John Rawls and Immanuel Kant - A Comparison

Seminararbeit, 2006

20 Seiten, Note: 1,3

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1. Introduction

2. Rawls and Kant - A Comparison
2.1 The Idea of a Hypothetical Social Contract
2.2 The Principles of Political Justice

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalises and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau and Kant.”

(Rawls 1999, p. 10, my emphasis)

The two philosophers John Rawls (1921-2002) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) are both contractarians. That means that in their political theories they try to derive principles for social justice by the model of a social contract. This paper tries to compare these two theories. It will be shown that Rawls’ theory of justice has a Kantian basis.

Of course one cannot make a diagrammatic or mechanical comparison between the two theories. First of all, Kant lived in the 18th century where absolutism was dominating the European politics while Rawls is a contemporary philosopher who built up his theory for modern democratic and industrialised countries. Furthermore, Kant is not a political philosopher in the first place. His main publications, the three critiques (Critique of Pure Reason [1781], Critique of Practical Reason [1788] and Critique of Judgement [1790]), dealt with epistemology, moral philosophy and aesthetics. Only at the end of his academic career Kant published some short political writings. On the other hand, Rawls is the political philosopher of the 20th century. His main publication “A Theory of Justice” (1971) can already be called a modern classic. But although Rawls and Kant have a different historical and systematic background it is possible to show the parallels and differences of their theories. As the quotation above indicates, not only are the Kantian roots implicit in Rawls’ works but his explicit aim is to revitalise the theory of the classical contractarians Locke, Rousseau and Kant and to develop it further.

The main idea of these classical contract theories is that the state is not something natural but something artificial that men have constructed. For the old Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle it was natural that human beings build up states and live in a political community[1]. Thomas Hobbes famous book “Leviathan” (1651) broke with this tradition. He defined men as an atomic and egoistic individual who tries to establish a state out of his rational interest. The other contractarians followed Hobbes in his basic argumentation.

The contractarian argument has always two steps. The first assumes a state of nature (Rawls calls this the “original position”) where men are isolated or just live in small communities. But men are not satisfied with this situation. Their property and rights are not shielded[2] and so an individual is pressed to sign a contract with other individuals to found a state where the property and certain rights are protected by a central authority which can be an absolute king (like in Hobbes’ theory) or a more or less democratic government (like in Locke’s theory). It is important that the social contract must always be interpreted as a hypothetical and non-historical agreement. No state has been founded by a social contract. The contract rather serves as a model or as a thought experiment to legitimise the state and certain political principles.

In a manner analogous to this two step procedure my comparison of Kant and Rawls will first examine the situation in which the social contract is “signed”[3]. In particular, I will work out the special feature of their idea of a hypothetical contract. The second part shows which political principles can be derived from this agreement. In my eyes, this distinction makes sense because it is logically possible that one accepts the modelling of the original position but does not agree with the derived principles. On the other hand, if one does not like social contract theories in general one could still agree with the derived principles. The idea of a contract does not yield new moral or political principles but tries to show certain implications of intuitions we already posses or would gain if we think long and hard about the problem (see Baynes 1992, p. 51f).

The basic primary literature I will use is of course Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” and some parts of his most recent work “Justice as Fairness” (2004) where he modified some elements of his theory. Concerning Kant, I will mainly use two of his political writings namely “On the Common Saying [...]” (1793) and “Perpetual Peace” (1795). Additionally, I will employ his moral theory presented in “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785). After the comparison I will draw a conclusion and ask the question to which extent one can apply either of the two theories in the political practice or if the theories are just philosophical pipedreams or a “Glasperlenspiel” (as Hegel put it) of little practical use.

2. Rawls and Kant - A Comparison

2.1 The Idea of a Hypothetical Social Contract

“It [the social contract] is in fact merely an idea of reason, which nonetheless has undoubted practical reality; for it can oblige every legislator to frame his laws in such a way that they could have been produced by the united will of a whole nation [...].”

(Kant 1793, p. 79, my emphasis)

In the quotation above the subjunctive is very important. According to Kant the consent of the people is not an empirical fact but rather a hypothetical consent. Only in the broadest sense this can be called a contract. A law is just if the reasonable citizens would consent if they were asked. If this is the case they are treated as if they really had agreed with the law. This as-if-approach is a test (German original: “Probierstein”) for the legislator if a law is just and legitimate (see Kersting 1993, p. 344ff).

