Friday, January 29, 2016

What Rawls was doing

Ending the break a bit early. 

The blogger Bianca Steele has been posting about Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice (a book I've read, but I don't have a copy to hand, so am not going to discuss it in any detail). Rather, this post is about Bianca S's remark about Rawls in this passage of this post:
Walzer describes “distributive justice” as a theory about the distribution of everything within a society, even things that aren’t normally transferable, and so on. This sounds like a good idea, and almost obvious. How else could philosophers and other thinkers evaluate the justice of a society, other than by characterizing the distribution of various bad or good things among its members? Why should questions of the distribution of one thing be discussed in different terms than the distribution of others? Moreover, as will be seen in the following pages, Walzer is responding to A Theory of Justice, a far-reaching theory published about a decade earlier by John Rawls. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Rawls is interested in justice as it applies to everything that might be shared either justly or unjustly.However, this is not what Rawls was doing. (At least, it’s not what he’s taken to have been doing, from the vantage point of today. I would be interested to learn whether he addressed this question somewhere in the very long text of his book, but for me, that’s a research project for another day.)

Answering the question of what Rawls was doing in this respect doesn't require a research project.  It requires reading page 7 of A Theory of Justice (1971 edition), where Rawls explains that the main focus of his theory is justice in "the basic structure of society," i.e., a society's "political constitution" and its "principal economic and social arrangements" and how they "distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation."  So yes, he's not focusing on the distribution of "everything that might be shared" but rather on how a society's basic institutions operate to distribute political rights, income, wealth, status, and other things that might be considered to make up the social bases of self-respect.  As stated this is somewhat vague, but enough to show that Rawls is not interested in all of the distributional items that Walzer covers.  For example, though my memory of this is hazy, Walzer in Spheres has a chapter on love, where he talks about dating and marriage etc. This is outside the scope of Rawls's concerns, since the basic structure of society as he conceives of it has to do with these matters only indirectly, if that.

ETA: Ordinarily I might have left this as a comment on Bianca S's blog rather than writing a post here, but she's made clear that my comments aren't welcome there.

ETA (again): Rawls does list "the monogamous family" as an example of a major social institution, but he has very little or nothing to say about justice in the family, as a number of  his feminist critics have pointed out.


Anonymous said...

Rawls's focus on the 'basic structure' also insulates him from libertarian critique that social justice would require us to rectify every inequality, even compensating those who are unsuccessful in the dating game.

LFC said...

Right. On the other hand, the focus on the basic structure has been criticized from a non-libertarian direction by (the late) G.A. Cohen, who argued (to compress this argument into a nutshell) that people's individual choices about particular spending decisions, e.g., also should come within the bounds of a theory of justice. This criticism first appeared in article form and then in his book If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?