World Philosophy Day: Part 3 – Service for Whom?

by Quentin Wodon

This last post in the 3-part series (see part 1 and part 2) on the occasion of World Philosophy Day discusses the question of who the least advantaged are. For Rawls, the central question for a theory of social justice was whether societies as a whole were organized in such a way as to maximize the socio-economic position of the least advantaged. For Rotarians and members of other service clubs, the question is probably a bit different: it is whether they should aim to reach the least advantaged in their service work. This question of service above self for whom is often not discussed openly in Rotary and other service clubs, but it should be.

The Least Advantaged

Who exactly are the least advantaged? How should we measure whether they benefit from the social contract and the principles of justice suggested by Rawls, including in Justice as Fairness, a book published posthumously based on his teaching notes at Harvard University that summarizes how he ultimately viewed his theory. The question of the identification of the least advantaged is not that easy to answer, as Rawls recognized early on.

Recall that Rawls’ difference principle called for “social and economic inequalities … to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.” Positions of privilege in society are fine as long as their existence contributes to improving the situation of the least advantaged (for example, by giving incentives for entrepreneurs to create jobs).

The idea is not so much to promote redistribution per se. Instead, the aim is to recognize the dignity of all and therefore to provide to all the basic means – including income, a minimum of wealth, and other so-called primary goods that are necessary to be able to independently pursue a purposeful life. Society as a mechanism of cooperation should be structured in such a way that the least advantaged have the ability to conceive their own life project and pursue it freely. Living a purposeful life should not be the privilege of the few.

Rawls considered different definitions of the least advantaged in his writings over the years. But he ended up defining the group in reference to their endowment of five main “primary goods”, namely i) basic rights and liberties; ii) freedom of movement and free choice of occupation; iii) the powers and prerogatives attached to offices and positions of authority; iv) income and wealth; and v) finally the social bases of self-respect (Rawls also in the end added leisure as another primary good that all individuals should have).

Extreme Poverty

It is beyond the scope of this post to enter into a detailed discussion of whether Rawls succeeded or not in identifying the least advantaged. But in many respects, even if Rawls did not use these terms, it seems fair to say that the least advantaged are today those who live in extreme poverty, whether in developed or developing countries. As argued elsewhere on this blog, extreme poverty does not simply consist of living with very little income or consumption, as suggested by the $1.25 a day definition adopted by the World Bank.

That definition makes sense for an organization like the World Bank for a number of practical reasons, but it must be recognized that extreme poverty results from a lack of multiple basic securities – not just a lack of income, but also a lack of education, employment, housing, health care, and even civil and political rights. Beyond some threshold, the insecurity endured by the poor is such that they fall into extreme destitution. They then become prisoners of a vicious circle. With no security left as a solid foundation to rely upon, they cannot emerge from extreme poverty by themselves. At that stage they lose the means to be able to define and pursue their own life project. Extreme deprivation often results in social exclusion – the extreme poor then also loose what Rawls called the social bases of self-respect.

Implications for Rotary

If the least advantaged are the extreme poor, and if extreme poverty persists in developed and developing countries alike, this poses an important dilemma not only for societies (are societies actually living by the principles of justice of fairness called for by Rawls?), but also for service clubs: are the clubs serving those who need help the most?

Rotary as well as other service clubs are ostensibly about service. Rotary’s motto is “Service above Self”, while Lions’ is “We Serve” and Kiwanis’ is “Serving the Children of the World.” Service clubs do not advocate any specific ideology, nor do they engage in political activity. They are simply meant to serve (… and maybe network!) But to serve whom? As mentioned at the outset of this post, the question of service above self for whom is often not discussed openly in service clubs. Shouldn’t it be?

It seems that the main reason why the question of service for whom is not debated is because Rotarians and members of other service clubs have many different interests. Some may want to implement projects that reach the extreme poor. Others may prefer serving their community in different ways, be it through the arts, education, or other means. At some level, this is perfectly fine, as many groups and worthwhile causes need support. The fact that the membership in service clubs is diverse is a plus, and this leads naturally to diverse service projects, especially in large clubs like mine.

