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In he suffered the first of several strokes, severely impeding his ability to continue to work. He was nevertheless able to complete a book titled The Law of Peoples , the most complete statement of his views on international justice, and shortly before his death in November published Justice As Fairness: A Restatement , a response to criticisms of A Theory of Justice.

He was survived by his wife, their four children, and four grandchildren. Rawls published three main books. The first, A Theory of Justice , focused on distributive justice and attempted to reconcile the competing claims of the values of freedom and equality. The second, Political Liberalism , addressed the question of how citizens divided by intractable religious and philosophical disagreements could come to endorse a constitutional democratic regime. The third, The Law of Peoples , focused on the issue of global justice. Rawls's magnum opus titled A Theory of Justice , published in , aimed to resolve the seemingly competing claims of freedom and equality.

Political Philosophy & Rawls' Theory of Justice

The shape Rawls's resolution took, however, was not that of a balancing act that compromised or weakened the moral claim of one value compared with the other. Rather, his intent was to show that notions of freedom and equality could be integrated into a seamless unity he called justice as fairness. By attempting to enhance the perspective which his readers should take when thinking about justice, Rawls hoped to show the supposed conflict between freedom and equality to be illusory.

Rawls's A Theory of Justice includes a thought experiment he called the " original position ". The intuition motivating its employment is this: When we think about what it would mean for a just state of affairs to obtain between persons, we eliminate certain features such as hair or eye color, height, race, etc. Rawls's original position is meant to encode all of our intuitions about which features are relevant, and which irrelevant, for the purposes of deliberating well about justice.

The original position is Rawls' hypothetical scenario in which a group of persons is set the task of reaching an agreement about the kind of political and economic structure they want for a society, which they will then occupy. Each individual, however, deliberates behind a " veil of ignorance ": The only thing that a given member knows about themselves is that they are in possession of the basic capacities necessary to fully and willfully participate in an enduring system of mutual cooperation; each knows they can be a member of the society.

Rawls posits two basic capacities that the individuals would know themselves to possess. First, individuals know that they have the capacity to form, pursue, and revise a conception of the good, or life plan. Exactly what sort of conception of the good this is, however, the individual does not yet know. It may be, for example, religious or secular, but at the start, the individual in the original position does not know which.

Second, each individual understands him or herself to have the capacity to develop a sense of justice and a generally effective desire to abide by it. Knowing only these two features of themselves, the group will deliberate in order to design a social structure, during which each person will seek his or her maximal advantage. The idea is that proposals that we would ordinarily think of as unjust — such as that blacks or women should not be allowed to hold public office — will not be proposed, in this Rawls' original position, because it would be irrational to propose them, the reason is simple, one does not know whether he himself would be a woman or a black person.

This position is expressed in the difference principle , according to which in a system of ignorance about one's status, one would strive to improve the position of the worst off, because he might find himself in that position. Rawls develops his original position by modeling it, in certain respects at least, after the "initial situations" of various social contract thinkers who came before him, including Thomas Hobbes , John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In social justice processes, each person early on makes decisions about which features of persons to consider and which to ignore.

Rawls's aspiration is to have created a thought experiment whereby a version of that process is carried to its completion, illuminating the correct standpoint a person should take in his or her thinking about justice. If he has succeeded, then the original position thought experiment may function as a full specification of the moral standpoint we should attempt to achieve when deliberating about social justice. In setting out his theory, Rawls described his method as one of " reflective equilibrium ", a concept which has since been used in other areas of philosophy.

Reflective equilibrium is achieved by mutually adjusting one's general principles and one's considered judgements on particular cases, to bring the two into line with one another. Rawls derives two principles of justice from the original position. The first of these is the Liberty Principle, which establishes equal basic liberties for all citizens. Rawls argues that a second principle of equality would be agreed upon to guarantee liberties that represent meaningful options for all in society and ensure distributive justice.

For example, formal guarantees of political voice and freedom of assembly are of little real worth to the desperately poor and marginalized in society. Demanding that everyone have exactly the same effective opportunities in life would almost certainly offend the very liberties that are supposedly being equalized. Nonetheless, we would want to ensure at least the "fair worth" of our liberties: Thus participants would be moved to affirm a two-part second principle comprising Fair Equality of Opportunity and the famous and controversial [30] difference principle.

