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Some readers of my book The Concept of Justice have asked why I did not give more space to John  Rawls.  Not an unreasonable question; I would like to answer it. The short answer is Robert Nozick.  Nozick’s Anarchy  had already refuted Rawls dramatically, showing his theory was incompatible with liberty.  My book was written for people who had read Nozick and takes up where Nozick left off.

But there is also a slightly longer answer:

In the first few pages of his treatise, John Rawls summarizes the main ideas that will characterize his approach to the topic of justice.  He is not concerned with justice as such or in general,  but with a  special case of  it: social justice or justice in society.

Many different kinds of things can be just or unjust: actions of various kinds, laws, decisions, judgements, imputations, and persons.  But,  our topic is social justice. For us the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society.

That is, the way the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties.

The major social institutions are the political constitution of the society and its principal economic and social arrangements.  

The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. For these are especially deep inequalities.   People are born into very different social positions which  give them very different expectations of life.  But these differences  cannot be justified by merit or desert. 

It is to these inequalities that the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply.

Within this short space, Rawls has managed to turn two thousand years of moral philosophy upside down  as if it had never existed.

He has done this by committing three fallacies which  he never even attempts properly to  defend.

The first of these fallacies is:

The primary subject of social justice is the basic structure of society.

The truth is that the primary subject of social justice, as of all other kinds of justice, and of  all moral or ethical virtues and vices, is human actions. For moral or ethical qualities are qualities of actions,  and so qualities  of the persons who perform the actions, and of the states of affairs that result from their actions.  This was already clear to Aristotle, and was never challenged till Rawls.

The accidental economic inequalities in society, while often regrettable, are not the product of anybody’s will, and cannot possibly be either just or unjust, no matter how much they affect peoples’ expectations of life.

Sometimes people respond to this, however, that inequalities often result from the will of individuals because they deliberately bestow special treatment either good or bad on a person.  But although it is true that  unequal treatment can be willed, since all human actions are willed, that misunderstands the point at issue.  In our society poverty is not willed. It is not deliberately inflicted on anyone by another person. Consequently, poverty in our society cannot be unjust.  Stalin deliberately inflicted poverty on the kulaks and others, for which it would be just if he burnt forever in hell.

As I pointed out in my lecture on this topic,  in 1949 the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in his book The Concept of Mind, identified a particularly confusing fallacy which he called a “category-mistake.” This fallacy is committed when a quality is attributed to an object incapable of possessing it. Sometimes category mistakes are easy to detect. If I should attribute kindness to a brick, intending the comment literally, you will begin to look for a psychiatrist. But the peculiar danger involved in a category mistake is that it may go completely undetected unless the trouble is taken to analyze carefully the nature of the object.  This is the fallacy that John Rawls has fallen prey to.

Rawls’s second and third fallacies follow from the first.

The problem of social justice is a problem ofdistribution.

This is a “distribution”  without a distributor as  Robert Nozick pointed out.

To repeat for the sake of clarity:  since  the inequalities Rawls is concerned with are not the work of any will, they cannot possess any moral qualities.

Although not properly a distinct error from the first, which was concerned with  the  subject of social justice,   this is an  embodiment of  the error that has its own distinct implications.

A third fallacy  is that the moral or ethical quality of  justice can be defined by means of  the  political conception of  a “social contract.”

The Social Contract as described by Locke,  Rousseau and Kant, is a political arrangement.  It is not a conception that belongs to moral discourse. Justice is the universal inheritance of the human race, known to all ages and in all places.  It cannot be created by any political agreement, though of course it can be implemented by one.

The Italian philosopher Antonio Rosmini in the 19th century,   in his book The Constitution according to Social Justice, developed a conception of social justice that is fully in accord with the requirements of ordinary justice,  treating social justice and injustice  as qualities of the  human actions that cause them.

Rawls’s work does not deserve the respect accorded to a serious work of philosophy. It is rather a political tract in disguise, aimed at furthering a political goal,  an essay in euphemisms and obfuscation which brings nothing but conceptual confusion into any work that takes it seriously.

 Thomas Patrick Burke