But at another level, one may wonder whether clubs really can succeed in their service mission if they do not build an (overlapping) consensus among members as to what really matters the most, what the priorities should be, and how to achieve the most impact. Let me put it this way. There are two reasons why answering the question of service for whom matters. The first is that some groups simply are more in need than others, even if many groups are indeed in need. I am not advocating here for a unique focus on one particular group – such as the extreme poor, but rather for a serious debate at the club (and district) level about where the valuable resources of Rotarians – in terms of both time and money – should be invested to make a larger difference. This will differ from community to community, but that discussion is healthy and it should take place for the sake of those whom clubs aim to serve.

In addition, even for the clubs themselves, that discussion can bring cohesion and purpose. When clubs are involved in multiple activities led by the enthusiasm of one member for activity A and another member for activity B, this certainly helps the direct beneficiaries of those activities. But it does not necessarily help in building the long term identity of a club, its mission, its purpose, and thereby also its identifiable place and role in the community. Apart from leading to potentially stronger service projects, seriously asking the question of service for whom can lead to stronger clubs, internally and externally in their community. It could be that this is already done in many clubs, but it seems that there are also clubs where this is not yet done.

World Philosophy Day: Part 2 – Overlapping Consensus

by Quentin Wodon 

The question of what social justice requires is important for those involved in service and development work. Service work can be conceived as humanitarian, but it can also be conceived as a response to injustice. In the first post of this 3-part series on the occasion of World Philosophy Day, the answer provided by philosopher John Rawls to the question “what is social justice?” was briefly sketched. In this second post, the focus is on the communitarian critique of Rawls, his response, and (yes!) how it could perhaps apply to Rotary.

Overlapping Consensus
Overlapping Consensus

Neutrality of Justice as Fairness

In Theory of Justice, Rawls relied on a social contract framework. He used the device of a fictive original position to suggest two principles of justice that should govern just societies. Representative individuals adopt in the original position the principles that will govern their social cooperation. A veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing which position they might occupy in society, so that they do not argue in favor of principles that would be to their own advantage. The representative individuals are nevertheless self-interested and values such as altruism or faith seem to be excluded from the original position.

Rawls seems to strip the representative individuals from any substantive moral principles, such as those that could be associated with comprehensive religious doctrines. The original position, and thereby the conception of social justice that emerges from it – justice as fairness, is neutral with respect to comprehensive doctrines of the good. Since these doctrines are not shared by all, they should not be imposed on all. The original position device aims to ensure that this will be the case when selecting the principles of justice that will govern social cooperation. This however leads to a number of communitarian critiques of Rawls, as expressed among others by Michael Sandel in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Communitarian Critique

A first communitarian critique is that Rawls’ theory is not actually neutral. The “neutral” view that Rawls proposes is a secular liberal view (liberal in the specific sense that government should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good). But we all have our own worldviews. We cannot escape them. Instead of adopting an apparently neutral worldview, we would be better off openly discussing the strengths and weaknesses of competing worldviews, try to persuade others of the merits of our view, and then vote!

A second communitarian critique is that Rawls’ theory is not actually feasible. Even if we would like to adopt his liberal approach, we cannot simply shed our moral and religious convictions when entering debate in the public sphere. When deciding about laws, don’t we base our views in large part on our deepest moral or religious convictions? The idea of the original position is not only fictive – it is also not practical. We are not ‘unencumbered’ liberal selves, so we cannot be impartial and unbiased. We are connected to others and to our communities, and this defines who we are and how we view the world.

Apart from a lack of neutrality and a lack of feasibility, a third communitarian critique is that Rawls’ approach may also be not desirable. Do we actually want to remove deep moral or religious convictions from the public debate about what the principles of justice should be? Rawls’ approach is a deontological liberalism – it seems to put an absolute priority on the rights of individuals to lead the life they choose over the good of the community. Shouldn’t what is conceived as right depend on the understanding of what the good calls for?

Rawls’ Response

Rawls responded to communitarian and other critiques through a series of articles and ultimately through the publication of Political Liberalism. The question asked in that book is whether a stable and just society comprising of free and equal citizens can flourish when the members of that society hold reasonable but incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. History shows that achieving consensus between philosophical and religious doctrines is unlikely to succeed. The alternative is to consider a political rather than comprehensive conception of justice. If the principles of justice cannot be derived from moral/religious doctrines because there is no agreement on these doctrines, they must be derived from a political understanding of society as a fair system of social cooperation.

