The Plight of the Poor in the Midst of Plenty

Jeremy Waldron

John Rawls is best known as the author of a large book of ‘grand theory’, A Theory of Justice, that changed the face and refreshed the spirit of political philosophy when it was published in 1971. He is also the author of about forty scholarly articles, beginning with a chapter on ethics from his Princeton dissertation in 1951 and culminating with a short piece on Hiroshima, published in Dissent on the 50th anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets.

Twenty-seven of those papers are included here, in a volume that has been long-awaited but delayed (according to the editor, Samuel Freeman) by Rawls’s reluctance to reprint what he regarded as experimental works, opportunities to try out ideas that might later be revised or abandoned in his book-length projects. The first ten of these papers were precursors to A Theory of Justice, and they explain why that volume was long-awaited in its day. Another batch formed the core of Rawls’s second book, Political Liberalism, published in 1993. Still other articles in the collection look forward to books that will be published in the near future. The essay on Hiroshima and a more abstract piece on ‘The Law of Peoples’ have been developed, we are told, into a book-length treatment of international and human rights issues; and an article on themes in the moral philosophy of Kant – always a commanding presence in Rawls’s work – will be part of a larger work reproducing the author’s lectures at Harvard on the moral philosophy of Hume, Leibniz, Kant and Hegel. Since there also abound rumours and samizdat typescripts of yet another book revisiting some of the detailed arguments about distributive institutions in A Theory of Justice – a book that presumably will include material drawn from some of the answers to critics in the middle chapters of this volume – I think one can say that Rawls’s Collected Papers is not just a retrospective, but a set of promises for the future coupled with a most convincing display of how handsomely, in his case, such promises have been redeemed over the past fifty years.

What a body of work this is, and what an accomplishment. Collected Papers affords an opportunity to step back and see the work as a whole, as the elaboration of a single powerful and abiding idea. The leitmotif of Rawls’s work has been the idea of a well-ordered society. ‘Well-ordered’ does not mean docile or regimented. Quite the contrary, it means a society whose members – all of them, individual men and women of every creed, class and background – are prepared to raise awkward questions about how things are organised and to justify their laws and institutions to one another in good faith, without any myths or illusions.

Rawls’s initial achievement was to explicate this idea philosophically in a way that put familiar theories of utilitarianism and wealth-maximisation on the defensive. A society, he argued, is not well-ordered simply because most people in it are prospering. If there is nothing convincing or credible that the well-off majority can say to the impoverished or the homeless, for example, to show why the system that governs them both actually advances the interests of them both, then the society is . . . well, Rawls does not provide an antonym (except ‘unjust’, and I’ll say something about that in a moment), but for now ‘disordered’ or ‘poorly ordered’ will do. For Rawls and those he has influenced, it is not enough to say of such a society that it is doing well on the whole, in the aggregate, or so far as average per capita income is concerned. A well-ordered society advances the good of each and all of its members, so that there is no one from whose gaze or plight we have to avert our eyes, no one whose complaints can be met only with lies or pious nonsense about following one’s dream.

That a decent society needs a fairer account of the relation between social and individual well-being than either the insensitive calculus of utilitarian aggregation or the lazy and complacent Pareto-criteria that have replaced it in modern economics – all that was well-known before Rawls drew attention to it. Statisticians had developed ways of measuring social inequality, the best known of which was the Gini index, drawing pair-wise comparisons between individual holdings over a large population, in effect measuring income concentration. (The index tells us, for example, that in the United States the inequality of family incomes increased 22.4 per cent from 1968 to 1994.) But the Gini index was not connected systematically with a broader normative theory that would enable us to mark the moral significance of what it indicated and resolve some of the indeterminacies in its application. On a quite different dimension, theorists of individual rights had also developed alternatives to the utilitarian consensus; but their principles were focused on very particular issues where individual freedom or well-being was at stake – civil liberties, religious toleration, voting rights – which they treated in a sort of ‘line-item’ way. Unlike the indices of the statistician, they did explore quite thoroughly the deeper significance of the particular shortcomings they revealed. But their critiques did not add up to any overall basis for social assessment. The papers in this volume reveal how early John Rawls became convinced that since social institutions impact on persons as a whole (how bad unemployment is depends partly on how health care is provided etc) they need to be evaluated as a whole, by an integrated system of principles. It is often said that Rawls wanted a moral alternative that would be as systematic as utilitarianism. But the quest for system was not just theoretical rivalry; it was also a response to how he conceived the subject-matter of social evaluation.

