Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
John Rawls, a philosopher who held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University, published several books and many articles. He is chiefly known, however, for his book A Theory of Justice, an effort to define social justice. The work has greatly influenced modern political thought.
Rawls was dissatisfied with the traditional philosophical arguments about what makes a social institution just and about what justifies political or social actions and policies. The utilitarian argument holds that societies should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. This argument has a number of problems, including, especially, that it seems to be consistent with the idea of the tyranny of majorities over minorities. The intuitionist argument holds that humans intuit what is right or wrong by some innate moral sense. This is also problematic because it simply explains away justice by saying that people “know it when they see it,” and it fails to deal with the many conflicting human intuitions.
Rawls attempts to establish a reasoned account of social justice through the social contract approach. This approach holds that a society is in some sense an agreement among all those within that society. If a society were an agreement, Rawls asks, what kind of arrangement would everyone agree to? He states that the contract is a purely hypothetical one: He does not argue that people had existed outside the social state or had made agreements to establish a particular type of society.
Rawls begins his work with the idea of justice as fairness. He identifies the basic structure of society as the primary subject of justice and identifies justice as the first virtue of social institutions. He considers justice a matter of the organization and internal divisions of a society. The main idea of a theory of justice asks, What kind of organization of society would rational persons choose if they were in an initial position of independence and equality and were setting up a system of cooperation? This is what Rawls sees as a hypothetical original position: the state in which no one knows what place he or she would occupy in the society to be created.
After considering the main characteristics of justice as fairness and the theoretical superiority of this approach to utilitarianism, intuitionism, or other perspectives, Rawls looks at the principles of justice. He identifies two principles: One, that each person should have equal rights to the most extensive liberties consistent with other people enjoying the same liberties; and two, that inequalities should be arranged so that they would be to everyone’s advantage and arranged so that no one person would be blocked from occupying any position. From these two principles Rawls derives an egalitarian conception of justice that would allow the inequality of conditions implied by equality of opportunity but would also give more attention to those born with fewer assets and into less favorable social positions.
Rawls concludes the first part of his book by looking at the idea of the original position outside society. This hypothetical original position can be approximated by using the thought experiment of the veil of ignorance. If no one could know what place he or...
(The entire section is 1339 words.)
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