When reading Rawls for the podcast, I took note of a seemingly innocuous distinction between Rawls and the traditional social contractarians that nonetheless struck me as odd given his appeal to social contract theory. The traditional social contract theorists assume that rational individuals enter into social contracts to secure natural rights. “Secure” here means ‘protect from the vicissitudes of the state of nature’ – I have a natural right to life of which, in the state of nature, I can be deprived by anyone with the strength or ingenuity to take it. The same for my property.
I enter into social contracts with individuals and groups to protect my rights – my life and property foremost. Because anyone can act as if they are in the state of nature at any given moment, this protection isn’t really about preventing someone from actually killing me or stealing my stuff, it’s more about creating a situation where that is discouraged and so less likely. It’s discouraged by the promise of enforcement of the contract which is what we commonly call Justice. You are going to be less likely to kill me or take my things in the social contract vs. the state of nature because there is a power that will punish you if you do.
In this way the social contract is about Justice. And in this way Rawls considers himself a social contractarian: he believes in natural, inalienable rights and that the primary organizing principle of community is Justice. (The inalienable character of the rights is simply that you cannot give away your natural right to such things in a social contract. E.g. you can’t agree to a contract where you will give up your right to life.) Unlike the traditional social contractarians, however, he doesn’t appeal to a real or imagined ‘state of nature’ which both grounds and motivates the transition into organized community when expounding his theory.
Rawls does equate his “original position” with the state of nature. It is this assertion that I found puzzling. The original position really doesn’t do the same work as the state of nature and I don’t think the analogy holds. Let’s first look at what Rawls says about the similarity:
In justice as fairness the original position of equality corresponds to the state of nature in the traditional theory of the social contract…Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. [p. 12]
This is one of the few places in the book where Rawls even mentions the state of nature (the few others are mostly during discussions of Locke and Hobbes). At the very least, Rawls doesn’t want to use the state of nature in any meaningful way in his theory. If so, he would have spent some more significant time defining and justifying its use. Rather, he wants us to think that he has employed the idea of the state of nature in a new and improved way via the original position and the associated veil of ignorance.
I contend that the original position not only doesn’t function in the same way as the state of nature but that it also is in no way analogous. This is hardly a damning criticism but it is worth pointing out for the following reason. The state of nature, whether posited as actual historical fact or hypothetical exercise serves to justify the “why” of community. Not justice as fairness but rather justice as protection. Protection from others, protection of natural rights.
In the state of nature, individuals not only are not in the original position or behind the veil, they are quite self-consciously aware of their assets and abilities. They understand how to use those assets for self-preservation and to secure property (among other things). It is precisely this self-awareness combined with an awareness of the assets and abilities of others that motivates individuals to enter contracts and form communities. Under the threat of immanent loss of life or hard-won food and belongings to others who have more strength, cunning or numbers individuals can take concrete and specific steps to enter into contracts with those specific other parties to create a community organized by justice as protection.
This awareness of the specifics of one’s situation and that of others is precisely what Rawls wants to remove in the original position. Justice as fairness requires that individual ‘start’ from a position of equality which requires ignorance. Individuals do not enter into contracts based on the specifics of their situations relative to others around them; instead all specificity is removed. The point isn’t to create a trope to explain the motivation for community building. The original position serves as a deliberative framework for individuals who a) already are assumed to want community and b) are not seeking to protect their individual rights and property but rather what rights and property they will have once the principles of justice are agreed upon. The original position not only doesn’t correspond to the state of nature, it serves a completely different theoretical role. It’s a very different kind of thought experiment.
So if Rawls isn’t using or assuming a state of nature and the original position is something else altogether, what does Rawls have to say about ‘why’ individuals form community? He outlines his view on this very briefly at the beginning of the book and then uses it throughout:
Let us assume, to fix ideas, that a society is a more or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part act in accordance with them. Suppose further that these rules specify a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those taking part in it. Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. [p. 4, emphasis mine]
For Rawls, community is a cooperative venture. People recognize that they can achieve and create more in cooperation with others than they can alone. Working together, we all will have a better life than we can have by ourselves. The issue comes in figuring out how to split up all the extra stuff we produce when we work together. The social contract is about cooperative production, not individual self-protection. Justice as fairness is antecedent to the assumption of the good of society.
State of nature social contractarians, by virtue of their defense of natural rights through justice as protection seem to have no similar conception of society as a cooperative good (in fact one could argue that Rousseau thought the opposite). There is, in contrast, an implicit preference for an unfettered, atomic individualism or at least an assumption that what one can achieve or produce on one’s own is more desirable. The social contract is a necessary evil given forced community. For Rawls, the social contract is an organizing principle to shape the good of productive community.
As I mentioned above, I don’t see this as a failure in Rawls and I am certainly sympathetic to his point of view vs. that of Locke and Hobbes. That said, I wonder now to what extent Rawls is true to the tradition of social contractarianism. It makes more sense to me having written this that he more frequently refers to Kant and more clearly frames his project to provide an alternative to the Utilitarian conception of Justice.