Plato and Rawls on the Parameters of a Just Society
1What I wish to do on this occasion is to make an attempt to highlight some distinctive features of Plato’s political philosophy by confronting them with the system put forward by a major figure in modern American political philosophy, the philosopher John Rawls of Harvard. I must confess that when I was in America in the 1960’s and 70’s. I did not pay much attention to John Rawls, as I could not see what all the fuss was about. The man seemed to me, from what I could discern of his views, to be confining himself to generalities and platitudes, with the overall aim of providing some legitimation for the American capitalist system as it then stood. Now, having at last brought myself to read through his chief theoretical work A Theory of Justice – not, I may say, by any means an easy task ! – I see that I was not being quite fair to him, and that he is in many ways making a useful contribution to political theory. He does, at any rate, seem to serve rather well as a foil to Plato.
2The juxtaposition of these two names, Plato and Rawls, might seems at first sight to need some apology. As far as one can see, John Rawls did not have much use for Plato as a political philosopher – Aristotle yes, to some extent, but not Plato. Nor is this surprising, in view of Rawls’ advocacy of the ideal of individual liberty as the first principle in the establishment of a just society, and Plato’s reputation as a totalitarian. Rawls’ study of the great figures of European political philosophy is broad and deep, but his favoured authors are Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick –above all Kant ; but certainly not Plato.
- 1 He makes a dismissive reference to Plato’s concept of the Noble Lie on p. 454, n. 1, of A Theory of (...)
3Nonetheless, it seems to me fruitful to confront them, as having after all a number of ideals in common, though they might approach them from rather different angles. There is no question of influence here, I think, except in so far as some ideas might be mediated through Kant. In any case, the Plato that I wish to appeal to is not primarily the Plato of the Republic, with which Rawls was certainly, if disapprovingly, acquainted,1 but rather the Plato of the Laws, which Rawls would hardly have bothered with. The consequence of this would be that Rawls’ view of Plato’s political theory was almost certainly distorted by taking the Republic as its definitive presentation.
4What I would like to do is, first, to isolate a set of basic principles set out by Rawls in his chief work A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, and then turn to examine a series of Platonic principles which seem to me to relate to them. It is my hope that this procedure will cast a positive light on both sets of principles.
- 2 Rawls can be maddeningly vague in his definitions (we see here already ‘more or less’ and ‘for the (...)
5Let us begin with what Rawls terms ‘the original position’, which is his version of the more widely postulated ‘social contract’ of Locke or Rousseau. In §4 of his work (pp. 17-22), he sets out the parameters of this. Purely formally, we must imagine a group of people coming together to establish a mutually advantageous association. “Let us assume,” he says (p. 4), “that a society is a more or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one another recognise certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the most part act in accordance with them.2 Suppose further that these rules specify a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those taking part in it. Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. A set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares. These principles are the principles of social justice : they provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.”
- 3 I realise that I may here be misinterpreting Rawls. His student Thomas Pogge (2007, 65-7), presents (...)
- 4 For those not familiar with this, the scenario is, in brief, that two people are arrested for a cri (...)
6Well now, you might say, where does that get us ? Rawls is postulating a formal situation where a number of persons come together, presumably under the stimulus of some need or consciousness of inadequacy, to form a mutually beneficial society. They are, of course, all to be taken as being normally rational, decent, but self-interested people ; they all want to get as good a deal for themselves as they can. However, as he goes on to postulate, they are afflicted by a ‘veil of ignorance’, in respect, not of their own material or spiritual resources – that is to say, they have a fairly good idea of how rich or how smart they are – but rather of the resources of everyone else in the group.3 They may feel they are reasonably well off, or conversely rather poor, but they do not know how anyone else is situated. Likewise, they may feel that they are pretty smart, but they do not know the IQ or level of education of anyone else. They are, in fact, very much in the position of the prisoners in the famous ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’,4 where the safest thing for the prisoners to do is to take a moderate hit in their fortunes in order to avoid the danger of taking a much greater one.
