Rawls of Liberalism and philosophy

Patrick Smith gave the final philosophy lecture in Bellevue College’s fall series on the work of John Rawls, one of the most influential political philosophers of recent history.

During the 20th century, America faced a growing inequality between the upper class and lower class, and the question that divided America was this: what constitutes fair treatment? To the wealthy, the status quo system seems to be fair, and they’ve achieved their success through hard work and endurance.

To the poor and the less well off, the current form of government (whatever it may be) is unfair, and they drew the short stick in life’s lottery. Who is right? What constitutes a fair society?  These are the questions Rawls hoped to answer.

Drawing from the social-contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and the American Declaration of Independence, Rawls set about trying to design a decision-making model that would lead to true equality.

To explain what Rawls came up with, Smith asked the students in D-106 about the infamous cookie scenario: two kids want a cookie, and there’s only one left.  How do you divide it?

An audience member called out the answer: “have one cut it and the other one choose.”

The “veil of ignorance,” Smith explained, is a hypothetical uncertainty-of-identity imposed on moral questions that “prevents you from knowing morally arbitrary things about yourself.” These facts could include one’s own race, socio-economic background, gender or any number of other possible factors.  Under Rawls’ veil of ignorance, for example, a Caucasian man judging the morality of apartheid in South Africa would have to imagine that he is cutting the cookie, and might very well end up on the opposite side of the knife than he might desire.

“You’re choosing the slices of cookies for everyone,” said Smith.  “You’re not more important than anyone else.”

During the question and answer session after the lecture, the questions about tax rates and the occupy movement came to the fore. What level of inequality is tolerable? Smith replied that according to Rawls, inequality is tolerable to the extent that it benefits the least well-off in society – the idea being that economics isn’t a zero-sum game and inequality can incentivize, even provide benefits to the least well off while increasing the gap between the most and least wealthy. It’s better, for example, for the poorest to earn $10 an hour on average instead of $8, even if that means the salary of the wealthiest doubles.

All of the philosophy lectures from this quarter and from previous quarters are stored at the Library Media Center, where they can be checked out and viewed.  For more information about the lecture and Rawls’ philosophy, visit the bleedingheartlibertarians.com, or email Peter Smith at pts@uw.edu.