Mama Philosopher: Rawls’ Justice as Fairness

Part of crisis school is plenty of free time for my kids to play as siblings. As anyone who has kids or has observed kids in action knows, most of what happens when kids are playing is actually a negotiation of the rules of the game. In our house this negotiation is ongoing, and often contentious. The other day while my kids were playing, I heard younger brother (7.5) say to older brother (just barely 9), “You always make up the rules so you win! That’s not fair!”

As I overheard this, I thought of the American political philosopher John Rawls and his theory of justice as fairness. Rawls argued that the principles of justice are ones that would be agreed to under conditions that were fair. Rawls understood fairness to be tethered to equality. He attempted to identify the fundamental terms of association that free, rational persons, concerned to further their own interests, would choose from a position of equality. In order to do so, he imagines a hypothetical situation, dubbed the “original position,” that is meant to capture a state of true equality. Its key feature is the “veil of ignorance” behind which individuals cannot know anything about their social position, assets, intelligence, or even their conceptions of the good. The circumstances of the original position are meant to capture the limits that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for particular principles of justice. For example, it seems reasonable that no one be advantaged by the luck of circumstance, or that no one tailor the principles to his or her own advantage. The veil of ignorance removes these possibilities by removing knowledge of particulars from the deliberators. While there are ample, powerful objections to Rawls’ theory, I nevertheless find the veil of ignorance to be a compelling thought experiment for inquiry and limited application. Time for a little mama philosophy lesson!

I prompted younger brother to restate his observation – what did he think was unfair? “That when [brother] makes the rules, he makes rules that make it easier for him to win and I always lose.” “Do you want a turn to make the rules? So then you can win?” Of course, older brother chimes in, “then that’s not fair to me!” “Okay, so what do we do?” “We both need to agree.” “How do we do that?”

The kids know that I study philosophy and are used to me mentioning philosophers and their ideas. So, I mentioned John Rawls and gave a simplified version of his idea of justice as fairness. If we can agree to rules based on a process that was fair, then those would be good rules. In a fair situation, one of the kids wouldn’t be able to make the rules so that they benefit him. Each player in the game would agree to the rules, even if they didn’t know what position they would occupy in the game, in this specific case, which of the Beyblades (a sort of fighting, spinning top for you readers without young boys) they would be playing with. “So, let’s pretend that we don’t know which Beyblades either of you will be playing with, and let’s agree to some rules while we’re pretending that. That way you make the rules together, and they won’t benefit one of you more.” In other words, what rules would you choose if you were choosing in a fair context?

So, while I may not be the best equipped to help with modern math lessons (“You only learned one math strategy for subtraction?! Why?!”) I do feel comfortable talking about philosophical ideas with my kids. I find that kids are naturally philosophically minded and love to ask big and hard questions. I also have found lots of inspiration for my own work in my interactions with them and in my role as a parent. A silver lining of crisis school is that we have the time and energy (not always, but with more frequency) for intentionally philosophical conversations.


One thought on “Mama Philosopher: Rawls’ Justice as Fairness

  1. This reminds me of the classic “you cut I choose” rule of treat sharing in our house. Completely eliminated fighting over who gets the bigger half between these 22 and 25 year old siblings!


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