“The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others” (Rawls 7).
This quote comes from the second section of the first chapter in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In this particular paragraph he introduces social justice, which focuses on the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Problems arise when “major institutions define men’s rights and duties and influence their life prospects” (6). Rawls therefore writes that one’s identity or starting place can have a large impact on their life.
As I read through part one in Rawls’ book, a major issue I was having was with his two conditions of a well-ordered society: that everyone can accept what justice is and act on it, and that institutions will honor those beliefs. This quote calls both of those conditions into question, and implies that they cannot be fully possible or realistic.
It can be said that a large group of people being born with an inherent ‘free ticket to ride’ is unjust, because it goes against Aristotle’s pleonexia. Sure, those people couldn’t control the situation into which they were born, but they were still seizing advantages from others in a general sense. They have a great deal of privilege, and part of it is not having to realize that you have privilege. In that sense, those people can easily deny that they are part of an unjust system, thereby disagreeing with others and losing one understanding of the principles of justice. Also, even within marginalized groups-those with unfortunate starting positions-there are varying degrees of consensus on what justice truly is. For these reasons, I don’t think society (at least not an American society) is capable of coming to the exact same conclusion.
Further, many institutions, such as the school system and the political system, do not and cannot ever fully honor the peoples’ beliefs on justice. Not how they are currently, anyway. They make it impossible because they were created by, and intend to favor, certain individuals and groups. To borrow from Audre Lorde, they were built with the master’s tools and were intended for the master’s use only. It is these institutions that give way to those sacred starting positions of privilege, that ensure their survival even with the creation of new laws and norms. In fact, the isms themselves-racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth-can be called institutions themselves, so how could they honor the ideals of social justice? Of justice in general? Therefore, I also cannot see Rawls’ second condition being put in place.
None of this is to say that people and institutions cannot change, but it cannot be done without serious efforts. The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, after all. I believe our conception of justice should be fluid, even if I recognize that we must start from somewhere. Context and history matter, even if everyone can come to agree about justice. And overall, I think we can’t move forward unless we acknowledge those who have and those who have not; the different starting positions in our lives and the major role that they play.
Given this critique of Rawls, is it possible for us to settle on principles of justice while we still play a part (active or passive) in injustice?
Class discussion and impact:
My contributions: I brought up my main issue with Rawls and how it’s difficult to all agree on justice, especially when institutions conflict with individuals. I also pointed out that even reactions to injustice like the Declaration of Independence excluded a large portion of the population. There will always be conflicts.
Other’s contributions: Sinead called into question social contract theory, how it’s all well and good to imagine making rules but that we will always have been born into an already clear set of rules, and that we will have to go along with them. Anna wondered about individual versus societal definitions of justice, and also noted that that whatever rules we have in place harm will always be caused either by those rules or by people going against them.
I really liked this discussion because many of us were saying similar things. We were wondering about the validity of Rawls’ views when thinking about conflicting conceptions of justice and problems within institutions. It was important, though, that we addressed social contract theory, because that gave me more of an understanding of where Rawls is coming from. In my QCQ I sort of accused him of not being very thoughtful about issues of privilege and systematic oppression, but I see now that he was just trying to set up a basic line of thought for a just society. It’s just difficult to separate what you know of reality and what theories people come up with. I will hold onto my hesitancies about Rawls but will try to remember which theory he is working off of and how that lead him to have certain ideas.