A. John Rawls: Introduction to Rawls’s Project

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by David A. Reidy


This entry introduces a thematic cluster of entries on John Rawls and his theory of justice. The main components of Rawls’s theory are discussed in fuller detail in the various sub-entries of this thematic cluster. Those sub-entries are listed at the end of this introductory entry.

I. The Basic Question

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” So begins John Rawls’s highly influential A Theory of Justice (1971, revised 1999). Justice is not the only virtue of social institutions – efficiency and stability, for example, matter too – but it is the dominant virtue. Further, “the basic structure of society is the first subject of justice.” Justice in interpersonal relations is very important, but on Rawls’s view it is a separate, and not the first, subject of justice.

John Rawls (1921-2002) devoted most of his professional life as a philosopher to the articulation and defense of what he argued was the most reasonable conception of justice for a constitutional liberal democracy, a conception he named “justice as fairness.” He intended justice as fairness to answer, or at least to frame and focus, the most basic political question citizens face in any democracy: How ought we collectively, as democratic citizens, organize our polity? What institutions ought we have, and how ought they be related one to another? This question always lurks just beneath the surface of everyday politics. It is a question we must, both individually and collectively, be able to answer, or at least intelligently discuss, if we are to preserve a nonviolent everyday politics of mutual trust and reason-giving.

Rawls develops his theory of justice under the reasonably favorable but in principle not impossible assumptions of ideal theory. He assumes that citizens trust one another enough to sustain a just polity, that they do not face potentially catastrophic aggression from foreign forces, that they do not face conditions of plague, that they possess certain basic intellectual, physical, and moral capacities, and so on. Of course, these assumptions do not always hold in our world. Indeed, they may never hold. And so we must be prepared to address questions of justice also as a matter of non-ideal theory. Everyday politics is often a matter of non-ideal theory. But it is justice as given by ideal theory that provides us in everyday politics with our moral compass, our sense of what we can reasonably hope for, and thus ought to work for, in this world.

On Rawls’s view, what we can reasonably hope for is a just and stable, pluralist liberal democracy that, first, constitutionally secures familiar basic liberties, with fair value for political liberties, and, second, legislatively secures fair equality of opportunity in an economy arranged to maximize its lowest regularly allotted expected lifetime share of wealth and income (the share expected by a typical unskilled worker). These two conditions on what we can reasonably hope for are set out by Rawls in his well-known two principles of justice.

II. Key Background Motivations

Two motivationally important underlying concerns of Rawls ought to be mentioned. Rawls fought in World War II and witnessed post-War politics in both the United States and Britain. He was keenly aware of the various threats, both internal and external, faced by constitutional liberal democracy. He studied and was early in his career sympathetic to Millian utilitarianism. But by the later 1950s he grew worried that utilitarianism was ill-suited to serve as the public political philosophy of a just and stable constitutional liberal democracy. Each of the alternative approaches to justice extant at the time – perfectionist theories, intuitionist theories, and atomistic Hobbesian social contract theories that rooted justice in self-interested bargaining – seemed also ill-suited to the task. In large measure, Rawls develops his theory of justice out of a practical concern to meet the political and philosophical needs, and to secure the future, of constitutional liberal democracy. Perhaps the most pressing need, in Rawls’s view, was to find a way of coherently bringing together in a single normative theory the substantive liberal democratic commitments to freedom and equality.

He develops it also in an effort to give political expression to a view of persons he seems to have affirmed even as a very young man. On Rawls’s view, to be a person is to be a moral being made both in and for community. To be a person is to stand as a distinct particular in a necessary moral relation to others. It is to be separate but never cut off from others. Each person has her own good and her own life to live. But each also is, and understands herself to be, a practically and morally necessary means to the ends of others. To be a person, then, is to be both rational and reasonable, to be willing to pursue one’s own good only within relations of reciprocity to others. Persons, qua persons, seek fair social cooperation with one another. They desire meaningful work in free association with others subject to just institutions. Their capacity to make good on this basic desire constitutes no small part of their special dignity.

Rawls’s conception of persons is deeply social in other ways too. Persons come to know themselves as persons largely through their public social recognition by others as such. And many of their desires, dispositions and character traits are to a great extent the effects of social causes. Rawls aimed in his work at a conception of justice faithful to his deeply social conception of persons.