Rawls takes this idea but develops a more sophisticated model. First of all he does not want to test single laws but the basic structure of a society by which he means all important public institutions. His thesis is that a society is just if free and equal rational beings would choose this institutional structure. So justice is defined through a procedure that claims to be fair. That is how Rawls’ definition “justice as fairness” is to be understood (see Rawls 1975, p. 27ff).

To reach this choice situation he introduces a concept called “veil of ignorance”. This veil of ignorance excludes all individual information about the persons that have to choose a just constitution so that all agents are equal. For example they do not know their social position in the society, the colour of their skin or their sex. So no one would vote for a social principle that discriminates because of moral arbitrary features because they would risk to be in that bad position after the opening of the veil. It is supposed that the agents are rational in the economic sense. That means that they try to maximise their utility. A rational agent who knows that he is rich would of course vote for low taxes and a low redistribution of income. But a rational agent who has no knowledge about his wealth has to take a neutral point of view and does not base his decision on his personal preferences (which he is not aware of) but on universal preferences (see Sattig 1985, p. 104ff).

This agent does not take a neutral point of view because he cares for the others. On the contrary, Rawls explicitly stresses that the agents are “mutually disinterested” (Rawls 1999, p. 128). In the original position there is no love, no hate and no envy. Rather a neutral (one could also say moral) point of view is taken out of one’s self-interest. So under these restriction a homo oeconomicus[4] acts moral out of economic reasons. The moral values (equality, freedom, fairness) are contained in the restrictions. The advantage of this modelling is that one does not have to assume that people are altruistic. On the one hand, altruism is more difficult to model. On the other hand, this economic approach is perhaps more realistic (see Rawls 1999, chapter 3: the original position). So Rawls combines moral philosophy with economic rational choice theory to get political results.

“The combination of mutual disinterest and the veil of ignorance achieves the same purpose as benevolence. For it forces each person to take the goods of others into account.”

(Rawls 1999, p. 128, my emphasis)

Similarly, Kant also states that one does not need “angles” (i.e. moral agents) for a social contract. If the institutional design is good men do not need to be morally good because through the laws they are forced to be at least good citizens. So Kant concludes that the foundation of a state would still be possible for a group of “devils” (egoistic utility maximisers) – as long as they are rational (see Kant 1795, p. 223f).[5]

There is another similarity between Rawls’ modelling and Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant’s central moral principle is the categorical imperative. It claims that one should only act according to principles that could be a general law. If there is a contradiction between a principle and the generalisation of it this principle is morally wrong (see Kant 1785, p. 68f). Rawls’ agents are forced to find general laws. The legislation of egoistic laws or privileges that favour certain individuals or groups are not in their self-interest. More precisely, the legislation of these discriminating laws are epistemologically not possible because one has not enough information to know from which biased laws one would profit.

Not only the moral test of principles through the categorical imperative is fulfilled but also the juridical publicity condition is met. Kant claims that all laws and principles that can not be made public are unjust (see Kant 1795, p. 244ff). All choices in the original position can be made public because behind the veil of ignorance one has to decide impartially anyway. There is no use to keep certain choices a secret. All agents have the same information and rationality so that there will be a unanimous decision. Strictly speaking, one does not need a group of agents because all would decide equally. Consequently, one representative would suffice for this thought experiment. Only one single philosopher who makes this experiment on his desk is needed. In this sense Rawls’ theory of justice can be called “armchair philosophy”. In the original position there is no bargaining. It is not a strategic game (see Baynes 1992, p. 64ff). “What goes on in the original position is not a contract after all, but the coming to awareness of an intersubjective being.” (Sandel 1982, p. 132)

How does this coming to awareness work? As stated above the agents do not discuss with each other. Similar to Kant’s categorical imperative the reasoning is “monological” (Baynes 1992, p. 4). The original position is not a general assembly where arguments are changed.[6] The subject of the choice is “primary goods”. That does not only include material goods like a certain share of the gross domestic product. Rights and chances are also to be distributed. It is assumed that everybody wants as many goods as he can get no matter what conception of the good life[7] he has. Behind the veil of ignorance the agent do not know their individual conception of the good life. But this does not matter for the distributive problem because all these goods are relevant for every conception of the good life. Even if someone did not want certain goods after the opening of the veil of ignorance for example because of religious reasons one could still give them back. It is typical for the liberal tradition to which Rawls belongs not to prescribe any value judgements about what is important in life. That is why Rawls models the original position in that way that everybody has to respect every possible conception of the good life (see Kersting 2001, p. 55ff and Brehmer, 1980 p. 82ff).

