PHIL103: Unit 4 Discussion


Via PHIL103: Unit 4

  1. In times of financial crisis, some governments have chosen to use debtor’s prisons as a way to both punish those persons who default on debts and as a deterrent to those who might willingly default on debts in the future. Is this a legitimate use of the government’s power to punish those who break social contracts, in reference to Hobbes and Rawls? Why, or why not?

  2. Local governments in the past would sometimes not provide fire department services to members of the community; instead, private fire departments would sell yearly subscriptions as a form of fire insurance. Is this a legitimate form of social contract, or would you argue that fire protection is so important to the public good that a government should always provide such services? Explain your response.

  3. In Rawls’s second principle of justice, much attention is given to the concept of social mobility, the idea that if we do have to have inequality in society, then we should be able to move up by work and education. What do you think Rawls might say about recent lawsuits involving colleges and universities and affirmative action policies used to choose new students?


Unit 4 Discussion
1.According to Hobbes’ Social Contract, man in the State of Society must accept the role of government to create laws and enforce these laws. He saw the state had absolute power. Thus, the government (courts) had the right to arrest those who did not pay their debts. Hobbes maintained that the state had absolute power not only to protect the rights of citizens but also to punish according to any law it enacted. i.e. debtor law
Rawls in his Theory of Justice stressed that each person had a right to liberty and freedom. He believed we should assist the worse off to the degree that despite inequalities, the plight of the worse off needed to be improved. Hence, he would abhor the use of debtor prisons for the poor. Rawls was a moralist who in his Veil of Ignorance Theory encouraged an ethic whereby the state would promote the well being of the worse off through a socio-economic political system. He would not promote a model of governing that accepted imprisonment of the poor for debt.
2.Social Contract Theory describes how the individual has the right to the protection of life and property. Hobbes would accept that a fire protection system might be needed. Of course, his positon would reflect an antiquated fire protection system according to the socio-economic political view of the 17th century milieu.
Rawls would maintain government had a role in assuring fire protection to all. The individual in a dilapidated tenement apartment, as well as the wealthy millionaire condo owner were entitled to the same level of fire protection. Rawls’ difference principle maintained that despite inequalities, even in this issue of fire protection, one must insure that the plight of the worse off is protected and improved.

  1. Rawls first principle suggests each person is entitled to freedom, liberty and equality. In his second principle, his difference principle maintains despite inequalities among people, we must insure that the situation of those poorly off will improve. Section 17 allows for the use of incentives, training and education to help the less fortunate. Affirmative action can help disadvantaged students through a school’s prescriptive selection policy. This will discriminate and disadvantage any applicant that meets the academic requirements of that institution for admission but lacks the step up of race, colour, religion or socio-economic status that are required by affirmative action policy! I think that on the basis of research, if Rawls discovered a group of students were prejudiced by affirmative action, he would encourage the use of a lottery system for all of these students. Hence, no one group would be treated unfairly.

  1. Debtor’s prison has been used to punish those who default on debts and to deter those who may willfully default on debts in the future. How does this practice fit into theories of social contract?
    Hobbes argued that the government acts on behalf of the people, and therefore no one, not even the people, can hold it accountable. It is difficult to see how he would argue against something like debtor’s prison. If the government, in the name of the people, chose to use debtor’s prison, then according to Hobbes it is the people’s debtor’s prison and is legitimate.
    Rawls, on the other hand, stressed that the differences in society should be structured so that the least-advantaged are still benefited by the differences, and so that anyone has the opportunity to improve their position in society. From this perspective, debtor’s prison would most likely be regarded as an onerous punishment for those at a financial disadvantage, and an undue impedance to those trying to improve their status in society. Therefore, in Rawls’s theory, debtor’s prison would be viewed as an illegitimate exercise of government power.

  2. A couple different approaches to fire protection have developed over time. In some cases, private fire departments have sold yearly subscriptions, and have protected only the property of their subscribers. In many other cases, local governments have established local fire departments which protect the whole community.
    There is a clear quid pro quo social contract (and most likely an actual written contract) in the case of private fire departments. If you pay the fire department, then you receive their protection in return. If you wish to assume the risk yourself and not subscribe, you may do so.
    Why would communities change this very simple arrangement? The most obvious reason which suggests itself is the nature of the risk. If one house catches fire, then a critical concern is the risk to every adjacent property. If a non-subscribing house catches fire, the private fire department will still have to come out to protect their subscribing neighbor, to protect them from the possibility of the fire spreading. Arguably, it is in everyone’s best interest to protect all against the risk of fire, since any one person’s loss is a pressing, critical danger of loss to the surrounding community. The danger is, in a sense, borne collectively, and therefore it makes sense for the protection against that danger to also be borne collectively.

  3. Rawls’s second principle of justice emphasizes that, if there are societal differences, those at a disadvantage ought to have the freedom to better their lot. This idea is one of many factors informing recent debate surrounding affirmative action in higher education admission.
    In American history, it is clear that minorities have at times endured many hindrances to bettering their place in society (to say the least). It has been argued that these past hindrances, while largely removed, still have many consequences for minorities today. This is one possible rationale for affirmative action, and the one which is relevant to Rawls’s second principle: that if there are societal obstacles to minority individuals’ bettering themselves, then we have an obligation as a society to remove those obstacles.
    However, affirmative action has stirred up controversy and even legal cases. There are as many arguments against affirmative action as for it, but the one relevant, again, to Rawls’s second principle, is that giving minority individuals preferential treatment unfairly hinders non-minority individuals who have worked equally hard to better themselves.
    How does one judge between the two claims? One consideration is that Rawls’s concept of social mobility does not apply to classes but to individuals. While it may be a noble intention to offer greater opportunity to a minority group, it is not the group which betters its social position but the individual. In other words, to maximize the opportunity offered to every person, we ought to view persons as individuals rather than as members of a class.
    Another consideration is perhaps more practical in nature. What is the end goal of affirmative action? As mentioned above, one view is that it compensates for obstacles in the way of minority individuals’ bettering themselves. But surely the long-term goal is that eventually those obstacles are removed and affirmative action is no longer necessary. A society which does not have obstacles for minority individuals in the first place is more fair and more just than a society which has obstacles but compensates for them. So what role does affirmative action have in removing those obstacles which exist for minority individuals?
    On the one hand, it is worth considering that affirmative action should lead to more minority individuals achieving higher levels of education, and working in more skilled professions. This in turn should serve to improve the lot of other minority individuals, whether by example or by the effect of these educated and skilled individuals in the minority community.
    On the other hand, it must also be considered that affirmative action may perpetuate racial division, stereotypes, and resentment. If it is known that some minority individuals received college admission only because the admission standards were lowered for minorities, then this could have detrimental effects on the minority students’ self-image and work ethic, and on their relations with faculty and non-minority students. This in turn perpetuates the very obstacles for which affirmative action is trying to compensate.
    Maximizing opportunity to every individual is a noble goal, and is precisely what Rawls advocates in his second principle. Affirmative action has good intentions, but seems to be ineffective towards that goal, and possibly even inconsistent with it.