There was also a healthy lack of moderation in the way Rawls presented the idea of a well-ordered society. Justification to every last individual, he argued, is a matter of justice, and as such it has priority over any other measure of social evaluation. Rawls has been criticised on this point by many on the right. Justice, they thundered, is about giving each man his due, under rules of property and contract, not about concern for the poor or justification to the worst-off members of society. But Rawls’s point is not the one that Hayek and others have excoriated – namely, that we should treat society as a distributive enterprise, ensuring that everyone is given a fair share by whoever is in control. Instead, Rawls is saying that whenever we do face any choices about laws, institutions and social arrangements – whether they are choices about privatisation, welfare reform, control of interest rates, regulation of the Stock Exchange, health care, education provision or whatever – we should evaluate such choices on the basis of criteria that look systematically at the well-being of each, as opposed to aggregate or averaging criteria.

It may seem impracticable to insist that social justifications must connect with the interests of absolutely everybody. Surely – says the voice of common sense – the most we can expect is that a credible justification be made available to the overwhelming majority. Rawls, though, reminds us to be careful about how we pander to the rhetoric of ‘common sense’. Weasel-words like ‘practicable’ are to be defined in terms of ‘a well-ordered society’, not the other way round. It is, after all, the task of a philosophical theory of justice to regulate not only the slogans we trumpet up front, but also the background provisos of practicability that can all too easily become Trojan horses in the service of economic trade-offs.

With a standard this rigorous, it goes without saying that few (if any) societies on earth are well-ordered in Rawls’s sense, certainly not his own United States. This is obscured somewhat by Rawls’s reputation as a liberal, and by liberalism’s reputation as an apologia for capitalist democracy. Rawls is certainly a philosophical liberal. He draws on the work of thinkers like Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Mill, not just for substantive commitments to liberty and toleration, but also for a deeper sense of how those commitments are related to the foundations of moral thinking. The Kantian connection between a well-ordered society and a society which one could ‘will’ (so to speak) from the standpoint of anybody in it is particularly important to Rawls’s work; and under his leadership (represented in this volume by several ‘Kantian’ essays) new vigour has been injected into what had become rather tired debates in moral philosophy about the meaning of the Categorical Imperative.

What about the accusation that Rawls is an apologist for American institutions? It’s not complete nonsense: he does show a certain amount of pride in the local Constitution and in things like the separation of church and state. But it’s mostly nonsense, and it cannot survive even the most cursory reading of A Theory of Justice. If there is an apology for America in Rawls’s work, it is an apology at most for the American impulse to think and talk in terms of freedom and equality for all, and to use that as an organising framework for debates in politics and Constitutional law. Certainly, Rawls knows that this impulse is honoured most often in the breach, and that principles of rights, toleration and opportunity for all remain a cruel mockery for millions of US citizens. Still, the existence of the impulse shows that he is not doing anything odd or alien when he tries to figure out what making good on these promises would actually amount to. In the John Dewey Lectures given at Columbia in 1980 and reprinted here, Rawls remarked that ‘we are not trying to find a conception of justice suitable for all societies’; instead, ‘we look to ourselves and to our future, and reflect upon our disputes since, let’s say, the Declaration of Independence.’ That passage has been much misunderstood (including by this reviewer) as indicating a sort of complacent relativism. In fact, it is clear now that Rawls meant not that his theory should be judged by ‘our’ achievements in the United States, but that if the idea of a well-ordered society is a reproach to American arrangements (and it is), it is at least a familiar reproach, constructed out of values and principles with which America had always promised (perhaps perfidiously) to keep faith.

But I should not give the impression that Rawls’s work (either in the books or in these essays) aims to engage concrete issues in public policy. Though the success of A Theory of Justice encouraged the normative application of philosophical argument to public affairs, that is not what Rawls has put his own energies into. Apart from the discussion of Hiroshima and one other piece on civil disobedience (from 1969), the papers in this volume are quite technical, and the books they have prefigured are works of abstract theory. For some critics, ‘abstract’ is a term of abuse. But the hard work that needed to be done to challenge the consensus of utilitarian and other aggregative measures of social well-being did not consist simply in publicising philosophers’ verdicts on bottom-line issues of policy. It was a matter of building philosophical infrastructure – formulating principles and articulating their connection to classic and contemporary theory, on topics like impartiality, rational choice, ‘the moral point of view’, social contract, justification, universalisation and respect for persons. If that project was not undertaken carefully, on a basis that would survive the vagaries of intellectual fashion and form a framework for later debates, then no amount of sentimental indignation about poverty or discrimination could hope to wrest the field from those whose calculi concealed – and concealed systematically – the plight of the poor in the midst of plenty.