Rawls hopes that his principles of justice can gain the support of an “overlapping consensus” of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. Even though individuals may disagree on religious, philosophical, or moral grounds, they may still be able to agree on the principles of justice proposed. If such an overlapping consensus is reached, then the society will be stable and well-ordered with free and equal citizens who respect each other. Political liberalism holds that public political values do have priority in the public debate about social cooperation over comprehensive doctrines of the good. But this priority holds only for public reason and constitutional essentials pertaining to the basic structure of societies. This leaves citizens free to adopt in their life their own conception of the good.

Ideally, the acceptance of the principles of justice that regulate social cooperation does not simply result from a modus vivendi, but is actually embraced by free and equal citizens as part of their own comprehensive doctrines. If the overlapping consensus is achieved, citizens will not discard their own beliefs, but in matters of the public square they will be tolerant of the views of others and all will jointly uphold the principles of justice agreed upon. Achieving the overlapping consensus is the way for pluralistic liberal societies to practice tolerance while avoiding the risk that a majority could impose its comprehensive views on minorities.

A Note on Rotary

I realize that this whole discussion is a bit conceptual, but as mentioned in the first post of this 3-part series, it may be worth once in a while to discuss issues of social justice and ethics on this blog. One could perhaps argue that service organizations put in practice the idea of the overlapping consensus in their own limited way. The analogy is of course rather imperfect, because service clubs are private organizations and Rawls applied the idea of the overlapping to the public sphere. But Rotarians do come from many different horizons and worldviews.  This is certainluy true worldwide, but also at the level of clubs and districts.

In my club in the capital city of Washington, DC, some members are Republican, others Democrat, and still others Independent. Judging from the words of inspiration shared at the beginning of each weekly meeting, many are religious, but some are not. And while a majority are likely to be Christian, many different denominations are represented, and some members believe in other religions.

If the idea of the overlapping consensus is at work within Rotary, it is – hopefully – around the ideal of service towards the less fortunate. This ideal should motivate members who hold fairly different worldviews. There is always, as with any organization, somewhat of a gap between reality and ideals, but the ideal of service above self is reasonably utopian, as Rawls could say. It must be kept strong as the motivating force behind what the organization and its members actually do. In the third post of this series, the key question for Rawls of who the least fortunate are, and whether Rotary is succeeding in serving them, will be discussed.

World Philosophy Day: Part 1 – Rawls’ Theory of Justice

by Quentin Wodon

Today, November 20, is World Philosophy Day. Philosophy has many branches, but one of the most important for daily life is political philosophy. Within political philosophy, a key question is: what is social justice? This question matters for this blog given its focus on service and development. This 3-part series is about Rawls, a philosopher who taught at Harvard University, his conception of social justice, and why it matters.

John Rawls
John Rawls

Not all readers of this blog may be interested in the intricacies of philosphical arguments, but it is worth once in a while to discuss issues of social justice and ethics on this blog. This series briefly presents Rawl’s original framework (part 1), discusses how Rawls refined his conception of justice over time (part 2), and considers some of the implications of his framework for nonprofit and service organizations like Rotary (part 3). Consider this post series as a slightly dense, but hopefully useful crash introduction to the most widely read political philosopher of our time.

Original Position

So let’s start with Rawls’s original framework. Rawls proposed a conception of justice whose field of application is limited to the fundamental institutions of the basic structure of societies. The objective of the theory of justice as fairness is not to construct a presentation and justification of moral virtues as a whole. Its objective is confined to understanding how a limited number of essential goods, such as income and wealth, are to be distributed. In the tradition of social contract theories, Rawls emphasizes that each party to the contract must be treated in an equal and fair fashion. Such fair treatment of individuals is made possible by the conceptual framework of the original position.

A fictitious original situation is the starting point for the discussion of the principles of justice that the social contract will uphold. The principles of justice should be agreed to by free and rational individuals. A key component of the original position mechanism is a veil of ignorance which guaranties that no individual placed in the original position knows the real standing that s/he will effectively hold in life, so that s/he cannot take advantage of any specific social standing or special talents. The symmetry of individuals guaranteed by the veil of ignorance leads to fairness in the conception of justice that representative individuals will choose in Rawl’s Theory of Justice published in 1971. Since the partners ignore what differentiates them and are equally rational and placed in the same situation, they are all convinced by the same arguments. The veil of ignorance guarantees unanimous agreement.

