Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004



The concept of “responsibility for ends”, paradoxically portrayed as a part of the concept of “freedom” by Rawls himself, is the main means whereby Rawls incorporates social control into his theory of the person. Rawls defines this as follows: ‘citizens are capable of adjusting their aims and ambitions in the light of what they can reasonably expect and of restricting their claims in matters of justice to certain kinds of things. They recognise that the weight of their claims is not given by the strength or intensity of their desires, even when these are rational’ (CW 332). Although usually introduced to deal with the issue of “expensive tastes” (which connotes an unstated backdrop of contingent assumptions), this concept amounts to saying that individuals have no claims expect those delivered by the social system. Rather, individuals are supposed to make do with what the system offers, identifying positively with and adapting to the status they are assigned. It is not restricted to the issue of expensive tastes derived from one’s class origin, but also covers issues such as unconditional needs resulting from neuroses and psychoses, demands resulting from one’s cultural background and specific demands of any kind which exceed the logic of the “just” social system. For instance, it would seem to include the case of Mexican farmers who unconditionally demanded to be allowed to remain on their land, when the government wanted to evict them to build an airport. It would also seem to include the claims of indigenous peoples to be left alone to carry on traditional ways of life.

Rawls works on the (mistaken) assumption that people form their own ends, at least in part. For Rawls, being ‘viewed as capable of taking responsibility for their ends’ is part of citizens’ freedom Therefore, ‘citizens are thought to be capable of adjusting their aims and aspirations in the light of what they can reasonably expect to provide for’, as well as being capable of restricting claims to primary goods (PL 33-4). ‘The ideal is that of persons who accept responsibility for their fundamental interests over the span of a life and who seek to satisfy them in ways that can be mutually acknowledged by others’ (CW 299). Therefore, ‘it is not by itself an objection… that an index does not accommodate those with unusual or expensive tastes’. It is not, in Rawls’s view, ‘unreasonable’ to demand that such people ‘make out as best they can’, because he insists they can ‘assume responsibility for their ends’. This is because Rawls assumes that desires are secondary to rationality. Since ‘we do not view citizens as passive carriers of desires’, Rawls thinks “we” can assume that people can re-shape and mould desires to suit the demands of the social system, especially since ‘it is public knowledge… that citizens are to be held responsible’ (PL 186). “Society” (including other people) is to wash its hands of actual ends and desires, since ‘society is not responsible for citizens’ preferences and aims’ (CW 251). This includes duties which do not derive from the social system itself, since such duties are seen as self-originating (CW 406). Even one’s conception of ‘one’s relation to others and the world’ is supposed to be open to change. One is supposed to be able to step outside such a view and assess it differently if “justice” demands this (CW 331).

Since Rawls imagines that people choose their own desires, he thinks it is unjust that some ‘have less… to spare others from the consequences of their lack of foresight or self-discipline’ (PL 186). This statement shows that Rawls misunderstands the structure of social relations, blaming individuals for systemic demands outside their control. It is a backdoor way of privileging those who have what Rawls terms “self-discipline”, i.e. whose desires are closely coordinated with the social system. Otherwise, he would not think it so unfair on this group that it take account of the needs and desires of others who are different. He would be more concerned with why these others should have less - even at great psychological cost - so that the “self-disciplined” can have more. The displacement of issues of social distribution into characterological discussions is a cover for this implicit asymmetry. The net effect is that Rawls advocates a total territorialisation of social space by those who conform to his model of the person. These people are to be affect-blocked as regards the demands (even demands on grounds of humaneness or extreme suffering) of those who fall outside their in-group. This is a classic example of the imposition of a logic of place, invalidating any claim which exceeds an existing social system, which is therefore assumed to already express all valid desires and demands. One should also note an implicit double standard, since, while “society” can claim a distance from ends and aspirations to avoid claims on it, it can also insist on interfering with such ends and aspirations if they harm its own internal logic. Individuals and associations are ‘expected to form and moderate their aims and wants’ within ‘limits’ set by the social system (CW 261).