7There is, therefore, a considerable incentive to come to an agreement which safeguards all parties against exploitation. The next question is what would be the fundamental features of such an agreement. Before proceeding to that, however, we might cast our minds back to the ‘original positions’ postulated by Plato, first in the Republic, and then in the Laws.
- 5 It is of course not true that everyone has exclusively different aptitudes. Plato is being excessiv (...)
8In Republic II 369-72 (alluded to by Rawls in the footnote referred to above, n.1), Plato postulates (369b) that “people come together because the individual is not self-sufficient, but has many needs which he can’t supply himself.” He goes on to assume (369c) that enough people come together to satisfy a full range of needs, “and we give the resultant settlement the name of a polis.” What these people realize is that, since each have different aptitudes, it is most advantageous for each to specialize in what he is best at (370a).5 This is initially, of course, simply a prudential and practical arrangement ; it is only later (374b) that it is presented as a rigid law (the Law of Specialization), which is used to justify the creation of a standing army and the tripartite state. The main point is that the members of such a community agree to this principle of specialization, even at some cost to their own pleasure (some might prefer to be broadly-based all-rounders, and think that they might derive greater profit from that), because on balance this is considered to be the best deal for the whole community, and the least worst for each individual member of it.
- 6 To be fair to Rawls, he is concerned to proceed at the highest level of generality, for theoretical (...)
9We can see Plato here being considerably more specific than Rawls as to what is motivating the parties in the original position.6 The issue of the ‘veil of ignorance’ is not directly addressed ; on the contrary, it might seem that members of the primitive community are particularly sought out because of their presumed prowess in shoemaking or thatching or animal husbandry. However, behind this apportioning of roles may be seen to lurk an uncertainty in the mind of each member as to how well they would fare if they decided that each should go it alone – and that is where the ‘veil of ignorance’ comes in. We might think that we would make a good all-round entrepreneur, but we cannot be certain that an even better and more ruthless one does not lurk in the undergrowth, who would put us out of business. That is the problem facing Callicles’ Superman, as presented in the Gorgias : what if an even bigger bastard looms up on the horizon ? What come-back do you have then ?
10In the Laws, the ‘original position’ is presented somewhat differently. Plato does, in the earlier part of Book III, present some speculations about the origins of civilisation, but it is only when Cleinias of Knossos, at 702b, announces that he has been asked to organise a pan-Cretan colony that we come to something like the Rawlsian ‘original position’, though expressed in rather different terms. Plato is, of course, essentially a totalitarian, albeit a determinedly benign one, and Rawls essentially a liberal democrat, so that certain differences in approach have to be reckoned with ; but nonetheless certain common features can, I think, be discerned.
- 7 The Athenian Visitor actually presents this as a difficulty facing the new colony (IV 708a-e), but (...)
11The significant aspect of this colony is precisely that it is a pan-Cretan, and even to some extent a pan-Hellenic enterprise (rather like Pericles’ foundation of Thurii back in the mid-fifth century), and not the more normal type of Greek colony, an expedition sent out from just one city, which would therefore tend simply to perpetuate the customs and political arrangements of that city – a feature alluded to, indeed, by the Athenian Visitor at IV 708ab. This means that a legislator has an opportunity for creating a new constitution – and this is, of course, why Plato has selected this option.7
12This, in turn, brings us closer to a Rawlsian ‘original position’, since the colonists are a self-selected group not acquainted with one another’s traditions or capacities, and therefore open to establishing an impartial contract with one another. In contradistinction, however, both to Rawls’ postulate in A Theory of Justice and to the situation envisaged in Republic II, the participants in the original position here do not just come together, driven by necessity, and make a democratic decision ; in the scenario of the Laws, they come together (driven perhaps by some degree of necessity, but perhaps just by a sense of adventure) to submit to the guidance of a legislator. Their participation is voluntary, in that they do not have to join the colony, but once they sign up, they do not appear to have much further say in the constitutional arrangements.
