My students and I have lately been reading Rawls, and we have been considering, among other things, the implications of his claim that we do not deserve our “natural assets” and thus can claim no exclusive title to them on that basis. “The existing distribution of income and wealth,” Rawls writes, “is the cumulative effect of prior distributions of natural assets—that is, natural talents and abilities—as these have been developed or left unrealized, and their use favored or disfavored over time by social circumstances and such chance contingencies as accident and good fortune.” He concludes: “Intuitively, the most obvious injustice of the system of natural liberty [advocated, for example, by Adam Smith] is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced by these factors so arbitrary from a moral point of view” (A Theory of Justice, p. 72).
Given, then, the second of Rawls’s two principles of justice—namely, the “difference principle,” which holds that social and economic inequalities are justified only if they conduce primarily to the benefit of society’s “least advantaged” (TJ, p. 83)—one might conclude that differences in natural assets, as well as the benefits accruing from them, are among the inequalities that are to be so arranged. (Rawls later discusses the necessity and role of a “distribution branch” of government whose “task is to preserve an approximate justice in distributive shares” (TJ, p. 277).)
Across my desk today comes a singular instance that might illustrate the scope of Rawls’s position. Perhaps you have heard of the 12-year-old Indiana boy who is a mathematical genius, so much so that he may be on the verge of discovering some hitherto unknown extensions of Einsteinian General Relativity, possibly even revising it in light of problems he may have discovered. Time magazine has a story about him here.
Apparently people who work on such things think the boy may actually be on to something. So perhaps we might expect some new discoveries and new directions in mathematics and astrophysics from him in time. How exciting.
But reading about his otherwise relatively normal life, which includes things like playing video games and spending time with his “girlfriend” (whatever that means for a 12-year-old), Rawls’s argument beckoned to me. The boy clearly has natural talents, and perhaps even world-changing natural talents. By Rawls’s reasoning, he does not deserve them, and so has no moral claim on them. And it would be unjust to let him alone benefit from what seems like a winning ticket in the “natural lottery” (TJ, p. 75). So, shouldn’t we view them as a natural treasure, a natural precious asset, and, applying Rawls’s “difference principle,” argue that it is to be employed so that it is of principal advantage to the least advantaged in society?
What might this mean? Well, perhaps the boy and his natural assets should be nationalized: they should be viewed as part of the common pool of natural talents from which we are all equally entitled to benefit, subject to the condition that the least advantaged among us must be the primary beneficiaries. That would mean, I should think, that there should be some collective or democratic deliberation about what use(s) of this boy’s natural talents are that satisfy this principle.
Now, by imaginatively putting myself into a Rawlsian “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance,” perhaps I can begin to speculate what those uses might be. Trying to do that now—I’m actually squinting and furrowing my brow quite philosophically at this very moment—it seems easier for me to imagine what kinds of things we would not allow the boy to do than it is to imagine what we would require him to do.
For example, I can tell you that there would be no more video games or spending time with the “girlfriend.” With an intellect like that, every minute not spent working on something important is effectively depriving the rest of us of potential benefits. How could we possibly justify wasting time on things like that? What, then, should we require him to do? I am not so sure, but it may be that working on General Relativity is not one of them. Cancer? Obesity or longevity? Hunger?
His charming mother, who appears, though only behind the camera, in a video associated with the Time story, seems to love her son, even if she does not understand him. A speculation: She would not appreciate our collectively deciding about the best use of her son’s talents, and she would probably try to assert some kind of authority over him. The Rawlsian would presumably hope that she would not press that too hard, lest an unfortunate unpleasantness ensue.
But nationalizing the boy would seem to follow from Rawls’s principles. To what uses do you think we should put his talents?