Rawls admits that “responsibility for ends” is only “reasonable” on certain assumptions, but he seems to apply it whether these assumptions are valid or not. It requires, for instance, the assumption that people are able to ‘regulate and revise… ends and preferences’ as a part of their ‘moral powers’, in the service of the ‘higher-order’ desires embodied in the social system. It also requires a belief in Rawls’s conception of the person, since otherwise, citizens would be ‘less willing to accept responsibility in the sense required’ (PL 186). ‘We are assuming that people are able to control and to revise their wants and desires in the light of circumstances and that they are to have responsibility for doing so’ (CW 261), and preferences are simply ‘seen as our own responsibility’ (PL 185), on an apparently dogmatic basis. Citizens are simply assumed to be able to “accept” responsibility for their ends. For instance, Rawls states that ‘citizens are thought to be capable of adjusting their aims and aspirations in the light of what they can reasonably expect to provide for’ (CW 407). ‘The use of primary goods… relies on a capacity to assume responsibility for our ends. This capacity is part of the moral power to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of the good’. The assumption that people can revise their ends to suit their means ‘is implicit in the powers we attribute to citizens in regarding them as moral persons’ (CW 369-70). Such assumptions are posited as dogmas, and simply attributed without basis. Crucially, they are not derived from observation of actual people, but are implications derived from an essentialist ideal of what people should be. Rawls admits that his procedure is to start with a particular image of society and the person, and then reach conclusions about what capacities people have, based on this image. ‘When this idea is developed… it implies that… [citizens] can take responsibility for their ends, that is, they can adjust their ends so that those ends can be pursued by the means they can reasonably expect to acquire in return for what they can reasonably expect to contribute’ (PL 34; c.f. CW 407).

A view derived in this way takes no account of whether actual people can conform to “responsibility for ends” or not. In effect, Rawls is saying that, since his theory only applies if people have this capacity, they must therefore be assumed to have it. This is not a valid deduction. Even assuming for the moment that his assumptions are true of some people, this does not explain why Rawls feels entitled to impose his view as a general social conception. Such an imposition requires that people who conform to “responsibility for ends” be ordered prior to others, which in turn requires that the system be one of domination, not “fairness”. Again, one sees the oppressive implications of the formula “citizens are assumed to be…”. It is established neither that people in fact fit his model, nor that those who do should be favoured over those who do not. On Rawls’s view, his assumptions about responsibility are ‘the result of a broadly empirical philosophy of mind’, or at least can be induced by the kind of social institutions he proposes, so ‘the necessary identifications can be made’ (CW 300). This claim is, however, very problematic, since cases where people refuse to “take responsibility for ends”, or are unable to do so, are in fact widespread (and would be even more so if Rawls’s theory were instituted as the public conception of justice). Indeed, Rawls himself admits that people have ‘affections, devotions and loyalties’ from which they ‘could and should not’ stand apart (CW 403). Nevertheless, Rawls thinks it is “reasonable” to demand that people should be expected to do so, as well as to suddenly change deeply-held beliefs and feelings, and even to reject (without any arguments to the contrary) their conception of the world, if any of these exceed the limits of the social system. The meaning of the word “reasonable” in this context clearly bears no resemblance to what people are actually likely to be able to do. It is an expression of “special pleading” on the part of people with a particular character-structure, who find it easy to suppress active and contingent desires because of reactive character-armouring and who are unresponsive to the claims of those with different character-structures. The valued people are, Rawls implies, valued because they are prepared to accept ‘feasible public criteria’ for distribution, since it is the “need” for such criteria which justifies the use of primary goods (CW 370). In other words, the in-group is favoured because it is useful to the state, or because it has above all a desire to construct an all-encompassing order of sameness.

Rawls portrays “responsibility for ends” as part of a ‘division of responsibility’ (PL 189) between “society” and “individuals” - a division which, however, looks decidedly unequal. “Society” takes responsibility for ensuring that the overall logic of place - what Rawls terms “justice” - is kept in place. Individuals, in contrast, are responsible to this structure (e.g. CW 261). ‘This division of responsibility relies on the capacity of persons to assume responsibility for their ends and to moderate the claims they make on their social institutions in accordance with the use of primary goods’ (CW 371; c.f. PL 189). In other words, “society” - or rather, its rulers - have a responsibility to rule, and everyone else has a responsibility to submit. “Society” abrogates everything except “justice” and abandons individuals to their fate, as defined by this external system imposed by “society”. Individuals are expected to cope with whatever “society” throws at them. Such demands put an enormous burden on the principles of justice to actually cover every eventuality, and clearly they cannot do so, since they are based on a fairly narrow conception of what people are like. The result is that Rawls advocates a social order responsive only to one particular kind of person, but which imposes its demands unconditionally and without exception on people who might not fit into this model. Since this model requires the subordination of desires, and since motivations are always an issue of desire, the issue arises of how desire comes to desire its own repression.

