Does Each person possess an inviolability founded on justice...

...that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override? (John Rawls' most famous quote.)

If not why not? If so, what would it mean in particular cases?

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Good for him.  But I think he must be fundamentally wrong, because he's trying to draw an "ought" from an "is", or derive values from facts, when everyone says this is impossible, and I agree with them. 

It's a good idea for someone to come up with some idea why we shouldn't treat people like crap.  John Rawls' sounds like a nice idea - justice.  Each person has inviolable human rights based on justice. 

Can you find a good commentary on his ideas we can look at?  I feel I can't critique his ideas if I don't know very well what they are.  I don't know anything about John Rawls. 

I don't think that moral rules, if this is claiming to be one, have any force of their own.  Nobody's compelled to follow them.  If you think God wants you to do something - you're going to want to do it, because it's God, even without the threat of punishment.  But secular moral guidelines don't carry any inherent force, ultimately because you can't derive an "ought" from an "is". 

What compels us is our moral instincts, and these moral instincts are part of being a healthy strong human being, so people are naturally amenable to following them for that reason.  They evolved as self-interested survival strategies in the first place. 

It's true that there is a mismatch between the conditions in which the most basic moral instincts evolved (small groups) and present day conditions: so what use are the instincts now?  They guide us in the direction we think is morally right.  Even in today's world, this is likely to work out the best by far for you in the long term. 

So if all we can do is get the best out of the moral instincts, and we know that those instincts are aimed in the direction we are looking for (individual [and shared] evolutionary fitness), then it makes sense to construct a moral system nature's way, by getting the most out of what's already there, by learning in detail about how it's put together.  And this is a very powerful approach that works brilliantly for the purpose of providing solid, easy to understand moral guidance.  I think the fact that plain ideas and knowledge can have such power in the real world shows the raw power of morality itself, and spirituality, and this is because what's behind it is the phenomenon that religious people call "God's love". 

His book, A Theory of Justice, is actually pretty readable considering it's an academic tract. Assuming you have a little background in political philosophy or are willing to learn as you go, it's pretty easy to understand. It's based on a very small handful of fundamental principles or axioms. 

You can google up counter-arguments very easily. For example...

It seems that Rawls' position is based on [more or less justified] assertions like "everyone should be treated fairly" and "remember the disadvantaged", which is great, and I'm sure it's been influential, but I was hoping for something more solid, as I'm faced with a similar problem in my own work. 

Rawls deals with "civic" morality - how society should be organised in moral terms - whereas I'm dealing with personal morality, and I think the two are somewhat distinct, and I think he's in danger of mixing up the two. 

I read that Rawls' "most famous quote" was a reaction to the simple utilitarianism of "the greatest good for the greatest number", which is child's play and bullshit and just not how people do things in the real world, unless you're a government of some kind.  Rawls says basically the same thing as me, which is that it should be "the greatest good and least harm for each person concerned".  Now this really has legs and it forms the very foundation of personal morality in my opinion.  I think it should be called "perfect compassion".  Other principles such as reciprocity, the Golden Rule and fairness come into play at the same time. 

The problem I was hoping Rawls might have answers to is, "why should I care about other people?" enough to enact that formula.  I think there are three answers.  1) personal or inclusive [friends and family] consequences; 2) moral instincts; 3) some good reason why people's rights should be respected, that is intuitive enough to nudge people into taking the moral high ground when they are undecided. 

This formula in itself is a moral instinct - it feels morally right.  So I think the thing to do, is to justify why it feels right.  I think there are good rational grounds for why it is better than simple utilitarianism, and it also has evolutionary roots to do with living in small groups.  I think the diagrammatic form displays this very clearly:  there's you, there's your group, you had better be good to everyone in the group because you rely on them to survive.  The top picture shows "perfect compassion", the bottom shows "selfishness", and simple utilitarianism would be somwhere in between.  I think if this was well known as a moral principle then the world would be a much better place. 

I suppose that would depend on context.

For example, a gunman in a mall shooting others would normally be considered ripe for this sort of violation, and, then in line would be an imprisioned criminal, and so forth...

Essentially, society violates the rights of those it deems a threat to the society as a whole.

If that violation is "justified" or not is up to the society, as different societies "judge" different activities differently.

So "society as a whole" can be made up of many societies, and each society might "sacrifice" its members, either individually, or as sub-groups, for what THAT society feels is in the best interests of THAT society as a whole.