Rawls’ theory of basic goods can be called a generalisation of Kant’s theory of justice which mainly cares about rights. He even argued that the citizens only have a right on juridical equality. Material inequalities can be tolerated.

“This uniform equality of human beings as subjects of state is, however, perfectly consistent with the utmost inequality of the mass in the degree of its possessions, whether these take the form of physical or mental superiority over others, or of fortuitous external property and of particular rights (of which there may be many) with respect for others.” (Kant 1793, p. 75)

But the distribution of these goods does not work like a distribution of a cake where everybody gets a certain piece while the size of the cake stays the same (in game theory this is called zero sum game). Rather Rawls defines society as a “system of cooperation over time” (Rawls 2004, p. 13). That means the size of the cake depends on the amount of cooperation. So the distributive problem in the original position is not an allocative problem but a dynamic one. The distribution has an impact on the incentives for the individuals. So the better the systems of incentives works the bigger the cake. This is a so-called “win-win situation”. Everybody can profit from mutual cooperation (see Rawls 1999, 85ff).

It is assumed that the agents behind the veil of ignorance have this knowledge of these basic economic concepts. They do not have information about themselves but know general theories about the social sciences that you can find in textbooks. For example they know about the scarcity in the economic sense of nearly all goods. Furthermore, they know how markets work. Moreover, they know that some of their interests will conflict while other interests will be the same.

This is why the agents do not just choose a distribution where everybody simply gets the same amount. They know that this would yield the wrong incentives. Nobody would like to work hard any more because his salary would stay constant anyway. If there was a productive form of egalitarianism the agents would choose it (see Kersting 2001, p. 80). But the agents know about the so-called spillover effects. The least advantaged could profit from the performance of very talented persons. For example a good manager could create employment for poor people. Or a good scientist could invent a good system of social security from which mainly the disadvantaged profited. So the agents would accept certain inequalities up to a certain extent because this will yield an absolute improvement of their level of welfare.[8]

But on the other hand, they would not accept big inequalities because they risk being in a very low position. So according to Rawls they would reject a society that is built on the principle of utilitarianism. Utilitarian principles try to maximise the overall sum of happiness but do not care for its distribution. Rawls criticises this shortcoming very strongly because utilitarianism does not respect the rights of the persons but takes the whole society so to speak as one person. So the boundaries between persons get lost (see Rawls 1999, chapter 5: classical utilitarianism). Rawls’ theory is based on a priority of the right over the good. That means that utility principles can never violate justice. This feature can already be found in Kant’s writings.

“It is obvious from this that the principle of happiness (which is not in fact a principle at all) has ill effects in political right just as in morality, however good the intentions of those who teach it. [...] If they had first of all asked what is lawful (in terms of a priori certainty, which no empiricist can upset), the idea of a social contract would retain its authority undiminished.” (Kant 1793, p. 83)

So in the end the agents have the following choice situation: They get a list of different customary conceptions of justice and have to choose one of them. On the list there are for example different variations of utilitarianism and egoism[9]. But for the already explained reasons these are ruled out. According to Rawls only one choice would be rational: All agents would choose the principle designed by Rawls himself. This could be called principle of liberal egalitarianism (see Rawls 1999, 120ff). What it contains, why the agents would choose it and in how far these principles can be called Kantian principles will be explained in the next paragraph.

2.2 The Principles of Political Justice

“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by greater good shared by others.”

(Rawls 1999, p. 3)

The previous chapter explained the input that frames the hypothetical social contract in Rawls’ and Kant’s political theories. Now I will discuss the output namely the arising principles of justice. The idea behind it is that one can derive normative principles from a hypothetical rational decision like one can deduce a conclusion from true premises. The truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion if the deduction is correct. So the conclusion is never completely new. It always depends on the premises. But the conclusion could yield a new insight. That is the same with the contract argument. The normative principles are never completely new but depend on the assumptions one makes in the original position (see Kersting 2001, p. 42ff). Again I will focus on Rawls’ theory and then compare it with its Kantian roots.

