Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blog

John Rawls, image via the BBC

Let’s remember and celebrate John Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, the great political and moral theorist who thought of justice as fairness, on his birthday.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called the original position, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple tool for picturing what a just society would look like. Imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed and at what kind of job or not at all; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair and circumspect you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

Learn more about the great John Rawls:

John Rawls ~ by Leif Wenar for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls ~ by Henry S. Richardson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls: American Philosopher ~ by Brian Duignan for Encyclopædia Britannica

John Rawls and Modern American Liberalism ~ by Garrett Sheldon for Lectures in History

On John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice ~ Nigel Warburton interviews Jonathan Wolff for Philosophy Bites

Philosopher Angie Hobbs on the Veil of Ignorance ~ Angie Hobbs discussion with Leif Wenar, and David Runciman for BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas

and my own work featuring Rawls:

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

Communitarianism, Writ Large

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Are Human Rights Anything More than Legal Conventions? by John Tasioulas

Eleanor Roosevelt and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We live in an age of human rights. The language of human rights has become ubiquitous, a lingua franca used for expressing the most basic demands of justice. Some are old demands, such as the prohibition of torture and slavery. Others are newer, such as claims to internet access or same-sex marriage. But what are human rights, and where do they come from? This question is made urgent by a disquieting thought. Perhaps people with clashing values and convictions can so easily appeal to ‘human rights’ only because, ultimately, they don’t agree on what they are talking about? Maybe the apparently widespread consensus on the significance of human rights depends on the emptiness of that very notion? If this is true, then talk of human rights is rhetorical window-dressing, masking deeper ethical and political divisions.

Philosophers have debated the nature of human rights since at least the 12th century, often under the name of ‘natural rights’. These natural rights were supposed to be possessed by everyone and discoverable with the aid of our ordinary powers of reason (our ‘natural reason’), as opposed to rights established by law or disclosed through divine revelation. Wherever there are philosophers, however, there is disagreement. Belief in human rights left open how we go about making the case for them – are they, for example, protections of human needs generally or only of freedom of choice? There were also disagreements about the correct list of human rights – should it include socio-economic rights, like the rights to health or work, in addition to civil and political rights, such as the rights to a fair trial and political participation?

But many now argue that we should set aside philosophical wrangles over the nature and origins of human rights. In the 21st century, they contend, human rights exist not in the nebulous ether of philosophical speculation, but in the black letter of law. Human rights are those laid down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the various international and domestic laws that implement it. Some who adopt this line of thought might even invoke the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who contemptuously dismissed the idea of natural rights existing independently of human-made laws as ‘rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts’.

Now, it is true that since the middle of the previous century an elaborate architecture of human rights law has emerged at the international, regional and domestic levels, one that is effective to wildly varying degrees. And for most practical purposes, it might be that we can simply appeal to these laws when we talk about human rights. But, ultimately, this legalistic approach is unsatisfactory.

To begin with, the law does not always bind all those we believe should abide by human rights. For example, some states have not ratified human-rights treaties, or have ratified them subject to wide-ranging exceptions (‘reservations’) that blunt their critical edge. A country such as Saudi Arabia can have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council yet persist in severe forms of gender discrimination – for example, prohibiting women from driving – because it made its acceptance of human-rights treaties subject to an override in the case of conflict with Islamic law.

Moreover, the international law of human rights, like international law generally, almost exclusively binds states. Yet many believe that non-state agents, such as corporations, whose revenues in some instances exceed the GDP of all but the wealthiest nations, also bear grave human-rights responsibilities. When manufacturers such as Nike use 12-year-olds to stitch soccer balls in Pakistan, or internet service providers such as Yahoo secretly hand over the emails of dissidents to the Chinese government, many critics decry not just corporate malfeasance but human-rights violations. And this is so even if the corporation has complied with the laws of the country in which it is operating.

It is precisely in response to the threat to human rights posed by corporations that the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2011), the brainchild of the Harvard political scientist John Ruggie, were established. Endorsed by the UN, the principles are not legally binding either on states or corporations. Instead, they aim to provide an authoritative statement of human-rights responsibilities that apply directly to corporations, quite apart from any legal obligations they might also bear. Ruggie’s ambition is that the principles will eventually inform corporate decision-making at all levels, illustrating the fact that human rights go beyond law and its enforcement.

Yet there is a deeper problem with identifying human rights with existing laws. Laws are the creations of fallible human beings. They might be good or bad, and so are always subject to interpretation and criticism in terms of independent moral principles. The international law of human rights, on this view, does not establish which human rights exist; instead, its goal is to implement moral rights we already possess, simply by virtue of our humanity. Slavery, torture and racial discrimination did not suddenly become human-rights violations only when they were legally prohibited. It is the other way round: we have human-rights law in order to give force to human rights that in some sense pre-exist their legal recognition. Unfortunately, no consensus has yet emerged among philosophers or anyone else on how human rights are to be defended as objective truths, independent of law.

