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A critical assessment of Rawl's adaptation of social contract theory.

A critical assessment of Rawl's adaptation of social contract theory.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by James McCullough. Originally submitted for Philosophy at Queen University Belfast, with lecturer cillian mcbride in the category of Philosophical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by James McCullough. Originally submitted for Philosophy at Queen University Belfast, with lecturer cillian mcbride in the category of Philosophical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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How can we know what a just society should be like? In a just society should everybody be equal? Or is it more important that everybody is free? In this essay we will be lookingat one attempt to answer this question, what is known as the hypothetical contract proposed by John Rawls.
With the hypothetical contract Rawls sets up a method for deciding on the principles of a just society, principles which we saw above could be anything from freedom toequality.So what is Rawls’ method? Rawls thinks that a just society is one which all its memberswould rationally agree to.So in trying to devise the principles of a just society he asks,hypothetically, what sort of society would we as individuals agree to live in?But different people are likely to choose different kinds of societies based on their owncircumstances, for example, a talented footballer might choose a society in which athletesare highly paid over one in which everybody is financially equal.So to overcome this difficulty Rawls sets up a thought experiment known as “theoriginal position”. In the original position individuals are asked to choose the principlesof a just society, but to avoid making choices like in the case of the footballer, thechoosers are placed behind, what is known as, “the veil of ignorance”. In this position thechoosers will have no idea of their particular life circumstances, they will not knowwhether they are rich, poor, talented, strong or stupid etcIn such a position individuals will choose different kinds of principles than they wouldhad they not been placed behind the veil of ignorance. For example, the footballer,ignorant of his talents, will no longer be motivated to choose a society in which athletesare highly paid.Rawls argues that, from the original position people will play it safe and choose asociety in which they are likely to have liberty and be free from poverty. So for examplenobody would choose a society in which a certain ethnic minority is oppressed in casethey ended up being a member of that minority.Similarly nobody would choose a meritocratic society in which only the talented arerewarded as they might end up as one of the unlucky un-talented people. So why might we agree with Rawls’ hypothetical contract? One reason which mightstand out for many people is that the original position seems to provide an impartial basisfrom which to choose the principles of a just society. “Rawls's original position is aninitial situation wherein the parties are without information that enables them to tailor  principles of justice favorable to their personal circumstances”
. If we were to try andchoose the principles outside the original position we might base our choices on our pre-existing political views. But even if we were to step outside our own political views, wemight still be influenced by our conception of the good life. For example a Christianwhose view of the good life is religious devotion, would not choose a society in whichchurches are banned or religion outlawed. But the veil of ignorance strips the chooser even of her conception of the good life.1 Rawls, John, `Justice as Fairness (1958) Philosophical Review, 672 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/
Rawls believed that his hypothetical contract had merit as it offered an alternative to arival theory of justice which he believed had dangerous consequences. This rival view,known as utilitarianism, asserts that in the just society utility (or happiness) will bemaximised for the greatest number of people.This view will seem unpleasant to many people as the job of maximising utility for themany may well result in sacrificing the happiness of the minority. For example,utilitarianism would grant justice to a society in which the happiness of a slave owningmajority outweighed the unhappiness of the minority of slaves.It is also argued, by Rawls, that utilitarianism does not allow for the fact that different people have different conceptions of happiness so just how would utilitarians distributehappiness? Rawls’ hypothetical contract on the other hand, does not require anyconception of happiness and allows individuals to pursue their own version of happiness.A third advantage of Rawls’ hypothetical contract is that it is an original and powerfulmethod of thinking about justice. Jonathon Woolf says about the hypothetical contract“whether or not Rawls’ principles of justice are correct he has done political philosophythe great service of providing a means by which the debate can be continued.”
