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Opinion: Has Rawls’s time come?

14 July 2023

His ideas about freedom and fairness have Christian roots, says Nicholas Reed Langen


AT THE turn of the millennium, the question “What would Jesus do?” became part of cult youth fashion. Emblazoned on luminescent wristbands, the slogan was a reductive way of answering any moral quandary: if in doubt, ask yourself what Jesus would do.

For a time, this was also the attitude of John Rawls, one of the 20th century’s most influential liberal philosophers. Studying at Princeton before the Second World War, he intended to become a theologian, until the brutality of the battlefield left him questioning his faith. Returning to Princeton after the war, his focus turned to more earthly concerns, asking how to construct a society that was fair for all its members while enabling the freedom that was core to the human condition.

Christian morality suffuses Rawls’s political theory. The cornerstone of his theory asks decision-making members of society to stand outside it, placing a “veil of ignorance” between themselves and the world.

Behind this hypothetical veil, the decision-makers would be able to see society, but would be left ignorant about their place within it. They would not know whether they would be rich or poor, black or white, Gentile or Jew. From this position, there is one question that should govern any decision about the nature and rules of society: Is it fair? By this, Rawls wanted the decision-makers to endorse it, regardless of where they found themselves when they returned to live in the world that they had created.

WITH the world on the cusp of an AI revolution, and with the UK on the cusp of electing a new ideological government in the midst of it, the question of how society should be structured has renewed relevance.

Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was published in 1971, at the dawn of neo-liberalism, when ideas such as those in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom were in vogue, and would go on to shape the conservative politics of Margaret Thatcher’s government. But, now, neo-liberalism’s influence, particularly its pernicious notion that we are all purely masters of our own fate, is waning. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, few believe that everyone in Western society has an equal chance of success, so long as they display grit and a Protestant work ethic.

It may be, as the economic philosopher Daniel Chandler argues in a new book, Free and Equal (Penguin), that the world is now ready for a Rawlsian philosophy. If he is right, there are two principles, according to Rawls, that decision-makers behind his veil should arrive at: first, that we are all entitled to basic liberties (the basic-liberties principle); and, second, that society should be socio-economically structured in a way that benefits the most vulnerable and disadvantaged (the equality principle).

The first of these is unexceptional. Bills of rights, protecting values such as freedom of speech, freedom to protest, and the right to life, are a feature of almost every liberal democracy. Through these rights, everyone in society is given the freedom to pursue a personal “conception of the good”. In this acceptance that people may differ in what “the good” means, Rawls departed from his thesis, expressed in a work from his graduate years published after his death. In this, he had concluded that humanity’s pre-eminent objective should be to live well through relationships with others, and, through this, to develop their relationship with God.

Rawls might have lost his Christian faith, or at least his vocation, but he did not abandon his faith in the pre-eminence of equality, or the part played by the State in securing it.

In the equality principle, Rawls accepted that some had talents that were more valuable to society than others’. But he denied that this meant that the less talented should not have the same opportunity to pursue their own vision of the good life. Reduced to its barest of bones, this principle requires that there be fair equality of opportunity, realised most effectively through enacting policies that first concern themselves with benefiting those in society who are the least advantaged. It is the secular equivalent of Jesus’s exhortation that “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

IN PURSUING this principle, reaching the conclusion that all at the start of life should be given the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed, is rudimentary. What is more interesting is what should be done at the end of one’s life, and whether the State has a right to tax an inheritance or should leave it untouched.

Low to no inheritance tax does little but perpetuate and institutionalise inequality, as does the State’s refusal to engage with questions over wealth contained in assets. Inheritances more often than not end up in the hands of those who often need it least, who have already benefited from the largesse of society, establishing themselves and their children. The result is exponential generational wealth and a growing chasm of inequality.

Questions such as this will need to be answered by Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour government, should he convert Labour’s current poll lead into an electoral mandate. Chandler’s book, even if it comes to resemble a policy paper, none the less makes a persuasive case for a Labour government to adopt Rawlsian principles. Perhaps wristbands could be made: “What would Rawls do?”

Nicholas Reed Langen is a writer on legal and constitutional affairs, a former Re:Constitution Fellow (2021-22), and editor of the
LSE Public Policy Review.

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