Rawls’s model depends on tentative empirical assumptions. For instance, he assumes that desires are under the control of the ego. ‘We are not, so to speak, assailed by them, as we are perhaps by disease and illness so that wants and desires fail to support claims to the means of satisfaction in the way that disease and illness support claims to medical treatment’ (CW 261). To disagree with Rawls’s view, one would have to see citizens as ‘passive carriers of desires’, assuming that ‘citizens’ preferences are beyond their control as propensities and cravings which simply happen’ (CW 369). This argument is problematic, especially given that neurotic “symptoms” are often conceived in a quasi-medical way. These certainly assail people as if from outside. According to some authors such as Lacan and Guattari, what is usually termed “normality” is simply a particular type of neurosis, suggesting that Rawls’s assumptions are not valid even within the “normal” spectrum. In addition, his assumption that those who are not “assailed” by desires should be socially primary involves an asymmetry which Rawls has not justified. Finally, while people are not “passive” with regard to desires, it is not the case that people directly choose or shape them. The formation of desire results from a complex combination of conscious, unconscious and intersubjective factors, and Rawls’s construction of a simplistic binary between a model of the self as “responsible” for desires and a model of the self as “passive carrier” of desires is oversimplistic. He also raises the rather poor excuse that the idea of “responsibility for ends” is already active in the public culture (CW 407).

Rawls’s model of “responsibility for ends” also requires a misrepresentation of a contingent social system as somehow a result of self-determination (probably because of its fit with a particular conception of an essence). This is the reason that he identifies “responsibility for ends” with liberty. After all, ‘free and equal persons are at liberty to take charge of their lives’ (CW 371). In this passage, Rawls establishes an equivalence between taking control of one’s life and being expected to adapt one’s life to an external distributive schema. These are clearly opposites, yet Rawls treats them as equivalent. One finds similar remarks elsewhere. For instance, Rawls refers at one point to “responsibility for ends” as adjustment to ‘what [one] can reasonably expect to provide for’ (CW 407), as if the provision is natural rather than social. This implicit naturalisation shows how Rawls tends to confuse his desire for an order of sameness with images of a natural order, thereby disguising his agency in its construction. To “take responsibility” for what someone else decides is one’s just share, or for what one “would” accept if one conformed to someone else’s ideal, is clearly not any kind of freedom. This contradiction, in which subordination to a scheme which is unresponsive to one’s needs and desires is seen as a form of freedom, results from Rawls’s mythical conception of the person. Since “freedom” is freedom of the essence rather than of actual people, and since the essence is expressed in a substitutionist way, via state institutions which act on the basis of what one “would” accept if one perfectly expressed the essence, the result for actual people is a proposal for a system of oppression.

Responsibility for ends realises itself in relation to specific people via an impositional form of discourse. People are simply supposed to ‘learn to deal with’ it (PL 185). It is, Rawls asserts, impossible to argue that it is ‘unreasonable’ to hold people ‘responsible for preferences and to require them to make out as best they can’ because this would imply that desires are beyond people’s control (CW 369). According to Rawls, ‘it is a normal part of being human to cope with the preferences our upbringing leaves us with’ (PL 185), and this is apparently enough to justify it. In fact, Rawls’s model is not at all “natural”, since it is a social system, not nature, which determines how much people are to receive. This idea of “normality” is implicitly a way of invalidating those who are unable to conform to Rawls’s model. It should also be noted that Rawls’s admission in this passage that “preferences” may arise from one’s upbringing suggests that “responsibility for ends” is a violent interpellation and not something based on the self-formation of wants which Rawls elsewhere posits. It should also be noted that Rawls admits in one of these passages that he is “requiring” people to cope with his preferred regime, clearly demonstrating its impositional character. Also, it is far from impossible to object to Rawls’s arguments, since these could lead to intolerable demands.