The late American philosopher Richard Rorty sought a way out of this impasse. Although a staunch liberal, he turned his back on the philosophical enterprise of attempting to give a rational justification for human rights. He judged that activity to be pointless now that human rights are a deeply embedded fact of our culture, not just our law. How can we justify human rights when they seem more compelling to us liberal Westerners than any other idea we might use to justify them? The real task that confronts us, Rorty thought, was the practical one of enhancing compliance with human rights worldwide, not the intellectual one of grounding rights in the fabric of reality.

A similarly dismissive attitude is adopted by Ruggie, who conceives of his Guiding Principles not as reflecting ‘true’ moral demands, but as rooted in empirically measurable ‘social norms and expectations’. At a more sophisticated level, the late American political philosopher John Rawls, in his last work The Law of Peoples (1999), insisted that in a pluralistic world we cannot build our public commitment to human rights on any controversial account of the ‘truth’ about humanity or the good. We have to return, instead, to shared ideas embedded in the culture of a liberal democracy.

But is it enough to rely on the supposed fact that human rights are embedded in a liberal democratic culture? Or do we need to be able to step back from that culture and offer an objective justification for the principles embedded in it, as the philosophers have long supposed? The problem is that social expectations and cultural assumptions not only vary significantly across societies, but that they are fragile: various forces ranging from globalisation to propaganda can cause them to change dramatically or even wither away. Would rights against gender or racial discrimination disappear if sexist or racist attitudes come to predominate?

The question is not fanciful. Once apparently settled beliefs about the impermissibility of torture or the rights of refugees have recently suffered a backlash. There can be backsliding as well as progress, with no guarantees either way. Social expectations and deep cultural assumptions are no more a sufficient basis for human rights than the law is. There is a fatal contradiction in defending human rights against the rising authoritarianism of a ‘post-truth’ era while simultaneously abandoning the belief that our commitment to those rights is itself grounded in the truth, and being prepared to defend it on that basis.

My own view is that human rights are rooted in the universal interests of human beings, each and every one of whom possesses an equal moral status arising from their common humanity. In other words, in defending human rights, we will need to appeal to the inherent value of being a member of the human species and, in addition, the interests shared by all human beings in things like friendship, knowledge, achievement, play, and so on. And we will need to ask whether these considerations generate duties that are owed to each and every human being. This proposal is hardly uncontroversial. The appeal to the inherent value of humanity will be contested by some as a brute prejudice – a ‘speciesism’ on a par with racism. Similarly, the appeal to universal interests will be contested by those who think that human rights are ultimately about respecting individual freedom regardless of whether it advances the right-holder’s well-being.

Whether I’m right or not, I am convinced that we cannot sustain our commitment to human rights on the cheap, by invoking only the law or the assumptions of our liberal democratic culture. Only a deeper justification can explain why we are right to embody them in the law, or maintain a liberal democratic culture, in the first place. This has precisely been the aim of philosophical defences of human rights from the 12th century up until very recent times. To keep our human rights culture in good order, we cannot avoid engaging with the question of justification. And we should think of this not as the exclusive domain of professional philosophers, but as a process of public reasoning to which all citizens are called to contribute.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

John Tasioulas is the inaugural Chair of Politics, Philosophy and Law, and director of the Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He is working on his latest book, Human Rights: From Morality to Law (forthcoming, OUP). (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blogLet’s remember and celebrate John Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, the great political and moral theorist who thinks of justice as fairness, on his birthday.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called ‘the veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple tool for designing a just society. Imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed and at what kind of job or not at all; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

Here’s a short list of resources to learn more about the great John Rawls:

John Rawls – by Leif Wenar for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls – by Henry S. Richardson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A Theory of Justice – by John Rawls (Google book preview)

and my own work featuring Rawls:

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayListen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. …The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayI’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. (We’re speaking here not of liberalism as commonly understood in the U.S., as political positions on the left of the spectrum, but of classical liberalism, a political philosophy which focuses on liberty and the primacy of the individual.) From the beginning, liberal philosophers and their critics have identified and described possible contradictions in the system itself, and ways in which it may end up being self-defeating in the real world. For example, John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, recognizes that it would require a strong state to protect the autonomy of the individual from competitors and from the ‘querulous and contentious’, and that individual autonomy in a marketplace, unfettered by other constraints, will lead to conditions that foster inequality, discontent, and revolution (at about 4:40 and 14:40, then 10:30). Alexis de Tocqueville observes that though individuals enjoy this autonomy at the beginning, they are left weakened and alone by the erosion of those institutions that create bonds of loyalty and affection in a society, such as family, tradition, and belief (at about 15:00). Deneen, in sum, describes these and various other ways in which liberalism can fail to achieve its end of liberating the individual to achieve their potential to the fullest possible extent.

