• Raphaël Champeimont

A moral philosophy for free people

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Here I am going to present the moral philosophy proposed by John Rawls in his famous book A Theory of Justice, which is designed to fit nicely with his theory of a just society.


➪ Version en français


His book A Theory of Justice is mostly about defining what a just society is, and for that he proposes his famous theory of liberal democracy. However, Rawls also presents a moral philosophy which can be built by re-using the philosophical ideas about justice, and fits nicely with it. I am personally astonished that Rawls can present a moral philosophy that I find more convincing than those developed before him, in a book whose main topic was not even moral philosophy.



Summary of the principles of a just society

I have already presented in a previous article the theory which John Rawls created to define a just society. I am going to summarize here the main take-aways, so you don’t need to read the other article. John Rawls is a political philosopher famous for this theory of justice, and attempts to advance rational arguments to defend his vision of just society. His just society is based on these principles (simplified here):

  1. The supreme priority is to grant fundamental rights to individuals which are limited only to protect fundamental rights for other people. This includes the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, the right to own personal property, and so on.

  2. From a social and economic point of view, inequalities are acceptable to a limited extent, provided that their level can be justified as necessary to improve the long-term prospects of the most disadvantaged, and that there is an equal opportunity to reach the advantaged positions for similarly talented people.


The first principle is rather consensual in democraties, as it is basically a formulation of the fundamental rights that they intend to guarantee. The second principle is more “political” since it tells us to judge a society by what it can offer in the long term to those born in the most disadvantaged situation. This is a fundamentally egalitarian viewpoint, which is an alternative to the utilitarian view in which what matters is the average happiness of the population.


The reason I am summarizing the principles of the just society here is that Rawls believes that a correct moral philosophy cannot exist “by itself”, without referring to the notion of a just society.


A universal method to discover moral rules

To discover the moral rules to follow, Rawls proposes the following thought experiment. Imagine that you could think about moral principles before you were born and lived your life, but then you have to live with people who follow the moral rules you chose. In this situation, which rules would you want to define? This imaginary situation is called the original position. The purpose of this thought experiment is that you cannot choose ethic principles specifically to personally arrange you (a thief cannot say “let’s say stealing is not wrong” for example).


If you have read my previous article about the just society, you have probably noticed that this is exactly the same thought experiment that Rawls used to justify the principles of the just society. The only difference is that this time, the imaginary people in the original position have a different task: they have to imagine moral rules that they would accept to follow.


According to Rawls, the moral rules that people would choose in this imaginary situation would be the correct principles to follow in your real life. Basically, if you want to know whether an action is morally permissible, you can ask yourself: “Would the people in the original position want this action to be allowed?”


“The intuitive idea is this: the concept of something’s being right is the same as, or better, may be replaced by, the concept of its being in accordance with the principles that in the original position would be acknowledged to apply to things of its kind.” John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (§18 in revised edition)

If you already know a bit about moral philosophy, this might remind you of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. This is indeed a similar idea, and Rawls’ original position can be seen as an improved version of Kantian ethics as it is, I think, much easier to think about.


The duty to comply with just laws

Rawls explains that a very important duty is to comply with just laws. If you live in a perfectly just society, that is one where every single law is just, you have a moral obligation to comply with all laws. It is pretty clear why people in the original position would agree to this principle: we assume they have already decided what the principles of a just society are, so they would want people to follow these principles, as otherwise these principles would only be theoretical and therefore useless.


It is important to note that this single duty implies many classic duties. For instance, following the just laws of a just society implies that one cannot commit murder, steal, hurt innocent people or enslave people.


You might think that this is “cheating”, because we are just avoiding justifying that, for instance, murder is wrong, by simply saying that a just society would prohibit murder. But this in fact illustrates an important part of Rawls’s moral philosophy: What matters the most is to define just principles for society, then everyone knows what these rules are and have to follow them. A great value comes from the fact that the principles of justice are publicly known, so people can generally rely on each other to follow them. In the example of murder, it means that most of the value of its prohibition comes from the fact that you can live your life without the fear of being murdered.


On the other hand, the people in the original position would concede that, if they were born in an unjust society, they would not be bound to follow unjust laws. On the contrary, it would be a good thing to fight against those unjust laws and try to bring about a situation closer to justice.


Civil disobedience

But in the real world, a lot of people live in “nearly just” societies. The typical example you might imagine are the existing democracies. They generally guarantee a high level of fundamental rights (protection of life, liberty of movement, freedom of speech, religion, etc.) and their core principles (as set in their constitutions for example) are just. But there might be unjustified restrictions on liberty that are sometime enacted in law (like when homosexuality was considered criminal) or there might be an unequal application of these rights in the population (like racial discrimination).


Rawls published A Theory of Justice in 1971, so I think he probably had in mind the obvious example of the Civil rights movement which fought for equal rights for black people in the United States a few years earlier. The discrimination black people were victim of was a particularly unjust since it is obvious that people in the original position would never define such discriminatory laws (as they would take the risk of then being be born black and then be victim of discrimination).


According to Rawls, it can be legitimate to violate some laws, as long as you refrain from violence and your goal is to raise the consciousness of the majority about a strong injustice. The goal here is to appeal to the sense of justice of the majority to convince it that laws should be changed. This should however be restricted to cases of strong injustice, as a frequent violation of the law could discredit it and therefore reduce the will of citizens to abide by it. Note that here the laws violated are not necessarily unjust laws. For example a sit-in is a violation of property rights but the laws people protest against are usually unrelated.