This second principle ensures that those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged. Rawls held that these principles of justice apply to the "basic structure" of fundamental social institutions such as the judiciary, the economic structure and the political constitution , a qualification that has been the source of some controversy and constructive debate see the work of Gerald Cohen.

Rawls further argued that these principles were to be 'lexically ordered' to award priority to basic liberties over the more equality-oriented demands of the second principle. This has also been a topic of much debate among moral and political philosophers. Finally, Rawls took his approach as applying in the first instance to what he called a "well-ordered society In Political Liberalism , Rawls turned towards the question of political legitimacy in the context of intractable philosophical, religious, and moral disagreement amongst citizens regarding the human good.

Such disagreement, he insisted, was reasonable — the result of the free exercise of human rationality under the conditions of open enquiry and free conscience that the liberal state is designed to safeguard. The question of legitimacy in the face of reasonable disagreement was urgent for Rawls because his own justification of Justice as Fairness relied upon a Kantian conception of the human good that can be reasonably rejected.

If the political conception offered in A Theory of Justice can only be shown to be good by invoking a controversial conception of human flourishing, it is unclear how a liberal state ordered according to it could possibly be legitimate. The intuition animating this seemingly new concern is actually no different from the guiding idea of A Theory of Justice , namely that the fundamental charter of a society must rely only on principles, arguments and reasons that cannot be reasonably rejected by the citizens whose lives will be limited by its social, legal, and political circumscriptions.

In other words, the legitimacy of a law is contingent upon its justification being impossible to reasonably reject. This old insight took on a new shape, however, when Rawls realized that its application must extend to the deep justification of Justice as Fairness itself, which he had presented in terms of a reasonably rejectable Kantian conception of human flourishing as the free development of autonomous moral agency. The core of Political Liberalism, accordingly, is its insistence that, in order to retain its legitimacy, the liberal state must commit itself to the "ideal of public reason ".

This roughly means that citizens in their public capacity must engage one another only in terms of reasons whose status as reasons is shared between them. Political reasoning, then, is to proceed purely in terms of "public reasons". This is because reasons based upon the interpretation of sacred text are non-public their force as reasons relies upon faith commitments that can be reasonably rejected , whereas reasons that rely upon the value of providing children with environments in which they may develop optimally are public reasons — their status as reasons draws upon no deep, controversial conception of human flourishing.

Rawls held that the duty of civility — the duty of citizens to offer one another reasons that are mutually understood as reasons — applies within what he called the "public political forum". This forum extends from the upper reaches of government — for example the supreme legislative and judicial bodies of the society — all the way down to the deliberations of a citizen deciding for whom to vote in state legislatures or how to vote in public referenda.

John Rawls

Campaigning politicians should also, he believed, refrain from pandering to the non-public religious or moral convictions of their constituencies. The ideal of public reason secures the dominance of the public political values — freedom, equality, and fairness — that serve as the foundation of the liberal state. But what about the justification of these values? Since any such justification would necessarily draw upon deep religious or moral metaphysical commitments which would be reasonably rejectable, Rawls held that the public political values may only be justified privately by individual citizens.

The public liberal political conception and its attendant values may and will be affirmed publicly in judicial opinions and presidential addresses, for example but its deep justifications will not. The task of justification falls to what Rawls called the "reasonable comprehensive doctrines" and the citizens who subscribe to them. A reasonable Catholic will justify the liberal values one way, a reasonable Muslim another, and a reasonable secular citizen yet another way.

One may illustrate Rawls's idea using a Venn diagram: Rawls's account of stability presented in A Theory of Justice is a detailed portrait of the compatibility of one — Kantian — comprehensive doctrine with justice as fairness. His hope is that similar accounts may be presented for many other comprehensive doctrines. This is Rawls's famous notion of an " overlapping consensus ". Such a consensus would necessarily exclude some doctrines, namely, those that are "unreasonable", and so one may wonder what Rawls has to say about such doctrines.

An unreasonable comprehensive doctrine is unreasonable in the sense that it is incompatible with the duty of civility. This is simply another way of saying that an unreasonable doctrine is incompatible with the fundamental political values a liberal theory of justice is designed to safeguard — freedom, equality and fairness. So one answer to the question of what Rawls has to say about such doctrines is — nothing. For one thing, the liberal state cannot justify itself to individuals such as religious fundamentalists who hold to such doctrines, because any such justification would — as has been noted — proceed in terms of controversial moral or religious commitments that are excluded from the public political forum.

