John Rawls is regarded as one of the foremost modern philosophers of our time, who is a leading authority in two important fields; political philosophy and morals. He is the brains behind some of the first rate theories and principles in the realms of political philosophy and ethics such as Reflective Equilibrium and the renowned work of A Theory of Justice. It was in 1971 that Rawls first wrote A theory of Justice publication which served to revolutionize the philosophical and ethical ideologies of the 1970s which are currently widely applied in various disciplines, key among which include accounting. The focus of this paper is on Rawls ideologies on moral and ethical issues as they relate to the principles and concepts of accounting.
A Theory of Justice
The major ethical ideologies that John Rawls advanced in his lifetime are contained in one of his best works that he authored known as A Theory of Justice. It is from this publication that Rawls developed the foundation of three of his other works titled the Difference Principle, the Liberty Principle and Justice as Fairness which is an elaboration of the concepts contained in A Theory of Justice (Hikaru, 2009). In general A Theory of Justice publication is a combination of philosophical and ethical issues that Rawls attempt to tackle and address in our contemporary society. The foundation of A Theory of Justice ideology is anchored in two important principles.
The principle of liberty and principle of equality that Rawls attempts to reconcile using two different perspectives i.e. circumstances of justice and the fair choice situation which he concludes are the two circumstances that often confront an individual (Hikaru, 2009). The ideology of A Theory of Justice is based on the fact that all individuals desire to achieve a desirable end through the application of principles of justice which requires just consideration of their fellow human beings (Hikaru, 2009). It is on this basis that Rawls advances the principle of fair choice situation which is aimed at providing a person with acceptable alternatives of arriving at a reliable determination of justice under ideal conditions.
The principles of justice which is the central concept in A Theory of Justice ideology is developed through a process that Rawls describes as the Original Position which refers to a hypothetical position from which all individuals adopt when attempting to arrive to a certain principle of justice (Hanford, 2006). This is what Rawls refers to as the Veil of Ignorance in which he is actually describing personal biases or circumstances that essentially prevent someone from making a fair assessment of a given principle of justice (Hikaru, 2009).
It is this form of limitations such as level of intelligence, talents, social status, assets and strengths that Rawls is referring when he states that “the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance” (Hikaru, 2009). Hence, the veil of ignorance that are described to exist in the Original Position are what enables an individual to determine and choose an ideal principle of justice that is free from bias (Hanford, 2006). As a result this perspective of Original Position leads to what Rawls describes as “a maxim strategy which would maximize the prospects of the least well-off” and therefore enable equal distribution of economic resources in the society (Hikaru, 2009).
This would be the position that the principle of justice would hypothetically hope to achieve when applied in a society, but the same principle of justice that Rawls advances does also provide for inequality to occur in the society but only under specific circumstances. This he terms as the difference principle which Rawls describes should only occur if the inequality in the distribution of resources in the society “is to the advantage of those who are worst-off” (Hikaru, 2009). It is from these themes found in the concepts of A Theory of Justice that Rawls derives the First Principle of Justice and the Second Principle of Justice. The First Principle states that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others” (Hikaru, 2009).
This principle largely attempted to guarantee the basic human rights of all the persons in a society. On the Second Principle Rawls advances two major factors that the model of justice must accomplish in a society where there is inequality in the distribution of resources. One is for the benefit of the least-advantaged persons in the society which we have already mentioned, while the other one is to ensure that “offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Hikaru, 2009). These are the core elements of ethics that we are going to analyze more closely in the following sections where we shall discuss the application of Rawls ethical principles that are described in A Theory of Justice in the field of business ethics.
Application of Rawls Ethical Principles in Accounting
It was not until 1980s that the discipline of business ethics first started gaining momentum in an attempt to regulate the business environment of organizations in a world that was increasingly adopting capitalism. While the virtues of business ethics can be attributed to various other notable philosophers, it would appear that Rawls ideologies contained in A Theory of Justice largely influenced the development of the various disciplines in business ethics such as ethics of accounting, ethics of advertising, ethics of production, conflict of interests and corporate ethics among others (Dearinger, 2003).
Business ethics is primarily a form of normative discipline since the corporate organizations are largely expected to subscribe to a universal code of ethics that must be observed during it processes for it to be engaged in fair business practices (Lennon, 2009). Normative ethics is the category of ethics that Rawls is most credited for having contributed to it advancement and refinement; in general it is described as moral principles that are concerned with determination of what is wrong or right in a society.
In this regard while our general focus of our discussion pertains to A theory of Justice as advanced by Rawls, the major principles that summarize the concepts of ethics are contained in the Second Principle of the model. This is the principle that is concerned with resource distribution in the society and management of organizations that are involved in these initiatives. The principles of veil of ignorance for instance can be cited as the model that has enabled organizations over the recent past to view society in which they engage in business as important and valuable stakeholders of the Company.
The Second Principle of theory of justice model has especially very far reaching implications in our contemporary society. Currently many organizations view social responsibility as mandatory and is widely being integrated in the core functions of the Company because it enables the organizations to give back to the community a share of their earning thereby promoting fair equality of natural resources in the society (Gadget, 2010).
Indeed most often corporate social responsibility programs are normally directed towards the most disadvantaged members of the target community, which is what Rawls is advocating when he mentions that inequality should be tolerated if it benefits “the least advantaged persons in the society” (Hikaru, 2009). In the face of adverse climate changes such as global warming and environment pollution, it has now become standard operating procedures for organizations to guarantee the safety of environment in every aspect of their business processes.
In the process organizations are now assessed against a variety of indicators that include such factors like nature of energy used, pollution levels, efficiency, safety of personnel’s and general working conditions among others in what is usually referred as ISO standards (Gadget, 2010). The purpose of ISO standards is to ensure that businesses are adhering to a universal code of ethics framework that have been developed with the safety of the environment in mind, consumers, employees and the society in which the business is operating from.
Other areas that the organizations relies on in exerting business ethics include marketing and competition where Companies are expected to adhere to the code of “fair business practices” that does not disadvantage the other players in the industry (Gadget, 2010).
Indeed, the extent of issues that John Rawls ideologies of justice encompass in our contemporary society is certainly wide and varied and goes beyond the discipline of business ethics. There is no doubt that there are very few notable personalities who have ever lived that had contributed to the field of business ethics and moral ethics in general in such a big way.
Dearinger, R. (2003). Business Ethics Theory Taxonomy. Web.
Gadget, M. (2010). The Most Appropriate Ethical System for the Accounting Profession. Web.
Hanford, J. (2006). Normative ethics in health care. Ethics & Medicine, 22(1):31-38.
Hikaru, O. (2009). Ethical Theories-John Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Web.
Lennon, J. (2009). Business ethics: Metaethics, applied ethics and normative ethics. Web.