Rawlsian Standards of Social Justice

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John Rawls’ A Theory on Justice establishes standards by which we may evaluate justice in society. In assessing the United States in light of the Rawlsian principles of social justice, it is evident that America falls short of these standards, and yet this discord tolerated in America. While this incongruity does in fact affect the lives of many Americans, particularly the underpriviledged, in practice very little is done to lessen inequality so as to achieve the Rawlsian ideal of social justice in America.

As a starting premise, Rawls lays out two principles of justice. The first is that “each person is to have equal rights to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with similar liberties for others” . This principle is essentially absolute, and may not be violated even for the sake of the second principle. Rawls’ second principle of justice is that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged such that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all”1. Thus, it follows that injustices are inequalities that are not to the advantage of all. Interpretations of this second principle, and particularly of the phrase “to everyone’s advantage” is the basis of different system of equality.

The first interpretation of Rawls’ second principle is the efficiency principle, from which follows the system of liberal equality. The efficiency principle states that a configuration is efficient when it is impossible to alter the configuration so as to make some persons better off without making others worse off. For any given scenario, there are many possible configurations that are efficient, but according to this principle none are better than others. Evidently, the efficiency principle cannot on its own be a measure for justice. The system of liberal equality attempts to add a component of justice to the efficiency principle by implementing a framework of political and legal institutions that work to eliminate the influence of social contingencies. These measures serve to level class barriers, yet still permit the distribution of wealth and income to be based on natural distribution of abilities and talents . Rawls’ idea of true social justice rests heavily on the idea that morally arbitrary factors, such as the family one was born into or the talents with which one is endowed, should not determine life chances or opportunities. This gives rise to a separate interpretation of the second principle of justice, the difference principle. The system of democratic equality follows from this interpretation. The difference principle establishes a viewpoint from which economic and social inequalities ought to be judged. This principle holds that such inequalities are only acceptable if they are arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. This principle is based on the idea that each member of society is equally entitled to the benefits of that society regardless of ability or talents . Rawls sets such a system of democratic equality as a benchmark—the ideal to strive towards.

In looking at the United States through the lens of Rawls’ standards for social justice, America best fits a system of liberal equality. While it is accepted that careers are open to those with particular talents, there is also the condition of fair opportunity, such that everyone should have a fair chance of attaining a position. The United States makes some attempt to mitigate the influence of social contingency and natural fortune on distributive shares through income taxation and modest welfare spending. At the same time, unequal distribution of wealth and income in America is accepted as a direct result of the distribution of talent and abilities. Robert Dahl’s Equality versus Inequality argues that the free-market capitalist system of America serves to undercut inequality. Dahl holds that market...
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