But, more importantly, the goal of the Rawlsian project is primarily to determine whether or not the liberal conception of political legitimacy is internally coherent, and this project is carried out by the specification of what sorts of reasons persons committed to liberal values are permitted to use in their dialogue, deliberations and arguments with one another about political matters.

The Rawlsian project has this goal to the exclusion of concern with justifying liberal values to those not already committed — or at least open — to them. Rawls's concern is with whether or not the idea of political legitimacy fleshed out in terms of the duty of civility and mutual justification can serve as a viable form of public discourse in the face of the religious and moral pluralism of modern democratic society, not with justifying this conception of political legitimacy in the first place. Rawls also modified the principles of justice as follows with the first principle having priority over the second, and the first half of the second having priority over the latter half:.

These principles are subtly modified from the principles in Theory. The first principle now reads "equal claim" instead of "equal right", and he also replaces the phrase "system of basic liberties" with "a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties". The two parts of the second principle are also switched, so that the difference principle becomes the latter of the three.

Although there were passing comments on international affairs in A Theory of Justice , it wasn't until late in his career that Rawls formulated a comprehensive theory of international politics with the publication of The Law of Peoples. He claimed there that "well-ordered" peoples could be either "liberal" or "decent". Rawls argued that the legitimacy of a liberal international order is contingent on tolerating decent peoples , which differ from liberal peoples , among other ways, in that they might have state religions and deny adherents of minority faiths the right to hold positions of power within the state, and might organize political participation via consultation hierarchies rather than elections.

This project first took the form of a series of widely-discussed articles about justice published between and There he remained, being named a University Professor in Throughout his career, he devoted considerable attention to his teaching. In his lectures on moral and political philosophy, Rawls focused meticulously on great philosophers of the past—Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and others—always approaching them deferentially and with an eye to what we could learn from them.

Mentor to countless graduate students over the years, Rawls inspired many who have become influential interpreters of these philosophers. The initial publication of A Theory of Justice in brought Rawls considerable renown.


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  4. 2. Justice: Four Distinctions?

Some social institutions can provoke envy and resentment. Others can foster alienation and exploitation. Is there a way of organizing society that can keep these problems within livable limits? Can society be organized around fair principles of cooperation in a way the people would stably accept? While fair institutions will influence the life chances of everyone in society, they will leave individuals free to exercise their basic liberties as they see fit within this fair set of rules. Utilitarianism comes in various forms.

The utilitarian idea, as Rawls confronts it, is that society is to be arranged so as to maximize the total or average aggregate utility or expected well-being. In addition to developing that constructive alternative, however, Rawls also offered some highly influential criticisms of utilitarianism. His critique of average utilitarianism will be described below. Recognizing that social institutions distort our views by sometimes generating envy, resentment, alienation, or false consciousness and bias matters in their own favor by indoctrinating and habituating those who grow up under them , Rawls saw the need for a justificatory device that would give us critical distance from them.

The OP is a thought experiment that asks: The OP, as Rawls designs it, self-consciously builds on the long social-contract tradition in Western political philosophy. While Rawls is most emphatic about this in his later work, for example, PL at 75, it is clear already in TJ. He insists there that it is up to the theorist to construct the social-contract thought-experiment in the way that makes the most sense given its task of helping us select principles of justice. The idea is to help justify a set of principles of social justice by showing that they would be selected in the OP.

The OP is accordingly set up to build in the moral conditions deemed necessary for the resulting choice to be fair and to insulate the results from the influence of the extant social order.

Original Position

The veil of ignorance plays a crucial role in this set-up. TJ at , It would be too fanciful to think of the parties to the OP as having the capacity to invent principles. The point of the thought experiment, rather, is to see which principles would be chosen in a fair set-up. To use the OP this way, we must offer the parties a menu of principles to choose from.

Rawls offers them various principles to consider. Among them are his own principles to be described below and the two versions of utilitarianism, classical and average. Would rational parties behind a veil of ignorance choose average utilitarianism? The economist John Harsanyi argues that they would because it would be rational for parties lacking any other information to maximize their expectation of well-being. Harsanyi Since they do not know who they will be, they will therefore want to maximize the average level of well-being in society. The most crucial difference concerns the motivation that is attributed to the parties by stipulation.

The veil deprives the parties of any knowledge of the values—the conception of the good—of the person into whose shoes they are to imagine stepping.

