easy to pick on him. Very easy.
Alright, effort.
You've got...
I've got a few. I've got a few. But that's about it.
Effort, you know what Rawls's answer to that is?
Even the effort that some people expend,
conscientious driving, the work ethic,
even effort depends a lot on fortunate family circumstances.
For which you, we, can claim no credit.
Let's do the test. Let's do a test here.
Never mind economic class, those differences are very significant.
Put those aside.
Psychologists say that birth order makes a lot of difference
in work ethic, striving, effort.
How many here, raise your hand,
those of you here, who are first in birth order.
I am too by the way.
Mike, I noticed you raised your hand.
If the case for the meritocratic conception
is that effort should be rewarded,
doesn't Rawls have a point that even effort
striving, work ethic is largely shaped even by birth order?
Is it your doing?
Mike, is it your doing that you were first in birth order?
Then why, Rawls says, of course not.
So why should income and wealth and opportunities in life
be based on factors arbitrary from a moral point of view?
That's the challenge that he puts
to market societies, but also
to those of us at places like this.
A question to think about for next time.
A justice of the United States Supreme Court,
what do they make?
It's just under $200,000.
But there's another judge who makes a lot more than Sandra Day O'Connor.
Do you know who it is? - Judge Judy?
Judge Judy. How did you know that?
Judge Judy, you know how much she makes?
$25 million.
Now, is that just? Is it fair?
We ended last time with that remarkable poll, do you remember?
The poll about birth order.
What percentage of people
in this room raised their hands,
was it, to say that they were the first born?
75, 80 percent?
And what was the significance of that?
If you're thinking about these theories of distributive justice.
Remember, we were discussing
three different theories of distributive justice.
Three different ways of answering the question,
"How should income and wealth and opportunities
and the good things in life, be distributed?"
And so far we've looked at the libertarian answer.
That says, the just system of distribution
is a system of free exchange, a free market economy.
Against a background of formal equality.
Which simply means, that jobs and careers are open to anyone.
Rawls says that this represents an improvement
over aristocratic and caste systems,
because everyone can compete for every job.
Careers open to talents.
And beyond that, the just distribution is the one
that results from free exchange.
Voluntary transactions.
No more, no less.
Then Rawls argues, if all you have is formal equality,
jobs open to everyone,
the result is not going to be fair.
It will be biased in favor of those who happen to be born
to affluent families,
who happen to have the benefit of good educational opportunities.
And that accident of birth
is not a just basis for distributing life chances.
And so, many people who notice this unfairness,
Rawls argues, are lead to embrace a system of fair equality of opportunity.
That leads to the meritocratic system.
Fair equality of opportunity.
But Rawls says, even if you bring everyone
to the same starting point in the race,
what's going to happen? Who's going to win?
The fastest runners.
So once you're troubled by basing distributive shares
on morally arbitrary contingencies,
you should, if you reason it through,
be carried all the way to what Rawls calls, "the democratic conception".
A more egalitarian conception of distributive justice
that he defines by the difference principle.
Now, he doesn't say that the only way to remedy
or to compensate for differences in natural talents and abilities
is to have a kind of, leveling equality.
A guaranteed equality of outcome.
But he does say
there's another way to deal with these contingencies.
People may gain, may benefit from their good fortune,
but only on terms that work to the advantage of the least well off.
And so, we can test how this theory actually works
by thinking about some paid differentials that arise
in our society.
What does the average school teacher make
in the United States, do you suppose?
Roughly. -$35,000.
It's a little more, 40, $42,000.
What about David Letterman?
How much do you think David Letterman makes?
More than a school teacher?
$31 million. David Letterman.
Is that fair?
That David Letterman makes that much more than a school teacher?
Well, Rawls's answer would be,
it depends whether the basic structure of society is designed in such a way
that Letterman's $31 million is subject to taxation
so that some of those earnings are taken
to work for the advantage of the least well off.
One other example of a paid differential.
A justice of the United States Supreme Court.
What do they make?
