Obligations, Fairness, and Unjust Laws

Rawls, Reasonably Just Societies, and Civil Disobedience

In John Rawls A Theory of Justice, he argues for the circumstances that justify civil disobedience in just societies. These societies encompass just institutions governed by the principles of justice and founded in the principles of fairness from which obligations are derived. Compliance with the natural duties of mutual respect and mutual aid is also expected. These premises are paramount in Rawls’s argument as it allows us to see which types of societies his statement applies to and to understand the justification for civil disobedience better.

Obligations and Fairness

To Rawls, all obligations stem from the principles of fairness as this allows us to provide a careful judgment of what is duty and obligation and ensure obligations arise only if certain conditions are met. The principles of fairness state: first, that every person has the same right to everything that everyone else has a right to; second, that there is a specific procedure to follow when dealing with unequal rights. The latter approach goes as follows: “leftovers” of goods that everyone has an equal right to shall be distributed in such a way as to most benefit the least well off. One agrees to such a process with the conception that fairness in distribution will be achieved over time as one accumulates benefits. The acceptance of these benefits to advance our position in society creates the obligation to carry out duties. There is also a natural duty to comply that individuals are born into and regulate the scope of our activity and obligations that arise from the rule of promising. The common denominator between these instances of obligation is that they originate from one’s participation in the state and its societal expectations. One could state succinctly that obligations arise from acceptance, whether of goods or societal practices. These are voluntary acts, and laws do not force one to accept goods or uphold promises.

Compliance and Unjust Laws

Rawls feels that injustice is an endogenous problem of a society arising from a conflict of principles. Within a community, individuals place different values on different principles and come to their conception of appropriate priorities. What is unjust to one may seem just to another. To understand how one is to address these concerns, Rawls points us towards what is accepted by the majority of members within a nearly just society; this is majority rule. In a just constitutional society, the constitution is where one would derive what is considered acceptable by society. It would provide the guidelines for compliance. As such, the dictates of the principles of fairness, provided they are adhered to, allow one to choose to live and benefit from the pretense of a constitution governed by majority rule and accept that the majority and compromises share not each individual’s opinions must be made. This would lead to a situation where one may be obligated to comply with unjust laws. However, no society or its institutions are perfect, and they are limited to imperfect procedures, which leads to the development of unjust laws.

Civil Disobedience and its Justifications

When an institution limits either one of the principles of fairness, they create a situation that is considered unjust and invokes a response. Provided this injustice is shared by the majority of those within the community, they must voice their discontent with the insurers of their constitutional rights. In this situation, the minority groups whose rights are infringed upon should ideally work together to form a political alliance while regulating their dissent level, not undermining their institutions or compromising their constitution. To Rawls, this justifies civil disobedience, which he defines as “public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law, usually done to bring about a change in the government’s law or policies.” When used in this manner, civil disobedience can be seen as providing the balance needed in a constitutional system, strengthen these institutions, prevent future deviations from justice, and “introduce stability into a well-ordered society.”

Rawls, John. A theory of justice. Harvard university press, 2009.