13However, in Plato’s view, the proposals of his legislator are so manifestly rational and mutually beneficial that the colonists are plainly intended to assent to them enthusiastically. If they are not attracted by them, they can presumably still back out – though that possibility is not explicitly envisaged. We can, therefore, it seems to me, if we wish, simply elide, or at least de-personalize, the legislator, and substitute for him the exercise of reason by the colonists themselves.
14The first point, after all, which Plato wishes to make (713-15), and drives home with the exposition of the myth of the Rule of Kronos, is that in his colony Law must be supreme, and what he means by law, and reinforces by the use of a punning pseudo-etymology (nomos – nou dianomé, 714a2) is simply the dominance of intelligence, which ensures that all legislation is enacted, not for the advantage of any section of the population, either privileged minority or even popular majority, but for the whole people. He condemns all existing states for legislating in a partisan way, dividing the state against itself and seeking to enshrine the dominance of some faction or other. As the Athenian says at 715ab :
- 8 ‘Competitively’, that is, in a party sense.
When offices are filled competitively (arkhôn perimakhêtôn genomenôn),8 the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution. Of course, our position is that this kind of arrangement is very far from being a genuine political system ; we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favour particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens (politai) but party-men (stasiótai) ; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath. (trans. Saunders)
- 9 Plato does recognize that there will be an initial problem about getting the new settler to assent (...)
- 10 In Plato’s scenario, the legislator is actually in a position to weed out unsuitable applicants, by (...)
15So then, the parties to the ‘original position’ in Magnesia will be concerned to agree on the constitutional conditions for a unified state, where the Few are not set against the Many, or country against town, or property-less against property owner. In Plato’s scenario, the initiative is taken by his supremely rational and benevolent Legislator, who has dictatorial powers ; all the colonists are asked to do is understand and assent (that is why the laws all have preambles !).9 However, as I say, if we think away the Platonic legislator, what we are left with is a group of prospective colonists coming together to work out a constitution which will embody the highest standards of rationality (note that Rawls does not specify any need to possess morality at this stage – that evolves from the original position, rather than being a prerequisite of it). I say that they do not know anything much about each other. All they need to ascertain is that each of them is committed to working out rationally the optimum arrangement for all concerned.10
- 11 How exactly this wealth is to be measured, since Plato does not much approve of money (cf. V 741-2) (...)
- 12 Plato is actually rather sneaky in his provisions here, as is Aristotle later, in the Politics. All (...)
16Now one thing that will emerge in any considerable group of people is that differences in material and intellectual resources will become manifest among them. While equality in at least some respects is an ideal to be striven for, inequalities of wealth and of initiative will have to be reckoned with. In founding Magnesia, Plato recognizes that prospective colonists will arrive with varying material resources, as well as varying characters. He provides for this by prescribing on the one hand that everyone accepted into the colony must receive a basic allotment equal to that of everyone else, but on the other hand that people may possess wealth up to four times the value of the basic allotment.11 No one, however, is to be allowed to become more than five times richer than anyone else, while on the other hand no one is to be allowed to forfeit their basic allotment (Laws V 744de). This will result in a situation of graduated or ‘geometrical’, rather than ‘arithmetical’ equality (as expounded at VI 756-7), and a distinction of four property classes, the higher of which have somewhat more favourable voting weightings.12 But above all, there is to be no inordinate wealth or poverty. Every effort is to be made to preserve the sense of unity within the state.
17With that under our belt, let us turn back to Rawls. What he proposes that the participants in the ‘original position’ should strive for, and indeed will want to strive for, if they are properly rational, is a formula which he terms, with all due vagueness, ‘justice as fairness’. This he sees as “carrying to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau and Kant” (p. 11). Unlike Plato, he is not intending to postulate an initial contract for entry, as in the founding of a new colony :
Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association.
