Justice in a free society means treating individuals according to identical rules of conduct.
—Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds26
Many topics we consider in this book go beyond individual ethical choices. They are social and legal
policies. Thus, we introduce (quite briefly) philosophical ideas about forming social and political systems.
The early foundations of social contract theory, the idea that people willingly submit to a basic set of
laws in order to live in a civil society, are in the writings of Socrates and Plato but were not fully formed
until the 1600s. Thomas Hobbes developed ideas of social contract theory in his book Leviathan (1651).
Hobbes describes a starting point called the State of Nature, a dismal place where each man acts
according to his own interests, no one is safe from physical harm, and there is no ability to ensure the
satisfaction of one’s needs. Hobbes believed that man is rational and will seek a better situation, even at
the cost of giving up some independence in favor of a set of laws and accepting some authority to
enforce this “social contract.” John Locke thought people could enforce moral rules, such as the rights to
life, liberty, and property, in a state of nature but that it was better to delegate this function to a
government instituted by an implicit social contract.
The modern philosopher John Rawls27 took social contract theory further, developing provisions of the
“contract” based on his view of justice as fairness.*
We criticize parts of his work, but some of his points provide useful ethical guidelines. Rawls sought to
establish principles for proper political power in a society with people of varying religions, viewpoints,
lifestyles, and so on. Rawls, like other social contract theorists, said that reasonable people, recognizing
that a legal (or political) structure is necessary for social order, will want to cooperate on terms that all
accept, and they will abide by the rules of society, even those they do not like. He argued that political
power is proper only if we would expect all citizens to reasonably endorse its basic, or constitutional,
principles. Tolerance is essential because deep questions are difficult, we answer them differently based
on our life experiences, and people of good will can disagree. Thus, a proper political system protects
basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and free choice of occupation. It will not impose the views
of some on the others.
To this point, Rawls’ foundation is consistent with an emphasis on liberties (negative rights). Rawls
distinguishes his system of justice by adding a strong requirement for claim rights (positive rights): a just
and fair political system will ensure that all citizens have sufficient means to make effective use of their
freedoms. To Rawls, government financing of election campaigns is an essential feature of the system.
The fairness and practical consequences of this very specific political policy are hotly debated. Rawls has
made a leap that appears inconsistent with his emphasis that people of good will disagree on important
issues and that a proper political system does not impose the views of one group on another.
* The meaning of “fairness” is not obvious. In different contexts and to different people, it can mean being
judged on one’s merits rather than irrelevant factors, getting an equal share, or getting what one deserves.In Rawls’ view, an action or a social or political structure is not ethical if it has the effect of leaving the
least-advantaged people worse than they were before (or would be in some alternative system). Thus,
in a sense, Rawls gives far more weight (indeed, infinite weight) to the utility of the least-advantaged
people than to anyone else, and this rule’s fairness may not seem obvious. Two more challenging issues
are the decisions of how many least-advantaged people must not be made worse off (the single leastadvantaged individual, or the lowest 1%, or the lowest 49%) and how to deal with policies that might
make someone worse off in the short term but better off in the long term. Rawls’ emphasis on concern
for the least well off, however, is a reminder to consider impacts on such people; a loss or harm to them
can be more devastating than to someone in a better position.
Rawls proposed a conceptual formulation termed the “veil of ignorance” for deriving the proper
principles or policies of a just social or political system. By extension, we can use it as a tool for
considering ethical and social issues. We imagine that each person behind the veil of ignorance does not
know his or her gender, age, race, talents, wealth, and so on in the real world. Behind the veil of
ignorance, we choose policies that would be fair for all, protecting the most vulnerable and leastadvantaged members of society. Many writers use this tool to derive what they conclude to be the
correct ethical positions on social policy issues. We (the authors of this book) find that sometimes, when
going behind the veil of ignorance, we come to different conclusions than those of other writers. The
tool is useful, like the principles of the ethical theories we described earlier, but, like them, it is not
absolute. Even ignoring our status in society, people of good will come to different conclusions because
of their knowledge of human behavior and economics and their understanding of how the world works.
† Rawls specifies that we assume people behind the veil of ignorance have knowledge of accepted economic
principles, but in fact many philosophers and ordinary people do not—and of course, even well-informed people