Rawls’ condition for a just state exists of two principles. They are the heart of his theory of justice so I will quote them completely:

“(a) 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

(b) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under the condition of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).” (Rawls 2004, p. 15)

The principles have a lexical order. So principle (a) is more important than principle (b) and has to be fulfilled at first. Similarly, the first condition of principle (b) is more important than the second.

Let us examine principle (a) first. It says that every human being has an equal claim on equal basic liberties. What is meant by basic liberties are the typical liberal rights like freedom of thought and speech, the right of meeting, political participation (the right to vote and to candidate for political offices), property rights and the inviolability of one’s body (see Rawls 1975, p. 81f). It is truly an egalitarian principle because everybody has an equal claim on equal liberties. To stress it again this principle of equal rights is more important than an equal distribution of economic goods.[10] The principle (a) is nearly identical with Kant’s philosophy of law.

“ The civil state, regarded purely as a lawful state, is based on the following a priori principles:

1. The freedom of every member of a society as a human being.
2. The equality of each with all the others as a subject.
3. The independence of each member of a commonwealth as a citizen.”

(Kant 1793, p. 74)

For Kant these principles are not just politically justified but “a priori principles”. That means that one can derive and prove them without having an empirical state just by using his practical reasoning. According to Kant a person can not give up his rights even if he wanted to (see Kant 1793, p. 84 and Kersting 1993, p. 364ff). For an utilitarian it would be morally all right if some individuals had to give up their rights if this contributes to a higher overall welfare. But for Kant and Rawls these rights are inviolable.

However, there is one difference between Kant’s and Rawls’ principle of equal liberties. For Rawls every person has these rights[11]. But Kant makes certain exceptions that sound old-fashioned or conservative to a modern reader. He claims that to be a full citizen you have got to be “an adult male” and you must possess private property. So women and people without property are excluded. One distinction Kant makes sounds even ridiculous: For him a barber is no citizen because he has no property but only offers a service while a wig-maker is a citizen because he owns the material to make wigs (see Kant 1793, p. 78). But nevertheless, these exceptions are due to the 18th century tradition and could be changed without modifying the core of Kant’s political theory. This distinction is not systematically central for Kant’s philosophy so concerning Rawls’ principle (a) there is not a big distance between Kant’s and Rawls’ theories.

Now let’s turn to the first condition of principle (b). The chances for getting offices should be equal for everyone. This claim for equality can be interpreted in two ways. The weak interpretation states that the juridical chances have to be the same for everyone (formal justice). So offices are in principle open to everyone. The strong interpretation claims that the opportunities have to be proportional to the talents of the persons (substantive justice). The state has to intervene to secure this substantive equality to balance the disadvantage of people who are talented but have a bad economic and social family background and are therefore not able to compete with equally talented but more advantaged persons (see Rawls 1975, 86ff).

An example will make this distinction clear. According to the weak interpretation it would be all right if everyone could in principle study at a university. If there were no juridical barriers to students from lower classes there would be nothing to worry about. In contrast, the strong interpretation claims that this is not enough. Talented teenagers from the lower classes whose parents are not academics have in fact a disadvantage. On the one hand, in general their parents do not have enough money to invest in a university career for their children. On the other hand, the children cannot get an equally good education in their family that prepares them for the higher education sector[12]. So the state has to promote especially these children by giving them good public primary education and scholarships.

Rawls speaks of a “social lottery”. Children can not choose their parents. The distribution cannot be influenced. So seen from a moral point of view this distribution is arbitrary and no one should have a disadvantage because of morally irrelevant features. So the state has to even out this disadvantage. To make it explicit Rawls favours the strong interpretation.

On the other hand, Kant thinks that it is all right that the citizens have unequal intellectual skills and unequal de facto opportunities as long as everybody could in principle make a career.