18So what are these principles ? As it turns out, they are two (p. 60) :
Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.
- 13 Women, it must be said, do get to vote for some offices, such as the Board of Women to Supervise Ma (...)
- 14 Certain positions, admittedly, such as the Treasurers, will be elected only by the highest property (...)
- 15 The young person must learn to love and hate the right things (II 653). If one has a correct educat (...)
- 16 As we will recall, Plato invents the Chinese-style ‘re-education camp’ for contumacious atheists (X (...)
19He fully realises that these principles, especially the second, need some elucidation, and he provides that in what follows. The basic liberties, first of all, include political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office), freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom of thought and conscience. One might think that here Rawls, as a liberal democratic theorist, would part company sharply from Plato, but in fact, I would suggest, the difference is not so sharp as all that. In Magnesia, Plato certainly intends that all (male) citizens should vote,13 and be eligible for most14 public offices. On the question of freedom of speech and conscience, in particular, one would think there would be a sharp disparity ; but in fact Plato wishes his citizens to exercise freedom of speech and thought – only with the proviso that they have received in youth the proper paideia, such as he prescribes, and that it has properly sunk in.15 If they turn out after all in adult life to be libertines, or greedy money-grubbers, or – perish the thought – atheists, they will be asked to leave – or worse !16 But with that proviso, Plato is no less keen on free speech, and in general on an informed and active citizenry, than is Rawls. He wishes his citizens to gather frequently at festivals and elsewhere, notably at their communal meals (which are also provided for women, VI 779-81 !), and discuss the merits of candidates for election and of their office-holders generally.
20What they must not do, however, is to live random, unstructured lives. Ideally (VII 807d), “every man should have a timetable prescribing what he is to do every minute of his life, which he should follow at all times from the dawn of one day until the sun comes up at the dawn of the next.” However, Plato recognises, regretfully, that that may be somewhat over the top, and will in any case be superfluous if citizens have become properly self-regulated by virtue of a good education.
21For Rawls, it is more a case of so exercising one’s rights that one does not encroach on those of others. We may not drive down whatever side of the road we want, nor may we drive through red lights. We may not recklessly pollute the environment, nor waste limited energy resources. One must respect other people’s religious beliefs and social habits (provided that they in turn do not encroach on the rights of others). And so on. But Rawls certainly does not aspire to control every detail of citizens’ lives.
22As regards the second basic principle, he explains (p. 61) that it ‘applies, in the first approximation, to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of organisations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility, or chains of command’ :
While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage, and at the same time, positions of authority and offices of command must be accessible to all. One applies the second principle by holding positions open, and then, subject to this constraint, arranges social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits.
23This concern with the securing of everyone’s advantage is admirable, but it seems also dangerously vague, and compatible even with modern neo-conservative theories of ‘trickle-down economics’. Rawls is not prepared to decree anything like what Plato insists upon, that no one in his state may become more than five times richer than anyone else – if they come into a sudden windfall, they must hand it in to the authorities, or they will be severely penalized (V 744-5). Such rigidity would be abhorrent to Rawls, but he never makes clear how far he would go, in terms ot taxation and social engineering, towards realising his ideal. After all, great ‘advantage’ to the most disadvantaged might be achieved by a multi-national company moving to Indonesia or Zimbabwe, and offering virtual slave-wages to previously starving people to manufacture, let us say, sports goods, which it can then sell at a vast profit to the developed world, still fatally undercutting any business that is trying to employ European workers at civilized wages.
- 17 This, it seems, is an abbreviation of the Latin maximum minimorum.