Further, Rawls’s agenda extends into the explicitly normalising agenda of psychiatry. If tastes and preferences are ‘incapacitating and render someone unable to cooperate normally in society’, Rawls labels the issue ‘medical and psychiatric’ and ‘be treated accordingly’. In other words, medical and psychiatric interventions are to be organised to give each person a ‘normal capacity’ to take responsibility (PL 185). In other words, Rawls does not take the existence of people who do not fit his model of the person as evidence for the inadequacy of the model. He takes it as evidence of inadequacy of the people. Rawls does not allow for provision for the different beyond justice; he rather demands that the different be subsumed within the logic of the same. Rawls seems to assume that, if someone does not fit into his ideal society, they must be in a sense malfunctioning, and must be made more “normal”. This invalidation is reminiscent of the Soviet use of psychiatry to persecute dissidents. Rawls does not even attempt to justify his drive to normalise, and he does not discuss situations where something is “untreatable” or a person resists “treatment”. It appears to be an outgrowth of his endorsement of petty-mindedness under the cover of “reciprocity”. This petty-mindedness leads to a lack of a sense of proportion regarding social relations: someone who has an expensive, unconditional and satiable need or desire is to be left with nothing because others would be “treated unjustly” by losing maybe trivial amounts as a result. Clearly this involves a privileging of a certain type of person.

“Responsibility for ends” means accepting the place one is assigned by the social system, unconditionally. It is the form taken by the drive for gleichschaltung in Rawls’s theory. One is not to demand any type of object except what the system offers, nor is one to demand anything above what the system deems one has “earned”. People are therefore to be “freely cooperating”, or rather, passive automatons, utterly prostrate before the system’s demands. Further, people are to “regulate” desire so as to ensure that they can stay in this role. If the system is unresponsive to, or unable to meet, people’s needs and desires (except for a few “higher-order interests”), Rawls blames this, not on the system, but on people. The system is immunised from most forms of critique. Contrary to Rawls’s belief, submitting to extortion by the social system, which withholds and awards goods to manipulate outcomes, is neither natural nor a form of “cooperation”. “Responsibility for ends” would lead to inhuman intrusions into everyday life-worlds in which people are expected to drop all their desires, needs, wants, attachments, commitments and beliefs at a moment’s warning so as to become the kind of person the system values. A real-world equivalent is the logic of neo-liberalism, which imposes the demands of multinationals while ignoring anything it cannot subsume. It is no coincidence that the rejection of visibility and vulnerability, through symbolism such as the Zapatista mask and the white overall, is a central tenet of much contemporary resistance to this system. To be heard, one much often today not be seen.

Such impositional logics are especially threatening to those, such as the psychologically different and indigenous peoples, who fall outside the conception of the person it represents. It should be noted, however, that even “normal” westerners are usually “neurotic” in the Lacanian sense, and have some unconditional desires (perhaps in the form of a “symptom”, or in the “gentrified” form of social commitments and “interests”) which exceed the logic of “responsibility for ends”. Because it identifies individuals entirely with their assigned social position, “responsibility for ends” involves a de facto claim to ownership over people by the system, putting social production ahead of desiring-production and constructing the latter reactively. People and desires are rendered conditional on, and secondary to, their representation (as an essence), and people are assigned a place in the social system only on the system’s own terms. This weakens human agency and tends to strengthen power apparatuses, and it also tends to atomise people by constructing each individual as standing alone against the system. The gesture of “holding responsible” is the means whereby the gesture of asserting ownership is carried out, and the gesture of “accepting responsibility” is the gesture by which people internalise the violence against their desires in the form of affect-blocks and character-armouring. “Responsibility for ends” means putting others’ expectations before one’s desires in all cases, and it tends therefore to construct a repressive reduction of thought to the present. In practice, it has broadly reactionary connotations. For instance, the anathema “irresponsible” was widely used against anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War, because their views exceeded the logic of place in great-power politics (Chomsky, At War with Asia pp. 65, 237). Matza’s study reveals that the discourse of personal responsibility is often perceived as absurd by “delinquents”, on the perfectly logical grounds that it is in contradiction with the causal analysis of human action provided by sociologists and officials (Matza DD **). This suggests that “responsibility” is something in which people believe, only when it is others who are “held responsible”. Also, the “responsibility” to do one’s job, and the “responsibility” to have a job, is a handy excuse for Eichmannism: it effectively legitimates everything the system demands as not only practically advantageous but ethically desirable. Contrary to Rawls’s view, those who determine the importance of one’s contribution in a broadly capitalist (or Stalinistic) society are not “other people” as an abstract mass, but a small stratum of social elites and/or a ruling class. Putting these groups’ demands ahead of those of others leads to a society organised for the benefit of these groups.

