Slicing the cake: An alternative theory of justice, now in Greek

Imagine two people with a piece of cake to share between them. They each want as big a piece of the cake as possible. What is the best way to ensure that each gets an equal share? The answer, of course, is that one of them will slice the cake in two and the other will get to choose one of the pieces. Now try to think of society and social goods as a piece of cake and you get a rough idea of John Rawls’s conception of justice. When it was first published in 1971, Rawls’s book «A Theory of Justice» touched off much controversy in intellectual circles. Some have praised it as a philosophical masterpiece while others have dismissed it as one of the most overrated books of the 20th century. In any case, Rawls’s book breathed new life into the social-contract tradition of Hobbes and Locke and formed the framework for the subsequent debate on justice. This alone renders its recent translation into Greek (Polis, 2001) a major, albeit belated, achievement. The Greek translation is based on a revised version of the original edition, where the author has tried to iron out some of the difficulties and controversies of his original work. Rawls also contributed an introduction to the Greek edition. The book was translated by a group of six scholars under the supervision of Constantinos Papageorgiou, assistant professor of philosophy of law at the University of Athens, who has also written an addendum to the Greek edition. The idea which underpins Rawls’s concept of justice – what he calls «justice as fairness» – is that we can decide what is fair and unfair in society by considering what principles of justice would be chosen by individuals in a hypothetical starting-point, what he calls the «original position.» ‘Veil of ignorance’ People in the original position are conceived of as being subject to a number of informational constraints: They know nothing of their social position, wealth, religious beliefs, natural talents, intelligence and of their plan for a good life. In short, people in the original position do not know who they are in the real world. In this setting, people are asked to make a distribution of «primary goods» – those things which «every rational person is presumed to want:» rights, liberties, opportunities, wealth and so on. The idea is that, blanketed by a «veil of ignorance,» rational people will make similar decisions and design a society that will be fair to everyone, for no one wants to risk ending up in the most unfavorable position. Under the uncertainty of the original position, Rawls assumes, people will act as «risk minimizers» and employ what the author refers to as the «maximin» principle: They will all try to maximize their share in the worst-case scenario. People, therefore, design a society with limited inequalities. This, of course, brings us back to the cake predicament – an example used by Rawls himself. Rawls also assumes that rational people in the original position would pick a society which is based on «two principles of justice.» The two principles The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others. The second principle states that inequalities are acceptable only if they are (a) to the benefit of the least advantaged and (b) linked to positions or offices which are open to all. The first principle of justice has priority over the second principle – we have to satisfy the first principle before we can move on to consider the second. For Rawls, this means that we have to prioritize liberty over other primary goods. Liberty can only be sacrificed for the sake of more liberty. In turn, justice is more essential than economic efficiency and social prosperity. Inequality of opportunity is only acceptable if it favors the least well-off. Not surprisingly, Rawls’s theory has been widely interpreted as a defense of the welfare state. Inventive as Rawls’s theoretical construct may be, it has many flaws or ambiguities – many of which inevitably stem from its high level of abstraction – and it has been subject to extended criticism. Different choices? Many doubt whether people in the original position would make the choices that Rawls assumes. Some have argued that properly applied, Rawls’s theory would lead to utilitarian conclusions of the sort that he attacks. Libertarian thinkers like Robert Nozick assert that Rawls discards individuals’ right to ownership and acquired property and see his emphasis on redistribution as undermining individual freedom. Communitarian writers who concentrate on the merits of community, such as Michael Sandel, criticize Rawls’s alleged individualism, which leads him to downgrade the value of community. In his «Political Liberalism,» written 15 years later, Rawls responds to communitarian criticism, reformulating his «justice as fairness» as a political concept of justice which is best suited to modern liberal societies – no longer as a universal theory. This, of course, helps Rawls escape only some of the criticism. The real world, to be sure, remains a more complicated place than the world of cake-cutting.

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