Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Social Justice and Rawls in Lebanon

Social Justice: Adam Swift tries to answer your questions in his book Political Philosophy - a beginners guide for students and politicians

The idea only came about relatively recently, creeping into use from about 1850 on…. It developed only as philosophers came to see society’s key social and economic institutions, which crucially determine the distribution of benefits and burdens, as a proper object for moral and political investigation. (pp 9)

Justice is tied to duty – to what it is morally required that we, perhaps collectively though our political and social institutions, do to and for one another. Not just what it would be morally good to do, but what we have a duty to do, what morality compels us to do. (pp 11-12)

The state is justified in making sure that people carry out their duties to one another. It is justified in using its coercive power to force people to do what they might not do voluntarily…. So justice is central to political morality, because of the widely held claim that once we know what our duties are to one another then we also know when we can justify using the machinery of the state to get people to do things they might not otherwise do, and might even regard as wrong. (pp 13-14)

So now the question is have Lebanese as citizens decided what exactly their duties are to one-another, and consequently when state-intervention in personal freedom justified?

One of the most influential philosophers about Social Justice in the United States is John Rawls. He believes that Social Justice is fairness. His premise is that people matter, from a moral point of view because they are “ends in themselves.” People are “free and equal beings” who “have the capacity to frame, revise and pursue a conception of the good.” (pp. 22)

Rawls suggests that if you were put behind a veil of ignorance (i.e. you did not know whether you were going to become a Maronite, Shi’a, Orthodox, Druze, or Sunni; gifted with talented or dumb, ambitious or laid back, etc…) you would choose the following principles upon which to base your social and political institutions:

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

  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under condition of fair equality of opportunity.

The first principle is quite simple and straight forward. The second principle is a little more complex. Therefore, I will elaborate. In Part (a) of that principle, Rawls basically assumes that you are risk averse, and that behind the “veil of ignorance,” you would want the worst off in your future society to be “in the best situation possible.” In other words, you would justify disparities in wealth and income as long as you were sure that if you ended up poor, your situation would be as good as possible given the circumstances.

Part (b) basically is another way of promoting meritocracy as opposed to getting positions based on social connections.

Can Lebanese adopt these principles? I don’t know. In fact, I’m too tired to contemplate such an unlikely scenario at the time. But, there is one idea of Rawls that I would definitely like to see applied to Lebanon: “the veil of ignorance.” What principles would you choose if you did not know which sect you were going to end up in? Maybe that’s a good starting point! Maybe more Lebanese should read Rawls!


Hassan said...

So Rawls has a fancy way of saying what I always said!! :)

Thanks for the advice Raja; I'll definitely take a look at his work. Any suggestions on where to start? I mean which Rawls book is the most prominent?

Doha said...

And not only do we have to think about sects when we think of the veil of ignorance, but wouldn't Lebanon look different if we also accounted for those who are disabled, elderly, mentally-ill, women and children? Lebanon would definintely look different and so would the Lebanese citizen's duties to one another. Our society is marred with segregation, elitism, and prejudice.

Raja said...


Unless you really want to go deep into his writings, I recommend "survey books" which will also present to you the philosophies of different thinkers. Here are the ones I've been assigned to read in my class:

1. Political Philosophy - A beginners' guide for students and politicians by Adam Swift

2. Contemporary Political Philosophy - An introduction by Will Kymlicka

As for Rawls's big publication, it was Justice as Fairness - a Restatement

Raja said...

Hassan, Doha,

just wanted to convey a dissapointing thought that just occured in my head. In Lebanon, there really is no one pervasive sense of social justice. in other words, nobody in Lebanon feels like he or she has any sort of duty towards someone else based on the fact that the other person is Lebanese! I mean, we all have family obligations which imply that unless the well off give certain lesser fortunate relatives what they believe they deserve, the better off will be shunned and bad-mouthed. But that's as far as it goes: the family. There really is no conception of the "greater responsibility." The miserable collection rate of personal income tax in the country (which are some of the lowest rates in the world) is a great example. Another great example is of course, the unbelievably high corruption rates found among those who ought to serve the Lebanese citizen (both government employees and politicians).

We are really behind... there is no doubt about it. Rawls also mentions that people are all morally equal. But would you consider a woman who would only do what her husband, brother and/or father tell her to be morally equal to one of us? What about a man who cannot think for himself, and follows a certain doctrine or leader without question? Is he our "moral equivalent"? These questions nag at me when I read Rawls.

Hassan said...

Thanks for those titles.

I think this sense of obligation towards narrower circles, in most cases the family, is related to one’s interest. It is a more tangible and historically proven source of support than society at large. It's always prioritized: immediate family, larger family, sect, then country.

To improve society one must sacrifice certain resources, which they will only do when they realize there is a real benefit there. They know there may be long term benefit, but they don’t think it’s guaranteed. That’s why people stick to short-term plans and are very shortsighted, preferring individual interests.

Doha said...


Don't be discouraged about the lack of connection between the Lebanese. The war has really made people stick to what Hassan said, the basic form of a group, the family, blood relations, and the sect and region.

During the war, many were not able to travel beyond a couple of miles outside of their residential radius. I mean look at me, I was raised abroad, but visited Lebanon twice a year, but when I say Lebanon, that really meant a certain area in Trablos. I really did not know all of Lebanon until I was 13 in 1993, when my father took us on a trip to learn about our country. Believe me, if it wasn't for us living abroad and my father infusing in us the love of the country (as he left before the war, before sectarianism set in), I probably would have been parochial myself.

But it's also a choice, Raja, that one makes. So I guess it all has to do with socialization, starting from home, then school, then university, and so on.

Unfortunately, I would not have met you if we weren't in AUB. There are very little opportunities for Lebanese from different regions and sects to meet one another (lack of diverse political parties, lack of social groups that uphold Lebanese citizenship as a mainstay). All what we have are delapitated public schools that fail to infuse moral citizenship in the students.

There is room for change and I believe this is our time right now to make the change; there is a chance for us now. No excuses!

Lazarus said...

Raja -

Is Rawl's "Theory of Justice" the same as "Justice of Fairness"?

Doha said...

Yea it is, Lazarus.

Lazarus said...

Btw, doesn't Rawls also have an assumption that people are "ahistorical"?