The other thing these papers show – and for this we should be grateful to Sam Freeman’s persistence in having them republished – is how hard-won Rawls’s achievement has been. In a heady decade or so after the publication of his first book, it seemed that everyone in philosophy had a theory of justice, everyone was in the business of announcing their own package of principles to govern the distribution of property and resolve the antinomies between liberty and opportunity for all. No doubt this was a tribute to Rawls; certainly, it was never his intention to have the last word in the debates inspired by his work. Still, although A Theory of Justice can be criticised for many things, being ‘half-baked’ was never one of them. The early essays show Rawls formulating and reformulating the ideas that were to figure finally in the book, trying out different ways of stating his principles, and different ways of characterising their adequacy as philosophy. They provide a salutary example for those of us who write more impulsively.

I have said next to nothing about Rawls’s best known idea – the choice of social principles by a sort of imaginary social contract in an original position behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. In a friendly poker game the other day, the dealer inadvertently dealt me a hole card face-up. My friends and I did not have a rule for this contingency, and so we discussed what it should be: some thought the hand should be voided; others thought the player should have the choice whether to accept the card. I argued fiercely for the latter as a matter of principle, but it was hard to avoid the impression that I was arguing this way only because the card dealt face-up to me was the ace I had been hoping for. Very crudely, Rawls’s veil of ignorance idea is that one should choose principles for this kind of circumstance as though one did not know how they would impact on one’s particular situation. So, he argued, people behind the veil of ignorance choosing rules to govern their society would choose principles of civil liberty and toleration as a way of advancing their own interests, because they wouldn’t know whether they would turn out to be in the majority or a vulnerable minority; and they would choose principles of economic equality (principles permitting unequal outcomes only if the worst-off would be even worse-off without them) because they would not know what their talents were or how much in demand they were going to be. This ‘thought-experiment’ has engendered an enormous debate. Does he make the people in the original position too risk-averse? Why wouldn’t they take a chance on turning out well-off in a society that exploited or neglected a minority of its poorest citizens? And how can they choose behind a veil of ignorance when they don’t even know who they are or what they value?

One of the nice things about the present collection is that it lets us stand back from this debate, and consider the variety of ways in which the original position has been presented in Rawls’s work. In its earliest manifestation (1958), it was barely distinguished from the idea of a well-ordered society. The members of an on-going society are imagined from time to time discussing with one another ‘whether any of them has a legitimate complaint against their established institutions’. Any complainer is asked to propose a principle by which his complaints should be tried, on the understanding that he must accept this principle for all future situations (even those he does not presently envisage). The veil of ignorance component here is simple generality: each knows that he will be bound by the principle he proposes ‘in future circumstances, the peculiarities of which cannot be known, and which might well be such that the principle is then to his disadvantage.’ By 1963, this had developed into something having more in common with traditional theories of the social contract. Emphasis shifted from generality to acceptability: a complaint should be judged only against the background of principles that everyone accepts. (One cannot be voted into a contract.) But since general acceptance of principles in civic discussion is not something we are actually familiar with, the idea is treated now as a sort of thought-experiment. It becomes more like something for each of the discussants to bear in mind, as a way of checking that he is participating fairly, than like a representation of the discussion itself. Once that shift in presentation had taken place, then the veil of ignorance could be introduced (by 1967, at the latest) simply as a way of modelling explicitly the requirement of general acceptability. I suspect that in fact the veil of ignorance is dispensable, provided that the contract idea remains firm. Either way, the well-off must pay attention to the predicament of the disadvantaged – either because they might turn out to be in that situation themselves or because, even if they are confident in their own prosperity, they may not proceed to justify their privileges on the basis of principles that the last poor person finds unacceptable.

