{jctv}//the question of justice\\ Back to Philosophy



Fair Justice

The environmental impact of a design has to be taken into account during the entire design process. Designers cannot ignore such issues when attempting to ground and justify their design decisions. Design is about justification and judgment and to be able to judge and justify our decisions we need to have a well-developed and well practised attitude to the world we are designing for. As such a concept of justice is a prerequisite for any designer. Theories of justice cover that aspect of our being in the world in which we are forced to take a stand on our being there, with which is meant our participation in a world in which we are all looking to survive the ride while making our stay here as comfortable and fulfilling as possible. To accomplish this we interfere with each other and with our environment. We cannot help doing so. It is the basis of our socialisation as organisms. A concept of justice measures our engagement with the world and our use of it in order to maintain ourselves and our environment as a whole. Too often this aspect of design theory is ignored in favour of the more fragmented concerns of form. This is a shame, as a good theory of justice can influence the whole approach to design in all its aspects. This is best illustrated with reference to John Rawls’ thinking.

One of the most convincing and workable theories of justice is that of John Rawls as worked out in his book A Theory of Justice. It concerns a theory that he summarises with the slogan Justice as Fairness. When Plato’s Socrates discussed the concept of justice, he did so by designing what he considered a just society. That design became known as The Republic as featured in Plato’s Politeia. It was a concrete example of a carefully organised and meticulously structured social space. The interesting thing is that The Republic was arrived at through discourse in the form of a Socratic conversation. The problem with this utopia avant la lettre however, was its concrete nature; it was static, immobile and inflexible, it could not adjust; it could not develop and differentiate, evolve, and crucially, it had the luxury of being able to take the stability of the environment for granted. It was doomed to fail, as are all utopias which rely on the concrete and the over-determined. Man is, as Nietzsche was fond to point out, the undetermined animal: we have the ability to overcome our limitations, even those imposed by evolution.

When John Rawls decided to design a just society he too put the notion of a conversation at the centre of his endeavour. Through his design conversation, of which we shall study the game rules in greater detail further down, he arrived not at a concrete description of a society like The Republic, but at a very simple and manageable set of game-rules or principles to apply at every step of the way in the design process. It concerned a set of rules moreover, that could be used to test and measure any development within that society, including environmental concerns. These rules he summarised with the slogan Justice as Fairness.

With the word fairness Rawls engages the traditional discipline of aesthetics by placing one of the conventional and at the same time most effective and desirable qualities of being human at the very centre of his concerns. Fairness refers to rightfulness and legitimacy, reasonableness and even equanimity. Fairness makes a generous approach to self-maintenance possible. When goods are fairly distributed there is no edge to that distribution, no reason for jealousy, revenge or bitterness. Fairness is of course a bodily determined emotion, a situated feeling determining the relationship between the body and some aspect of its environment, whether that is another person, thing or event [4]. Fairness is also a species of beauty; it is used to denote good weather and attractive ladies. These connotations cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant. They mesh. To separate them is to perform semantic violence and to remove the climate a word brings to bear on a subject. Fairness is a generic word that connotes the mood of our engagement with the world, a mood of the gentlemanly, the considerate, the chivalrous suffused with an openly self-interested generosity toward the other, a generosity without undue altruism. Fairness is where self-interest and the greater good affirm each other. Fair behaviour is, in a sense, beautiful behaviour; it shows decorum because it serves us-as-part-of-a-whole, engaging that sense of accord that lies at the foundation of our participation in a world. When things are fair we fit comfortably into the bigger picture. Everything has its place. It is this aspect of fairness that brings Cradle to Cradle in to the picture: the idea of being a part of a whole with acknowledged needs and desires. Cradle to Cradle thinking is fair because it is not restrictive with regard to consumption, in fact it positively promotes consumption; it restricts us only with regard to the design and manufacture of products for consumption, it demands that we see ourselves as part of a larger picture into which we can fit quite comfortably as long as we do the right thing. The slogan waste = food, is fair. In other words all products should be so designed as to encourage use and re-use through up-cycling and proper recycling. It does not say we should use less, it says we should use lots of things that can in time produce a lot more things. This carefully nuanced restriction in Cradle to Cradle thinking is important for the argument as it engages two of Rawls’ central game-rules for a fair society.

Rawls argued that a group of people discussing the design of a just society would, human beings being what they are, inevitably arrive at a conception of society where two ground rules would be agreed upon unanimously, without exception. The first is the principle of liberty, which constitutes a contract agreement that each person in a just and fair society should be free to pursue their own good. The priority of this principle over all others implies that one person’s good can never be considered a good if it constitutes an obstacle to someone else’s pursuit of their good, even if that someone else comes a generation or two later.

The second principle is the so-called difference principle. This says that inequality in a society is just and fair if, and only if, any action to promote the good of one person also promotes the good of the others. More important than absolute equality then, is a well-grounded and situationally determined feeling of fairness. This makes possible a far more plausible distribution of goods than strict equality ever could. Put in terms of the word economy just employed with reference to Cradle to Cradle, we can say that profitability is not an evil in itself; it is evil only if an action or measure profits one person at the expense of another. These theoretically simple rules are to be applied in strict order of preference to every step of the design process: Liberty comes first and has priority over any and every other game rule we might devise for our design thinking, and the difference principle comes second. This order is paramount to avoid, among other things, the utilitarian problem where the possibility of harmful compromise lies at the surface of the theory allowing the institution of a dictatorship of the majority.


A select bibliography

Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (2009)
John Rawls and Erin Kelly, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement by  (2001)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (2005)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition (1999)
Jon Mandle, Rawls's 'A Theory of Justice': An Introduction (2009)
Michael J. Sandel, Justice: A Reader, (2007)