Like most book clubs we take it in turns to choose what to read next, at our last meeting we had a choice between Daniel Chandler’s Free and Equal: What a fair society would look like, or the book that it is based on, we opted for the latter and so it was that A theory of Justice became my constant companion over the summer months.
This really is no page turner, the first 180 pages are a real struggle, as the author assumes that the reader has a good knowledge of philosophy. Some sections had to be read through several times, but after reaching the end of the chapter 3 (170 pages), my understanding was improving.
We are asked to imagine a starting point (the original position) where parties meet to discuss what a society based on justice as fairness would look like. All the parties are equal, with deliberation arranged behind a “veil of ignorance” so no one knows the social status or abilities of the others. They first agree a set of principles, and then deliberate on the relative priorities between those principles. This then defines the basis of the constitution that will govern their society, its institutions, and the duties and obligations of those who live there.
This is not a description of an ideal society, but the steps to consider when trying to make a fair and just one. The author mentions several times that a perfect society is unobtainable, but clearly we can and should aspire to one that is much better than we find ourselves a part of today.
“A just constitution is defined as a constitution that would be agreed upon by rational delegates in a constitutional convention who are guided by the two principles of justice. When we justify a constitution, we present considerations to show that it would be adopted under these conditions. Similarly, just laws and policies are those that would be enacted by rational legislators at the legislative stage who are constrained by a just constitution and who are conscientiously trying to follow the principles of justice as their standard” [p.314]
It is remarkable that as a nation we haven’t even got that far yet, more so given the injustices heaped on people by government in dealing with Brexit, Covid 19, the climate emergency, and the refugee crises. In his book Why the Germans do it Better John Kampfner writes that the most important sense of national pride for Germans has been their constitution, which sets out what is known as the “Basic Law” a list of principles that underpin government and its institutions. He notes that
“It has managed to be both robust and able to change with the times. It has been amended more 60 times (a two thirds majority is required in both houses) without endangering the principles that underpin it….. Britain makes it up as it goes along, ever confident of muddling along”Why the Germans do it Better P.5
These principles are ingrained across German society, they are respected because they are widely known and understood. In contrast our parliament and unwritten constitution have become an embarrassment. It is of course ironic that British lawyers helped write what it is that the Germans are so proud of.
So many definitions and principles to take in…
The author sets out a wide range of definitions and principles. He includes public goods, principle of perfection, duty and obligation, principle of moral respect, principle of fairness, principle of fidelity, theory of civil disobedience, good, self respect, psychological laws, procedural justice, and principle of redress. The reader becomes increasingly aware of the scope of this work, and also of the failings of our own society. Here are a few of my favourites…
Difference principle. “.. the higher expectations of the better suited are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged of society” [p.65]
Injustice. “is simply the inequalities that are not to the benefit of all” [p.54]
Liberty – Any liberty can be explained by reference to three items: the agents who are free, the restrictions and limitations which they are free from, what it is that they are free to do or not do [p.177]
Principle of efficiency. A configuration is efficient whenever it is impossible to change it so as to make some persons (at least one) better off without at the same time making other persons (at least one) worse off [p 58]
Society. … is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. The basic system is a public system of rules defining a scheme of activities that leads men to act together so as to produce a greater sum of benefits and assigns to each a share of the proceeds. [p.73-4]
Throughout, this work highlights the level of injustice in our society today. In the section on Duty and Obligation there is this…
“..once it is clear that the moral law of war is being regularly violated, he has the right to decline military service” [p.334]
For it to be known that the moral law of war is being broken, it first has to be reported. Yet frequently journalists who publicise evidence of wrong doing or indeed war crimes, journalists are hounded and imprisoned, whilst the perpetrators retain their liberty.
Education, education, education….
This volume has shown the gaps in my understanding of justice and philosophy, and by extension society as a whole. Rawls explains that
“The publicity condition requires the parties to assume that as members of society they will also know the general facts. The reasoning leading up to the initial agreement is to be accessible to public understanding.” [p.480]
In our society the facts are often unknown, and the reasoning reduced to a few sound bites. In his book 21st Century Socialism, Jeremy Gilbert writes
“Poor, uneducated people are not stupid. But by definition they have access to fewer and less reliable channels of information than other people…. It takes a lot of resources to reach them and give them information….. Rich white men like Berlusconi (Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump) use their resources to tell poor people a story.”21st Century Socialism p.89
So it is that governments and the press are able to make people believe that judges are an “enemy within”, and that it is acceptable for legislators to overrule them, to pass unjust laws at will.
My children all left school with some understanding of the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but with no knowledge at all of Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists or Marx. Whilst schools could do more to share a greater understanding of the foundations that our society is built on, education is a continuous process. Community groups, independent media, faith groups and trade unions all have a real role to play helping people to understand the principles of justice and fairness, empowering them to engage with confidence to challenge injustice wherever it occurs and so be better able to help and support its victims.
There is an irony that justice as fairness as presented here isn’t easy to understand, but as this changes, with increasing interest being shown 50 years after it was first published, it will enable more light to penetrate the darkest corners where injustice lurks.