Rawls: the Original Position

A force de l’entendre évoquer – et avec le souci de concevoir, pour moi, ce que peut être un libéralisme de gauche -, j’ai voulu aller voir un peu plus précisément ce qu’était la théorie de Rawls. J’ai trouvé l’article australien dont je fais des extraits ci-dessous qui me semble d’une part faire un résumé clair et compréhensible de la théorie de Rawls et d’autre part le situer dans son environnement philosophique, en particulier sa différence avec l’utilitarisme dont il est issu.

Pour ce que j’en comprends, Rawls se situe dans la lignée des penseurs du contrat social (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) dans la mesure où il déduit ses principes d’une expérience de pensée par laquelle sont reconstruites abstraitement les conditions de la société, avec deux différences: d’une part la situation première n’est plus pensée sous la modalité du contrat, et d’autre part une place est faite à l’intuition morale, ce qui injecte du kantisme dans la problématique.

La Position Originelle:

les règles de la justice sont choisies dans une Position Originelle, derrière un « voile d’ignorance » qui cachent aux parties les faits sur eux-mêmes (sexe, âge, force physique, etc.) qui pourraient être pris en compte pour essayer d’ajuster les règles pour donner à certains un avantage systématique.

[eng]

Les principes et les règles:

Premier principe: chaque personne doit avoir un droit égal au système total le plus étendu de liberté de base égale pour tous, compatible avec un même système pour tous.

Second principe: les inégalités sociales et économiques doivent être ajustées de manière qu’elles soient à la fois:

  • (a) pour le plus grand bénéfice des moins avantagés, en cohérence avec le principe de justes gains, et
  • (b) attachés à des charges et des positions ouvertes à tous sous des conditions d’équitable égalité d’opportunité [équité].

Première règle de priorité (priorité de la liberté): (…] la liberté ne peut être restreinte qu’au nom de la liberté.

Deux cas:

  • (a) une liberté moins étendue doit renforcer le système total de liberté partagé par tous;
  • (b) une liberté inégale doit être acceptable pour ceux qui ont le moins de liberté.

Seconde règle de priorité (priorité de la justice sur l’efficacité et le bien-être): le second principe de justice est (…) prioritaire par rapport au principe d’efficacité et à celui de la maximisation de la somme des avantages; et l’équité des chances est prioritaire sur le principe de différence.

Deux cas:

  • (a) une inégalité des chances[cf. positive action, discrimination positive] doit améliorer les chances de ceux qui ont le moins de chances;
  • (b) un taux excessif d’accumulation [?] doit en contrepartie atténuer le poids de ceux qui supportent cette privation […]

[eng]

La construction spéculative, surtout se fondant sur une expérience de pensée, est sans doute discutable et il y a beaucoup de points que je comprends mal ou pour lesquels il me faudrait des explications. Reste que les principes et règles édictés me semblent utiles pratiquement pour s’orienter en politique, au moment de se poser des questions politiques concrêtes, au-delà de l’opposition topique dans nos débats nationaux entre liberté et égalité.

Plus d’extraits [eng] ci-dessous.

RAWLS: THE ORIGINAL POSITION / John Kilcullen
Copyright (c) 1996, R.J. Kilcullen.

Rawls disagrees with the Utilitarians over their way of spelling out the idea of the happiness of mankind generally. They say: Consider whether the act, rule or institution to be evaluated is best for the happiness of mankind generally. The difficulty is that often it will be both to the advantage of some people and to the disadvantage of others. The effect on the happiness of mankind generally has to be assessed by somehow balancing off the bad effects on some people against the good effects on others.

Rawls’s objection to Utilitarianism is that it puts no restrictions upon the subordination of some people’s interests to those of others, except that the net outcome should be good. This would allow, any degree of subordination, provided the benefit to those advantaged was great enough. Rawls thinks that a theory of justice cannot let disadvantages to some be justified by advantages to others.

