What does fairness and justice mean

This year a philosophical history anniversary is to be celebrated: The book "A Theory of Justice" by the American John Rawls is 50 years old. It is hardly an exaggeration to describe it as the most influential moral-philosophical work of the Atlantic West in the late 20th century. In the meantime, its charisma even extends beyond that, because Rawls later added a political philosophy that is primarily concerned with the coexistence of people of different cultures, religions and worldviews in liberal societies. This also raises the question of how common ideas of justice can be developed and maintained on the basis of such different conditions. This theme will continue to accompany the 21st century.

The "Theory of Justice" has a simple and far-reaching basic idea that Rawls formulated in a long essay a decade before his extensive book. He appeared in 1958 under the title "Gerechtigkeit als Fairness" ("Justice as Fairness") in The Philosophical Review. Reclam now had the nice idea of ​​presenting this original text in a bilingual edition with detailed commentary. The translation is not only very successful linguistically, it is also an aid to understanding the original text, because it clarifies syntactic references in Rawls' sometimes long, complex sentences by repeating terms in brackets.

These sentences are long because they protect the arguments against objections as they arise or explain them through exemplary applications. Rawls' prose is concentrated and lucid, and that makes a translation stand out particularly nicely. It is a great pleasure to follow this, also because Rawls does not presuppose much in the history of philosophy, although he always alludes to older traditions, such as contractual thinking or Kant. The curious reader can, however, leave himself entirely to the text.

Only regulations that all participants can agree to are fair

Rawls is not concerned with just actions, with justice as an individual virtue. Rather, it asks about the justice of societal, political and social orders. These regulations affect not only individuals, but also associations, for example families, legal persons, institutions or even states. The prerequisite is the diversity of the participants in such orders. Justice only becomes a problem when people or their associations are different and unequal. The area of ​​tension in which justice is to be established lies between the autonomy or freedom of such participants on the one hand and the benefit for all these participants on the other.

Two main questions must be answered: firstly, the so-called distributive justice, i.e. the allocation of goods, opportunities, rights and obligations to the participants in a system of justice; second, the benefit for everyone involved.

Mechanical distributive justice is difficult in a society of diverse people, and it can easily result in the curtailment of individual needs and personal freedom. And an overall benefit calculation that simply adds the pros and cons over the minds of the participants can have the most unjust effects. So economic considerations can lead to the fact that slavery causes great suffering in individual cases, but this is surpassed overall by the benefits elsewhere.

Such utilitarian considerations play a certain role again in the current pandemic if it is calculated that the protection of vulnerable people is out of proportion to the economic, but also psychological damage to other parts of society as a result of the protective measures. Don't the old and the sick die always and anyway? Why do young people, business people or artists have to suffer for this? Isn't the bottom line that even more years of life are lost than won?

Rawls considers such calculations to be fundamentally wrong. For him, only regulations and institutions to which all participants can agree are just, regardless of the question of what position they hold in these regulations. It's always about reciprocity. To stick to the pandemic example, one would have to ask whether one would accept the cost-benefit calculation even if one were old, frail or ill. Or, to come back from Rawls, for example: With the prospect of having to become a slave, would one agree to the institution of slavery for the benefit of society as a whole?

The focus is on the advantages of all individuals

This question can also be asked for other distribution questions. People are not only different in terms of their disposition, motivations and origins, they also live and cooperate based on the division of labor. Inequalities are as inevitable as they are usually life-enhancing. Society is dependent on performance incentives and barter deals, and this interaction of different people, if done fairly, is to the advantage of each individual participant. This advantage of all, not of the collective but of all individuals, is that "fairness", which for Rawls is the decisive criterion of justice.

So there is a principle involved. The prudence with which Rawls formulated it in the first serve in 1958 shows a high level of awareness of the complexity of spelling and its applications in social reality. Equal opportunities, i.e. the basic possibility for everyone to reach all positions in a society according to their ability, including the "highest", most respected, best-endowed, remains a goal that can only be approximately achieved in view of the very different starting conditions that have evolved.

The enormous impact history of Rawls' thought has to do with the application potential that it opens up. The tension between individual autonomy and all shared advantages in an order that is acceptable to all must be "negotiated" again and again. "Negotiating" may be a current buzzword, but at least it is reminiscent of the venerable background of theories of the social contract to which Rawls' ingeniously simple concept of fairness - German would probably come closest to the old "cheapness" - ties.