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In A Theory of Justice, chapter IV – the discussion of equal liberty – Rawls first gives the concept of liberty. Liberties are given by the first principle of justice but it is the second principle that compensates for the lack of liberty. Rawls makes an interesting distinction at this point, however, between liberty in se, as it were, and the worth of liberty. It is this distinction within the concept of liberty that I shall critically discuss herein.

Rawls evidently sees this difference between what I am calling liberty in se and the worth of liberty as fundamental. The distinction takes into account both principles of justice, such that the concept of liberty is fulfilled through both principles in the protection of liberty in se and the alleviation of the loss of the worth of liberty. This is why he can say that, “taking the two principles together, the basic structure is to be arranged to maximize the worth to the least advantaged of the complete scheme of equal liberty shared by all. This defines the end of social justice.”[1] By liberty in se I take him to mean the complete scheme of equal liberty shared by all. This is determined by the structure and ordering of the basic structure of institutions, given that they set the boundaries of rights and duties for persons. Thus liberty is whatever the structures of the institutions give or allow each person. In a system of maximized liberty for all this may well end up being a lot of freedom (though whether it be negative or positive is unclear).

The following is puzzling, however. The worth of liberty is not a matter of the system but of the state of persons as they find themselves. It is, “their capacity to advance their ends within the framework the system defines.”[2] The concept of worth here is rather straightforward: if I have a hundred dollars but cannot use it, then it is hardly of real practical worth. Presumably, however, liberty is not like the hundred dollar bill – it has intrinsic rather than instrumental value. What makes the liberties such that we prioritize them over the second principle of justice is precisely that they are not susceptible to instrumental evaluation. Now, the second principle of justice – as implied by the quote above – is supposed to make it such that the worth of liberty is raised for the worse off. The liberties in se that they have, being citizens, are thus supposed to be given real ‘cash-value’ as it were. I find this bizarre: it is a flat out admittance of instrumental evaluation of what is flat out not supposed to have such. This is supposed to be one of the great advantages of Rawls’ theory over Utilitarianism, which does subject liberties to the calculus of maximization. There is an air of inconsistency here.

Now, this issue arises in part (and perhaps in toto) due to Rawls’ insistence that there is no one good to be sought by principles of justice. Rather, each person seeks their own good and needs the liberties maximized in such a way that every person has the most resources to fulfill that personal vision. Due to this feature it is a bad thing if there are some individuals who can take practical advantage of the liberties in se and there are others who cannot take full advantage of them. It is not enough that the liberties are there, they must be made practical – the money must be able to buy something, as it were. Again, bizarre: if something actually has intrinsic value (contra the money example) then it does not matter whether anything can be done with it – as Kant might say, it shines like a jewel full of worth in itself. But, if that is true, then there seems to be no need to worry that some do not have the practical ability to ‘make good’ on their in se liberties. The worth of liberty is not what one can do with it in the manner of actualizing one’s personal vision of ‘the good’. Rather, the worth of liberty is in its ability to bring about the good for man – and that is not subjective. This alternative reading of worth would make sense of the intrinsic value of the liberties: they are good because they make persons good. If liberties were good because they allow each person to actualize their ‘life plan’ then they are not, strictly speaking, of absolute regard. In that case the Utilitarian is more in line with our considered judgments than the Rawlsian.

Now, it would seem that the Rawlsian should respond in the following way. It is not the case that there is some goal or ‘good for man’ beyond what each thinks or desires for their own self. Each ‘man is the measure’, as it were, of their own good. If that is the case then, of course, it is unfair that while all have equal liberty in se some do not have the worth of those liberties. Without the full (or near full) worth of those liberties their efforts to live the sort of life they want (what ‘good life for man’ has now been emaciated down to) will be significantly hindered. Strictly speaking, this might not always be the case – there could be some who simply desire to live a life of service and simplicity (e.g. Mother Theresa). There may be others, however, who see as their life plan the life of luxury (as much as possible!), perhaps to be a movie star or successful CEO, etc. These persons aim high (materialistically speaking) and so need more of that ‘cash value’ out of their liberties in se. What if everyone aimed high in his or her personal life plans? In that case the second principle of justice is going to have to do a lot of work on the side of social justice. But, then again, notice that social justice has simply become the realization of this ‘cash value’ of the liberties in se for everyone – even if they aim high. If there were a stable, unified conception of the bonum in commune, however, then it need not be such that the worth (in Rawls’ sense) of liberty be maximized as much as possible for everyone. The good in common would plausibly be simply the protection of equal liberty in se. That would presuppose a conception of a unified and common bonum ad hominem, such that the common good is structured around the fulfillment of each man’s natural end. If this, non-Rawlsian, conception of ‘life plan’ were the case then it does not logically follow (as far as I can tell!) that the worth of liberty is in its practical advantage in allowing one to succeed in whatever they take as their end in life. Why? Simply because it is not the point anymore of the liberties to allow each person to bring about whatever they see as their end in life. The liberties are there to provide liberty, simpliciter.


[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, (1999), 179. Emphasis added.

[2] Ibid.

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