Joshua Cohen:The pursuit of fairness—— 纪念罗尔斯

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Joshua   Cohen  

In his theory of justice, John Rawls revitalized the liberal tradition. His arguments were abstract, but even thirty years later they still challenge Americans to live up their best democratic ideals.


AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL philosopher, John Rawls, died this past week at 81 in his home in Lexington. A professor of philosophy at Harvard since 1962, Rawls was an inspiring teacher and an exemplary person. Unfailingly generous and sweetly decent, he led a life embodying the respect for humanity that he taught in his philosophy. And that philosophy - a striking and original marriage of liberty and equality, animated by a tolerant and democratic faith in human possibilities - transformed the terrain of modern debates about justice.

For much of the past century, the idea of a political philosophy devoted to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith for giving undue attention to legal rights and liberties, while remaining indifferent to the fate of ordinary people. Traditional liberalism, they complained, prized equality before the law, but showed complacency in the face of profound inequalities of fortune on earth. Classical liberals, in contrast, embraced personal liberty, and condemned egalitarians for their paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of some possible future utopia. Practically speaking, democratic welfare states tried, with more or less success, to ensure personal and political liberties while protecting individuals from the unfettered market. But the philosophical options seemed starkly opposed. In between Friedrich von Hayek''s classical liberalism and Karl Marx''s egalitarianism, everything was an unstable political compromise, or an ad hoc balancing of competing values.

Rawls's ''''A Theory of Justice'''' published in 1971, changed all this. He proposed a conception of justice - he called it ''''justice as fairness'''' - that was committed in equal measure to the individual rights we associate with classical liberalism, and to an egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions. Justice as fairness, he said, aims to effect a ''''reconciliation of liberty and equality.'''' Although his views did not win widespread support in American politics, his work prompted a remarkable renaissance of political philosophy in the United States and elsewhere (''''A Theory of Justice'''' has been translated into more than 20 languages), and has provided the foundation for all subsequent discussion about fundamental questions of social justice.

Rawls's proposed reconciliation of liberty and equality is expressed in his two principles of justice. The first principle - of equal basic liberties - says that each citizen has a right to the most extensive system of equal basic personal and political liberties compatible with a similar system of liberties for others. This principle requires stringent protections for freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of association, rights to participate in politics, and those associated with due process of law. These liberties, he argues, have special priority and are not to be restricted in the name of the community''s overall good. Rawls''s first principle also includes a demanding norm of political equality, according to which a person''s chances to hold office and exercise political influence should be independent of socioeconomic position. Citizens with the motivation and ability to play an active political role should not be disadvantaged by a lack of personal wealth.

Rawls's second principle of justice restricts the extent of social and economic inequalities. It requires, first, that jobs and positions of responsibility - which often carry unequal rewards - must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. The demand of fair equality is that people who are equally talented and motivated must have equal chances to attain desirable positions, regardless of their social background. Access to well-compensated, rewarding work should not depend on the circumstances in which people happen to have been raised.

But even a society that achieves fair equality of opportunity might still have troubling economic inequalities. Suppose, for example, that some people, partly because of their native endowments, possess scarce talents that command high returns in the market, while others lack such skills. Assume people in both groups work hard, and contribute as best they can. Still, they will reap substantially different rewards, and those differences will have a large impact on their lives. The problem is that these inequalities of reward are founded in part on ''''natural contingencies'''' - on how people have fared in life''s lottery. Why, Rawls asks, should some people fare better than others simply because of the accidents of natural endowment? ''''There is no more reason,'''' Rawls urges, ''''to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.''''

To address this concern, Rawls proposes what he calls the ''''difference principle,'''' which requires that we maximize the economic expectations of the least advantaged members of society. This striking principle requires that we limit the extent to which some people are richer than others just because they happen, through no doing of their own, to have been born with a scarce talent - say, the hand-eye coordination of a great hitter or an unusual mathematical gift. Justice as fairness does not require flat equality: a surgeon might legitimately be paid more than a teacher because the higher income compensates for expensive training and education; income inequalities might also be used as incentives to encourage lawyers or venture capitalists to take on tasks they would otherwise decline. But justice commands that such inequalities work to the greatest benefit of those who are least well-off.

