12
Jul
08

Rawls philosophy and contemporary equal opportunity

Wikipedia outlines philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) attempts to solve the problems of distributive justice by utilising a variant of the social contract.  He does this by two core principles of justice: liberty principle and difference principle, and calls it ‘Justice as Fairness’.

Writing in A Theory of Justice (1971) Rawls outlines a simple definition of the ‘first principle’:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Contemporary equal opportunity policies generally conflict with this principle.  In attempting to solve class injustice contemporary policies recognise exclusiveness based on certain categories: race, gender, disability.  Information and data that pertain to these categories establish a scale where socio-economic outcomes can be readily defined. 

Where this principle finds conflict with components of contemporary policy is with the ‘compatibility’ requirement put by Rawls.  That is, basing policy exclusive to certain groups must find balance with the compatibility of enabling a ‘similiar system of liberty for all’.  I would argue that contemporary policy is inadequate.  

Take, for example, indigenous policy.

If we are to view positive discrimination and affirmative action policies then we can say that contemporary policy is based on opportunities exclusive to race: if you are indigenous you are entitled to certain educational, work and other opportunities.  Contemporary equal opportunity seeks to justify these policies by recognising that indigenous peoples, as a group, are lower across all socio-economic outcomes than the broader population.  The problem is that these policies are subjective – they do not account for individual circumstance.  An urban Aboriginal person who is entitled to such a program can have more opportunities prior to accessing such programs than the non-Aboriginal person living in the same community.  Such a circumstance negates the ‘compatibility’ requirement of Rawls principle.

I support a political direction that accommodates the pluralism of Aboriginality, and seeks a significant re-alignment of priorities in terms of access to opportunities.  Current policy appears to uplift the Aboriginal middle class whilst the lower class continue to face spiralling challenges.  This is a direct result of policies that categorise opportunities exclusive to race, as well as failures in other areas of policy.

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1 Response to “Rawls philosophy and contemporary equal opportunity”


  1. 1 Mike
    19 July 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Hi John,

    Sorry it took me so long to read and then reply to your blog on Pearson. I thought it an excellent piece. I have not read as much Steele as I would have liked but I am very interested in the thinking of Noel Pearson.


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