Archive for January, 2012

What is a Fair Society?

January 28th, 2012

It has been said that from any set of facts an almost infinite number of stories can be told. In other words, people often see what they want to see–they interpret facts through an ideological filter. For example, you see a man on the street in the cold, holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Need Help.” The man is wearing an old coat, but looks like a fairly capable person. If I am Ebeneezer Scrooge (before he changed to becoming a leftist who gives handouts to the undeserving :lol:) I am going to see this person and think, “Lazy…They do not need help…They should get a job…They probably make more than I do just standing their getting free money…They’ll just spend it on booze,” etc. On the other hand, if I am a liberal, I may see this person and think, “This person likely has a disability of some kind…They do need help…This kind of suffering is immoral and we should do something about it.”

The underlying assumptions of these two perspectives are playing out in our broken political system. The question is, what is the right approach? What kind of ethical system should we accept as a basis for our social policies? Getting together to discuss this problem has inherent challenges because everyone brings their own interests to the table. The ultra-rich have an interest in not having generous social programs that would require them to pay more in taxes. They see their wealth as their property, and taking it is theft. A low-income citizen, who may be struggling to feed their kids, may ask for a society that limits the free market and provides equal opportunity to all, and perhaps ask for economic equality. Which perspective is the fair way to set up a society? Which is more important: freedom or opportunity? And can one exist without the other? The wealthy might say that creating opportunity for all would require limiting their freedoms. The masses might say giving freedom to the wealthy would limit their own freedom and opportunity.

The American philosopher, John Rawls, addressed this dilemma in an innovative way. He proposed a thought experiment, a hypothetical situation that would help guide our ethical principles of fairness. He described a situation where all of us would be in a pre-mortal state, behind a “veil of ignorance,” where none of us would know what circumstances we would be born into. We could just as easily be born into a wealthy family as we could be born into the slums. With these assumptions, what principles would we all agree are fair principles upon which to build a society?

Most of us would not want to risk being born into poverty in a libertarian society that has no safety net. On the other hand, we may not want to risk being born into a completely egalitarian society where we may work hard for our success, only to find our possessions taken and given to others whom we perceive as less deserving. John Rawls solved this problem by eliminating unequal distribution but without handicapping the talented. He simply says, the fastest runners should not be held back, but they should understand that their winnings do not belong to them alone, and should be shared with those who lack similar gifts. He says,

“Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation for those who have lost out. The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted. , but only to cover the costs of training an education and for those using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well. No one deserves his greater nature capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way to deal with them. The basic structure of society can be arranged so that these contingencies work fgor the good of the least fortunate.”

This is a just way to approach equality while not creating disincentives to develop talent and work hard. The current system is not a free market; and it is certainly not a just system that pays a school teacher $43,000 per year while paying David Letterman $31 million. We need something different. Rawls details a number of principles that would govern a just society (see his book, A Theory of Justice). These principles provide a general basis for how we might restructure our society—one shaped by neither the left or the right. We should start trying to get beyond liberal/conservative talking points and start discussing an ethical system that grants everyone the chance to exercise their right to pursue happiness.

Watch this video of Michael Sandel lecturing about John Rawls and the idea of a just society. It is great!

John Rawls (Wikipedia)