Occupation as Fairness

Cohen_36.6_flagJoshua Cohen and Seth Resler in The Boston Review:

Seth Resler: John Rawls’s magnum opus is A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Let’s talk about what the theory actually is. It has its own name, which is “justice as fairness,” and there are two principles involved. Tell me about them.

Joshua Cohen: A Theory of Justice defends two principles of justice. The first principle is an expression of what we conventionally refer to in the United States as liberal ideas about liberty. The idea is that everyone is entitled to equal fundamental liberties including political liberty, freedom to participate in the political process, religious liberty, freedom of speech and association, freedoms associated with the rule of law—including protection of bodily integrity. Rawls says that principle has priority. That’s the first principle of the theory. We’ll call it the Liberty Principle.

The second principle has two parts, and because it has two parts it is a little more complicated than the first one. The first part of the second principle provides a way to think about equality of opportunity. The idea is that where you end up shouldn’t depend on where you start out, that your birth should not fix your fate. A little more precisely, it says that if you take two people who are equally motivated and equally able, their chances in life should not depend on differences in their social backgrounds. Your chances in life shouldn’t depend on your class background, your family background, the neighborhood you grow up in; they should depend on what you’re able to do and what you’re motivated to do. So, equally able and equally motivated, you have equal chances. That is Equality of Fair Opportunity.