Rawls’ Metaphor “Justice as Fairness”


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Rawls’ Metaphor “Justice as Fairness”

What is Justice?

What is fairness?

What means do we have to discover, to criticize, and to modify our biases, our prejudices, and our ideologies that guide our everyday performance in the world?

I have discovered that an analysis of our speaking is a guide to the manner in which our consciousness and unconsciousness are structured. Our speaking—the words we use can indicate the nature of the ideas that we have. Speech is a guide to the structure of our beliefs, knowledge, and our ideologies, which are the product of our past experiences and understanding, which in many cases is the result of many unconscious developments.

We use such metaphorical expressions as: Tomorrow is a big day. I’m feeling up today. We’ve been close for years, but we’re beginning to drift apart. It is smooth sailing from here on in. It has been uphill all the way. Get off my back. We are moving ahead. He’s a dirty old man. That was a disgusting thing to do. I’m not myself today. He is afraid to reveal his inner self. You need to be kind to your self.

All of us use metaphors constantly and we all recognize the meaning of these metaphors when others speak them. This leads me to the inference that our everyday speech is a means for insight into our comprehension of what we really ‘know’. Most of these metaphors can be a guide to what our conscious and unconscious has stored up in our brain regarding the nature of reality. These metaphors can guide us into a comprehension of where we are and perhaps why we are there (notice all the metaphors I use in trying to convey my conceptions). Metaphors provide insight to the self.

John Rawls in A Theory of Justice attempts to accentuate and define the principles of ‘justice as fairness’.

Rawls develops the concept ‘veil of ignorance’ as a means to develop the abstract substance of justice. From this beginning he developed the fundamental principles of social justice. Under the ‘veil of ignorance’ there exists no self-interest there exists only common interest because all under the veil are ignorant of any individual reality i.e. social position, wealth, intelligence etc.

Rawls empathizes, through the veiled eyes of the hypothetical Everyman, the rational choices for the first principles of justice. “Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."

In this hypothetical position of a “veil of ignorance” Rawls assumes that we would agree that “Justice is Fairness” is an appropriate metaphor in our search for principles of justice.

Why does Rawls use the concept of fairness as a means to comprehend the concept of justice? He does so because we use metaphor both in its linguistic and in its conceptual mode almost always to clarify an unknown by comparing it to a known.

How have we developed our comprehension, i.e. our concept, of fairness? We have developed the concept of fairness beginning very early in our life. We learned very early that we could use the word ‘fair’ to convince our mother that our sibling had mistreated us. “Bobby is not being fair, he is eating my cookies!”

Constantly throughout our life we have constructed, via numerous different experiences, many aspects of our concept of fairness. If we could look into our brain we might see a group of neuron networks all clustered together all of which is our concept of fairness. I recognize that science can tell us that these clusters are not in one location but are scattered about the grey matter.

What Rawls is saying is that we can take our great cluster of concepts that together make up our concept of fairness and remove those component concepts that relate fairness to our place in society, our class position or social status, our distribution of natural assets and abilities, our intelligence, strength and the like, and from what remains we can examine in the effort to determine what fairness is and thus what the principles of justice are.

Essentially Rawls is suggesting that we can abstract a concept of fairness, stripped of those concepts that are related to our social and financial situation, and thus derive the fundamental comprehension of our concept of fairness and use this concept to develop principles of justice.

My ideas about the nature of concepts and metaphors come primarily from “Philosophy in the Flesh” by Lakoff and Johnson.
“A Theory of Justice” has, by page 53, developed the first statement of the two basic principles of justice.

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.

Second: 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.

These two principles apply to the basic social structure governing rights and duties of all citizens as well as to the distribution of the economic advantages of the society to all citizens. The first principle establishes rights, just as does our constitution, and the second principle focuses upon the inequalities that are inherent in any such structure.

The next 200 pages of the book are dedicated to the clarification of the ambiguous phrases “every one’s advantage” and “open to all” in the second principle.

Rawls organizes his effort for describing justice as fairness around the search for 1) the constitution of moral knowledge, 2) how we use moral knowledge and 3) how is moral knowledge acquired. In the book Rawls draws an analogy between moral theory and linguistics.

It is proposed that we have a moral faculty that allows us to unconsciously deliver judgments of good and evil based upon unconscious innate principles. We have what is compared with a universal grammar somewhat like that proposed by Chomsky.

A moral grammar is a set of principles that allows us to make judgments intuitively without conscious reflection.

The contemporary philosophical scene is so taken with language that such analogies might be expected. Rawls does suggest in his book that a theory of justice is akin to developing a universal grammar of language.

Just as in our constitutional system the rights are primary and concerns regarding fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages are subject to a code of justice.

”All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.”

I have much yet to study and understand in this book but I think it’s most important feature is the concentration upon the matter of the second principle. This book is obviously written by a liberal as one can see by recognizing its focus upon the matters in the second principle. Liberals are inclined to seek deontological (rational and ‘universal’) claims for morality as opposed to a form usually labeled as utilitarianism or consequentialism.

Liberals take the stance that to agree on the fact means to agree on the morality of the situation. Any deviation is indefensible and reflects only selfish rationalization. Liberals find it almost impossible to respect the moral position of conservatives and conservatives find it impossible to judge that liberals are the intellectual equals of conservatives.

The apparent reason for this disjunction is the fact that liberals and conservatives seem to have “their own kind of morality” according to the analysis in ”The Morality of Politics” by W. H. Walsh.

“What we need to observe is that conservatives and liberals are working within different traditions of morality. The morality of the conservative is closed morality; it is the morality of a particular community. The morality of the liberal is an open morality; it is a morality which has nothing to do with any particular human groups, but applies to all men whatever their local affiliations.”

Lakoff and Johnson in their book “Philosophy in the Flesh” tend to think that the morality of liberals are that of ‘the nurturing mother’ while conservatives tend to be a ‘strict father’.

The web site http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~piccard/entropy/rawls.html provides an outline of John Rawls’ book “A Theory of Justice”.