Rawls - Justice as Fairness

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Analyse & Kritik 28/2006 ( c Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart) p. 83–88

Fabienne Peter

Justice: Political Not Natural

Abstract: Ken Binmore casts his naturalist theory of justice in opposition to theories of justice that claim authority on the grounds of some religious or moral doctrine. He thereby overlooks the possibility of a political conception of justice—a theory of justice based on the premise that there is an irreducible pluralism of metaphysical, epistemological, and moral doctrines. In my brief comment I shall argue that the naturalist theory of justice advocated by Binmore should be conceived of as belonging to one family of such doctrines, but not as overriding a political conception of justice.

A political conception of justice, as famously put forward by John Rawls, rests on fundamental democratic values. The premise is that an irreducible pluralism of views about what justice requires and about what constitutes the relationship between individuals and the society they live in renders it impossible to base justice on any single comprehensive philosophical doctrine. In my brief comment I shall argue that the naturalist theory of justice advocated by Ken Binmore should be seen as belonging to one family of such doctrines. Naturalist theories are not written by nature, but are scholarly attempts to reflect on a select set of data about social life. They are part of a particular (and venerable) philosophical tradition of thinking about justice. The theories put forward are contested by fellow naturalists as well as by adherents of other philosophical traditions. I agree with Binmore that we should theorize about how the social world is structured and, based on this, about what constitutes justice. But he interprets this endeavor too narrowly. I shall argue naturalist theories go wrong when they are conceived of as overriding a political conception of justice. I find Binmore’s book very intelligent and I would recommend it to everyone as an extremely stimulating and enjoyable read. But contrary to what he suggests, it is best interpreted as only one among many contestable philosophical doctrines about justice. Binmore is interested in the distributive aspects of social contracts. He takes the traditional approach in moral philosophy to be to advocate a particular sharing rule—a theory of justice—without asking how it could have come about and be sustained in actual societies. This, he contends, is a hopeless and futile endeavor. According to him (and many others), justice happens behind our backs. Moral rules, so the claim goes, are shaped by evolutionary forces and they should be studied accordingly:


Fabienne Peter “If one wishes to study such rules, it doesn’t help to ask how they advance the Good or preserve the Right. One must ask instead how they evolved and why they survive. That is to say, we need to treat morality as a science.” (1)

Naturalist theories of justice seek to explain why particular sharing rules have evolved. Binmore’s main thesis is that John Rawls’ justice as fairness is right in some of its conclusions, but for the wrong reasons. According to Binmore, Rawls mistakenly adheres to the traditional approach in moral theory, but his device of the original position receives support from an evolutionary perspective. In the book he argues that the original position reveals the “common deep structure of human fairness norms” (15). For my purposes here it is not important to discuss the details of the convergence that Binmore makes out between his naturalist approach and Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. It suffices to say that he associates Rawls’ idea of the original position with an equilibrium selection device in rational bargaining. By combining the folk theorem of game theory with an evolutionary account of fairness norms, Binmore argues that a fair social contract can emerge as an equilibrium in repeated games (chapter 11). Using a Humean metaphor, he argues that a fair social...
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