It's just under $200,000.
Here's Sandra Day O'Connor, for example. There she is.
But there's another judge who makes a lot more
than Sandra Day O'Connor.
Do you know who it is? - Judge Judy.
Judge Judy. How did you know that?
You watch?
You're right.
Judge Judy, you know how much she makes?
There she is.
$25 million.
Now, is that just? Is it fair?
Well, the answer is, it depends on whether
this is against a background system
in line with the difference principle.
Where those who come out on top, in terms of
income and wealth are taxed in a way
that benefits the least well off members of society.
Now, we're going to come back
to these wage differentials, pay differentials,
between a real judge and a TV judge.
The one Marcus watches all the time.
What I want to do now, is return to these theories
and to examine the objections to
Rawls's more egalitarian theory.
The difference principle.
There are at least three objections
to Rawls's difference principle.
One of them came up last time in the discussion
and a number of you raised this worry.
What about incentives?
Isn't there the risk, if taxes reach 70, 80, 90 percent marginal rate
that Michael Jordan won't play basketball?
That David Letterman won't do late night comedy?
Or that CEOs will go into some other line of work?
Now, who among those who are defenders of Rawls
who has an answer to this objection about
the need for incentives?
Yes. Go ahead, stand up.
Rawls's idea is that there should only be so much difference
that it helps the least well off the most.
So if there's too much equality, then the least well off
might not be able to watch late night TV,
or might not have a job because their CEO doesn't want to work.
So you need to find the correct balance where
taxation still leaves enough incentive to least well off to benefit
from the talents. - Good.
And what's your name? - Tim.
Tim. Alright, so Tim is saying, in effect,
that Rawls is taking count of incentives.
And could allow for pay differentials and
for some adjustment in the tax rate
to take account of incentives.
But, Tim points out,
the standpoint from which the question of incentives needs to be considered
is not the effect on the total size of the economic pie.
But instead from the standpoint of the effect
of incentives, or disincentives,
on the well-being of those on the bottom.
Good. Thank you.
I think that is what Rawls would say.
In fact, if you look in section 17,
where he describes the difference principle,
he allows for incentives.
"The naturally advantaged are not gain
merely because they are more gifted,
but only to cover the costs of training and education
and for using their endowments in ways that help less fortunate as well."
So you can have incentives. You can adjust the tax rate.
If taking too much from David Letterman
or from Michael Jordan, or from Bill Gates,
winds up actually hurting those at the bottom.
That's the test.
So incentives, that's not a decisive objections against
Rawls's difference principle.
But there are two weightier, more difficult objections.
One of them
comes from defenders of a meritocratic conception.
The argument that says, what about effort?
What about people working hard
having a right to what they earn
because they've deserved it.
They've worked hard for it.
That's the objection from effort and moral desert.
Then there's another objection.
That comes from libertarians.
And this objection has to do with reasserting the idea
of self-ownership.
Doesn't the difference principle, by treating
our natural talents and endowments as common assets,
doesn't that violate the idea that we own ourselves?
Now, let me deal first,
with the objection that comes from the libertarian direction.
Milton Friedman writes, in his book, "Free to Choose,"
"Life is not fair.
And it's tempting to believe that government can rectify
what nature has spawned."
But his answer is,
"The only way to try to rectify that is to have
a leveling equality of outcome."
Everyone finishing the race at the same point.
And that would be a disaster.
This is an easy argument to answer.
And Rawls addresses it.
In one of the most powerful passages, I think,
of the theory of justice.
It's in Section 17.
"The natural distribution", and here he's talking about
the natural distribution talents and endowments.
"...is neither just nor unjust.
"Nor is it unjust that persons 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."
That's his answer to libertarian laissez faire economists
like Milton Friedman who say, "Life is unfair but get over it."
Get over it and let's see if we can, at least,
maximize the benefits that flow from it.
But the more powerful libertarian objection to Rawls
is not libertarian from the libertarian economists like Milton Friedman.
It's from the argument about self-ownership.