“[E]very member of the commonwealth must be entitled to reach any degree of rank which a subject can earn through his talent, his industry and his good fortune. And his fellow-subjects may not stand in his way by hereditary prerogatives or privileges of rank and thereby hold him and his descendants back indefinitely.” (Kant 1793, p. 75)

So Kant favours the weak interpretation. His point of view can be roughly summarised by the German saying “Everybody is the blacksmith of his personal happiness”. No one is allowed to hinder a disadvantaged person in order to improve his position. But there is no public duty to enable him actively to make a progress. But, however, for his time it was a strong liberal and enlightened opinion. So concerning the second condition of principle (b) Kant and Rawls have the same theoretical tendency but Rawls goes one step further.

Like Rawls, Kant also stresses the contingency of birth. No one should be legally advantaged or disadvantaged because of this. But again, he does not claim that society should redistribute income to help the de facto (economic and social) disadvantaged. That some children are born rich (and have therefore better opportunities) is explicitly justified by Kant.

“Since birth is not an act on the part of the one who is born, it cannot create any inequality in his legal position an cannot make him submit to any coercive laws except in so far as he is a subject, along with all the others, of the one supreme legislative power. [...] He may hand down everything else, so long as it is material [...] and may over a series of generations create considerable inequalities in wealth among the members of the commonwealth (the employee and the employer, the landowner and the agricultural servants, etc.). But he may not prevent his subordinates from raising themselves to his own level if they are able and entitled to do so by their talent, industry and good fortune.” (Kant 1793, p. 76)

This long quotation makes the different scopes of Kant’s and Rawls’ interpretation of the term “equal opportunities” clear. Maybe Kant’s conception can be called “liberal equality” while Rawls claims “democratic equality” (Rawls 1795, p. 86f). As a provisional conclusion it can be said that Rawls takes Kant’s philosophy of law as a basis for his theory of justice but adjusts modern welfare and democratic principles.

One important welfare principle that goes beyond Kant’s theory is the second condition of principle (b): the difference principle. It is a principle that allows inequalities in wealth but only up to a certain extend. The least-advantaged have to profit in absolute terms of these inequalities[13]. So a social planner has to organise the public distribution in that way that he first looks at the least-advantaged and maximises their level of welfare. A fictive numerical example will make this idea clear. Suppose that there are three societies with three relevant groups. The welfare of the groups corresponds to the following figures:

Society A Society B Society C

Group one: 20 Group one: 15 Group one: 17

Group two: 25 Group two: 35 Group two: 17

Group three: 30 Group three: 55 Group three: 17

Total welfare: 75 Total welfare: 105 Total welfare: 51

For Rawls the total welfare is not the decisive indicator. He claims that one has first of all to maximise the welfare of the least advantaged. So according to the difference principle society A is the one with the highest degree of distributive justice. The least advantaged would get more units (20) than in society B (15) and C (17). But this principle is not egalitarian in the strong sense. Society C is the most egalitarian one but the least-advantaged have less welfare in absolute terms than the least-advantaged in society A. But society C is at least the second best solution although the overall welfare produced in it is less than half of the total welfare in society B. I would also like to show the principle graphically:

For simplicity I suppose that there is a society with only two relevant groups. On the y-axis we have the welfare of the least-advantaged. On the x-axis there is the welfare of the other group. The thin line symbolises an equal distribution and is only drawn for an orientation. The fat line is below the egalitarian distribution. That is what makes the first group the least-advantaged. According to Rawls the just distribution is the one where the y-value reaches its maximum (shown by the big point). It does not matter that the welfare of the second group rises right to this point. The rich group is only allowed to have more welfare as long as their marginal contribution to the welfare of the poor group is positive (see Rawls, 95ff).

Apart from the theoretical differences between Kant and Rawls there is also a methodological difference. Rawls often uses these formal methods of economics and game theory to argue for his theses. This interdisciplinary approach is one of the aspects why not only philosophers but also political scientists and economists are interested in his theory. Kant did of course not have the possibility to use modern economic methods so his political analyses were only verbal.