“Responsibility for ends” is also an excuse for callousness. The system claims always-already to have subsumed ethics via the principles of justice, and so it can wash its hands of actual people, even when its treatment of them causes misery. There is nothing pertaining to any self which is not potentially vulnerable to attack on the basis of “responsibility for ends”, and it therefore necessarily engenders psychological insecurity. Rawls’s defence, to the extent that he has one, is that without such callousness there would be “injustice”. This conclusion results from the fact that Rawls constructs “justice” as a positive pole of analysis, prior to any analysis of actual people. His choice of one particular kind of person to be favoured in his ideal society is arbitrary and is a particular kind of “special pleading”. One could just as easily say that the people able to take “responsibility for their ends” exploit those who are not be constructing a system which meets the desires of the former rather than the latter, while also attempting to subsume the labour of the latter. It should also be emphasised that models of responsibility such as the one posited by Rawls are not actually about “responsibility for oneself”. They are about responsibility for, or to, one’s position in the social system, which is constructed intersubjectively. In other words, they are about insisting that individuals are responsible for the world which the social system has constructed. People are to blame themselves for the social system’s demands, reinterpreting coercion as consent. Feeling oneself to be legitimately vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the social system and how much it values one’s “contribution” is a psychological state which requires perpetual repression, self-denial and self-abasement. It is a form of indignity which renders everything dependent on the system. It is the psychological component of “the dull compulsion of economic relations”. The resultant “scarcity” is “moderate” only for those who fit into the system’s world-view. It is no coincidence that it goes hand-in-hand with the attempt to render objects of desire into equivalent and generally valued “primary goods”.


Given Rawls’s attachment to a logic of place and to the dull compulsion of capitalist economics, it is no surprise that he also embraces a compulsive work ethic. The main way he attempts to argue for such an ethic is by adding leisure time to the list of primary goods. It is thus conceived, not as something residual on which the social system intrudes, but as a positive good which the system has a right to distribute “justly”. People are to be coerced by the threat of starvation into submitting to the social organisation of work. ‘Those who were unwilling to work under conditions where there is much work… would have extra leisure stipulated as equal to the index of the least advantaged. So those who surf all day off Malibu must find a way to support themselves and would not be entitled to public funds’ (PL 182). People must ‘do their part’ in the world of work and thereby ‘support themselves’ (JAFAR 179). It should be kept in mind that Rawls is demanding this in conditions of moderate scarcity, i.e. when it is not necessary for everyone to work. In other words, Rawls supports a duty to work, almost as an ethical good in itself.

There are a number of mystifications in Rawls’s rhetoric about work. Firstly, he mistakenly treats it as something residual and as existing abstractly (so there simply “is” work to do), when in fact it is a result of the decisions of rich individuals and/or politicians who are prepared to offer money in return for a particular task. Work is therefore not simply productive activity (and it may exclude some productive actions and include some unproductive ones); it is a particular system of control and organisation. Therefore, compelling people to work means compelling them to submit to a particular apparatus of control. Work is most definitely not a case of “supporting oneself”. It is not a form of subsistence, at least not in any economy except those where the majority grow their own food. The image of “supporting oneself” is therefore an illusion, involving the kind of “false consciousness” Rawls says has no place in his theory. Rather, it is based on a system of repressive territorialisation. Rawls implicitly admits this when he admits that the issues he discusses are issues about the “basic structure”. Clearly a situation where people “support themselves” would not be an issue of the “basic structure”; it would be extra-social. When one works, one is “supported” by those who provide resources conditionally. The fact that this provision is conditional no more makes it a case of one’s personal independence than if it were given unconditionally. Rather, its conditionality is evidence of an indignity which results from social inequality and asymmetrical power relations. Rawls is also wrong to define “leisure time” (absence of a compulsion to work) as a positive good. It is, rather, the absence of a particular system of control. Time is not the property of the state, to be distributed in line with its priorities. The levelling-down and social coordination involved in Rawls’s theory of work is evidence of the despotic implications of his model of “reciprocity”. A particular group, defining itself characterologically, is to seize control of all resources and deny them to others except on terms fixed entirely by the in-group. It should be added that Rawls does not only apply his argument in cases where providing for “surfers” would cause serious suffering to other groups. He does not require that such provision be “harmful” in the sense of taking away resources which are needed elsewhere. Nor does he require that the situation be such that resentful conformists would all stop working or take up surfing. He simply has a prejudice against subcultures which cannot be subsumed into the capitalist system, to such an extent that he denies them any place at all.

