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To stop myself from writing mini-essays pretending to be blogs, I’ve set myself a 30 minute limit to knock this out. Let’s see how it goes.

To stop myself from writing mini-essays pretending to be blogs, I’ve set myself a 30 minute limit to knock this out. Let’s see how it goes.

I ask this question with more than a little tongue-in-cheek and not entirely seriously. He would probably want to vomit at the very thought of it. How many people, let alone political conservatives, really believe, like John Rawls, in the ‘difference principle’ (i.e. the principle that the only social and economic inequalities that are morally justifiable in society are those that work to the benefit of the least advantaged in society) and the radical egalitarian project this belongs to?

But perhaps the question is not so silly. Read Osborne’s first budget speech and listen to Clegg’s recent response to the IFS analysis of that budget and you’ll come across core Rawlsian concepts of justice. Osborne tells us that fairness is the first principle of the coalition’s economic policy. For Rawls, justice and fairness amount to the same thing. Indeed, he later described his theory of justice as ‘justice as fairness’. The government’s social and economic policy agenda is progressive and fair, or so we are told, because it will improve the lot of the least well-off in society in the long-term, while ensuring that they’re protected more than most from the forthcoming fiscal cuts. Why? Because this is only fair.

This would seem to be classic Rawls. The IFS analysis and the battle between the Treasury and DWP over welfare reform would seem to suggest something very different. The reality is that the coalition government lacks any obvious substantive philosophy of fairness. It desperately needs this if it’s going to be the transformative government it says it wants to be. We are told that Steve Hilton meets every policy proposal in Downing Street with a question I rather like: ‘but is it transformative?’ Great - but for what purpose? This question cannot be adequately answered without a coherent philosophy or conception of fairness. I doubt any government can have strategic direction or be socially and economically transformative without this.


The concept of fairness is being emptied of content - this is certainly not specific to the coalition government. Fairness has become a kind of mantra for politicians who want to sound at once socially progressive and in tune with the basically centrist instincts of the British electorate. But fairness is not an unambiguous concept government or political parties can appeal to when wanting to legitimise their policies. Fairness, or so it seems to me, is really a less morally charged way of talking about justice. What we consider to be fair inevitably reflects some of our basic views of what the just order of society and social relations should be.

Like a tautological circle, this leads us back to Rawls. I’ve just finished re-reading chunks of A Theory of Justice for a pamphlet I am writing on how we might develop a more progressive view and set of policies around citizen rights and responsibilities. It is nearly forty years since the book was first published. Like other versions of contractarian liberalism (and Kantian liberalism), his political philosophy has always seemed to me enormously powerful but also too state-centric, and his view of the world and social relations too legalistic and bureaucratic for my liking. Rawls also prematurely brackets questions of the good, which seems to me an impossible ask of both individuals and any government. But reading him again, I find myself in awe of the sheer intellectual force and conceptual rigour of his thinking. And who could fail to be moved by the moral conviction of what remains a radical political and moral philosophy we can all learn from and argue with? Only those without a heart or mind.

Finished. 37 minutes. Fail.


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