Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do? Episode 08: "WHATS A FAIR START?" | Summary and Q&A

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September 9, 2009
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Harvard University
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Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do? Episode 08: "WHATS A FAIR START?"

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Summary

In this video, the focus is on John Rawls' answer to the question of distributive justice. Rawls argues that income, wealth, power, and opportunities should be distributed according to principles chosen behind a hypothetical contract called the "veil of ignorance." He proposes two principles that would be chosen in this position of equality: equal basic liberties and the difference principle. The difference principle allows for some social and economic inequalities, but only if they benefit the least well-off.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the hypothetical contract Rawls mentioned?

Rawls argues that principles of justice should be derived from a hypothetical contract called the "veil of ignorance." This contract is carried out in an original position of equality, where individuals do not know their future circumstances or characteristics.

Q: Why would the people in the original position reject utilitarianism?

Behind the veil of ignorance, everyone knows that they would want to be respected with dignity, even if they turn out to be a member of a minority. Utilitarianism does not take into account the distinction between persons and does not protect the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals.

Q: What is the first principle proposed by Rawls?

The first principle proposed by Rawls is the equal basic liberties principle. It ensures fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, religious liberty, and freedom of conscience. These liberties are essential to prevent the oppression of individuals, especially minorities.

Q: Why would individuals not choose an equal distribution of income and wealth as the second principle behind the veil of ignorance?

Even if individuals are unsure about their future circumstances and position, they realize that they could do better than an equal distribution of income and wealth. Rawls proposes the difference principle, which allows for social and economic inequalities as long as they benefit the least well-off.

Q: How does Rawls defend the idea that only those inequalities that work to the benefit of the least well-off are just?

Rawls argues that his proposed principles would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance, where individuals are concerned about their own position if they turn out to be at the bottom. To ensure justice, only the inequalities that improve the situation of the least well-off should be permitted.

Q: Would the inequalities of income and wealth of individuals like Michael Jordan and Bill Gates be permitted under Rawls' difference principle?

Rawls argues that these inequalities would be permitted under the difference principle if they are part of a system that works to the advantage of the least well-off. For example, if taxation on high earners is used to support programs that benefit those at the bottom, then these inequalities are deemed just.

Q: What is the objection raised by Mike regarding Rawls' claim that the principles would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance?

Mike challenges Rawls' claim by asking whether individuals would truly argue for justice from the bottom for the disadvantaged without considering the top. He argues that a merit-based system where rewards are based on efforts would be preferable.

Q: How does Rawls respond to the objection raised by Mike?

Rawls argues that even effort and merit are largely shaped by fortunate family circumstances and factors for which individuals cannot claim credit. He also points out that Mike's response aligns with Rawls' idea of a merit-based system where talents and efforts are rewarded fairly.

Q: How does Kate raise a concern about the merit-based argument?

Kate questions whether a merit-based argument considers the advantages individuals may have had from the start, such as access to education and family support. She argues that rewarding efforts regardless of these advantages may not be fair.

Q: What is Rawls' response to the concern raised by Kate?

Rawls points out that the merit-based argument does not consider the moral arbitrariness of the natural lottery, where individuals have different starting points based on factors beyond their control. He argues that distributive shares should not be based on arbitrary factors for which people can claim no credit.

Q: Why does Rawls argue that distributive shares should not be based on factors arbitrary from a moral point of view?

Rawls believes that distributing income, wealth, and opportunities based on factors arbitrary from a moral point of view violates the principle of justice. The distribution should not favor certain individuals based on circumstances beyond their control, as it goes against notions of fairness and equality.

Takeaways

Rawls' answer to the question of distributive justice revolves around the principles chosen behind the veil of ignorance. He proposes equal basic liberties as the first principle and the difference principle as the second. The difference principle allows for some social and economic inequalities but only those that benefit the least well-off. Rawls argues against utilitarianism and suggests that distributive shares should not be based on factors arbitrary from a moral point of view. While effort and merit are important, they are largely influenced by factors beyond individual control. Rawls' theory challenges the idea of self-ownership and emphasizes the entitlements to legitimate expectations rather than moral desert. The debate on distributive justice involves considerations of incentives, contribution, and the effects of societal structures on individuals' opportunities and honors.

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