This system of control in fact operates to render “just” the priorities of those who happen to be rich, or who are able to find their way into positions of political power. Such powerful people in fact decide what is and is not “work”. In a schema where one is forced to work by economic coercion (i.e. where this same elite, in alliance with social insiders, amasses resources and withholds them from people who do not conform to its demands), this group is permitted to redirect others’ social activity, against their will, into its own preferred projects. For example, it would be quite possible for someone to “earn a living” as a surfer, provided only that a wealthy group be prepared to finance or subsidise surfing. Many people today are employed in unproductive and destructive activities such as the manufacture of weapons, which not only have no useful role but are wasteful and consume scarce resources. Similarly, someone engaged in a useful or valuable activity may well be unable to “earn” from it, because the wealthy do not value the activity. Rawls probably identifies surfers because of the myths and stereotypes which surround this subculture, and it should be stressed that these myths do not necessarily render the subculture useless. The desire to drop out of the mainstream economy may have perfectly valid motives. Furthermore, other groups with whom liberals may be more sympathetic, such as philanthropists, political activists and artists, are also threatened by Rawls’s argument. Someone who spends their time building wells in Africa or using direct action to stop environmental damage is clearly doing something more useful than someone who is paid to build bombs or to artificially stimulate demand by writing effective advertisements. It is, however, the latter who are favoured by a system of compulsory work. It should also be added that a lot of useful activity, such as housework and childcare, is often carried out by women without pay. Also, Rawls’s model requires domination, since there must be an in-group who decide which activities are and are not useful. Rawls’s approach gives excessive power to this group. Further, the total amount of work available is a feature of social systems, and some individuals may well prefer to live in a society which puts less effort into constant accumulation than their own. A compulsive work-ethic is a way of justifying the use of coercion to subsume such people in someone else’s project, or someone else’s conception of what is “useful”. It constructs society in such a way as to demand total control by the work-system over all resources and people. It is not rational to assume that people will not voluntarily perform necessary tasks, and yet also to assume that all can find a place in a work system. (There is no logical reason to assume that paid work is the only possible way of getting necessary tasks done, still less that paid work has to be backed up by a threat of economic coercion. Indeed, there is no reason to assume that an effective way of getting such jobs done depends on everyone doing a “share”. The basis for such assumptions is an ethical dogma: valuation of such imposed actions as a good in themselves).

One of the problems is that Rawls misunderstands the work system, because he represents it, not in terms of its actual operation, but through a mythical schema which identifies it with a logic of equivalence. This image of equivalence leads to an assumption that any excess over it is unjust. For instance, Rawls demands that ‘all citizens are to do their part in society’s collective work’, because anyone who does not is exploiting others (JAFAR 179). The idea that work makes one a “part” of a collective “whole” is a fantasmatic or mythical image, not a matter of fact. The idea that a failure to do this is a form of exploitation results from the mythical construct, which constructs non-participants as an “outside”. Rawls also claims that his view on work ‘does not propose any particular comprehensive doctrine’ (JAFAR 179). This may well be true to the extent that his view can be supported from a number of perspectives, but it is not true if he means that it is neutral between doctrines. In practice, it leads to the dominance of whichever comprehensive doctrines have the richest adherents. For instance, in the present world, compulsive work-ethics operate to the advantage of neo-liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine, making other doctrines’ existence conditional on their conformity to the limits set by this particular ideology. This is not “fairness”, but rather, is a form of domination. It is another example of Rawls’s tendency to define a failure to conform as a violation of others’ rights. It should also be noted that, here as elsewhere, Rawls’s model of reciprocity is “irrational”. A worker in a mainly capitalist economy who demands that everyone else work is harming her or his own position by increasing labour market supply and thereby driving down wages, as well as opening the door to be accused of “stealing” extra leisure time by going on strike.

