Ethical Reasoning

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This has led many to define justice in such a way that it includes the obligation to narrow the inequities between rich and poor. This has been done in a number of ways. One approach, like Nozick's, does not focus on equality of results, the actual distribution of society's goods, but on equality of opportunity. Unlike Nozick's, however, it recognizes that many are impeded in their ability to participate in the life of society and share in its benefits by factors that, while they may not be the result of discrimination or malfeasance, still are not chosen or deserved by the subjects. This includes inequality in natural gifts, family background, education and so on. This view recognizes that society has the obligation, to the extent that it is able, to help compensate for these inequalities. Thus society would have an obligation to provide compensatory education, job training, health care, day care and so on, so that those who start out deprived will at least have a chance to compete for decent jobs, housing and so on. This definition still tolerates large discrepancies in the actual distribution of goods, but at least it recognizes some form of social obligation to help those most disadvantaged. Other theories of justice focus on outcomes. They insist that the actual distribution of benefits and burdens in society should conform to certain rules. These usually take the form of "to each according to his/her X," where X could be merit, contribution to society, or need. The first two envision some sort of rewards system, where people are compensated for hard work, character, ability, and what they are able to do for others, but are not allowed to accumulate or hold undeserved wealth. The third leads to a communist society that simply distributes goods as needed to give everyone the same level of benefits regardless of merit. In any case this kind of justice requires strong social control over economic activity, which does diminish individual liberty, as well as the flexibility and creativity of the economic system. Furthermore, to the extent that need rather than merit dictates distribution, there is less individual incentive to contribute, especially in a large and diverse society, which in practice generally leads to less economic output and fewer goods to distribute. Neither equality of opportunity nor equality of result seems entirely satisfactory. In practice most societies combine the two. They define a certain minimum of essential goods that everyone is entitled to, in income, education, housing, health care, and so on, and recognize that society has an obligation to provide that minimum. Beyond that, they allow great freedom in economic, social and political activity and accept whatever distribution of goods results. This of course is the foundation of the modern democratic socialist state. Philosophically this solution is incoherent and therefore not very satisfying.30 And it leaves open many practical questions, such as what minimum of goods is acceptable, how society is to provide and pay for this, and so on. But it does seem to provide the foundation for a workable solution. A contemporary philosophical approach to justice that attempts to reconcile the demands of equality and freedom is found in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.31 Rawls begins, like John Locke before him, with the primacy of individual freedom, and derives from it a justification for accepting one's obligations to society. What is right for Rawls is what the reasonable person would choose if fully informed and fully free. Therefore he begins with what he calls "the original position." In this hypothetical construct, a group of people who are to form a society meet to decide by what principles their society is to be governed. To make the choice fair and free of self-interest, each person is assumed to be behind a "veil of ignorance," with no knowledge of his or her natural gifts, class, race, family background, or other naturally occurring...
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