Reflexive Equilibrium

Having introduced the concept of the original position, the justification mode used by Rawls for establishing the principles of justice is that of reflexive equilibrium. At first, one must investigate what the society’s representative individuals would select as general principles of justice should they be gathered in the original position. The veil of ignorance voids at this stage the effects of particular contingencies opposing individuals to each other and tempting them into using social and natural circumstances to their personal advantage.

What is available to the representative individuals in order to allow them to make their choice of principles of justice is limited to rather general knowledge regarding for example basic laws of psychology or economics. Next, in order to test the conception of justice selected in the original position, one must apply the chosen principles of justice to actual problems that societies experience; those are particular cases requiring that what is just be distinguished from what is unjust. Focusing on important particular cases, one must consider judgments, that is thoroughly establish opinions concerning what is just and what is unjust. Thereupon one can compare the results achieved through the application of principles stemming from deliberation under the veil of ignorance to widely shared and considered judgments.

Should a discrepancy arise between the results of the application of the proposed principles and considered judgments, two alternatives are conceivable. Either the proposed principles may be modified or the considered judgments may be corrected. In the first case, in order to protect the quality of rational deliberation of the representative individuals placed in the original position, it is necessary to modify the characteristics of the individuals until the setting leads to principles in accordance with considered judgments. In the second case, the considered judgments are revised since they appear erroneous following reflection taking into account the requirements of justice as expressed by the principles of justice. This procedure of reflexive equilibrium amounts to an equilibrium since it results from both considered judgments and the requirements of rationality through the mechanism of the original position. The equilibrium is reflexive since intuition and rationality influence each other.


The above characterization is essentially how Rawls conceived the original position in his book Theory of Justice. There have been lively discussions in the literature on the limits of this conceptualization of the original position, and its implications. While those extensive debates cannot be dealt with here, it is worth noting that Rawls did modify his theory on the basis of some of these critiques (this will be discussed in the next post in this series).

At the same time, he kept intact many of the features of his argumentation. For example, Rawls responded to communitarian critics by explaining that the concept of neutrality and in the functioning of the basic structure of society in the original position may be understood in several ways. One can speak of purely procedural neutrality when arbitrating conflictual demands. There are no moral values with which to contend in such case. For example, one can speak of neutrality with respect to impartiality, identical application to everyone of identical principles, or equal opportunities offered to the different parties to advocate their claim. This does not however mean that justice as fairness is neutral in that sense for it does hold real substantive contents via the principles of justice which express more than procedural values. The State must guarantee that equal opportunities are available to all citizens so they can pursue their own, freely-selected conception of good.

However the State must abstain from supporting any one conception of the good over another, or helping those pursuing one conception of the good over another. The State may not do anything that might lead some persons to prefer one conception of the good over another. Still, this being said, justice as fairness invokes some moral virtues. Liberal and political virtues of civism and tolerance, of measure and fairness, are upheld. Such virtues do not carry the risk that one might hold too complete a conception of the good that it would shatter the hope for a political consensus. Yet such virtues, to which one might add a conception of people as free and equal persons, do contribute, when they are widely shared and promoted, to forms of social cooperation that are not a mere modus vivendi resulting from an equilibrium of forces between diverging interests.

Principles of Justice

In terms of the principles of justice that would be chosen in the original position, after some modifications taking into account a number of critiques of his original account in Theory of Justice, Rawls ended up proposing the following: “(1) Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; (2) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).” The difference principle suggests arranging social and economic inequalities in such a way that they be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.

To summarize this fisrt post in the series, using a contractarian framework Rawls aimed to achieve a consensus on what a proper conception of social justice should be within liberal democracies. His objective was to guide the functioning of what he called the basic structure of societies. Rawls proposed two principles of “justice as fairness”. The first principle guarantees equal basic liberties for all. The second principle ensures equal opportunities for all to reach positions to which economic and social advantages are associated. In addition, economic and social inequalities should be such that they lead to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged in society (the difference principle).

Rawls’ theory of justice led a renewal in political philosophy. He has been one of the most widely read and most influential philosopher of the 20th century. The next post in this series will consider some of the changes that Rawls made over time in his conception of justice in order to respond to his critics, and the third post will discuss why all this matters.