Developed as we saw, in Nozick.
And from that point of view,
yes, it might be a good thing,
to create head start programs and public schools
so that everyone can go to a decent school
and start the race at the same starting line.
That might be good.
But if you tax people to create public schools,
if you tax people against their will,
you coerce them.
It's a form of theft.
If you take some of Letterman's $31 million,
tax it away to support public schools, against his will,
the state is really doing no better than stealing from him.
It's coercion.
And the reason is, we have to think of ourselves
as owning our talents and endowments.
Because otherwise we're back to just using people and coercing people.
That's the libertarian reply.
What's Rawls's answer to that objection?
He doesn't address the idea of self-ownership directly.
But the effect, the moral weight of his argument
for the difference principle is,
maybe we don't own ourselves in that thoroughgoing sense after all.
Now, he says, this doesn't mean that the state
is an owner in me, in the sense that it can simply
commandeer my life.
Because remember, the first principle
we would agree to behind the veil of ignorance,
is the principle of equal basic liberties.
Freedom of speech, religious liberty,
freedom of conscience and the like.
So the only respect
in which the idea of self-ownership must give way,
comes when we're thinking about whether
I own myself in the sense that
I have a privileged claim
on the benefits that come from the exercise of my talents
in a market economy.
And Rawls says, on reflection, we don't.
We can defend rights.
We can respect the individual.
We can uphold human dignity.
Without embracing the idea of self-possession.
That, in effect, is his reply to the libertarian.
I want to turn now, to his reply to
the defender of a meritocratic conception.
Who invokes effort as the basis of moral desert.
People who work hard to develop their talents
deserve the benefits that come from the exercise of their talents.
Well, we've already seen the beginning of Rawls's answer
to that question.
And it goes back to that poll we took about birth order.
His first answer is
even the work ethic, even the willingness to strive conscientiously,
depends on all sorts of family circumstances and
social and cultural contingencies for which we can claim no credit.
You can't claim credit for the fact that you,
most of you, most of us, happen to be first in birth order.
And that for some complex psychological and social reasons
that seems to be associated with striving,
with achieving, with effort.
That's one answer.
There's a second answer.
Those of you who invoke effort,
you don't really believe that moral desert attaches to effort.
Take two construction workers.
One is strong and can raise four walls in an hour
without even breaking a sweat.
And another construction worker is small and scrawny.
And has to spend three days
to do the same amount of work.
No defender of meritocracy is going to look at the effort
of that weak an scrawny construction worker and say
"Therefore he deserves to make more".
So it isn't really effort.
This is the second reply
to the meritocratic claim.
It isn't really effort
that the defender of meritocracy believes is the moral basis
of distributive shares.
It's contribution.
How much do you contribute?
But contribution takes us right back to
our natural talents and abilities. Not just effort.
And it's not our doing, how we came into the possession
of those talents in the first place.
Alright, suppose you accepted these arguments,
that effort isn't everything, that contribution matters,
from the standpoint of the meritocratic conception.
That effort, even, isn't our own doing.
Does that mean, the objection continues,
does that mean that according to Rawls,
moral desert has nothing to do with distributive justice?
Well, yes.
Distributive justice is not about moral desert.
Now, here, Rawls introduces an important
and a tricky distinction.
It's between moral desert, on the one hand,
and entitlements to legitimate expectations, on the other.
What is the difference between moral deserts and entitlements?
Consider two different games.
A game of chance and a game of skill.
Take a game of pure chance.
Say, I play the Massachusetts state lottery.
And my number comes up.
I'm entitled to my winnings.
But even though I'm entitled to my winnings,
there's no sense in which, because it's just a game of luck,
no sense in which, I morally deserve to win in the first place.
That's an entitlement.
Now contrast the lottery with a different kind of game.
A game of skill.
Now, imagine the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series.
When they win, they're entitled to the trophy.
But it can be always asked of a game of skill
did they deserve to win?
