John Rawls's seminal work, A Theory Justice (1971), returned political philosophy to many of its founding questions about the nature of freedom, justice, and fairness found in Plato and Aristotle. Rawls here attempts to answer the question: what makes for a just society? This is a question that ultimately...
John Rawls's seminal work, A Theory Justice (1971), returned political philosophy to many of its founding questions about the nature of freedom, justice, and fairness found in Plato and Aristotle. Rawls here attempts to answer the question: what makes for a just society? This is a question that ultimately comes down to the distribution of both political rights and economic goods.
A well-ordered society for Rawls is one in which all citizens are treated equally under the law and which promotes individual liberty to the extent that it does not infringe on the well-being of others. Rawls carefully navigates a debate still prevalent in political discourse today, that between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. Rawls doesn't fall on one side of this debate, he attempts to seek a compromise. Rawls thinks that a well-ordered society should guarantee equality of opportunity but also thinks it should be governed according to what he calls "The Difference Principle." The Difference Principle puts a check on capitalist institutions by sanctioning economic activity that doesn't benefit the poorest members of society.
To summarize, a well-ordered (and just) society is governed by two principles:
1) The Greatest Equal Liberty Principle: "First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others." (Rawls 1999, p. 266)
2) The Difference Principle: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." (Rawls 1999, p. 266)
You may be asking, how is this just society established? To answer this question Rawls employs insights from social contract theory. Rawls asks us to consider what principles society would be governed by if the citizens choosing those principles were unaware of their race, gender, economic background, and the other unique life experiences that often enter political deliberation. This encompasses what Rawls refers to as "the original position." Under this veil of ignorance, Rawls argues that citizens will agree upon principles of justice that seek to promote the enhancement of each and every member of the political community. Immanuel Kant's influence is acutely felt here. According to Kant, only that which is "universalizable" can be considered ethical.
Students interested in Rawls's work should also look at the works of political philosophy this book inspired such as Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and MacIntyre's After Virtue.
Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.