III. A Life Long Project

Rawls began work on justice as fairness in the 1950s. After publishing bits and pieces of the theory in articles, he finally published in 1971 a full statement and defense of it in A Theory of Justice (revised 1999). Sometime in the late 1970s, Rawls began to have doubts about a central argument given in Part III of Theory. The argument concerned the stability of a society faithful to his principles of justice. During the1980s Rawls reworked key parts of the theory in articles and in 1993 he published a full statement of the revisions in Political Liberalism (expanded 1996). In the later 1990s, Rawls undertook to revise Political Liberalism. His 1997 essay titled “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” constitutes his last best statement of many of the key ideas in that book.

Rawls sought to complete justice as fairness by identifying and defending the moral principles that ought to guide the foreign policy of a constitutional liberal democracy committed to it. Apart from a few observations, Rawls did not publish much on this aspect of justice as fairness until the 1990s. In 1993 he published the essay “The Law of Peoples.” In 1999 he published a revised version of this essay as The Law of Peoples. In that work he extends justice as fairness and political liberalism to international relations.

Rawls published his Collected Papers in 1999. While not a complete collection, this volume contains key papers from the early 1950s until the mid-1990s. In 2001 he published Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. This volume contains edited versions of Rawls’s lecture notes, mostly from the 1980s, from his teaching of A Theory of Justice and the essays that eventually appeared as Political Liberalism to Harvard students. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the material in the Restatement dates from the later 1980s, it is probably the best single source for a reliable overview of Rawls’s complete and mature view of justice as fairness.

In 2001 Rawls published his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. His Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy were published posthumously in 2007. These are invaluable sources for understanding how Rawls understood the relationship of his own theory of justice to the political and moral philosophy of the modern period, and especially to the social contract and utilitarian traditions in political and moral thought.

IV. Four Steps to a Theory

Rawls developed his theory of justice in four main steps. First, he recast the rather daunting question of what justice demands as a matter of ideal theory in a more manageable form and asked which of a handful of conceptions of justice familiar from the great traditions of political thought rational agents in an “original position” “behind a veil of ignorance” would unanimously agree to as a kind of binding charter for their political association. Second, he argued for justice as fairness, and in particular its two central principles, as the best answer to the question so recast. Third, he showed that a polity faithful to justice as fairness was a realistic possibility and would be “stable in the right way.” Fourth, Rawls invited his readers to test the normative political vision given by justice as fairness to determine whether it was in “reflective equilibrium” (consistent and coherent) with their considered and reasoned judgments regarding both moral and nonmoral issues at various levels of generality and abstraction. These include judgments regarding both international and interpersonal justice. The “sense of justice” expressed by a theory of justice in full reflective equilibrium was objectively justifiable. What more could be asked of a theory of justice? Perhaps that it be uniquely objectively justifiable. For then it would be fully unimpeachable from human reason. Unfortunately there is no a priori reason to think that there may be no more than one conception of justice in full reflective equilibrium with all our other considered judgments.

V. Organization of This Entry

In the thematic cluster of entries on Rawls I set out the content of, and a number of ideas and assumptions central to, Rawls’s theory of justice. Along the way I sketch Rawls’s argument for justice as fairness which can be found in at each of the four steps just mentioned. I conclude in the last entry with a brief statement of Rawls’s conception of a just liberal democratic foreign policy and the law of peoples. I refrain from mentioning some main lines of criticism of Rawls’s work until entry H so that the reader might first grasp and appreciate Rawls’s work as an integrated whole. The thematic cluster contains the following entries: B) Rawls’s Two Principles and Their Application; C) The Original Position Argument; D) Pure Procedural Justice and Legitimacy; E) Justification and Objectivity; F) Political Liberalism; G) The Law of Peoples; H) Some Main Lines of Criticism; I) Select Bibliography.

Following sections:

B. John Rawls: His Two Principles and Their Application

C. John Rawls: The Original Position Argument

D. John Rawls: Procedural Justice and Legitimacy

E. John Rawls: Justification and Objectivity

F. John Rawls: Political Liberalism

G. John Rawls: The Law of Peoples

H. John Rawls: Some Main Lines of Criticism

I. Bibliography

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