24To be fair to Rawls, though, that is not at all what he has in mind, but rather an arrangement, of which Plato would, I think, approve in principle, whereby a degree of profit for the most enterprising in a given society is co-ordinated with the maximum amelioration of the lot of the least advantaged in that society. In this connection, Rawls makes use of a concept which he borrows from uncertainty theory in the economic sphere, the Maximin Rule.17 This “tells us to rank alternatives by their worst possible outcomes : we are to adopt the alternative the worst outcome of which is superior to the worst outcomes of the others” (pp. 152-3). So then, we are to reject a scenario, such as prevails in the United States of the Bush (and post-Bush) area, where executives in manufacturing companies can earn from 100 to 250 times the salary of those on the shop floor, and pay minimal income tax (with maximum tax breaks), while rendering the lives of the latter ever more precarious (e.g. by minimizing health care, and the constant threat of moving abroad to low-cost economies), in favour of a system where the top earners receive perhaps 15 or 20 times the lowest-paid, and are more heavily taxed, so that health care and other public services for the poorest are greatly improved (perhaps something like the ideal towards which Barack Obama is striving). At any rate, that is the ideal which Rawls feels that every decent society, which wishes to remain in a state of social equilibrium, should set itself.
25Plato, of course, since he disapproves of any means of earning money except agriculture – his aristocratic mind-set leading him to despise commerce and manufacturing as precluding the degree of leisure (skholé) necessary, in his view, for the properly intelligent exercise of citizenship (cf. e.g. VII 803-4) – would consign serious money-making to metics, using largely slave labour, who will be strictly confined to an area adjacent to the port, while the citizenry will make a living by the diligent (or not so diligent !) tending of their fields, and some discreet trading in fruit and vegetables, simply to obtain essential tools and other supplies (cf. VIII 849-50). He thus completely side-steps the problems that Rawls has in establishing parameters for ‘justice as fairness’ in a modern industrial, or even post-industrial, society.
- 18 It is interesting that, in the introduction to a later book (or rather, collection of his Harvard l (...)
26This, I fear, does little more than scratch the surface of the complexities of Rawls’ theory, in what is after all a book of 587 pages, but it seems to me that it is worth confronting Rawls with Plato, and Plato with Rawls, to see what light can be cast on each of them by such a confrontation. Rawls, as I say, seems to have given scant consideration to Plato, and there is much in Plato, particularly in the Republic, that, as a liberal democrat, he would despise ; but there are many features of Plato’s political theory, particularly if one takes the Laws into consideration, with which he could have engaged with profit.18 Even in the matter of his first basic principle, concerning the maximization of liberties, Plato would be at one with Rawls in opposition to the sort of Utilitarian ideology which would be prepared to sacrifice individual liberties or standard of living to an increase in the efficiency or profitability of the state as a whole – the expansion of the Gross National Product at all costs. The ‘liberties’ of the citizens of Magnesia might seem pretty derisory by the standards of a modern liberal democracy, but, as I have said, Plato desires that his citizens, once they have thoroughly absorbed the paideia that he has prescribed for them (which is intended, after all, to render them thoroughly rational), should play their full part in deliberations concerning the good governance of the state, and that their individual interests, as property-owners, should in no circumstances be diminished. In doing this, they realise their full potential as citizens in a way that relatively few members of modern states do now.
1 He makes a dismissive reference to Plato’s concept of the Noble Lie on p. 454, n. 1, of A Theory of Justice, and a more neutral one at p. 521, n. 3 to Plato’s presentation of ‘the notion of a private society’ at Rep. II 369-72 – by which he means Plato’s postulation of the origins the state in its simplest form. He read some Plato, it seems, with Norman Malcolm as an undergraduate at Princeton in 1942 (T. Pogge 2007, 11), but this was only as part of a thematic course on human evil. No doubt he read the Republic for himself in later life.
2 Rawls can be maddeningly vague in his definitions (we see here already ‘more or less’ and ‘for the most part’), but it is in fact part of his strategy not to be precisely prescriptive. In this he would be at odds with Plato, but not, perhaps, with Socrates.