1. Justice: Mapping the Concept

What, then, are they to prefer? Since Harsanyi refuses to supply his parties with any definite motivation, his answer is somewhat mysterious. Rawls instead defines the parties as having a determinate set of motivations. The parties in the hypothetical OP are to choose on behalf of persons in society, for whom they are, in effect, trustees. PL at 76, The veil of ignorance, however, prevents the parties from knowing anything particular about the preferences, likes or dislikes, commitments or aversions of those persons. They also know nothing particular about the society for which they are choosing.

On what basis, then, can the parties choose? To ascribe to them a full theory of the human good would fly in the face of the facts of pluralism, for such theories are deeply controversial. This is the only motivation that TJ ascribes to the parties. The parties are motivated neither by benevolence nor by envy or spite. The former tradition attempts to imagine the point of view of a fully benevolent spectator of the human scene who reacts impartially and sympathetically to all human travails and successes.

The ideal-observer theory typically imagines a somewhat more dispassionate or impersonal, but still omniscient, observer of the human scene. Each of these approaches asks us to imagine what such a spectator or observer would morally approve. Against these theories, Rawls raises a number of objections, which can be boiled down to this: Rawls was determined to get beyond this impasse.

He suggests that the OP should combine the mutual-disinterest assumption with the veil of ignorance. This combination, he argues, will achieve the rough moral equivalence of universal benevolence without either neglecting the separateness of persons or sacrificing definiteness of results. As we will see, the definite positive motivations that Rawls ascribes to the parties are crucial to explaining why they will prefer his principles to average utilitarianism. The primary goods are supposed to be uncontroversially worth seeking, albeit not for their own sakes.

Although this claim seems quite modest, philosophers rebutted it by describing life plans or worldviews for which one or another of the primary goods is not useful. These counterexamples revealed the need for a different rationale for the primary goods. At roughly the same time, Rawls began to develop further the Kantian strand in his view.

These Kantian ideas ended up providing a new rationale for the primary goods. See CP essays 13, 16, Kant held that the true principles of morality are not imposed on us by our psyches or by eternal conceptual relations that hold true independently of us; rather, Kant argued, the moral law is a law that our reason gives to itself. It is, in this sense, self-chosen or autonomous law. Jones chooses to believe it does. Once it is so set up the parties are to choose principles. Their task of choosing principles thus models the idea of autonomy.

The parties to the OP, in selecting principles, implement this idea of autonomy. How they represent equality and rationality are obvious, for they are equally situated and are rational by definition. Reasonableness enters the OP not principally by the rationality of the parties but by the constraints on them—most especially the veil of ignorance.

To conceive of persons as reasonable and rational, then, is to conceive of them as having certain higher-order powers. Second, we can also revise our ends when we see reason to do so. The parties are conceived as having highest-order interests that correspond directly to these highest-order powers. Although the account of the moral powers was present in TJ , it is only in his later works that Rawls uses this idea to defend and elaborate the motivation of the parties in the OP. In various, complicated ways, in his later work, Rawls defends the primary goods as being required for free and equal citizens to promote and protect their three moral powers.

This is to cast the primary goods as items objectively needed by moral persons occupying the role of free and equal citizens. In Political Liberalism , Rawls describes the motivation as: In addition, they are concerned with securing for the person they represent the higher-order interests we have in developing and exercising our … moral powers and in securing the conditions under which we can further our determinate conceptions of the good, whatever it is.

His aim remains, nonetheless, to assemble in the OP a series of relatively uncontroversial, relatively fixed points among our considered moral judgments and to build an argument on that basis for the superiority of some principles of justice over others.

Justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

These principles address two different aspects of the basic structure of society: The second principle addresses instead those aspects of the basic structure that shape the distribution of opportunities, offices, income, wealth, and in general social advantages. Each of these three centrally addresses a different set of primary goods: That the view adequately secures the social basis of self-respect is something that Rawls argues more holistically.

The argument that the parties in the OP will prefer Justice as Fairness to utilitarianism and to the various other alternative principles with which they are presented divides into two parts. There is, first, the question whether the parties will insist upon securing a scheme of equal basic liberties and upon giving them top priority. Regarding the first part of the argument from the OP, the crucial point is that the parties are stipulated to care about rights and liberties.

