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...
(The entire section is 1339 words.)
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Justice as Fairness
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls begins with the statement that, ‘‘Justice is the first virtue of social institution,’’ meaning that a good society is one structured according to principals of justice. Rawls asserts that existing theories of justice, developed in the field of philosophy, are not adequate: ‘‘My guiding aim is to work out A Theory of Justice that is a viable alternative to these doctrines which have long dominated our philosophical tradition.’’ He calls his theory—aimed at formulating a conception of the basic structure of society in accordance with social justice—justice as fairness.
Rawls sets forth to determine the essential principles of justice on which a good society may be based. He explains the importance of principles of justice for two key purposes: first, to ‘‘provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society’’; and secondly, to ‘‘define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens’’ of society. He observes that, by his definition, well-ordered societies are rare due to the fact that ‘‘what is just and unjust is usually in dispute.’’ He further notes that a well-ordered and perfectly just society must be formulated in a way that addresses the problems of ‘‘efficiency, coordination, and stability.’’
Critique of Utilitarianism
Throughout the twentieth century, the...
(The entire section is 902 words.)