Conscientious refusal

Another case where it is legitimate to violate the law is when this law itself produces a clear injustice. For example, this is the case for someone who is given an order to do something which is obviously unjust. In that case the people in the original position would acknowledge that one is not required to follow the order, and one would even be required to violate it if it can be done at a little risk. A real-world example you can think of is the German industrialist Oskar Schindler who bribed SS officers during World War II to save 1,200 jews from extermination.


The duty of mutual aid

Suppose that someone you don’t know is drowning in a river. Do you have a duty to jump in the river to save him? To simplify, let’s say that there are two possible outcomes: either you save the person and survive, or you both die (let’s say because the current is too strong to swim for instance).


Let’s imagine 3 cases:

  1. If you are more likely to die than save the other person, almost everyone would agree that this is a stupid idea, as this action is likely to result in more lives being lost (2 victims instead of 1).

  2. But what if you are more likely to save the person in the river and both survive that to both die? Let’s say you have a 25% chance of both dying and a 75% of both surviving. Most people would find a jump in the river heroic in that case, but it intuitively sounds crazy to pretend you are morally required to do so.

  3. Let’s imagine a third situation in which there is no risk for your own life at all. You are just going to get wet and cold in the river, and you have some chances of saving the stranger. In this case a lot of people would think that you are morally required to jump in the river to try to save the stranger.


Rawls asks us to think about what principle you would choose in the original position. You don’t know yet if you would find yourself one day in the situation of the person in the river or on the riverside. If you choose the radical solution of saying that you have to jump in the river in both cases 2 and 3, you will live your life in fear that you could be asked to sacrifice yourself should you encounter someone in danger. This probably strikes you as unacceptable. Let’s consider the other extreme, which is that you never have to make any sacrifice for someone else. In this case you don’t even have to jump in case 3. This is a bad choice too, because you could one day find yourself in need of help, and you would want someone around to save you.


Therefore, Rawls argues that the principle of mutual aid would be a moral duty to help others if the good generated (or the suffering avoided) is really high and the cost for you is much lower. In the example above, there is a duty to jump in the river in case 3 but not in case 2. In case 2, jumping in the river to rescue the stranger is a good action, even a heroic action, but it is not a morally required action. It’s what philosophers call a supererogatory action.


Although this solution might seem not completely satisfactory (as it does not tell exactly where to set the limit), it gives a much better solution to this kind of problem than utilitarianism (a competing moral philosophy) which requires to jump in the river even in case 2 (this problem is called Demandingness objection). Rawls’s theory gives a solution much closer to Ayn Rand’s philosophy presented in The Virtue of Selfishness, of which a central point is that people are never required to sacrifice their life for others. She takes a stronger stance in the other direction, saying it is even immoral to jump in the river in case 2, as you should value your own life above all.


Where supererogatory actions fit in Rawls’s theory and some examples of actions.

The obligation to keep promises

Another moral obligation Rawls mentions is that of keeping promises. Now I think you’ve understood the logic, we have to understand if the people in the original position would want everyone to keep their promises.


But what are promises for? Take the example of ordering a (physical) product online. In theory there is a problem: if you pay before you receive the product, the seller might take the money and not deliver anything. On the other hand, if you pay after, you might keep the product and never pay. Promises solve this problem: you pay first but the seller promises you to deliver the product in exchange, then you receive the product and the promise is fulfilled.


Let’s generalize this example: When a first person A promises something to another person B, it is usually because A can get something in exchange from B immediately, but B accepts that only because he expects A to fulfill his promise after.


If there were no moral or legal obligation to keep promises, a lot of situations of cooperation would not occur, because everyone would be afraid to be fooled by the other party. In our general case with A and B, living in a society where it is recognized that promises should be honored is obviously useful to B, as he can have a high trust in A delivering the promised counterpart. But it is also useful for A, as it allows him to make a transaction with B that B would otherwise refuse. In fact, promises can be seen as society’s solution to the prisoner's dilemma.


Is that all?

Rawls acknowledges himself that he has not described all moral rules that could be derived from the original position thought experiment. But I think the most important idea is this method itself as it allows us to think easily about the legitimate moral rules. We could certainly argue for a few other moral obligations, which could be deduced using this method, that Rawls has not thought of, but I think the duty to comply with just laws already implies a lot of the commonly accepted moral obligations (and prohibitions).


An objection you might have is that your religion or philosophy prohibits and requires other things that cannot be accounted for by Rawls’s theory, and that you feel you are morally required to follow these moral obligations anyway. This is not a problem for Rawls’ theory, whose goal is to try to find a minimal set of moral principles that everybody could agree to in order to live together in a society, whatever their religion or philosophy. As long as religious people don’t burn heretics and utilitarians don’t push people in front of tramways, they can live together in peace by following the common principles proposed by Rawls. They are then free to set themselves extra moral obligations and prohibitions, as long as they respect those common principles, with the most important being the respect of other people’s fundamental rights (first principle of the just society).


A last thing, you might have noticed that it’s impossible to apply this theory as is to animals. Since it tells us to imagine whether we want to live in a society where everyone follows these principles (us and the others) there is an obvious problem as animals cannot follow moral rules. It means that the specific question of animal rights requires at least an adaptation of the theory, or at most a completely different theory. How to include animals is a difficult question for all moral philosophy theories, an issue I might talk about in a future article.

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