From Economics to Social Philosophy: The Foundations of John Rawls' Contribution

David C. Coker

Major Professor: David M Levy, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Peter J. Boettke, Virgil H. Storr

Online Location, Online
April 22, 2021, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is a landmark work in social philosophy. But reading it from a purely philosophical perspective, one is surprised. A significant number of the arguments it presents come from other areas of the social sciences, particularly economics. Clearly this should serve as one of the fundamental baselines from which to interpret the system. For the most part, however, this has not been the case. And this goes to the heart of Rawls’s originality. While widely acknowledged as important, the particular ways in which Theory mutated from the systems Rawls inherited – rights-based systems, and particularly utilitarianism – have perhaps not received the attention they deserve. It can be argued that Rawls’s use of concepts from economics was pivotal to this transformation. And if economics does play a central role in how the system was conceived, then not only do new avenues of interpretation open up, but new questions emerge as well. The following essays begin to look at some of these issues in more detail.

Essay 1: Rawls, most visibly in A Theory of Justice, made numerous references to various topics in economics, and footnoted a significant number of economists. This paper will argue that Rawls made use of the ideal theory of markets as a reference point and as an analytical tool. In their ideal form, markets represent attributes Rawls intended to describe his system, and in their real-world guise embody certain sorts of striving – for instance, after power – that were central to Rawls’s justification of the original position. Markets also serve in Theory as a benchmark against which political forms can be criticized. Additionally, markets in Theory are approved of as allocative and wealth-producing mechanisms, but criticized for their final distributional results. The paper suggests that these assessments in Rawls likely originate in early essays by economist Frank Knight. Knight was, according to Pogge, the probable source for an early version of Rawls’s original position, and is footnoted in key spots in Theory. But the similarities between Knight’s reasoning and Rawls’s appear more significant still. Using Rawls’s extensively annotated copy of Knight’s Ethics of Competition, that supposition is explored. (This paper was a prize winner in the Students’ Work-in-Progress Competition sponsored by RHETM, and will be published in October [Vol. 39C].)

Essay 2: Who are the individuals in Rawls’s “original position”? A reader’s answer to this question frequently determines a judgement on Rawls’s entire system. In the original position, Rawls posits that individuals are stripped of much of their individuation, to achieve a certain end: “one excludes the knowledge of those contingencies which sets men at odds and allows them to be guided by their prejudices” (Theory, 19). The problem is: after one is deprived of knowing one’s individual history, awareness of social position, wealth, idea of possible prospects, race, and sex, is there sufficient “self” left to make reasonable choices about social and moral guidelines? This paper will argue that this line of questioning is fundamentally misconceived. The difficulty for the reader is that Rawls discusses the original position in two largely contradictory ways. One side of his presentation invites our participation, our projection of ourselves behind the veil — a kind of humanizing of his system. But another type of description — which Rawls takes pains to emphasize is primary — is that the entire original position, including the “individuals” situated there, is engineered. It is, essentially, a machine designed to generate a certain sort of output. This paper will make the argument that the original position is mechanical (Rawls’s intention), and examine how the parallels with economic theory make this more easily seen.

Essay 3: Though Rawls’s system in A Theory of Justice is designed to produce a cooperative society, the source of that agreement — the original position — is not cooperative. It is oppositional. There we must recognize “the relations of opposition in which men stand in the circumstances of justice” (Theory Rev. 131). The theme of this paper concerns information, and compares Rawls’s restrictions on information with a similar sort of restriction in the inconsistent plans literature. But this idea cannot be analyzed in isolation. Rationality, defined by Rawls as that characterizing economics, is conditioned by these informational restrictions. It is this combination which does the work of “deciding” in Rawls’s original position; deciding which, finally, does not require human actors. The model is much like that in economics: individuals in perfect competition, for instance, are automatic decision mechanisms rather than fleshed-out individuals. And the interests of economic agents are assumed to be in opposition; each wants a larger share. These assumptions are severe. But viewing Rawls’s system through an economic lens not only clarifies it, but adheres closely to his intentions. A brief perusal of Rawls’s footnotes suffices to indicate his deep indebtedness to economic theory. And the comparison with the inconsistent plans literature conforms to this general scheme. It highlights as well the fundamental practicality of his system, in particular that of the original position.