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Thursday 25 Jul 2024

Dr John Rawls
Streeter Click

Those who label Dr. Michael Sandel a communitarian, although he never aligned himself, formally, with such thinkers, often favour a liberalism proffered by John Rawls, the thinker, not the singer. Dr. Rawls (1921-2002), as Sandel, was at Harvard University. His "A Theory of Justice" (1971) moved Sandel to action.

Rawls argues for a "social nature," rather than the Hobbesian notion of "savage nature," which Sandel seems to favour. A state founded on a savage nature allows, for example, the many to exploit the few. Inequality, in a state founded on social nature, exists, begrudgingly, but is less extreme, less damaging and involves choice; the state exists for the good of the many, not the few.

An axial issue, it seems, is that Dr. Sandel argues that social distinctions, such as gender, age or ethnicity, are inherent. Rawls argues such distinctions are learned. In a sense, Sandel and Rawls rework the age-old nature versus nurture notion, the inherent versus the learned.

Rawls argues every citizen must be assured the same basic set of liberties, such as to work, to speak and to choose, presumably to enable social learning. Social inequality, if acceptable, satisfies several conditions. For example, all formal roles, such as offices and positions, must be open to everyone. You may grow up to be the Prime Minister, but you must want to realize that goal, and try hard. If you prefer, you may drive a cab or work as a taxi dancer. It's up to you, in a large sense, a result of what you learn.

The process of selecting holders of formal roles must meet the standard of common sense and expressed conditions of equal opportunity. Theoretically, a free vote, for candidacy and in a general election, likely meets this standard. In a practical sense, a candidate, for office or a job, doesn't emerge victorious because of equal opportunity; obviously, the winner is a better candidate, ontologically, and this asserts inequality.

Inequalities must meet standards, argues Rawls. The standard for economic inequality, for example, is the greatest benefit to the least well off members of the group. A tax cut for the wealthy doesn't meet this standard, whereas raising the minimum wage does.

Karl Marx shared this conviction. The future, the destiny, of our species, societies and cultures, depends on the condition of the poorest, the most disadvantaged among us. To the extent these children, women and men, this class, flourishes, the specieis, societies and cultures survive and flourish, too.

Rawls and Sandel overlap on how the basic set of liberties is selected. Both argue, one way or another, for ontology, that is, the social construction of reality. This is an agreed-on form. If there isn't general agreement, in a group, about what's real, what's important and what's necessary, the group disbands, one way or another.

This doesn't necessarily mean the exploited agree to their conditions. Exploiters have the means to distract the exploited: sex, drugs and rock and roll, for example; hockey, pornography and patriotism, too. Such fantasies, which Karl Marx called "the opiate of the masses," ensure the exploited never find a moment or the ability to consider their plight.

Dr. Rawls seems to argue general agreement comes through social experience, that is, learning. Dr. Sandel seems to believe agreement is possible only among a small group, an elite, who, with Platonic good always in mind, let the rest of us know through laws, principles and sanctions.

Although the work of Dr. Rawls stands, firmly, on it's own merit, it's best read and understood in conjunction with the work of Dr. Michael Sandel. Click here for a brief overview of the core ideas of Sandel, the most prominent critic of "A Theory of Justice."


Although not physicians, the good doctors seem to prescribe different prescriptions for the same malady. From the larger, Sociological perspective, both Dr. Rawls and Dr. Sandel are right, it's a "You say toe-mat-toe and I say too-mah-toe" argument. This conclusion isn't a case of "bad fences" between scholarly disciplines, but a marker of the importance of the applied to sociology and the question to philosophy.

Still, there's a more pressing issue. Some individuals, by virtue of nature or nurture, can use their rights to produce more than a fair share of good for themselves. If this inequality comes at the expense of others, as it most often does, apply Rawls. If not, Sandel has the bull by the horns: let those who care to know, lead, and the rest of us can follow, with the right to question and, theoretically, if not practically, change the membership of those who know.

Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.

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