Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Saturday, Nov 30, 2002
Columns - Economy - A Perspective
Philosophy of political liberalism
P. R. Brahmananda
John Rawls (1921-2002)
JOHN Rawls, perhaps the most influential philosopher during the past four decades, passed away on November 24. His book The Theory of Justice (1971) inducted the concept of social justice in policies on plausible rational grounds. In 1993, he established the foundations of pluralism in his book Political Liberalism. Thus the induction of two major ideas in the world of social sciences on the basis of the historical concept of social contract has been a major development in modern times.
The `Theory of Justice' propounded by Rawls has some links with Gandhiji's ideas of Antyodaya. Gandhiji wrote to Nehru that whenever the latter was troubled, he should ask himself whether his policies had improved the lot of the poorest of the poor. In a major way, this idea becomes a central pillar in Rawls's Theory of Justice.
His ideas on political liberalism are highly pertinent to the Indian polity, which is struggling to reconcile the principle of live and let live with the aggressive and powerful forces of mono-religious cults which have also now penetrated into the agenda of politics.
Thus the connection of Rawls with some strands of Indian thinking is rather close. It is Rawls' writings that provide the philosophical foundations for many of the policies being adopted in India. The above two books of Rawls should be made compulsory reading for all legislators in India. They will then feel stronger in their ideals to build India on both moral and rational foundations.
Practical politics has to be moderated by the rigours of logical thinking. If at all our thinkers in New Delhi had wanted to honour a philosophical Gandhian, they should have awarded the Gandhi Memorial Prize to Rawls. Those who have read about Rawls will remember his personal quest for authenticity. This is another link of Rawls with Gandhi.
Economics is a science which analyses how ordinary men conduct their business of life. The business aspect links economics with money and, in business, there has to be an exchange that benefits both the parties. Today's state, even in India, pursues policies for creating and enlarging the wealth of the society through individual, collective and mixed actions. Wealth yields income, which yields utility. Hence, economics is the science founded on utilitarianism. But economists have been uncomfortable with the motivation of pursuit of wealth by itself.
As Marshall said, this is a powerful motive, but not necessarily a noble one. So, economists are under attack that they have discarded the moral aspect of the functioning of individuals and societies in their emphasis on plutocracy. Lionel Robbins said long ago that economics is neutral in respect of the moral angle in the pursuit of wealth.
The invisible hand of Adam Smith at best promotes each individual's material living by giving him more than he could have earned without his goal being concentrated on making more wealth for himself. To remember Marshall again, he stated in effect that increase in wealth necessarily promotes happiness. The cult of hedonism has today reached its peak not merely in the United States but almost all over the world.
It is the great contribution of Rawls to have inducted in our plutonomical science the principle of justice. For this purpose, he brings back the old concept of social contract, which Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau wrote about. In Rawls' thinking, the social contract concept has been extended not for ascertaining the logical foundation of the state but to induct in the state's functioning the goal of social justice.
Rawls constructs an agglomerate of people who have to frame the rules for a society yet to be born. In the initial situation, they are deemed to be equally ignorant of what is going to happen when the state is formed. They are also supposed to be neutral in respect of the outcome that emerges after the state is formed with the rules. This is the concept of veiled ignorance of the members before they constitute the society and frame the rules.
These rules must be governed by a sense of fairness to all through time. Justice is fairness to Rawls. The two principles or rules that Rawls derives are the following:
First principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
Second principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
Rawls was dealing with a democratic system as exists in western developed countries. In the first principle, which comes first among the rules, the important point is that nobody can be more equal than another in the basic liberties. (Remember Orwell's Animal Farm?).
Let us remember that Gandhiji's fight began when he was thrown out from the compartment supposedly meant only for the whites. Injustice or unfair treatment of different persons can destroy a society.
The second principle is the difference principle. Rawls was not in favour of standardised equality. His yardstick for permissible inequality was that it should lead to a maximum of benefits to the most disadvantaged. There is a choice among the measures of equality and only that satisfies Rawls which yields the largest measure of advantages to the worst off.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who, in his inimitable way, put his finger on this idea as a probable justification for a measure of inequality in a society. His trusteeship principle was derived from this. Rawls also specified that all public positions must be open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. The invisible social contract should yield the maximum of benefits to the worst off.
This idea is derived in Rawls under veiled ignorance because nobody can know what his status would be after the contract comes into being. The State is posterior to the contract and, hence, has to operate the two principles as soon as it is established.
Rawls is not an altruist. Capitalism can be shown to be advantageous if it follows the altruist principle. Rawls believed that everyone before the contract would endorse the two principles. In a sense, Rawls follows Kant. Kant was against utilitarianism. Utilitarianism bothers about consequences and not about intentions. It is self-interested. You do a thing because it is good for you, not because it is right that you should do it.
The two principles of Rawls hold true also in a monarchy, which follows justice. Let me give an illustration from the Puranas (epics): The Gods appeared before Harishchandra when he was just about to execute Chandramati. They asked him to ask for some boons. They told him that they would take him to Swarga (heaven). Harishchandra said, "No, until all my subjects are taken to Swarga, I won't agree". That was the sense of a king not being more than equal than the subjects! There is a concept of dharma that endorses the principles of Rawls. But dharma is not natural to human beings.
The rules of righteous conduct have to be worked out and observed by the people. This means disciplining of the people as well as of the leaders. When the Prime Minister gently rebuked the Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, he referred to raja neeti. What the latter means is that the king has to be fair to all, irrespective of their religions. But fairplay is very difficult, even in cricket, why politics alone.
In Karnataka, people are debating among themselves why a Government should treat one person who is kidnapped as more than equal to others. But, then, the Government was probably utilitarian. If an important person is not bailed out, then there might have been other consequences hurting the people in the Government.
Rawls' treatise on political liberalism is the most rational defence of pluralism in a democratic society. It also follows from his concept of justice as fairness. The result of Rawls' type pluralism is that different communities and religions can live in peace in a nation. For this to happen, the principle of fairness should be embodied in the behaviour of all political parties and people. It is also a method of working out a federal system.
In the world as a whole, even the strongest and the most powerful countries must accept the concept of fairplay. When justice as fairness is abandoned, or is in peril, the world as a whole will suffer. Today, the world is frightened by terrorism. But, if we deeply ponder over the writings of Rawls, he has a solution. The great philosopher was supposed to be tortured in his mind when he found that the world was deviating further and further from justice.
Today, in many countries, both justice and pluralism are in the danger of being extinguished. Economists have virtually thrown out justice, and the political leaders pluralism. Maybe Rawls would be more relevant to a troubled world in the years to come, if the world is to avoid another war. The clashes between civilisations should be in the minds and not through armaments.
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