In later expositions of the theory Rawls avoids saying that these people are selfish, he says that they have their own purposes (selfish or not), and that each is trying to do the best for his or her purposes without being concerned for the purposes of others.

In later versions (‘The Justification of Civil Disobedience’, and A Theory of Justice), Rawls says that the rules of justice are chosen in an Original Position, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ that conceals from the parties facts about themselves (sex, age, physical strength etc) that might be envisaged in attempts to tailor the rules to give some a systematic advantage.

Rawls says that people in the Original Position would adopt the following basic rules of justice:

First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

  • (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and
  • (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

First Priority Rule (The Priority of Liberty): The principles of justice are to be ranked in lexical order [i.e. one higher in the list is to be satisfied before the next is applied – as in a lexicon or dictionary all words beginning with A come before all those beginning with B] and therefore liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty.

There are two cases:

  • (a) a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberty shared by all;
  • (b) a less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser liberty.

Second Priority Rule (The Priority of Justice over Efficiency and Welfare): The second principle of justice is lexically prior to the principle of efficiency and to that of maximizing the sum of advantages; and fair opportunity is prior to the difference principle. There are two cases:

  • (a) an inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity;
  • (b) an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.

Difference Principle. So let us think about the first. It is the principle that an inequality is unjust except insofar as it is a necessary means to improving the position of the worst-off members of society.

Rawls’s stronger requirement means that even if an inequality does not make the worst-off worse off, it is unjust if it does not make them better off than they would be if it did not exist.

the Utilitarian may argue that there should be certain basic rights guaranteeing a sort of floor below which no one will fall, because such a guarantee reduces anxiety and conflict and thereby frees people for productive and constructive activity – but will not try to regulate the distribution of what this activity produces except to protect the basic rights.

So Rawls’s concern to make as good as possible the position of the worst-off, and his rejection of inequalities not beneficial to the worst-off, is distinctive, in comparison with Utilitarianism, and, as far as I know, in comparison with other theories. A Locke-Nozick kind of theory, which emphasises rights such as property (as basic, and self-evident, not just as a means of reducing conflict and increasing welfare generally) has no place for the idea that inequalities are justified only by improving the situation of the worst-off.

Rawls’s people in the Original Position are not impartial, they are egoists (at least when choosing principles of justice). Their aim in choosing principles is to do as well for themselves as they can. What restricts their egoism is their ignorance: they are not allowed to know what arrangement favours them over others. So they play safe – they are not only egoistical, and in some respects ignorant, but also super-cautious. The best a super-cautious person can do to safeguard his own self-interest behind the veil of ignorance is to adopt the Difference Principle.

The people in the Original Position agree on the principles because given their postulated psychology and information there is no room for disagreement. The agreement is spontaneous, not the result of bargaining. In fact there is no contract, no need even to suppose that there is more than one person in the Original Position. The principles of justice are those that anyone would favour, given certain desires and information.

Cf. the golden rule, do unto others as you would want them to do to you, put yourself in their place, suppose you didn’t know which was you and which was him, what would you say then? This is too indeterminate: as you « would want » them to do under what conditions? Rawls wants to make the Golden Rule more definite

There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune’ (A Theory of Justice, p.74).

The point of this feature of the veil of ignorance is that Rawls wants to ensure that people in the Original Position will choose liberal principles of religious and moral freedom.

Rawls in the Really Original Position is guided in constructing the so-called Original Position by a number of moral intuitions which include concern for the welfare of mankind generally, also egalitarianism, disapproval of mere luck (arbitrariness), small -l liberal ideas about moral and religious liberty etc. He is not I think a Utilitarian because these other concerns are apparently independent of his concern for the happiness of mankind generally. A Utilitarian like Mill would agree with Rawls about these other principles (Mill was the original small -l liberal), but Mill wants to find arguments to show that acceptance of these other principles serves the happiness of mankind generally. Rawls does not try to do this – he holds them as independent principles.

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