Rawls also seems to assume that work is itself a “good”, in the sense that people do or should want to work. Hence, his list of universal ‘human goods’ includes ‘meaningful work’ (TJ 373). According to Rawls, “men” do not really want wealth at all. ‘What men want is meaningful work in free association with others… within a framework of just basic institutions’. Rawls therefore effectively labels work as the path to a good life. In contrast, the pursuit of wealth is ‘a positive hindrance, a meaningless distraction at best if not a temptation to indulgence and emptiness’ (TJ 257-8). There is thus an ascetic and Calvinistic ethic lurking behind Rawls’s position on work. What is especially important is that Rawls not only believes this, but also thinks he has a right to limit social inclusion and resource distribution to those who share his belief. The resultant despotism by work-ethicists over “surfers” is similar to (say) a dictatorship by Catholics over Protestants or vice-versa, yet Rawls treats it as qualitatively distinct. It also leads to pressures towards a wasteful increase in resource consumption to maintain a permanent work economy, as well as being wasteful in terms of its destructive effect on people’s lives and opportunities. Total control by the work-system leads to the destruction of ways of life which do not fit into this system. Rawls’s “person” appears, therefore, to be a capitalistic creature, conforming to a lifestyle following the model “work-consume-die”.

There is also a contradiction in Rawls’s theory. He cannot simultaneously define work as a universal human good and define leisure-time as a primary good. (The existence of workaholics is proof that leisure-time is not a “primary good”, if this category requires that it be more-or-less universally valued and necessary for many conceptions of the good).

Rawls’s work-ethic only applies, on his own account, in some circumstances. It is necessary, for instance, that people have a free choice of occupation, although this is not much of a restriction, since Rawls assumes that it already exists (TJ 239). It is also necessary that there be enough work available. However, Rawls seems to prefer to pay people to do useless make-work rather than to pay people to do nothing. For Rawls, the ‘opportunity for meaningful work and occupation’ is necessary for self-respect and personal security, and so the availability of work should be guaranteed by the state (CW 50). He advocates that the state take the position of employer of last resort (PL lix). In other words, Rawls is in favour of artificially stimulating work in order to ensure that the conditions for demanding it apply. Tasks which no-one wants to do are to be invented unnecessarily, and wastefully in terms of resources, in order to preserve a system which says that everyone must perform some such task - despite the supposed basis of this system in its usefulness. Surfers are not to be “paid” for engaging in an activity which they themselves feel to be “meaningful” and worthwhile, but they are to be paid to engage in activities set up specially to ensure that they have something “meaningful” to do. Rawls also has a tendency to write as if his assumptions that there is enough worthwhile work are true. However, he admits at times that this is not the case. In one passage, he says that ‘there would be massive starvation in every Western democracy were there no schemes in place to help the unemployed’ (LN 109). Other authors go further. For instance, Chomsky argues that the stability of the U.S. economy depends on the artificial stimulation of demand (At War with Asia, p. 22). Because Rawls believes subsumption in a capitalistic system of work to be meaningful (as a result of the mythical status he assigns it), he thinks he has a right to insist that everyone be required to participate in such a system. This is a variety of entrapment and imposition. (Viewing leisure-time as a primary good is, anyway, unworkable, as different jobs involve different requirements for breaks. One could take examples of three groups with irregular patterns: firefighters have fixed hours but are not actively “working” in most of these; builders must take regular breaks due to the physically demanding nature of their work; and people with creative jobs may be inactive until inspired).

There is another contradiction in Rawls’s account between his commitment to a compulsive work-ethic and his “guarantee” of subsistence rights. According to Rawls, the absence of human rights is slavery (LN 68), and he specifies subsistence as a human right. By this definition, his own theory involves advocacy of the enslavement of surfers and others who don’t work. It is not only his concern with subsistence which goes missing in his discussion of work, but also his concerns with stability and self-respect. Clearly people would have more self-respect in a world where they are valued per se than in one where their existence is conditional on conforming to a particular economic system. Furthermore, a society where everyone has an income regardless of work would probably be more stable. This would, of course, depend whether the desire of groups such as surfers to be protected from capitalist demands is more or less powerful than the petty-mindedness of those who reject any system which does not insist on reduction of everyone to a logic of place. It should be recalled that surfers, like any other “unreasonable” group, can force concessions from a Rawlsian society as a matter of “threat advantage”: if there is less injustice from giving surfers an income than from any “disorder” resulting from not giving them an income, the former is to be preferred in Rawls’s schema. Thus, in a Rawlsian society, unconventional subcultures would have to fight for their existence through militant direct action sufficient to destabilise the social system and render continued repression more costly than their “unreasonable” demands. This is hardly a recipe for stability.


