Front Page Titles (by Subject) Rawls\'s Social Contract - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2
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Rawls's Social Contract - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Rawls's Social Contract
“The Use of the Basic Proposition of Justice.” Mind 84 (January 1975): 63–78.
John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (Oxford 1972) advances a make-believe drama of social contract, entitled the “basic proposition”: that people, hypothetically choosing the nature of a society from a specified “original position,” would in fact choose Rawls's social principles. Advancing a variant on social contract theory, Rawls imagines the framers of his ideal society, placed in this “original position,” as rational, self-interested, free from envy, and choosing behind a “veil of ignorance.” Each, ignorant and unbiased by any vested interests that he might possess in the contemplated society, can make a fair judgment of a good society. Such a fairminded, reasonable person, it is argued in Rawls's basic proposition, would choose two principles for the future society: (1) that each member of society have a right to the greatest consistent amount of liberties (equal liberty), and (2) that no inequality be allowable which does not improve the lot of the worst-off in society (difference principle).
The various methodological uses which Rawls claims for his “basic proposition” are superfluous and muddled. Imagining an “original position” which hypothetically illustrates a social contract is philosophically pointless; it is preferable to dispense with social dramas which prove nothing and engage in ordinary logic and reason. Rawls's basic proposition is not superior in its justifactory, expository, or explanatory uses.
To illustrate the philosophical emptiness of using Rawls's basic proposition we can analyze “the Justificatory Use.” This refers to how we can justify or evaluate actual societies by measuring how closely they conform to Rawls's imaginary social contract and its two principles of justice (equal liberty and the difference principle). Rawls reasons as follows: (1) We have certain assumed convictions about the values of liberty, the need for incentives, and the rightness of egalitarianism. This leads us to accept the next step. (2) The circumstances of choosing a social structure in the “original position” seem fair because of the impartial “veil of ignorance.” Therefore we infer the next step. (3) People would choose Rawls's two principles of justice. This supposedly leads us to the final conclusion. (4) We can logically use Rawls's principles as recommendations for justifying, evaluating, or changing real societies in conformity with the demands of justice handed down in our imagined social contract drama.
This entire line of reasoning is termed the “Contract Argument.” But this dramatic use of the contract argument is otiose and no better than the simpler “Ordinary Argument.” The ordinary method of argument dispenses with the imaginative trappings of a hypothetical scenario which bolster the contract argument. In the ordinary argument, we reason from Rawls's premise (1) straight to premise (4). What need is there for imaginative flights that have dubious logical validity? Thus, the basic proposition is irrelevant.
If Rawls were to counterclaim that we would agree to his principles if we were in the dramatized social contract situation, the simple response is that we are not there. But whether we are there or not, it is the philosophical truth and validity of Rawls's arguments that must be established. His fictional drama of imaginary persons agreeing with him does not prove his case.