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The Pilot

The Student News Site of Principia College

The Pilot

Amicus America

Okay, let’s construct a moral social contract!  We’ll use John Rawls’ veil of ignorance theory and temporarily set aside our advantages and disadvantages so we can honestly consider this question: “How can we organize our collective behavior and systems of governance to best advance justice and virtue?”

Harvard professor Michael Sandel argues in his 2009 book Justice that our social contract must result from consent, and must reflect two different ideals: autonomy and reciprocity.  We must agree on the contract from autonomous positions, behind the veil of ignorance and free from coercion, and we must agree to fair exchanges and compromises (no unfair card trading, as I discussed last issue).

Supposing we do this, what will we come up with?  Will we favor a redistributive system in which income and wealth are entirely equalized and completely separated from ability and work ethic?  No.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote the short story “Harrison Bergeron” to warn against such a social arrangement.  The story begins like this:

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal…  Nobody was smarter than anybody else.  Nobody was better looking than anybody else.  Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”  A United States Handicapper General enforced this equality. Teenager Harrison Bergeron presented a problem: he was smart, handsome, and gifted.  The government equipped him with headphones that shrieked every so often to interrupt his thought, glasses with wavy lenses to impair his sight, a red rubber ball for a nose to disguise his good looks, and heavy scrap metal clothes to reduce his strength.

The story gets good when Bergeron frees himself from his restraints and the government responds, but I don’t want to spoil the story.

Vonnegut’s story shows the absurdity and damage of egalitarian justice carried to too great an extreme.  Of course we don’t want this!  We want to prize and promote, not curtail and limit, individual expression and intelligence.  At a policy level, for example, we don’t want to levy excessive redistributive taxes that stifle innovation and business growth and ultimately result in less wealth and less government revenue.

Okay, Mr. Vonnegut.  Point well made.  But should we turn then to something quite opposite like the caste system?

You’re probably thinking, “No.”  But we live in a caste system of sorts.  35% of Ivy League undergraduates had a parent who attended an Ivy League school.  Hmm…  if we all have equal opportunity, why is there a correlation here?  All of us here at Principia are among the lucky 5% of people in the world who attend college.  Are we more deserving than hundreds of millions around the world who never had access to even a primary education?  No.

John Rawls argues that the veil of ignorance, if properly constructed, produces something in between what we have now and total egalitarianism.  Rawls calls the rules behind the result the “difference principle.”  Sandel summarizes the difference principle nicely, saying it relies first on equality, “but permits inequalities that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society.”

What does this mean?  In short, under the difference principle we agree to correct social and economic disadvantages caused by the accident of birth.  Sandel uses the example of doctors: if higher pay for doctors results in better medical care for everyone, including the poor, the socially optimal result is produced when we support high salaries for doctors.  The disparity between the doctor’s wage and the minimum wage is moral because it properly incentivizes the doctoral profession.  If, however, doctors’ high salaries do not improve the overall social condition and just produce more liposuction, Rawls would suggest that their higher salaries are not morally justifiable.

Consider the same argument for a banker and a schoolteacher.  Many bankers’ wealth is due in part to the value of their work in improving the social interest by generating wealth.  Some, if not all, of these bankers’ wealth is morally deserved.  However, many bankers’ work does not support the disadvantaged, and instead keeps money – and by extension opportunity – out of their hands.  These bankers, says Rawls, have no moral claim to their wealth.  Schoolteachers, on the other hand, are underpaid for their service, and somehow through market incentives or public policies Rawls would suggest that we raise their salaries to reflect their value.

Rawls’ difference theory is brilliantly simple, and explains the problems our two major political parties have in justifying how their political philosophy best serves the public good.  Democrats, for example, often overcorrect for the accident of birth by providing massive, unsustainable, and easily abuse-able social programs that de-incentivize work and risk.  Republicans, on the other hand, usually fail to acknowledge the appropriate role of government in leveling the economic and social playing field by giving advantage to the disadvantaged so we really have equal opportunity.

The difference theory also shows that markets alone aren’t moral agents and do not properly value goods and services according to their moral value.  Next issue, we’ll examine several major economic and social issues such as affirmative action, welfare, and immigration, and we will develop responsible, consensus-oriented solutions to them using the difference theory.

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