Last but not least, I would like to show the link of my chapters 2.1 and 2.2. Why do the people in the original position choose these principles of justice? First of all, Rawls admits that he cannot prove it in the strong sense. Rather his model is an appeal to our intuitions (see Rawls 1975, p. 159). He argues that behind the veil of ignorance the parties neither know their future position nor any probabilities of the outcome. They can not even say how many different outcomes exist. So he borrows a rule from decision theory for this situation: the maximin rule. It claims that one should maximise the minimum. It is analogous to the difference principle. One has to look at the best out of all the worse possible outcomes. I would like to make this clear with a fictive example. The minimum of the decision one is 5 while the worst case if one makes decision two is (-1). So decision one has to be taken regardless of the high opportunity costs (one could gain 20 instead of 10 units if one makes decision two but according to the maximin rule this would be too risky).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The situation in the original position is even less clear than in my example because one does not know the possible outcomes. Apart from the missing knowledge about probabilities Rawls gives two more arguments for the application of the maximin rule. It is reasonable to apply it when very bad outcomes exist. The lower the worst outcome of a risky decision the more it gets reasonable not to choose it but to take a conservative decision. In the original position the agents could for example choose a society with slaves and slave owners. But they would not risk it because they do not want to gamble at the risk of being a slave. That is why they decide to ensure equal basic liberties for everyone. Rawls’ third argument for the application of the maximin rule is that some people might be satisfied with a certain standard of living and do not find the possibility to get more very attractive. They prefer having a secure level to a chance of having more (see Rawls 1975, 174ff).

3. Conclusion

“True peace means economic development and social justice [...].”

(Kofi Annan)

“And the predominant belief in ‘social justice’ is currently probably the biggest threat of other values of a free civilisation.”

(Friedrich August von Hayek)[14]

My conclusion should fulfil three purposes. First of all, I will summarise my results. Then I will point out some controversial aspects of Kant’s and Rawls’ theories. Finally, I will question whether the theories are applicable in praxis.

The comparison has shown that Kant and Rawls have the same approach to derive principles of justice. Both theories are based on the idea of a hypothetical social contract. The way Rawls models his original position is more systematic and detailed. But the basic argument is the same: a state is just if free and rational individuals would give their consent in a fair procedure (“justice as fairness”).

Concerning the principles of fairness one has to differentiate. Rawls’ first principle (equal liberties) is nearly identical to Kant’s philosophy of law. The first condition of Rawls’ second principle (equal opportunities) has the same tendency as Kant’s claim of equal chances but extents his definition. The state has to help the disadvantaged to be competitive and not just passively let them seek their success. The second condition of Rawls’ second principle (difference principle) is a non-Kantian construction. It tries to restrict economic inequalities while Kant tolerated an unequal distribution of wealth. But all in all, Rawls is right in saying that he has generalised and carried to a higher level Kant’s social contract theory. Rawls’ theory of justice stands in the Kantian tradition.

But the idea of a hypothetical social contract is not unproblematic because it is not possible to derive duties from a consent that has in fact never been given. The hypothetical consent is in a sense undemocratic. The people are not asked if they consent with a political system but a political philosopher or a philosophising politician assumes their opinions. So this construction is nothing more than a devise to present a systematic argument. The agents in the original position might under certain conditions agree to certain principles of justice. But it does not follow that the real citizens must therefore accept these principles. Rawls admits that these are two different perspectives. But if the modelling is good it could convince us “here and know” as Rawls puts it (see Rawls 2004, p. 19).

The arising principles can be criticised in many ways. One could criticise the ordering, their content or one could question if these principles would really be chosen. Concerning the ordering it is not clear if liberties are more important than the welfare. Someone who is poor and does not have enough to satisfy his needs would probably prefer promoting his economic status to having a wide range of political rights. Furthermore, the difference principle can in extreme cases reduce the overall welfare dramatically. A small increase of the prospects of the least-advantaged justifies a big decrease of the prospects of the other groups (see the example on page 11). Finally, the maximin rule that is chosen as decision rule is extremely conservative or even pessimistic. Maybe some people like to gamble in order to have the chance on a big profit. This depends on the psychology of the decision maker and can not be assumed to be the right rule for all agents.

Lastly, one could criticise that Rawls’ theory has only been designed for a closed economy and lacks the international perspective. Do people in developing countries also have a right to the substantive equality of opportunity? If the difference principle was globally extended there would be a moral duty for a huge global redistribution of wealth. Maybe Kant’s theory in “Perpetual Peace” (Kant 1795) could yield some ideas for this “globalizing Rawls debate”. The above quotation of Kofi Annan stresses that there is a strong link between social justice, economic development and peace. It would be fruitful to extend Rawls’ theory in that direction.

