Kamis, 05 Januari 2012

The Sense of Justice in John Rawls

One area of Rawls’s work that has received relatively little attention in the literature is his account of moral psychology. The idea of a “sense of justice” is at the heart of this account;according to Rawls it is the primary source of our motivation to act in accordance with principles of justice.

However, Rawls carefully notes that a sense of justice is more than simply being able to follow the rules.

It is the ability to feel or perceive what is fair, and as a result it provides us with “the capacity to understand, to apply, and normally to be moved by an effective desire to act from (and not merely in accordance with) the principles of justice as the fair terms of social cooperation”.

A sense of justice leads one to realize that members of a society need fair terms of cooperation, and it expresses the willingness, if not the desire, to act in relation to others on terms everyone can endorse publicly.

Rawls’s earliest formulation of the idea of a sense of justice is in the 1963 essay, “The Sense of Justice,” which explores Rousseau’s claim that “the sense of justice is a true sentiment of the heart enlightened by reason, the natural outcome of our primitive affections”.

In this essay, Rawls seeks to answer some questions about the capacity for a sense of justice, including what accounts for people doing what justice requires. At bottom, a sense of justice is a feeling or sense of right and wrong, but more specifically it is a sense of fairness. It makes us not want to take advantage of others and it is the source of our feelings of indignation toward those who do. A sense of justice is also the source of our feelings of sympathy for those who are the victims of circumstances that we would call unjust. I will have more to say about these circumstances in a moment, but for now we should note that a sense of justice causes us to perceive, feel, and react in certain ways to certain kinds of situations. This is why Rawls maintains that one’s sense of justice “may be aroused or assuaged, and it is connected not only with such moral feelings as resentment and indignation but also...with natural attitudes such as mutual trust and affection”.

Although a sense of justice leads us to value fairness generally, Rawls’s analysis focuses on circumstances in which individuals are marginalized as a result of circumstances beyond their control, and which dramatically shape their life-prospects. People are born into particular families and thus begin their lives in social positions they have not chosen. These social positions shape one’s hopes and expectations, and the opportunities one has to fulfill those hopes and expectations are determined in part by the political system as well as economic and social circumstances. Rawls is particularly concerned that the basic structure of society can perpetuate these circumstances, when it should help correct them. Rawls observes that “our prospects over life are deeply affected by social, natural, and fortuitous contingencies, and by the way the basic structure, by setting up inequalities, uses those contingencies to meet certain social purposes”.

Rawls has three kinds of contingencies in mind here: (1) one’s social class of origin (the class into which one is born and develops before the age of reason); (2) one’s native endowments (as opposed to one’s realized endowments) and the opportunities one has to develop them due to one’s social class of origin; (3) one’s good or ill fortune, or good or bad luck over the course of life. The latter includes how one is affected by illness and accident, or by periods of involuntary unemployment and regional economic decline.

Rawls notes that these contingencies are the source of especially deep inequalities: “Not only are they pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert. It is these inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply”.