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Justice is blind. Nobody understood this better than John Rawls, who argued that the best way to achieve a just society is through total blindness of position. He said that a truly just society is the one where you feel your liberties are defended no matter who you are. Whether you’re rich, poor, a criminal, or a victim, your voice is heard and your rights are protected.

The Life of John Rawls

The work of John Rawls is inspiring, but to understand his teaching, we should first understand where he came from, what his qualifications are, and how he set himself up for such great work. There are three prongs to John Rawls life that he is remembered for; his education, his time in the military, and most importantly his literary works.

In 1943 Rawls received his B.A. from Princeton University, after which time he enlisted in the army. He served in the South Pacific until 1946. Through his time in the military, Rawls demonstrated deep devotion to the pursuit of justice. First, he was greatly distressed at the aftermath of the atomic blast in Hiroshima. Rawls served as Sergeant in General MacArthur’s occupying Army in Japan and got a first hand view of what happened. This experience would later prove to clarify and strengthen Rawls perception of justice. Second, as Sergeant Rawls once chose not to punish a lower officer, deeming the punishment unjust for the offense committed. This decision cost Rawls his rank, and he was demoted to private.

Leaving the service, Rawls returned back to Princeton to earn his PhD in Moral Philosophy. Rawls is known for many great works, including but not limited to A Theory of Justice, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, and Political Liberalism. A complete list of Rawls’ work can be found here.

A Theory of Justice

Perhaps Rawls best known work, A Theory of Justice, lays out what he calls, “The Original Position”. I believe that every NCFCA LD debater would benefit by understanding The Original Position and its application to this year’s debate resolution.

The goal of The Original Position

The goal of The Original Position is to create a system of fairness and impartiality. Rawls himself wrote in his A Theory of Justice, “They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association.” The original position presents a society that is not just fair but desirable to all. Don’t mistake me, fairness in and of itself is desirable – but Rawls’ Utopian society, one which has fully embraced The Original Position, would be desirable for more than just its fairness. He believed that, “justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” This means that the goal of justice should not be to make life better for most, while sacrificing the lives of a few. Rather justice upholds the needs and liberties for all. That is the goal of The Original Position and what makes it so desirable.

The Veil of Ignorance

By itself however, the goal of achieving such extreme justice is powerless. But The Original Position provides the necessary power to achieve this goal through use of a tool created by Rawls and dubbed “The Veil of Ignorance”. This veil, Rawls argues, should be applied to all lawmakers – not in a way that blinds them to what laws they’re passing, but instead blinds them to what part of society they are apart of. Lawmakers should use a Veil of Ignorance when creating policy – they should be blind to who they are. This means that they don’t know which part of the system they’ll fall into. Lawmakers should create a society where they’ll feel that they’ve been treated justly if they’re a criminal or a victim, if they’re wealthy or if they’re poor.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”

The Influence of The Veil of Ignorance

This way of thinking has been greatly influential – but why? Consider with me the French Revolution of the 18th Century. This time is the extreme example of class distinction and conflict. The higher class benefited from trampling the lower class. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer. In his, A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens drew a literal image of this trampling when members of higher society are seen riding their horse drawn carriages on top of the bodies of the lower class. The reason this system was so flawed was because there was no way to escape life in the lower class. There is no justice in a society where the state of your individual rights are determined by something outside of your power. This is the situation that the bourgeois in 18th Century France faced. Now imagine with me that John Rawls had lived and wrote before the 18th century – and imagine further that his theories had been practiced by French lawmakers. Had said lawmakers applied a Veil of Ignorance to their policies, and had they fully embraced the idea that they and their families could fall anywhere into society – even to the bottom – their policies of protection for the weak and vulnerable would have been far different. France would have found new ways to protect and provide for their poor, the rich would be held to increased standards of accountability, and Les Misérables would have a very different ending.

“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”

Happiness is dependent on circumstances. Good circumstances lead to happiness. Therefore, when we have an increase of good circumstances we have an increase in happiness. Those at the top of the proverbial food chain have a greater opportunity in seizing good circumstances, usually by trampling upon those below them. Understanding the struggle and circumstances that the bourgeois can affect a policy maker’s decision making. This is how The Original Position plays a strong role in policy.

Applying The Original Position to NCFCA LD

It’s not hard to see how The Original Position upholds Justice, but I want to apply it to this year’s NCFCA LD resolution by breaking the resolution down into three main parties: The convict, the victim, and society.

Application to the Affirmative

The affirmative side of the resolution obviously appeals to the convict. In a court of law, the defendant is fighting to have the punishment reduced as much as possible. This is done by appealing to the facts of the case, the law itself, and the evidence presented. Rehabilitation, therefore, can often be the best avenue for a convict. If he’s dedicated to being returned to society, he’ll have good behavior in prison, go out on parole, and earn himself a good reputation so as to increase his chances of being deemed no longer a threat. Now imagine you get decide the outcome of a case and its sentence, and you know that in this trial you’ll be the defendant. The verdict you give will be extremely merciful. But now put on a Veil of Ignorance, shielding you from who you are in the trial – you could be the judge, the defendant, the victim, a jury member, maybe even the plaintiff. No matter what, you’ll do everything you can to assure that each member of the court is treated with justice. What we see is that in a society where lawmakers work under the Veil of Ignorance, steps are taken to assure the convict is punished in a way that is appropriate and not vengeful.

Application to the Negative

The negative side of this year’s resolution is going to fight for the voice of the victim. Many will argue that justice is only served when the victim finds peace. Retribution (or just plain old punishment) is pursued by the victim as represented by the prosecution. Quick note, this is where we establish the court – with the defendant fighting to weaken the sentence and the victim fighting to have it strengthened. This system of conflict, allows us to weigh the facts to determine truth. The moment one side or the other has determined they’ve already lost is the moment truth is no longer attainable. But back to the main point, while we never want to infringe upon the rights of the convict anymore than necessary, lawmakers should also consider the psychological battles that victims often face. A mother whose son was murdered may find a sense of peace in the punishment of the murderer. If a Veil of Ignorance is used by those creating the courts, then there will surely be protection for both the defense and the prosecution.

The importance of balance

But what about everyone else? What about the men and women at the courthouse, who don’t actually have affiliation with the trial, but are casual spectators? What about the community surrounding the courthouse, or the other citizens of that state? What do they all want? Ultimately, a party unaffiliated personally with a court case makes a call for justice. What they want, is a balance to be struck somewhere between justice and mercy. Any nation that is living under The Original Position is protecting Individual Rights by doing so. Rawls found that the best way to protect Individual Rights is to punish the convict harshly enough to appease the victim and reform the convict but gently enough so as not to violate the convict’s rights any more than is necessary. This strategy to justice is best achieved through applying a Veil of Ignorance to lawmakers.

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