So it doesn’t matter whether we agree with Rawls’ two principles of justice or whether we would choose them in the original position we still have the opportunity to participatein the thought experiment and see what picture of a just society we can come up with.Similarly the hypothetical contract is a good method for organising our intuitions about justice. For example, turning to look at utilitarianism again, we may have the moralintuition that it is a good thing to maximise the overall happiness of a society yet have theconflicting intuition that it is wrong to sacrifice the happiness of a minority for the sakeof the many.Rawls’ thought experiment, by starting out from the original position, helps us to sortout these intuitions. So, having put our intuitions to the test in the original position wemight still value the importance of maximising happiness, but never at the expense of thehappiness of individuals as, if we did, we might end up being one of those unluckyindividuals. For the reasons given above Rawls’ hypothetical contract may seem quite attractive,however there are several criticisms of it also.First, since in the original position the choosers are stripped of so much knowledgeabout themselves: their race, gender, abilities, conception of the good life etc, just howcan it be possible for them top choose principles of justice. Surely they need someknowledge of what they desire to choose if they are going to choose at all? 
Rawls replies however that the choosers do possess some knowledge of their desires,known as “the thin theory of the good” Although the choosers do not know whether theywant for example fame, riches or to find God, they do have the bare knowledge that theywant, what are known as, “primary goods”. These are: income, opportunities, wealth,liberties and “the social bases of self-respect”. The primary goods are, argues Rawls,desirable by everybody prior to all other goods, such as fame or riches, as they areconditions of all other goods.
3 Wolff, Jonathan, `An Introduction to Political Philosophy (1996) p.1954 Ibid p.1725 Ibid
 A second criticism is that Rawls seems to make a certain assumption about how everyonein the original position will make their decisions. He says that everyone will be rationalor prudent and “play it safe” choosing a society in which he is not likely to end up poor or oppressed.But in real life not everyone is “prudent”. Many people are gamblers and risk takers,staking security in the hope of gain. It would be possible that someone in the original position, rational enough to understand the consequences of her choices, would stillchoose a meritocratic society, for example, on the chance that she might end up as one of the lucky talented people.I don’t see how Rawls can respond to this criticism apart from saying that the original position is only a hypothetical situation in which everybody is prudent. But this seemslike Rawls has tampered with the original position to arrive at the principles he wants. Another criticism involves utilitarianism again. Remember that Rawls argued againstutilitarianism saying that society should not seek to maximise happiness, but only provideindividuals with the primary goods. But what about special cases of individuals withmental or physical disabilities? People who require a greater level of utility in order tolead a worthwhile life. Rawls’ principles of a just society don’t seem to take account of such cases.Amartya Sen points out that “Rawls justifies this by pointing out that “hard cases” candistract our moral perception by leading us to think of people distant from us whose fatearouses pity and anxiety.”
But many of us would not simply wish to turn a blind eye to“hard cases” to many of us it would seem inhuman. One final criticism of Rawls hypothetical contract which we will look at here seemsmore telling than the others. The philosopher Brian Barry finds an inconsistency at thecore of Rawls’ theory. As mentioned above, Rawls hoped that his theory wouldovercome the difficulties faced by the Utilitarian conception of a just society. “he (Rawls)does not like the implications of the want-regarding view (utilitarianism)”
If we recallthe example from above of the slave-owning majority and their slaves, Rawls would beopposed to this arrangement even though the majority of people in the society are happy.But, Barry argues, “to derive principles of justice from an original position which, bydenying the actors specific information about themselves, seems to lead inexorablytowards the formulation of principles in want-regarding terms (i.e the terms used byutilitarians).”
As mentioned above Rawls’ hypothetical contract results in people agreeing to asociety in which each person is allocated the primary goods on the understanding that,having these goods, everybody will be enabled to pursue their own version of happiness.But, as Barry is getting at in the above quotation, by starting from the original positionand behind the veil of ignorance, Rawls fails to show the moral significance of thevarious courses of action people will take in their pursuit of happiness. For example one6 Sen, Amartya, `Equality of What? In Contemporary Political Philosophy (1997) p.4837 Barry, Brian, `The Liberal Theory of Justice (1973) p.228 Ibid

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