Rawls's large point is that we ought to reject the idea that our economic system is a race or talent contest, designed to reward the well-born, the swift, and the gifted. Instead, our economic life should be one part of a fair system of social cooperation, designed to ensure a reasonable life for all. ''''In justice as fairness,'''' Rawls says, ''''men agree to share one another''s fate. In designing institutions they undertake to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common benefit.''''

Rawls's defense of his two principles revives the idea of a social contract associated with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. The social contract tradition proposes that the most reasonable way to organize a society is the way that the members themselves would unanimously consent to. Building on this idea, Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in a hypothetical situation - he calls it the ''''original position'''' - in which we are to select the principles of justice that will be used in our own society. He designs this initial situation to reflect the ethical idea that we are free and equal moral persons - with a capacity to cooperate with others on fair terms, to choose our own ends, and to pursue the ends we set for ourselves. So the characteristics that distinguish among us are irrelevant in deciding what we are entitled to as a matter of justice. We are to imagine, then, that our choice of principles of justice takes place behind a ''''veil of ignorance,'''' where we do not know our class background, native endowments, sex, race, or religious and moral convictions. We do not know, in short, whether the natural and social contingencies have worked in our favor. Reasoning from behind the veil of ignorance, we put aside what distinguishes us from one another and focus only on what we share as free and equal moral persons.

Rawls argues that people in the original position would choose his two principles. To see why, imagine having to choose principles for your society under conditions of extreme ignorance. You do not know which person you will be, but have to live with the principles you choose. So you will want to be sure that the society is acceptable to each person. The two principles, Rawls argues, provide precisely this insurance. They ensure that social arrangements are acceptable to all members of a society of equals, in particular because they guarantee basic liberties to all, and ensure an acceptable level of resources, even for those who land in the lowest social position.

Abraham Lincoln said that the United States was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. ''''A Theory of Justice'''' argues that justice as fairness is the most reasonable account of justice for a society with that conception and dedication.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Rawls''s proposed marriage of liberty and equality came under attack from two sides: from libertarian political philosophers, who opposed his egalitarianism, and from communitarians, who opposed his liberalism. The great libertarian critique came from Robert Nozick, a colleague in Harvard''s philosophy department, whose ''''Anarchy, State, and Utopia'''' (1974) presented a powerful defense of a very limited government, confined to protecting rights to property and person from aggression. According to Nozick (who also died this year), individuals own themselves and are entitled to all the rewards that they can reap from their interactions with others. Egalitarianism, he argued, is ultimately founded on the morally indefensible idea that people are partial owners of one other.

Arguing from the communitarian side, Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel shared some of Rawls''s egalitarianism. But they argued that a coherent egalitarianism must be founded on the idea that individuals are ultimately members of a community, bound by deep solidarities and shared values. That idea, the communitarians argued, was at war with Rawls''s conception of people as autonomous choosers, bound together by a social compact. Moreover, that ''''individualistic'''' conception was incoherent, and promoting it would threaten the deeper bonds of community by giving excessive attention to personal liberties of expression and association.

Both sides, in short, rejected Rawls''s proposed marriage of liberalism and egalitarianism.

In the course of reflecting on these criticisms, Rawls found that he needed to engage more deeply with the problem of religious, moral, and philosophical pluralism. Those reflections culminated in his 1993 book ''''Political Liberalism.''''

Liberalism, Rawls realized, can be thought of in two ways: as an overarching philosophy of life and as a philosophy of politics. A liberal philosophy of life emphasizes the importance of autonomous personal choice as a guide to individual conduct. Moral liberals such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill argue that the unchosen life is not worth leading, and downplay the importance of tradition, authority, and religious texts in deciding how to live. Liberalism as a political outlook makes no such sweeping claims about the bases of personal decisions. Rather, it is committed to (among other things) securing basic personal and political liberties through a democratic process and a system of individual rights. But that political framework can be embraced by citizens with very different views about the importance of choice, tradition, authority, and text in guiding individual conduct.

