“Existing societies are of course seldom well-ordered in this sense, for what is just and unjust is usually in dispute. Men disagree about which principles should define the basic terms of their association. Yet we may still say, despite this disagreement, that they each have a conception of justice. That is, they understand the need for, and they are prepared to affirm, a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining what they take to be the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Thus it seems natural to think of the concept of justice as distinct from the various conceptions of justice and as being specified by the role which these different sets of principles, these different conceptions, have in common” (5).
This quote is from Rawls’ first section on the role of justice. He previously explains, as best as I can understand it, that a well-ordered society consists of people who (1) agree on a set of principles which define justice and (2) agree on how certain duties and benefits should be distributed among the people. Here, Rawls admits that in practice, no society is going to be perfect. We all have our own ideas about right and wrong and who should get a bigger slice of the pie.
This reminds me a lot about the film we watched in class. 12 Angry Men gives us an interesting insight on how the concept of justice is interpreted by different people with different backgrounds and mindsets. We discussed in class how many of these men brought their own biases to the table and we also discussed the importance of diversity in a jury. I feel like the film gives a good example of what Rawls means by concept versus conception. The way I am interpreting this paragraph is that, like the twelve men, everyone has a slightly different idea about what justice means. For example, on jury member was extremely biased against people from the slums, while another member, who in fact grew up in a similar area as the defendant, was of the opinion that where one is from has no impact on one’s character. Despite these disagreements, as well as all of the conflicting perspectives throughout the film, all twelve men could agree on the fact that murder is unjust. This may be too extreme of an example for the purpose of Rawls’ paragraph, but I think this is an interesting section of his writing.
To what extent is it reasonable, or even possible, for people in a society to be in “dispute” over what is just and unjust? Is there a breaking point?