John Rawls, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, provided a signal contribution to the development of contractarian political philosophy with the publication of A Theory of Justice (1971). Writing in the spirit of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant, especially the latter, Rawls attempted to work out the implications of ’justice as fairness” and to show the inadequacy of a rival view of justice, that of the maximization of the good in society, which was sanctioned by classical utilitarianism. The principle of utility, as espoused by Jeremy Bentham, is teleological or goal-oriented: Society must structure its institutions to provide for the maximum satisfaction of the desires of all of its members. As Rawls pointed out, however, distributions of satisfactions in accordance with utilitarian principles may well be arbitrary and are independent of, and thus not governed by, a conception of the right.
Rawls proposed an alternative conception of justice he thought more in accord with common sense. What is right to do must take priority over the satisfaction of what each member of a society takes to be. his or her good. Rawls proposed a thought experiment in which representatives of citizens come together in what he called the “original position” to choose among principles of justice. A “veil of ignorance” cuts the representatives off from any details regarding, for example, the social status, wealth, and political power of those they represent. All that is known are basic facts about human motivation and that the parties are rational.
The choice that emerges Rawls formulates as two principles of justice for institutions, the first taking priority over the second. As restated (and somewhat recast) in Political Liberalism, the principles (the second termed “the difference principle”) are as follows:
a. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
b. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
A Theory of Justice contended that in a well-ordered society, institutions would be regulated by the two principles of justice, and that all normal citizens, whatever their differences in philosophical or religious perspective, could appeal to the view of justice as fairness (a particular instance of a larger ethical view of rightness as fairness) to settle debates of social concern. That is, Rawls envisioned a public consensus regarding the two principles so that public debates on proposed social legislation, for example, might have at least a minimum common ground. Persons born into a society of citizens who are free and equal have a duty to abide by the regulative principles of justice; those persons have implicitly contracted with society, which provides certain benefits, to honor justice as fairness.
Justice as fairness, as presented by Rawls, inspired wide-ranging debate among philosophers. Political Liberalism, organized into a series of eight “lectures,” is an edited collection of responses to his critics; it marks a significant change in Rawls’s own understanding of justice as fairness.
Whereas A Theory of Justice attempted to situate this liberal conception of justice within the larger tradition of moral philosophy, Political Liberalism seeks to remove justice as fairness from moral philosophy and to consider it a political conception only. As Rawls explains, the problem with presenting justice as fairness as a comprehensive moral view (one that regulates a person’s total value system in both public and private capacities) is that the free and equal citizens of a democracy would be required to share a particular comprehensive view of justice. That ignores what Rawls calls the “reasonable pluralism” of often-incompatible moral and religious doctrines that a liberal society seems to foster. A Theory of Justice minimized the fact of pluralism; Political Liberalism acknowledges pluralism to be the normal outgrowth of the actions of free and equal citizens. Yet how is it possible for such a pluralistic society to be stable over time?
The answer, says Rawls, lies in considering the liberalism of justice as fairness to be a political conception, the operation of which makes “space” for individual citizens to adopt whatever comprehensive doctrines they please (subject to certain constraints). The two principles of justice operate explicitly as political principles (not as part of a larger moral philosophy) so that free and equal citizens of a liberal regime can debate political matters with a common language while maintaining individual or associational pursuits of...
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