Stealing something from someone else is typically considered to be a crime, a violation of the original owner's rights...but early American Indian culture for example considered stealing horses from other tribes to be a normal part of their society, and differentiated that, as a "crime" from say stealing another member of the tribe's horse, or knife, etc.

An army invading to aquire a resource/deep water port/stratigic postition, from another entity, is "stealing" too, technically, but, its not viewed that way typically.

So the question is if there IS a "society as a whole" performing a judgement as to what is just, or is it, in practice a series of sub-sets, all the way down to an individual's view of "justice"?

IE: I stole the bread from your shop because my kids were hungry and I had no annexed your port because we could not continue trade when our ports would freeze over in the winter, and our people were hungry.

Make it an ARMED ROBBERY, so I shot your clerk when taking the bread, or, many soldiers died taking the port, and, defending the port.

One is viewed as a more heinous crime, the other as war...but the repurcussions are not the same.  There is rarely a "society as a whole" to imprision, say, Russia, or Persia, etc, for armed robbery.

Its typically their failure to overcome a victim, and/or the victim's allies, rather than society as a whole, judging them and being able to impose punishment.

So the shop owner with a gun behind the counter, a country with a treaty to help defend them,  etc, is more likely to be a repercussion, if there is one...than a global justice system.

So, to sum it up, John Rawls' theory of justice—which is based largely on the idea embodied in the quote—doesn't work. The "greatest good for the greatest number" principle works better(?).

If you can't violate even one person in order to preserve an entire society, you obviously can't violate a potentially murderous robber simply to save a smaller number of hostage's lives, or one's own.

I was thinking it was simply subjective.

In otherwords, an objective to strive for, with obvious exceptions.

That was the different versions of justice and society I was referring to.

How would you interpret his philosophy in these context?

I find his iviolability statement pretty definitive and not subject to qualification. I don't think he thought of it as just a goal. He may have realized that in practice it would rarely or never be applied literally, but I do think he would use it as a way of adjudging the propriety of various actions.

Would not that essentially be the objective to strive for, with obvious exceptions?


The problem is that the word "inviolability" means what it means. He could have used words like "dignity" or "respect" or "value" (using somewhat different surrounding verbiage for each), but he went with a word that brooks no exceptions. It's a take it or leave it word.

Instead of talking about inviolable rights, I think it's much more workable to think about "the greatest good and least harm available to each person" and leave it at that.  The flexibility is in the "available" - it means that we give people all the care and consideration we can, but there are times when somebody might need to be shot dead, if they present some kind of immediate threat to others' lives.  Sometimes, but by no means always, there's a straight trade-off between one person's benefits and another's.  The way it seems to go is that if someone violates that principle, then they might well need to be stopped, corrected, punished, locked up, shot dead or whatever. 

So, given the state of the real world, it can only ever be an ideal, but it's a good ideal to have. 

For example, a gunman in a mall shooting others would normally be considered ripe for this sort of violation, and, then in line would be an imprisioned criminal, and so forth...

I believe it's instructive to look at this and ask why.

I'd maintain he's ripe for such a violation, because he himself is committing a violation.  An act perpetrated on him, particularly by one of the people he's trying to shoot (i.e., someone shooting back, or throwing shit at him or otherwise using force to get him to stop) is, I believe, best seen as a response to a violation of rights.

The difference between this sort of immediate response, and, say, the government pursuing him after his rampage is done, is that in general we give the government the power to do retaliatory things, as opposed to merely on-the-spot, defensive actions.  This is why in most states here, a homeowner will get prosecuted for shooting a fleeing criminal in the back, but will be much more difficult to prosecute if he shot someone who was actually attacking him.

I think most people who would be sympathetic to someone stealing food to feed their own starving family would lose that sympathy if they did so via armed robbery, since the latter is an immediate threat to the life of the shop owner.  You don't get to feed your family by threatening to kill someone (and that's what an armed robbery is), but stealing an item is more tolerable (provided it's really your only way out).

Human rights are simply a result of primate cooperation to survive. Invoking some form of global form of justice is to call on a perfect supreme being and his rules to sort it all out. When all humans are gone, so will the idea of inviolability. The greater good is the rule of nature. Nature is cruel to the individual.

That said, it is an admirable goal in an imperfect world.


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