John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” depends heavily on two ideas. These are his principles of fairness and the original position. Upon both of these is his idea of a just society or “mutually beneficial just cooperative scheme” predicated. In sections 51–59 Rawls explores why civil disobedience is not only permissible but also a form of democratic communication. Peter Singer, a contemporary of Rawls, responds with some criticisms regarding of the relevance of the application of Rawls’ theory of justice to life in the society we inhabit. I argue that Rawls’ conception of an ideally just society is a necessary tool to examine (and hopefully critique) the situation that we find constitutes our reality.
Central to Rawls’ theory is the idea of an original position. In this position people’s station in society (and thus their implicit biases) is based on the “veil of ignorance”. The veil of ignorance is a thought experiment in which one may transport themselves to a mental location where they are unaware of the various intersections of their identities that might lead them to be more partial to one distribution of rights or another. In this way Rawls presents us with a means of decision making which would (in his opinion) lead to the general consensus of this group put in the original position to come to agree upon the necessity of his two principles of fairness. Essentially the model goes: Justice is predicated on fairness. Deliberating from this position Rawls gives us the run down of how specific issues of justice might look from this ideal scheme. His very acknowledgement of civil disobedience delineates it as something that is not only permissible in just society, but necessary to it.
Defining civil disobedience as “…a public, nonviolent, conscientious, yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government”(Rawls 320) we are given both the nature and productivity of civil disobedience according to Rawls. From previous thinkers such as Van Dusen we’ve heard that there is no place in democracy for civil disobedience, in fact it erodes the very fundament of the democratic process. However, the issue Peter Singer finds is not in the matter of whether or not civil disobedience has a place in a justly democratic scheme, but rather if Rawls’ conception of the landscape in which this act might justly occur is plausible.
In his critique, Singer does us the favor of likening this ideal social scheme to a well constructed machine, one that might occasionally need the lubrication of civil disobedience, but ultimately will withstand the tests of time and strain(Singer 365). I mention this metaphor because of its striking practicality. Rawls speaks of ideals and what praxis might look like in this just place predicated on “fairness”. Singer’s qualms lie in the (im)possibility of their actual use. However, I think the Rawls’ view of justice is so valuable precisely because it is not totally pragmatic. This meditation on what a just society might look like shows us what is wrong (or right)with the way things are now. “A Theory of Justice” holds a mirror up to the subjects meant to readily embody democratic values in their everyday lives and asks them if the circumstances they swim through are just. If not civil disobedience may be one permissible way of achieving that end of Justice. And if the democracy crumbles, perhaps it was not predicated on justice at all.