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Opinion

America not living up to fair, just way of life

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March 14, 2013

John Rawls is an American moral and political philosopher. In his journal “Justice as Fairness,” Rawls lays the groundwork for what constitutes a just society. After reading this piece for a political science class, we were to decide if modern American society is “Rawlsian” or not.

Taking both Rawls’ argument and our class discussions into account, I came to the conclusion that as Americans, we would like to believe we are “Rawlsian.” However, in actuality, we are nothing but selfish pretenders.

Rawls presents his argument from the original position. In the original position, we are behind the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance prevents us from knowing anything about the society we live in, our moral worth, or the moral worth of others. For example, in the original position, one cannot know if he or she will be a rich lawyer, or a poor person born with some type of disability. Additionally, one cannot know exactly what society values or requires of its citizens.

Rawls argues that from the original position there are two principles that all logical human beings would agree to. First, everyone would agree to the principle that each person in the society is to be free and equal. Agreeing to be free and equal people would prevent discrimination based on race, gender or any other factor from occurring.

Second, everyone would agree to the implementation of the difference principle. The difference principle states that resources should be distributed so that the most disadvantaged people in society are as well off as possible. Agreeing to the implementation of the difference principle ensures that if one is in the lowest possible class, he or she will have the necessities to live a good life.

When applying Rawls’ argument to modern American society, upon first glance, it appears as if we are “Rawlsian.” The United States government has established a variety of social programs to assist those in society who are more disadvantaged than others. Furthermore, there are a number of nonprofit programs that citizens can donate to. Many of these programs are created to help disadvantaged people in society.

Although America has the structure and capabilities to be “Rawlsian,” we are not even close to fulfilling the two principles described above.

Through the past 60 years, our country has made significant progress toward achieving the principle of free and equal people. There is a much higher tolerance for diverse groups of people in our nation than there has been in the past. However, it would be inaccurate to say that all groups of people are treated completely equal. There are still issues with the job selection process, equal pay in the workplace, hate crimes and many other areas. These are just a few examples proving that discrimination is still prevalent in modern American society.

The second principle of implementing the difference principle is where America really falls off the “Rawlsian” wagon. It is all fine and dandy that we have social programs to help the most vulnerable members of society. However, the manner in which these programs are operated and regulated make citizens less than enthusiastic about paying taxes to fund them.

Additionally, the conservative belief that everyone in our country needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and earn their keep is unrealistic. The fact of the matter is, not everyone is capable of pulling themselves out of poverty because they are disabled in some manner, are born in to circumstances where there is little to no hope for receiving a decent education or job, or are unable to work enough hours to support their families due to the poor economy.

The most ironic part is that the people who believe in this “Bootstrap Theory” could have just as easily been one of the people born into poverty or another similarly disadvantaged circumstance. I am sure they would change this mindset fairly quickly if they were at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Finally, the distribution of wealth in our nation today is the most obvious indicator that our society is far from “Rawlsian.” The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our country has only increased over the past 40 years, and there is no sign that this trend is going to change anytime soon. Until wealth begins to trickle down from the top 20 percent of our population all the way to the most vulnerable citizens in our nation, very little progress can be made towards becoming a truly “Rawlsian” society.

Rawls is not trying to level citizens to the point of communism, but rather, believes we must protect those who are most vulnerable in our society. This is one of the most basic responsibilities that human beings have to one another. The United States of America wants to be “Rawlsian,” but the truth is, unless we are willing to make major structural and attitudinal adjustments, this desire is completely unattainable.

Morgan Stippel is a political science major and a professional writing minor. When she graduates from UW-River Falls, she wants to become a state prosecutor and specialize in domestic violence cases.