3 I realise that I may here be misinterpreting Rawls. His student Thomas Pogge (2007, 65-7), presents the veil of ignorance as embracing all participants in the original position, even as to their own situation. This seems to me quite excessive, and not a necessary conclusion from Rawls’ §24 (ibid., 136-42). But if Pogge is right, then we will just have to postulate a modified Rawlsian, or Rawls-Dillon, position, that I am presenting here.
4 For those not familiar with this, the scenario is, in brief, that two people are arrested for a crime (of which they may or may not be guilty). They realize that if they both plead not guilty, they will receive a minor sentence for a lesser offence, but that if one confesses and turns state’s evidence, he will be released, and the other will receive a ten-year sentence. On the other hand, if both confess, they will both get five years. On balance, the best thing is for both to confess (cf. Ph. D. Straffin, 1993).
5 It is of course not true that everyone has exclusively different aptitudes. Plato is being excessively schematic here, for his own purposes. Sorting out appropriate tasks for the members of a primitive community, such as, perhaps, a monastery or a commune, is far more likely to be something of a lottery, though of course aptitudes may well come into it.
6 To be fair to Rawls, he is concerned to proceed at the highest level of generality, for theoretical purposes.
7 The Athenian Visitor actually presents this as a difficulty facing the new colony (IV 708a-e), but in fact that is just the way that Plato wants it.
8 ‘Competitively’, that is, in a party sense.
9 Plato does recognize that there will be an initial problem about getting the new settler to assent to his totally rational but austere constitution, and that is why he feels that a Legislator with dictatorial powers is needed for the initial period (VI 752c) – but he is postulating a real historical commencement, which Rawls is not.
10 In Plato’s scenario, the legislator is actually in a position to weed out unsuitable applicants, by some means not specified (Laws V 735-6). We could substitute for this a system of ‘blackballing’ by a certain number of other applicants (a device that Plato himself, indeed, proposes for election candidates, VI 753de).
11 How exactly this wealth is to be measured, since Plato does not much approve of money (cf. V 741-2), is not at all clear ; but the principle is an excellent one.
12 Plato is actually rather sneaky in his provisions here, as is Aristotle later, in the Politics. All citizens have a vote, but he insists that the higher classes must exercise their vote, under penalty of a fine, while the lower classes will be excused if they do not vote (VI 756b-e).
13 Women, it must be said, do get to vote for some offices, such as the Board of Women to Supervise Marriage (VI 783-4) and the Board to Supervise Early Education (VII 794b).
14 Certain positions, admittedly, such as the Treasurers, will be elected only by the highest property class (VI 759-60) – as they will be, presumably, best able to judge sound financial acumen in others ! – and the Minister of Education will be elected by “all the officials except the council and members of the Executive”, from among the Nomothetae ; but this is no more restrictive than in any modern democracy, not least the U.S. Who elects the Secretary of the Treasury, after all, or the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare ?
15 The young person must learn to love and hate the right things (II 653). If one has a correct education, all one’s desires will be directed toward the right ends (VI 782-3).
16 As we will recall, Plato invents the Chinese-style ‘re-education camp’ for contumacious atheists (X 908E ff.). Atheism he saw as deeply subversive of ordered society.
17 This, it seems, is an abbreviation of the Latin maximum minimorum.
18 It is interesting that, in the introduction to a later book (or rather, collection of his Harvard lectures), Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge MA, 2007), pp. 3-4, Rawls seeks to contrast two views on the role of political philosophy, the Platonic, which “ascertains the truth about justice and the common good”, and then seeks to impose that on a society through the agency of ‘philosopher kings’ or whatever ; and the democratic view, which merely “sees political philosophy as part of general background culture of a democratic society”, without trying to impose anything. But as one reads on, it becomes clear that even the democratic view is not just descriptive, but inevitably prescriptive. The differences are not that great after all !Haut de page
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John Dillon, « Plato and Rawls on the Parameters of a Just Society », Études platoniciennes, 9 | 2012, 105-113.
John Dillon, « Plato and Rawls on the Parameters of a Just Society », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 9 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/273 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.273Haut de page
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