In the international as well as in the domestic political practice “social justice” is a very important but controversial notion. That is why I also quoted Hayek’s counter position at the beginning of my conclusion. What can Rawls’ and Kant’s theories contribute to this discussion? First of all, like most philosophical theories, they cannot be applied directly to concrete cases. For example one cannot derive the exact amount of welfare benefits or of other public expenditure. But their theories can show ways for the design of the basic social structure. While Rawls’ first principle is - at least in the western societies - uncontroversial there are many debates where Rawls’ second principle and its foundation could play a role. The equal opportunities principle is for example important for the current debate about tuition fees and about public health because education and health have a strong influence on one’s chances. Moreover, the difference principle which can be summarised by the slogan “as equal as possible, as unequal as necessary” could show and establish a compromise between a radical liberalisation and an egalitarian policy in the system of taxation. So Rawls’ modernisation of Kant’s political theory is on the one hand “an idea of reason” but has on the other hand “undoubted practical reality” (Kant 1793, p. 79).


Baynes, Kenneth (1992): The Normative Grounds of Social Criticism. Kant, Rawls and Habermas, New York.

Brehmer, Karl (1980): Rawls’ “Original Position” oder Kants “Ursprünglicher Kontrakt”, Königsstein.

Kant, Immanuel (1795): Zum ewigen Frieden, in: Weischedel (1964).

Kant, Immanuel (1793): On the Common Saying: ‚This may bet true in theory, but does not apply in practice’, in: Immanuel Kant: Political Writings (1991), Cambridge.

Kant, Immanuel (1785): Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, edited by: Valentiner, Theodor (1984), Stuttgart.

Kersting, Wolfgang (1993): Wohlgeordnete Freiheit: Immanuel Kants Rechts- und Staatsphilosophie, Frankfurt am Main.

Kersting, Wolfgang (2001): John Rawls zur Einführung, Hamburg.

Rawls, John (1975): Eine Theorie der Gerechtigkeit, Frankfurt am Main.

Rawls, John (1999): A Theory of Justice. Revised Edition, Oxford.

Rawls, John (2004): Justice as Fairness, in: Farrely, Colin (editor): Contemporary Political Theory, London.

Sandel, Michael (1982): Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, New York.

Sattig, Alfred (1985): Kant und Rawls. Eine kritische Untersuchung von Rawls’ Theorie der Gerechtigkeit im Lichte der praktischen Philosophie Kants, Mannheim.

Weischedel, Wilhelm (1964) (editor): Immanuel Kant. Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pädagogik 1, Frankfurt am Main.


[1] That is why Aristotle called man a „zoon politikon” (political animal).

[2] Some philosophers even argue that in a state of nature property rights and other rights do not exist.

[3] I put this word in inverted commas to stress again that the signing is only meant metaphorically.

[4] This is the model used in economics for a rational egoistic agent who maximises his utility according to the given restrictions.

[5] One can question this thesis. For example the famous example of the prisoner’s dilemma shows that a rational behaviour is not always utility maximising. There can be so-called rationality traps.

[6] Jürgen Habermas disagreed with this modelling and stressed that reason must be communicative (see Baynes, p. 5).

[7] The term “good life” was originally used by Aristotle. He tried to define what makes a life a good one. Rawls assumes that there is no objective definition. Every individual has his own conception what counts for him (for example a professional career, money, family, friends, religion, etc.).

[8] As explained above it is assumed that there is no envy in the original position.

[9] The complete list can be found in: Rawls 1999, p. 126.

[10] This priority will be criticised in my conclusion.

[11] Maybe the only exception is that you get political rights only at a certain age (for example 16 or 18).

[12] It is often claimed that the German education system is not just in this substantial sense (see for example: “UN-Beauftragter Munoz rügt deutsches Bildungssystem”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published on the 21. February 2006).

[13] This can be he case because of the spill over effects explained above.

[14] Both quotations are taken from and translated from German into English by myself. It is also my emphasis.

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John Rawls and Immanuel Kant - A Comparison
Universität Konstanz
Political Theory
ISBN (eBook)
530 KB
John, Rawls, Immanuel, Kant, Comparison, Political, Theory
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Thomas Domjahn (Autor:in), 2006, John Rawls and Immanuel Kant - A Comparison, München, GRIN Verlag,


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