IDEA Research Seminar - Rawlsian Justice and 'Simply Natural Facts'

Gerald Lang will be presenting for approximately half an hour, which will be followed by an informal discussion. All are welcome and there is no need to book.

In a very well-known passage in A Theory of Justice, John Rawls tells us that ‘the natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts’. 

This is actually a puzzling claim, since standard interpretations of Rawls make his arguments for justice as fairness the upshot of his hostility to morally arbitrary social and natural endowments. But if we should avoid distributions shaped by morally arbitrary influences, then there would seem to be a problem with those morally arbitrary facts, even if we can amend their influence only retrospectively, obliquely, or institutionally. We need to think about Rawls in a different way. Rawls does not think that there is any contamination at source. Rather, facts about our endowments are arbitrary because they do no moral arbitration. They need to be left aside, so that the hypothetical contract can do its work.

At least two results follow. First, the hypothetical contract turns out to be the normative source of Rawls’s argument for justice as fairness, just as he says. The contractarian apparatus is not window-dressing, or a spare wheel, or just an eye-catching expository device. Second, Rawls’s non-cosmopolitanism becomes less puzzling. We don’t have to be distracted by the fact that there are morally arbitrary differences in endowments between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to a community of justice, because these are not the facts which provide the central impetus to Rawlsian justice.