It is to be recalled that Rawls specifically excludes basic physical needs from his list of primary goods, because they are an expression of contingency and heteronomy. (He does, however, term them primary ‘desires’ [TJ 360]). This is consistent with his position on work. However, he also affirms support for at least subsistence provision on a number of occasions, introducing contradictions into his theory. He refers to ‘subsistence rights as basic’, although he takes it to mean ‘having general all-purpose economic means’ (LN 65). He is committed to ‘meeting basic needs’ (LN 116). Everyone should have a ‘decent’ level of income and wealth covering and extending beyond basic needs, as well as basic healthcare (PL lix). Citizens’ needs must be met (PL 7), and therefore, a ‘social minimum providing for the basic needs of all citizens’ is ‘an essential’ which should be guaranteed in the constitution (PL 228-30). The government should guarantee a social minimum through benefits, income supplements and job creation, and should fund education, so as to take into account ‘the claims of need and an appropriate standard of life’ which are ignored in market distributions (TJ 243-5). He wants people to have ‘sufficient material means to make effective use of… basic rights’ (PL 157). People are to be ensured enough all-purpose means to ‘take intelligent and effective advantage of their basic freedoms’, and are also to be guaranteed full employment and basic healthcare. He simply states that ‘[t]hese requirements are satisfied by the principles of justice of all liberal conceptions’ (LN 50). At one point, he even suggests that a right to a subsistence minimum may be prior to the first principle of justice (TJ **), although he seems to take this to mean that a state has a right to suspend the first principle on grounds of scarcity, rather than that people with less than a subsistence minimum have a right to fight for it. He states that the validity of his argument from the original position depends on the minimum it guarantees being adequate (JAFAR 98). Furthermore, basic needs are to be guaranteed globally, at least as far as this is possible (LN 38). In one passage, he even suggests that ‘certain social conditions and degree of fulfilment of needs and material wants’ is prior to the first principle of justice (TJ 476). However, he never actually asserts a universal right to subsistence, tending instead to assume that a “just” social system is the condition for subsistence.

Often, however, he identifies the difference principle with such a basic requirement, suggesting that he is making a guarantee only for the needs of “citizens” and social insiders. He says that even utilitarianism has to concede a basic social minimum: enough to ensure that citizens do not become ‘sullen and resentful’, ‘withdrawn and cynical’ or prone to protest violently. However, he then claims that his own theory offers more than this. The difference principle is more than sufficient to prevent such effects. This is the case even though he re-asserts his claim that it offers only primary goods and makes no provisions for psychological and physical needs (JAFAR 128-9; c.f. TJ 437). In the original position, claims Rawls, it is rational to guarantee one’s needs, and the difference principle achieves this (TJ 245). Indeed, it is a ‘more demanding’ principle incorporating basic needs (PL 228-9) and guaranteeing ‘the more serious cases of well-being’ (JAFAR 120). This is an expression of extraordinary and unfounded confidence in the accuracy of his conception of the person. Whereas the utilitarian minimum Rawls discusses involves a guarantee of a certain amount of actually needed objects, Rawls’s principles offer very little for definite to actual people. This is unsurprising, since Rawls is trying to coopt people into a “public political culture”, rather than to meet their needs. Crucially, in Rawls’s model the minimum is conditional on conformity, and it does not include a right to take action to ensure that one has at least a subsistence minimum regardless of one’s circumstances. (He also does not offer such an active advocacy of gestures of claiming rights in cases such as the “right to own personal property” and “freedom from physical and psychological oppression”). Crucially, he does not give subsistence rights primacy even in his later work, demanding that they be met only provided this is necessary for people to exercise and understand their rights and liberties. Rawls would protect people from starvation only because a starving person is not an effective citizen (JAFAR 48; c.f. TJ 244, PL 166). It is not clear that Rawls ever endorses the idea that people should have a basic minimum regardless of their “contribution” to his ideal society. While such a position would seem necessary if all people were represented in the original position, Rawls’s entire schema is set up so as to privilege a certain type of person, and such people are required only to look after themselves and each other. He is also resistant to incorporating customary minimums in his theory, suggesting that these should be conditional on whether they are ‘reasonable’ (TJ 252). In general, Rawls’s inconsistent advocacy of meeting basic needs is sufficiently ambiguous, and sufficiently hedged in by hints at conditionality (it usually applies only to “citizens”), as not to seriously affect my account of Rawls as an exclusionary theorist.


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