Since 1980, Rawls has turned increasingly to questions about the terms (as opposed to the content) of social evaluation. A well-ordered society is one in which citizens can justify their shared arrangements to one another. But we live in multicultural societies whose members hold a variety of beliefs about the building-blocks of social justification – things like autonomy, God, human nature, relations between the sexes, the importance of reason and the meaning of life. So what if a pious Muslim asks a secular materialist to justify (say) the toleration of pornography? What vocabulary should they use in the ensuing discussion? Or what if an economist asks a theologian to justify anti-euthanasia laws? It is no good saying: ‘Well, put them behind the veil of ignorance, and see what they come up with.’ The veil of ignorance is itself a way of modelling ideas about fairness, and the problem posed by pluralism is that fairness may be understood quite differently (or may not figure prominently at all) in various traditions.

In Political Liberalism, Rawls insisted that public justifications in a well-ordered society must in some sense stand above or apart from the religious, cultural and philosophical issues that divide the citizens. A person does not show another the requisite respect if he responds to requests for justification in terms that he knows the other cannot accept. So I may not say, for example, to a Social Darwinian that even the feeblest person is entitled to our compassion because he is created in the image of God. I must find some way of putting my point about equality that can be affirmed even by people who do not share my religious convictions. The principles of justice, the assumptions (like basic equality) that they rest on, and the model-theoretic conceptions (such as the original position) that support and elaborate them – all these must be made intelligible to, and must be capable of commanding the allegiance of people whose deepest convictions are not actually reflected in their own terms in the content of social justification.

It’s a tall order, and one that is not to be filled by a strategy of vagueness or evasion – putting about a set of anodyne under-theorised formulas that mean all things to all people. Social justifications have hard, critical work to do, on Rawls’s account: they have to settle desperately difficult questions about freedom, equality and opportunity; they have to hold their own against rival conceptions; and they must do so with subtlety, rigour and precision. If there is a fault in Rawls’s later work, it is a tendency to lose sight of the difficult detail of the social and economic argumentation in A Theory of Justice. The actual examples of overlapping consensus for a culturally plural society that he provides in Political Liberalism are laughably easy by comparison. Both Kantians and non-Kantians might favour democracy, he says; and both Christians and secularists may well oppose slavery. The hard part comes when we try to establish an overlapping consensus among (say) Christian fundamentalists, Hindus, secular humanists, scientific determinists and Generation X-ers, on issues like the irrelevance of desert to basic social entitlement, the definition of ‘equal opportunity’, the use of economic incentives, and the distinction between liberty and the worth of liberty. It is easy to despair of this, and push the hard work aside. It would be a pity, however, if Rawlsians were to abandon the cutting edge of his most difficult work on social justice simply because it didn’t fit the profile of ‘public reason’ and overlapping consensus that he has now elaborated. Certainly, it would be a pity to do so without considering what becomes of the priority of justice and the general idea of a well-ordered society if we have to admit that part of it can be elaborated in overlapping consensus and part of it cannot.

These questions are not addressed in Rawls’s latest essays, but the beginnings of a strategy are visible in the way that he deals with one particularly challenging issue – the issue of abortion. Political Liberalism enraged a number of pro-life philosophers by suggesting (in a rather casual footnote to the 1993 edition) that any religious doctrine which fails to support a right to first-trimester abortion ‘is to that extent unreasonable’ (and so need not be accommodated in an overlapping consensus). In a 1997 essay, appended to the latest edition of Political Liberalism and reprinted also in this volume, Rawls retreats a little. He was not saying a priori that there couldn’t be a reasonable public argument against first-trimester abortions, he says. He was simply indicating what would follow if such an argument could not be produced. One need not share his opinion about abortion in order to notice here a healthy tendency to insist that overlapping consensus does not mean we may not hold our ground on difficult and controversial issues. The duty to produce justifications that reach out to people of all cultures is not the same as a duty to pander to everyone’s views. Many views will be rejected at the level of public reason, and to some it will seem as if what is being rejected is their particular religious or philosophical orientation. Roman Catholics may think this about abortion; Social Darwinists will certainly think it about economic equality; and of course (opportunists that they are) utilitarians and other aficionados of economic aggregation will complain that they, too, have been left out in the cold. They may be right; but they are not necessarily right. Everything depends on whether good arguments can be produced against their positions in terms that are fair to all those affected. In the social and economic sphere, the jury is still out; it is not clear yet whether or not a sanitised Rawlsian public reason must exclude some of the mechanisms which in the earlier book produced determinate and critical results. Still, if there is one thing that these fifty years of essays show, it is that it’s actually possible to make progress, doing hard, careful work in the most difficult and controversial areas. For that reason alone, I think, this volume of Collected Papers stands as an inspiration to the next generation of theorists.