On the deep-seated distress of the lower classes

“To remove the wants of the lower classes of society is indeed an arduous task.  The truth is that the pressure of distress on this part of a community is an evil so deeply seated that no human ingenuity can reach it.” – Thomas Malthus (1798), An Essay on the Principle of Population.

2 Responses to “On the deep-seated distress of the lower classes”

  1. Do you know who else thought the distress of the lower classes was the greatest source of injustice? John Rawls. Which is why one of the two most important principles of his theory demands that priority be given to benefiting the least well-off.

    Now obviously, we can argue about whether or not he got right the criteria by which we judge who the least well-off are, but the basic and most fundamental idea, which really is equality, is spot on.

    I am sure Rawls, and most Rawlsians, would agree with the basic statement of Malthus, but he sure as hell wouldn’t agree with the possible pessimism attached to it! In fact, I think perhaps a Rawlsian would argue that it is precisely the fact of the inevitability of the distress of the lower classes that demands constant efforts toward justice. Or put a bit differently, the inevitability of the distress of the lower classes means that “the job of justice”, to speak metaphorically, is never done. From a political perspective – where “political” is an extension of ethics that has to do with the relationship between some group of people and its governing body – there’s never a point at which the needs of the lower classes have been tended to and thus, one can walk away and tend to other things. As far as I understand it, a Rawlsian image of a just political body is one that gives constant attention to the needs of the least well-off, the lower classes. And any political decisions that would affect the distribution of goods, and thus, affect the economic state of the people, must be justified to the least well-off in order for such decisions to exemplify justice.

    You know, Rawls did a lot for political theory and legal theory, and not only is his work read and referred to by many in both the legal and political spheres, but he is sometimes even quoted in order to give justification to this or that. (E.g., it is not uncommon, I think, to find members of the Supreme Court quoting him. They also quote Mill a lot.)
    That’s not to say he got everything right, it’s merely to give some recognition to just how groundbreaking his work was.
    But it’s also not to give any legitimacy to the way this country is actually! run: Rawls certainly never thought the U.S. exemplified a just state; and I’m sure he would be appalled to see how things are being run today.

    Anyway, I really just had to throw some Rawls at you. 😉

  2. Joanne says:

    Nice to see Cheryl back here. Jelte, we have Rawls’ Theory of Justice here @Rij in Amsterdam – can bring it for Xmas. So I can throw R at you in the literal sense.

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