A Theory of Justice, Reimagined

John Rawls wrote in 1976 (I think) the most poignant political tome of our age. The title was simply “A Theory of Justice.” In a time when normative political theory had been all but forgotten in the shadow of the Cold War, Rawls produced a comprehensive theory of justice that would prove to be the work to agree or disagree with for modern political scientists. Obviously, volumes have been written on this work, and it is about 400,000,000,000 pages long (just TRY and read it. You’ll fail, so just don’t even try, and maintain the self-dillusion that you’re not a failure at academia), so I’m not going to go in depth in this tiny blog post. I’m just going to talk a little about my favourite part of his theory, and that’s the use of the veil of ignorance to arrive to his conclusions.

The Veil of Ignorance (or VoI for us scholar-types) is pretty much the greatest idea ever. Here’s what it is, as best as I can remember.

Pretend you don’t know anything about yourself. NOTHING. You don’t know your name, religion, political persuasion, height, sex, gender (how progressively minded I am, I know), race, favourite soft drink…NOTHING. Anything that could give you any clue about yourself is gone. You have only your reason, and the knowledge that you are a human. Now you meet with a bunch of other people in a similar situation and try to decide what principles of justice society should have to guide the making of laws, constitutions, board games, etc. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but in the 70’s people pretty much just went NUTS for this crap. The idea is that even if you really are a white male nazi in Montana, under this VoI, you might think about what it is like to be a black person or a Jew, so you’re not going to adopt a principle that allows for racial inequality. Then when you realize that you’re really a nazi, as long as you remain a rational person, you should agree with whatever principles you originally agreed to under the VoI, or the Original Position.

Karazy Stuff!

Well there were a million people who had a problem with this, and they wrote books and articles and eventually Rawls whittled down his argument to a 100 (and change) page book, which kept the cool VoI, but toned down the whole COMPREHENSIVE THEORY OF JUSTICE thing down a bit.

Anywho, Rawls always said that this would only work in a country like the US, since it only accounts for a society with our values for democracy, pluralism, and liberty. Basically he said this wouldn’t work for other countries.

But could it be used to determine how countries deal with each other? This is my contribution to the discussion, as it were, that above line. It wouldn’t prove much, since the principles that would be achieved from a VoI being used internationally are ones we pretty much have now. By “internationally” I mean that we would have a representative for each country meet under the VoI, and decide what principles should guide the interactions between each country. Obviously aggressive war is out. No country would want to be invaded, and the chance of being the aggressor country does not balance out the risk of being invaded, so everyone would agree that offensive war is pretty much a Bad Thing. They would also probably agree that trade is probably a good thing. If I’m a country in the VoI, I’m gonna be thinking that if I’m a poor country, I can only benefit from free trade with a rich country, but that if I’m a rich country, I don’t want to be in a forced relationship with weaker countries feeding off of me with nothing in return. This would eliminate any sort of conspiracy theorist “new world order” or “one world government” as a principle. It would also encourage free trade.

Free trade is a ways off, and may never happen; and the one world government should stay in the realm of conspiracy theory for a while now. But I’m pretty sure we’re all on agreement that aggressive war is bad. This is what is rather perplexing about US foreign policy, since it seems all about aggressive war as of late. Afghanistan was a just war, and has been largely effective, but Iraq as well as the countless military conflicts over the years seem to contradict this principle.

I guess there’s not much we can do about it, except write blog entries and hope that elected officials read them.

(and you thought I wouldn’t write about this)


~ by aeqvitas on December 7, 2007.

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