Rawls’s informal presentation Notes for September 24, 2012

Main points

We discussed the informal presentation of Rawls’s ideas and some questions we had about it.


In particular, we touched on some problems with composing an index of what Rawls called the Primary Social Goods. We need such a thing to tell us whether a given distribution of goods would truly maximize the position of the worst off class or not. This was the point of the example of the new factory: until we have an index that tells us how to compare higher wages with lower health, we can’t tell whether a new factory would help or harm the people who live and work near it.

You can see how Rawls handled this on pp. 97f.

Future generations

We also briefly touched on the problem of future generations. This is a problem because the parties in the Original Position have no interest in the members of future generations. So they won’t agree that they are required to save for the future. In my opinion, Rawls should have just accepted this: it is not unjust for a poorer generation to refuse to save for a wealthier one. This does not mean that no society will save for the future. As Akshata pointed out, people typically care quite a lot about their descendants; they want to save for the future. It just means that it would not be unjust if they did not do so.

As you can see in §44, Rawls had to make a similar assumption about human motivation to come to the conclusion that it would be unjust for one generation to fail to save for the next. His position would probably seem more appealing if instead of talking about benefitting a future generation we talked about not harming one. For example, if we owe nothing to the future, then there’s nothing wrong with poisoning the air and water. It’s one thing to say that we are morally permitted to save for the future or not depending on whether we want to do so. It’s another to say that we are allowed to poison the future if that suits us.

However, once we start thinking about those sorts of examples, Rawls’s solution to the problem won’t seem very appealing. It’s just as bad to poison people three generations away as it is to poison people two generations away. But the motivational assumption Rawls makes only covers two generations after the one represented in the Original Position. So there’s no reason why the parties would care about setting up an environmental catastrophe that only starts to hurt people in the third generation after their own.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted September 24, 2012.
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