The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment (starting at about 19:00). Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a beautifully elegant method of envisioning and crafting a just society. Imagine you’re looking at a society from the outside knowing you’ll be placed in it with no idea what you’ll be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on. Given this hypothetical situation, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Behind that veil of ignorance, you’d be motivated to to design a society that’s just and fair, that benefits everyone to the greatest degree possible, since of course, you could be the one who suffers the ill effects of any injustice built into the system.

8694d-justice2bet2binc3a9galitc3a92b-2bles2bplateaux2bde2bla2bbalance2bby2bfrachet2c2bjan2b20102c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsAs Deneen points out, Rawls, like other liberal political philosophers, recognizes that people in a liberal society may, over time, act not out of true freedom, but as slaves of their individual desires and passions. Since liberalism promotes the idea that society is and should be made of up autonomous individuals freely pursuing their own ends, the values of individuals in that society may become self-serving to the point of destructiveness. This destruction can be of social institutions that provide support and meaning, such as family, tradition, and belief, of liberalism’s own key institutions such as the free markets of goods and ideas, and as we now recognize, of the very environment from which all of this is derived. Rawls posits the veil of ignorance as a way to free ourselves from this trap, by transforming ourselves, in thought, into benevolent, self-effacing avatars of justice. But, Deneen points out, Rawls never really provides an explanation of why we we’d all want to go behind the veil of ignorance in the first place. After all, Rawls’ entire theory of justice-as-fairness as described in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, which the view from behind the veil reveals to us, depends on the participation of everyone. If even one person remains aloof, that person’s interests and motivations aren’t considered or checked by those of others, which, in turn, is not fair.

From within the thought experiment, the motivation to go behind the veil makes sense: since liberalism is meant to promote the liberty and well-being of all individuals, it makes sense to envision and design a society where some individuals are not allowed to enjoy advantages that limit or even destroy the liberty and well-being of others. But this still doesn’t account for why we’d all want to go behind the veil in the first place. In a liberal society in the real world, only those suffering its ill effects will be motivated to do so, since those who have found relative success within its parameters will be ever more motivated to keep the pursuit of their own interests free from the demands and constraints of others until it serves them otherwise.

With the disconnection from other people which liberalism can tend to foster in mind, as described by de Toqueville and Rawls, I picture a whole society of people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Then something in this picture strikes me: behind this veil, all the people are looking in the same direction, encircled around the society they must share. They are united, not separated by competing interests nor from the bonds of family, tradition, and belief. They are cooperating as equals, with a shared goal and a shared ethic: the liberty to achieve the fullest degree of perfection that an individual is capable of, with others’ interests as much in mind as their own so far as possible. These interests can and invariably do include family, tradition, and belief. Those with a narrow view of liberalism often speak only of individual interests as involving the individual pursuit for food and shelter, money, comfort, wealth, and prestige, and dismiss family, tradition, and belief as impediments to human liberty. But of course, this is not necessarily so, as we observe their lasting power and meaningfulness in the real world throughout history and to this day, even where liberalism as an institution is most robust. Material comfort and prestige are not and have never been the only and or even, for many, the primary motivators of thought and action in any society.

Behind the veil, then, is that deep need for human connection fulfilled in the context of an idealized liberalism, that the institution of liberalism in the real world can undermine if uncorrected by the state or by an ethic such as Rawls’ justice-as-fairness. Does Rawls have this picture of a united humanity in mind as he devises his thought experiment, though he doesn’t describe it per se? Perhaps Rawls does recognize this motivation for going behind the veil: our realization that while the pursuit of our own individual interests can be fulfilling, it can also undermine our potential of fulfilling our deepest humanity, not only tied to the destinies of others but with a deep emotional need for deep and lasting connections with one another. Behind the veil of ignorance, we are thus united, connected, bonded, sharing a vision, in a state of equal humanity, of a good and just world for all of us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Alexis de Tocqueville‘, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, ‘Liberalism‘, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.’ from The Philosopher’s Zone Podcast, Sun May 15 2016, Radio National, Australia. Host: Joe Gelonesi

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke“, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

New Podcast Episode: Communitarianism, Writ Large

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

‘…I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life….’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well… Read original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blogJohn Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, is the great moral theorist who thinks of justice as fairness.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called ‘the veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple method for helping to design a just society: imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most, since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Further reading:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: John Rawls

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (book preview)

Ordinary Philosophy pieces featuring John Rawls:

Communitarianism, Writ Large

Sources, Influences, Shout-Outs, and all that Good Stuff