Rawls was particularly concerned about disagreement between secular moral liberals and those who embrace religiously-based ideas about the right way to live. He came to think that ''''A Theory of Justice'''' had tied liberalism as a philosophy of politics too closely to liberalism as a philosophy of life, as if only moral liberals could be political liberals. So he revised the presentation of justice as fairness in order to show that it, like many other liberal political doctrines, could be embraced by a wide range of citizens as a common ground of political argument. The aspiration of ''''Political Liberalism'''' was to show that liberalism is a deeply tolerant political outlook, capable of being embraced by adherents of different philosophies of life, serving as the focus of their overlapping consensus, and providing the shared public reason of a morally and religiously pluralistic democracy.

In ''''The Law of Peoples'''' (1999), Rawls extended his reflections on justice to the global level - to an international society composed of different ''''peoples,'''' with distinct values, traditions, and ideas of justice. Once more, he draws on the idea of an initial compact. But the principles that ought to govern the society of peoples - the ''''law of peoples'''' - are agreed to by distinct peoples, not by individuals. In describing the terms of that compact, toleration once more plays a central role. Rawls argues that a liberal democratic society should not require all societies to become liberal democracies, much less fully satisfy his principles of justice or any other liberal conception of justice. ''''If all societies were required to be liberal,'''' he says, ''''then the idea of political liberalism would fail to express due toleration for other acceptable ways (if such there are, as I assume) of ordering society.'''' The law of peoples, he argues, ought to acknowledge as members in equal standing all ''''decent'''' peoples - those that are not aggressive in their relations to others; that respect human rights; and that promote the common good of their members. But these peoples need not establish liberal democratic political systems. In addition to insisting that all societies protect basic human rights, the law of peoples imposes a duty on peoples to ensure that societies that are ''''burdened'''' by circumstance - extreme poverty, for example - are able to become just or at least decent.

Some of Rawls''s critics expressed disappointment with his law of peoples: International justice, they argued, should require more of societies than that they achieve an acceptable minimum of decency. The law of peoples, they concluded, is a disappointing concession to cultural relativism. But Rawls disagreed. Toleration, he urged, is a fundamental political value. Because it is, the basic principles of international cooperation need to be acceptable to different peoples, who have ''''distinctive institutions and languages, religions and cultures, as well as their different histories,'''' and who do not all endorse a liberal understanding of political life. In acknowledging a range of reasonable differences, we are not conceding anything, but keeping faith with our deepest ethical convictions.

For reasons of personal temperament and intellectual conviction, Rawls rarely pronounced in public on specific political issues. He did condemn our current system of campaign finance, which he regarded as an insult to the equal standing of citizens in the public forum. In ''''The Law of Peoples,'''' he criticized Truman''s decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also expressed a preference for achieving economic justice through a ''''property-owning democracy'''' - with large investments in education and training and widely dispersed ownership of productive assets - rather than a conventional welfare state, which relies on the redistribution of market income. And, along with Robert Nozick and other leading political philosophers, he signed a ''''philosophers'' brief'''' to the Supreme Court, urging that the Court give due attention in deciding on the ''''right to die'''' to considerations of personal autonomy.

John Rawls''s distinctive contribution to our political culture, however, lies principally in his political philosophy - a contribution that is abstract, but also deeply practical. By upholding ethical ideals, showing that they are reasonable and achievable, political philosophy stands on the side of hope, and struggles against the cynicism that masquerades as political realism. ''''Debates about general philosophical questions,'''' Rawls wrote, ''''cannot be the daily stuff of politics, but that does not make these questions without significance, since what we think their answers are will shape the underlying attitudes of the public culture and the conduct of politics.'''' In rejecting the view that politics is, at bottom, a matter of naked coercion, political philosophy opposes in its own way the practical implementation of that repugnant idea: ''''it affects [our] thoughts and attitudes before we come to actual politics, and limits or inspires how we take part in it.''''

Inevitably, philosophy will be criticized by the Aristophaneses of this world - not to mention the Machiavellis - for keeping its head in the clouds, or buried in the sand. John Rawls was aware of this concern, and, in one of his final essays, acknowledged that his work might seem ''''abstract and unworldly'''' to some readers. But, he concluded, ''''I do not apologize for that.''''

Joshua Cohen is Goldberg Professor of the Humanities at MIT and co-editor of Boston Review. A portion of this essay is adapted from an introductory note in Classics of Political and Moral Theory, edited by Stephen Cahn (Oxford, 2001).

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