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Welfare Liberal Justice: The Contractarian Perspective

Finding merit in both the libertarian ideal of liberty and the socialist ideal of equality, welfare liberals attempt to combine both liberty and equality into one political ideal that can be characterized as contractual fairness or maximal utility.

A classical example of the contractual approach to welfare liberal justice is found in the political works of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant claims that a civil state ought to be founded on an original contract satisfying the requirements of freedom (the freedom to seek happiness in whatever way one sees fit as long as one does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end), equality (the equal right of each person to restrict others from using his or her freedom in ways that deny equal freedom to all), and independence (the independence of each person that is necessarily presupposed by the free agreement of the original contract).

According to Kant, the original contract, which ought to be the foundation of every civil state, does not have to "actually exist as a fact." It suffices that the laws of a civil state are such that people would agree to them under conditions in which the requirements of freedom, equality, and independence obtain. Laws that accord with this original contract would then, Kant claims, give all members of society the right to reach any degree of rank that they could earn through their labor, industry, and good fortune. Thus the equality demanded by the original contract would not, in Kant's view, exclude a considerable amount of economic liberty.

The Kantian ideal of a hypothetical contract as the moral foundation for a welfare liberal conception of justice was further developed by John Rawls (1921–2002) in A Theory of Justice (1971) and in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001). Rawls, like Kant, argues that principles of justice are those principles that free and rational persons who are concerned to advance their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality. Yet Rawls goes beyond Kant by interpreting the conditions of his "original position" to explicitly require a "veil of ignorance." This veil of ignorance, Rawls claims, has the effect of depriving persons in the original position of the knowledge they would need to advance their own interests in ways that are morally arbitrary.

According to Rawls, the principles of justice that would be derived in the original position are the following:

  1. Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; and
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: First they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

Rawls holds that these principles of justice would be chosen in the original position because persons so situated would find it reasonable to follow the conservative dictates of the "maximin strategy" and maxi mize the min imum, thereby securing for themselves the highest minimum payoff and because these principles express an ideal of reciprocity.

Rawls's defense of a welfare liberal conception of justice has been challenged in a variety of ways. Some critics endorse his contractual approach while disagreeing with him over what principles of justice would be derived from it. These critics usually attempt to undermine the use of a maximin strategy in the original position. Other critics, however, have found fault with the contractual approach itself. Libertarians, for example, challenge the moral adequacy of the very ideal of contractual fairness because it conflicts with their ideal of liberty.

This second challenge to the ideal of contractual fairness is potentially more damaging because, if valid, would force its supporters to embrace some other political ideal. The challenge, however, would fail if the libertarian ideal of liberty, when correctly interpreted, can be shown to lead to much the same practical requirements as are usually associated with the welfare liberal ideal of contractual fairness.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to KabbalahJustice - Libertarian Justice, Socialist Justice, Welfare Liberal Justice: The Contractarian Perspective, Welfare Liberal Justice: The Utilitarian Perspective