It's always possible, in principle,
to distinguish what someone's entitled to,
under the rules,
and whether they deserve to win in the first place.
That's an antecedent standard. Moral desert.
Now, Rawls says distributive justice is not a matter of
moral desert though it is a matter of
entitlements to legitimate expectations.
Here's where he explains it.
"A just scheme answers to what men are entitles to.
It satisfies their legitimate expectations as founded upon
social institutions.
But what they are entitled to is not proportional to
nor dependent upon their intrinsic worth."
"The principles of justice that regulate the basic structure
do not mention moral desert and there is no tendency
for distributive shares to correspond to it."
Why does Rawls make this distinction?
What, morally, is at stake?
One thing morally at stake is the whole question of effort
that we've already discussed.
But there's a second contingency, a second source of
moral arbitrariness that goes beyond
the question of whether it's to my credit
that I have the talents that enable me to get ahead.
And that has to do with the contingency
that I live in an society that happens to prize
my talents.
The fact that David Letterman
lives in a society that puts a great premium,
puts a great value, on a certain type of smirky joke,
that's not his doing.
He's lucky that he happens to live in such a society.
But this is a second contingency.
This isn't something that we can claim credit for.
Even if I had sole, unproblematic, claim
to my talents and to my effort.
It would still be the case, that the benefits I get
from exercising those talents,
depend on factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view.
What my talents will reap in a market economy.
What does that depend on?
What other people happen to want or like in this society.
It depends on the law of supply and demand.
That's not my doing.
It's certainly not the basis for moral desert.
What counts as contributing
depends on the qualities that this or that society happens to prize.
Most of us are fortunate to possess, in large measure,
for whatever reason,
the qualities that our society happens to prize.
The qualities that enable us to provide
what society wants.
In a capitalist society it helps to have entrepreneurial drive.
In bureaucratic society it helps to get on easily and smoothly
with superiors.
In a mass democratic society
it helps to look good on television
and to speak in short, superficial sound bites.
In a litigious society,
it helps to go to law school and have the talents to do well on LSATs.
But none of this is our doing.
Suppose that we, with our talents,
inhabited not our society, technologically advanced,
highly litigious, but a hunting society,
or a warrior society.
What would become of our talents then?
They wouldn't get us very far.
No doubt some of us would develop others.
But would we be less worthy?
Would we be less virtuous?
Would we be less meritorious if we lived in that kind of society
rather than in ours.
Rawls's answer is, no.
We might make less money and properly so.
But while we would be entitled to less,
we would be no less worthy.
No less deserving than we are now.
And here's the point.
The same could be said of those in our society
who happen to hold less prestigious positions,
who happen to have fewer of the talents that our society
happens to reward.
So here's the moral import of the distinction between
moral desert and entitlements to legitimate expectations.
We are entitled to the benefits
that the rules of the game promise
for the exercise of our talents.
But it's a mistake and a conceit to suppose
that we deserve, in the first place,
a society that values the qualities we happen to have in abundance.
Now we've been talking here about income and wealth,
what about opportunities and honors?
What about the distribution of access of seats in elite colleges and universities?
It's true,
all of you
most of you first born, worked hard, strived,
developed your talents, to get here.
But Rawls asks, in effect,
what is the moral status of your claim
to the benefits that attach
to the opportunities that you have?
Are seats in colleges and universities
a matter, a kind of reward, an honor
for those who deserve them,
because they've worked so hard?
Or, are those seats, those opportunities and honors
entitlements to legitimate expectations
that depend for their justification
on those of us who enjoy them
doing so in a way that works to the benefit
of those at the bottom of society?
That's the question that Rawls's difference principle poses.
It's a question that can be asked
of the earnings of Michael Jordan and David Letterman
and Judge Judy.
But it's also a question that can be asked
of opportunities to go to
the top colleges and universities.
And that's a debate that comes out
when we turn to the question of affirmative action next time.
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Michael Sandel Justice:What's The Right Thing To Do

10681 Folder Collection
Jane Wang published on November 12, 2013
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