How does John Rawls' approach to what features of a person are relevant for moral judgment differ from that of Michael Sandel and Aristotle.

Expert Answers
Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[A] moral judgement is [a] judgement which deals with the moral value or quality of an action. It is a judgement of value and it evaluates the rightness or wrongness of our actions. When we analyse a moral judgement then we find that it contains a) a subject who will judge, b) an object whose action will be judged, c) a standard in conformity to which the action of the [object] will be judged and d) a power of judging the action as required. Moral judgment is the judgment of moral quality of voluntary habitual actions. Generally, a moral judgment is given on the voluntary and habitual actions of a rational being. The voluntary actions of a rational person which involve deliberation, choice, and resolution, have the moral quality of rightness and wrongness. They are considered to be right or wrong ... (Krishna Handiqui, Ph.D. "Introduction to Nature of Moral Judgement")

Moral Judgement

Moral judgement, a definition of which underlies understanding the positions on moral judgement of Rawls, Sandel and Aristotle, is a rational evaluation made by a reasoning person with principles that accord with a standard of rightness and wrongness that is applied to actions undertaken by willed choice, meaning free of coercion, intimidation and duress, that are characterized as "voluntary" and the quality of which are subjected to evaluative judgement. In other words, oneself or another performs a voluntary and habitual action, then the self-person or another person evaluates the moral quality of rightness or wrongness, as accords with the social standard thereof (e.g., some societies judge things as right, like marrying someone from the same village, that other societies judge as wrong, leading to the insistence upon only marrying someone from a distant village) that is demonstrated by and inherent within the action.

John Rawls

John Rawls offered moral philosophy that is characterized by Rawls' argument that "the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position." He builds upon certain essential principles that define social justice as that in which "everyone is impartially situated as equals." 

The Original Position: Rawls presupposes, in a thought experiment, a situation in which moral judgement must be made from behind a "veil of ignorance" that veils from knowledge a person's features of gender, race, age, intelligence, wealth, skills, education, and religion allowing only knowledge of a person's features that permit participation as a member of society that is "an enduring system of mutual cooperation." The two features of a person that Rawls asserts are relevant for moral judgment are:

  1. each individual knows that he has the capacity to form, pursue, and revise a conception of the good (the good: that which is a universal, nonparticular social or personal good, like being able to fulfill one's talents thus to advance society)
  2. each individual understands himself to have the capacity to develop a sense of justice and the generally effective desire to abide by that sense of justice (justice: the quality of rightfulness and lawfulness with equitableness; moral rightness; reasonableness)

Reflective Equilibrium

Reflective equilibrium, developed after the original position concept, forms the "metatheoretical frame" (i.e., the large theoretical framework) from within which the original position operates since it is the metatheoretical frame within which it is situated. Reflective equilibrium is a three step process through which an established and secure situation of social justice (e.g., racial profiling, political lobbying) is (1) identified, (2) explained and justified in terms of moral principles of justice (i.e., rightness, equitableness, lawfulness, reasonableness) and (3) and evaluated for a deficiency of fittedness of the explanations and justification (determined in step 2) with more judgements of justice applied elsewhere (i.e., judgements of justice extraneous to the situation of social justice being evaluated, e.g., the justice of racial profiling evaluated against the justice of civil rights. Rawls' morally relevant features of a person apply in reflective equilibrium in that knowledge of what features are morally irrelevant plays significantly in performing steps 2 and 3.  

Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel is an economic philosopher who adds social connectedness to the basic framework of Rawls' work, work that Sandel studied and embraced though he saw that Rawls' emphasis on the individual omitted important consideration of social and cultural connectedness. Sandel differs from the Rawls significantly by asserting that religious beliefs, omitted by Rawls, must again become part of philosophical questions about moral decisions on social justice while also emphasizing that market economy, though it currently drives social justice decisions by commoditizing (making into a commodity) component parts of social moral and justice discourse, e.g., discourse about military draft versus commoditized voluntary military. Though Sandel does not characterize his concepts in terms of the features of a person, as Rawls does, one might say that some of the features that Sandel finds relevant to moral judgements are the social ties that provide context and purpose in their lives, social ties to such things as religion, service to one community and country, and ethical treatment of other humans (some of his concerns and examples are the draft to eliminate the socioeconomic disparity in who goes to war, service to community and country to aid the sick and poor and to make military a requirement on all socioeconomic levels, and the morality and ethicality of torture whether or not empirical gain, i.e., information, is attained).


For Aristotle, moral virtue is the only practical road to effective action. What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful. Hence, the virtuous person sees truly and judges rightly, since beautiful things appear as they truly are only to a person of good character. It is only in the middle ground between habits of acting and principles of action that the soul can allow right desire and right reason to make their appearance, as the direct and natural response of a free human being to the sight of the beautiful. (Joe Sachs, "Aristotle: Ethics")

If for Aristotle action is dependent upon moral virtue, then moral judgement is the evaluation of actions stemming from moral virtue. If rightness equates with moral rightness, then moral judgement determines the rightness of actions arising as they do for Aristotle from moral virtue. If right ends, moral ends, must first be perceived as beautiful, then one feature of a person that is relevant to moral judgement in Aristotelian moral ethics is to perceive beauty and to see beautiful things in their true state and, conversely, to see things that are not truly beautiful in their true state of being without beauty. One must have an Aristotelian "good character" as a "virtuous person" who can act in the "middle ground" of the golden mean (i.e., the point midway between extremes) where "right desire and right reason" direct human choice for action in light of the beautiful. So another feature might be said to be virtuousness that rejects extremes and allows right desire and reason to manifest.