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Impractically resolving conflict: A comparison of John Rawls’ "A Theory of Justice", and Charles Darwin’s "Natural Selection"


In "Natural Selection" and "A Theory of Justice", Charles Darwin and John Rawls not only target the diverse fields of natural science and philosophy, but also employ opposite modes of reasoning. Darwin argues that over the course of many successive generations, nature should preserve traits that are advantageous to a species. Rawls argues that the principles of justice can best be determined behind a veil of ignorance. While Rawls upholds that man should take an assertive role and resolve future conflicts by past action, Darwin posits that man should take a passive role and let nature become the final arbiter of conflicts by future action. Neither theory however, is practical for resolving short-term conflicts in nature or society.

The very usage of deductive reasoning in Rawls’ "A Theory of Justice", and inductive reasoning in Darwin’s "Natural Selection" creates premises that are an abstract ideal. Darwin is able to prove the generality of Natural Selection by means of particular examples, whereas Rawls employs definitions and facts as the primary conditions necessary to reach his conclusion. Initially, Rawls presents the original position, in which the choice problem must be made to determine what is to be just and unjust. To make this decision, Rawls proposes that "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like" (200). Rawls calls this factor the veil of ignorance, since in the original position, the "principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair" (200). This idea of justice as fairness forms the basis of a very plausible way to resolve any relativism that can occur in conflict, but the very basic premise of the veil of ignorance is ideal, for humanity is nowhere close to meeting its basic requirements. While Rawls creates ideal premises by the process of deduction, Darwin employs ideal examples by induction. The first and most powerful example Darwin utilizes to prove his generality of Natural Selection is that of a country undergoing some sort of physical change like climate. Darwin presents Natural Selection as the only logical conclusion, where "every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favored the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved" (563). Thus Darwin, like Rawls, uses idealized preconditions in order to make his theory compelling on the abstract level.

Despite being persuasive on the abstract level, Rawls’ and Darwin’s methods of reasoning fail in the pragmatic sense due to impractical premises. The case of the country is idealized to the extent of being impractical especially since Darwin makes the assumption that the only contributing condition is that of climatic change. Of course, at any point in time for the given country, there are a number of factors dictating the creation of trait modification. Darwin does admit that "there are many unknown laws of correlation of growth, which, when one part of the organization is modified through variation and the modifications are accumulated by Natural Selection for the good of the being, will cause other modifications, often of the most unexpected nature" (565). Thus while Darwin uses inductive reasoning to conclude that Natural Selection may be highly probable in an idealized situation, a practical application may show that other factors play an even larger role than Natural Selection in the determination of preservable traits. Rawls faces a similar problem with the veil of ignorance. While the veil of ignorance leads to a conception of justice on an abstract level, the principles of justice cannot be practically obtained due to the inability of humans to conform to the ignorance conditions; Humans cannot just forget all of their intrinsic attributes such as intelligence. Perhaps the largest factor of impracticality is in the assumption "that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good" (200). If the very people who choose the principles of justice have no conceptions of what is good, then the principles of justice are not necessarily good for all parties involved. If Rawls’ premise is impractical, then the conception of justice cannot be pragmatically obtained, thereby disallowing a practical way of resolving conflict through justice as fairness.

Idealistic premises and examples lead Rawls and Darwin to resolve conflict in two different idealistic ways. Rawls’s theory of justice suggests that the members of a society "are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another" (199). Thus, conflict can be resolved through the principles of justice which are chosen in advance through a veil of ignorance. Not only are the principles of justice chosen beforehand, but "a group of persons must decide once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust" (199). In this manner, Rawls implies that the principles of justice must be static, since he explicitly writes that the choice problem will only happen "once and for all". While Rawls advocates that man must take an active role in resolving conflict ahead of time, Darwin upholds that man must play a passive role, and let nature resolve conflict in a futuristic manner. Darwin argues that while "man can certainly produce great results by adding up in any given direction mere individual differences, so could Nature, but far more easily, from having incomparably longer time at her disposal" (563). All the selective breeding man attempts is for the sole purpose of domestication, and thereby profiting man alone. Nature on the other hand is impartial, and by the process of Natural Selection, forces what is best for long term survival. Darwin even goes on to say that "nature’s productions should be far "truer" in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship" (564). Nature has the hindsight that humans lack due to the latter’s short lifespan. Man can only "see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were" (564). Nature however, bears witness to the long term development and evolution of species through Natural Selection, and thus is the overseer and final arbiter of conflict. It is interesting to note that Darwin does not explicitly abstract for the human case when referring to his country example. The idea of a country is more metaphorical in the sense that Natural Selection holds for all species. Thus Darwin advocates the position that nature is not only more powerful than any individual species, but primarily more powerful than man, and must be allowed the freedom to act under the due course of Natural Selection. Therefore, Darwin and Rawls espouse completely different methods of confliction resolution; the former requires man to play an active role in conflict resolution, while the latter requires just the opposite.

While plausible on the theoretical and ideal level, the time factor is ultimately what disallows Rawls and Darwin from addressing a realistic way to resolve conflict in the present. A major problem occurs if the principles of justice are to be decided only at one given point in the past. The advancement of technology consistently creates new choice problems, in which the context of the original choice problems can be irrelevant. Moreover, unless every single possible situation can be accounted for in the principles of justice, new situations will create conflict resolution complications. Thus it is unlikely for the predetermined principles of justice to always apply in the present cases of conflict, let alone in any future situation. While the past element of the time factor in Rawls’ theory of justice prevents a solution to everyday conflict, the futuristic element of the time factor in Darwin’s Natural Selection prevents a concrete solution to present conflict. If nature is the final arbiter of all conflict, then humans are required to play a passive role while nature acts "only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being" (573). The very nature of conflict resolution requires an immediate solution to a present problem. Humans are neither willing to wait successive generations, nor can they wait for such a long period of time to receive a response from nature. Furthermore, by the time nature gives a solution through Natural Selection, the original conflict may have no relevance, and thereby invalidate any solution. Thus the theories of Natural Selection and justice as fairness fail to give an account of how to practically resolve conflict in the present state.

As has been shown, Darwin’s Natural Selection and Rawls’ Theory of Justice champion opposite ideals of conflict resolution: the passive role of man with a dominant conflict resolving nature, versus the active role of man in subjugating nature and determining principles of justice. Unfortunately, the practical element is lost since natural selection and justice as fairness resolve conflict in the future and past respectively, but not in short-term. Moreover, practicality is lost due to the quixotic premises and examples that Darwin and Rawls employ in arguing "Natural Selection" and "A Theory of Justice". Perhaps these two theories will have a practical application as technology advances, for a true veil of ignorance can be made possible by the ultimate man made triumph over nature – artificial intelligence. However it may well be possible that such intelligence will still fall short of the ignorance conditions, and thereby allow nature to continue resolving conflicts through Natural Selection.



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