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John Rawl's Basic Rights and Liberties

John Rawls in his famous book The Theory of Justice, 1971 has written about how justice and fairness are two distinct concepts and explained with various principles the concept of 'justice as fairness.' According to him, justice is derived from fairness in a society. This book could give the liberal democratic and welfare-oriented states renewed confidence in their rectitude and a broadened agenda for practical.1

For Rawls, justice is essentially the elimination of arbitrary distinctions and the establishment, within the structure of a practice, of a proper balance between competing.2 He assures his readers that "justice is not to be confused with an all-inclusive vision of a good society; it is only one part of any such conception."3

It is important, for example, to distinguish that sense of equality which is an aspect of the concept of justice from that sense of equality which belongs to a more comprehensive social ideal.4 Fairness, on the other hand, means to avoid discrimination according to one's own will ie be neutral and respect the interests and well-being of others. Therefore, Rawl in his book puts forward these two concepts from a different perspective that has raised various debates on their implementation in the real world.

To adopt this kind of fairness, Rawls came up with the imaginary concept of 'original position.' In this imaginary concept, there is fundamental equality and the people here are behind a 'veil of ignorance.' Veil of ignorance, meaning, people are ignorant about their identities or any other particulars because of which they can be discriminated against each other. Therefore, here people choose a specific kind of social order to govern themselves in a unanimous and rational manner to live a dignified life.

This leads to equality without any discrimination and an ideal society is created with mutual interests and respect. Rawls further puts forward an argument that when these people will enter the real world they will reject the utilitarianism principle (ie maximum happiness of the maximum number of people) and adopt principles of equality, liberty, freedom, etc because these people will never want to sacrifice such essential principles that safeguard their interests.

Rawls came up with two principles of justice which include the basic rights and liberties required for fairness in justice. These principles not only bring out the idea that justice is a primitive moral notion in that, it arises once the concept of morality is imposed on mutually self-interested agents similarly circumstanced, but it emphasizes that fundamental to justice, is the concept of fairness which relates to right dealing between persons who are cooperating with or competing against one another, as when one speaks of fair games, fair competition, and fair bargains.5 These rights are:
  1. Equal Liberty:

    This right means that all persons should have equal rights to all kinds of liberties. All persons must have certain liberties that are essential for their well-being and mere existence. This right cannot be infringed for any purpose, whatsoever. Equal liberty may not be decreased, departed from, or traded off in order to gain greater social and economic advantages.6 To elaborate this right of equal liberty includes:
    • Freedom of Speech:
      This means that all persons should have the freedom to speak their thoughts out. No restrictions should be put on them that harm their right to freely express themselves. It is an intrinsic feature of liberty that allows one to express their feelings without any limitations
    • Freedom of Assembly:
      This means that persons are allowed to assemble wherever and whenever they want. No restrictions can be put on their mobility.
    • Freedom of Conscience:
      All persons have the right to follow, profess and propagate their conscience. There should be not any outer force that curbs people to alter their beliefs and faith.
    • Right to live with dignity:
      All persons should have all those rights that are necessary for building a life that provides them with dignity. Apart from the resources provided to build it, there should be no discrimination that pulls down one's dignity and reputation.
    However, equal liberty does not include any rights that are related to economic progress and means of production. Rawl writes that there must always be a justification if there is a departure from the initial position of equal liberty and the burden of proof shall lie on the person who departs from it.7 He further argues that justice requires equal liberty.

    If, however, greater liberty were possible for all without loss or conflict, then it would be irrational to settle on a lesser liberty. But in reality, it should be considered that it becomes "obvious that no society can regard all possible plans of life as equally desirable, and it will restrict some plans even when they do not impair other persons' liberties." Therefore, everyone is in a constant cycle of deciding which liberty should be chosen and which is to be denied.
  2. Social And Economic Equality Of Opportunity:

    In this right, Rawl states that in the real world, it could happen that equal opportunities are not provided to all. There can be an unequal distribution of resources and wealth. But he mentions that this inequality should be in such a manner that the people in the worst position in that economy should be better off and not left behind. Therefore, the inequalities should be in such a manner that:
    • It benefits the less advantaged people in the economy; and
    • The benefits and the opportunities that are available in all establishments are open to all freely, fairly and equally.

Public Opportunities Open To All:

There should be equal opportunities available for all persons in the economy so that the best talent can be attracted to it. It does not states that there is no difference between the positions in the office but states the differences in the benefits and burdens attached to that position such as prestige, wealth, liability etc. Equal opportunity is necessary as a corrective measure from one generation to the next, for the difference principle, which permits the use of social incentives in the form of income, inheritance, and authority differences, otherwise might give some members of each generation too great an advantage from the beginning.8

Distributed Equity:

All the resources should be equally distributed among the people to gain the similar opportunities and benefits that are available in that economy. Since at least 1954, liberal opinion has held that all should have equal access to the schooling of approximately equal quality because education is a crucial factor in the development of cognitive abilities and a necessary resource for upward social mobility.9 In Rawls' terms, education is a social primary good.

Hence, where educational opportunity is not equal it must be made equal. On the other hand, Rawl also states that inequality shall be only allowed when it also benefits the less advantaged people of that economy. It outweighs the utilitarian principle.

By these rights, it becomes clear that if these analogies of Rawl are accepted then there is no way for any person to acquire a special position for himself as it would always be rational to take up the principle of equality for the common good. On the positive side, these inequalities aid in uplifting the disadvantaged population of the economy. In my view point, such principles could lead the economy into a haywire situation as such policies cannot be constructed that benefit all the people.

In practice, such a division of resources is not possible. Distributive justice requires proper funds, efforts and a literate populace. At last, Rawl accepts that a day shall come when this hypothetical situation shall fail. He advises postponing that day to come as much as it can be possible.

End Notes:
  1. John H. Schaar, 'Reflections on Rawl's Theory of Justice' (1974) 3 Florida State University Department of Philosophy 100
  2. John Rawls, 'Justice as Fairness' (1958) 67 Duke University on behalf of Philosophical Review 194.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rawls (n2).
  6. Gilbert Merritt, 'Justice as Fairness: A Commentary on Rawl's New Theory of Justice' (1973) 26 Vanderbilt Law Review 665.
  7. Rawls (n2).
  8. Merritt (n6).
  9. Schaar (n1).

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