“Who Is John Rawls?”

130723123817-john-rawls-story-topA few years back I was discussing our company’s annual quota-setting process when one of our sales directors had enough: “That’s socialistic”, he fumed. We were customizing quotas for each salesperson based upon the prior year results but the director believed that quotas should be uniform. My interest was justice, which I defined as a fair-handed attempt, insofar as was possible, to insure each salesperson within wildly different markets enjoyed the same relative opportunity to achieve his annual plan. The sales director’s interest was…well, justice, too. But he defined it as insuring that each sales rep contributed equally to the company’s growth.

There are quite literally hundreds of sales compensation alternatives and I don’t bring up this instance because my method was necessarily superior. Rather, it reminds me how stupid I was in overlooking a vital part of the process, namely articulating the philosophical assumptions within which the specific quota process should be judged. We were arguing about small methodologies when the real disagreement came from what grand governing principles the entire quota-setting system was built on.

That mistake was on my mind as I was came across the work of the late American philosopher, John Rawls. His book, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971 so he is already familiar to many philosophers but somehow I had missed learning about him. Perhaps he is new to you too. Rawls intended to create a new general moral and political philosophy. To discover it, he proposed a thought experiment which he called a “veil of ignorance”. What type of hypothetical social structure, Rawls asked, would you build if you were completely ignorant of what your place in it would be?

This may help explain what he meant. As all young siblings do, my brother and I would often argue about who got the biggest piece of cake. My mother’s simple solution was to have one of us cut the cake and the other choose between the pieces. I thought my mother was brilliant (even after discovering that everyone’s mother did something similar) because my older brother had to divide the cake as fairly as possible since he was ignorant of which piece would be his. Rawls demanded that we use this veil of ignorance to think about how we would cut society’s “cake” if we did not know what piece we personally would be served, by which he meant we could not know in advance our station, class, gender, ethnicity, inheritance, and so on.

Rawls went on to argue that the result of this hypothetical thought experiment by any rational person would be what he named “justice as fairness”. It had two key principles. The first was equality in a basic set of rights and liberties which must be secured as extensively as possible insofar as it can be done equally to all citizens.

The second principle of justice as fairness states that once basic rights and liberties are secured, there may be allowed social or economic inequalities in the civic structure so long as they can reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, particularly society’s lowest. According to Rawls, the “higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.“

Rawls believed that this structure would be intuitively fair to any sensible person. Our starting position in life (whether we are born prince or slave, male or female, bright or dull) has real effect on how we will get on, but it is not a result of our choice so fairness says we cannot hold citizens accountable for that which is beyond their control. Justice as fairness addresses this inequality but is not egalitarian. It allows for a broad spectrum of inequality; it simply demands that the underlying structure for that inequality rest on real benefit to the least advantaged.

A business career setting sales quotas and allocating compensation opportunities, has given me a quirky insight to the current debate on growing income inequality. Looking back, I could have avoided many needless arguments or at least made them more productive arguments had I been better at clarifying to my team the overarching fairness principles within which we built the company’s compensation processes.

Looking forward, the current public raging about the nature of income inequality lacks a common view on exactly what a just society looks like. Maybe it is time to have that discussion and Rawls is a good place to start. Only then can the civic community publicly ask the operational questions of its institutions. Is every liberty reasonably applied? Are we certain that accepted inequalities generate real social value to the least advantaged? Can we protect those inequalities that do grow opportunity? Do we have the discipline and the data to assess our current social structure from behind a veil of ignorance?

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s controversial novel of builders and moochers, begins with the famous question: “Who is John Galt?” As income inequality demands our attention, here’s hoping liberals and conservatives alike will lift the debate by resurrecting a healthy interest in a far better question, “Who is John Rawls?”



A Theory of Justice is confusing, poorly organized and hard to read unless you are a practicing philosopher with a nose for heady concepts. I recommend the much clearer “book about the book” which I found much more helpful: Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, by Frank Lovett.

Still too much? Then just ponder Whitman’s words written more than a century before Rawls:

“Of  Equality—as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same.”   Walt Whitman, Thought (1860)



2 thoughts on ““Who Is John Rawls?”

  1. Did you ever read, Jesus in Beijing? Written in 2003 (or around then), by a 20+ year foreign correspondent. The preface is the key to this note. In there he stated that the Chinese think tank scholars finally determined what made (or had made) America the most powerful nation in the world. It was not our military, or our political process, or even our economic system. Rather it was that we were (or are) a Christian people, and a Christian people are a moral people, and morality is the foundation of the economy. So, those philosophical questions must always be asked, or the team lacks the coherence to achieve any goal that ultimately satisfies and sustains.

    Best. Marty McCarthy


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