In addition, he argues that securing the First Principle importantly serves the higher-order interest in an effective sense of justice—and does so better than the pure utilitarian alternative—by better promoting social stability, mutual respect, and social unity. The second part of the argument from the OP takes the First Principle for granted and addresses the matter of social inequalities.

Its sticking point has always been the Difference Principle, which strikingly and influentially articulates a liberal-egalitarian socioeconomic position. It is the Difference Principle that would most clearly demand deep reforms in existing societies. The set-up of the OP suggests the following, informal argument for the difference principle: Given this set-up, the parties will consider the situation of equal distribution a reasonable starting point in their deliberations.

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Since they know all the general facts about human societies, however, the parties will realize that society might depart from this starting point by instituting a system of social rules that differentially reward the especially productive and could achieve results that are better for everyone than are the results under rules guaranteeing full equality.

This is the kind of inequality that the Difference Principle allows and requires: Three main refinements are worth noting. First, because the principle pertains to the basic structure of society and because the parties are comparing different societies organized around different principles, the expectations that matter are not those of particular people but those of representative members of broad social classes.

Second, to make his exposition a little simpler, Rawls makes some technical assumptions that let him focus only on the expectations of the least-well-off representative class in a given society. Allowed by these simplifying assumptions to focus only on the least well off representative persons, the Difference Principle thus holds that social rules allowing for inequalities in income and wealth are acceptable just in case those who are least well off under those rules are better off than the least-well-off representative persons under any alternative sets of social rules.

This formulation already takes account of the third refinement, which recognizes that the people who are the worst off under one set of social arrangements may not be the same people as those who are worst off under some other set of social arrangements. The Difference Principle requires society to look out for the least well off. But would the parties to the OP prefer the Difference Principle to a utilitarian principle of distribution?

With nothing but the bare idea of rationality to guide them, they will naturally choose any principle that will maximize their utility expectation. Since this is what the principle of Average Utilitarianism does, they will choose it. Rawls never defends the primary goods as goods in themselves. Rather, he defends them as versatile means. In the later theory, the primary goods are defended as facilitating the pursuit and revision, by the persons the parties represent, of their conceptions of the good.


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  • While the parties do not know what those conceptions of the good are, they do care about whether the persons they represent can pursue and revise them. With this departure from Harsanyi in mind, we may finally explain why the parties in the OP will prefer the principles of Justice as Fairness, including the Difference Principle, to average utilitarianism. The maximin rule is a general rule for making choices under conditions of uncertainty.

    The maximin rule directs one to select that alternative where the minimum place is higher on whatever the relevant measure is than the minimum place in any other alternative. They care about the primary goods and the highest-order moral powers, but they also know, in effect, that the primary goods that they are motivated to seek are not what the persons they represent ultimately care about.

    Accordingly, it is rational for them to take a cautious approach. They must do what they can to assure to the persons they represent have a sufficient supply of primary goods for those persons to be able to pursue whatever it is that they do take to be good. Although the OP attempts to collect and express a set of crucial constraints that are appropriate to impose on the choice of principles of justice, Rawls recognized from the beginning that we could never just hand over the endorsement of those principles to this hypothetical device.

    That is, we need to stop and consider whether, on reflection, we can endorse the results of the OP. If those results clash with some of our more concrete considered judgments about justice, then we have reason to think about modifying the OP. The reflective equilibrium has been an immensely influential idea about moral justification. It is not a full theory of justification. When it was introduced, however, it suggested a different approach to justifying moral theories than was being commonly pursued.

    The idea of reflective equilibrium takes two steps away from the sort of conceptual analysis that was then prevalent. First, working on the basis of considered judgments suggests that it is not necessary to build moral theories on necessary or a priori premises. Rawls characterizes considered judgments as simply judgments reached under conditions where our sense of justice is likely to operate without distortion. Reaching it might involve revising some of those more concrete judgments.

    A third novel idea about justification thus emerges from this picture: Since it is up to each person, however, to determine which arguments are most compelling, Rawls stresses that the reader must make up his or her own mind, rather than trying to predict or anticipate what everyone else will think. Part Two of TJ aims to show that Justice as Fairness fits our considered judgments on a whole range of more concrete topics in moral and political philosophy, such as the idea of the rule of law, the problem of justice between generations, and the justification of civil disobedience.

    Consistent with the idea of reflective equilibrium, Rawls suggests pruning and adjusting those judgments in a number of places. One of the thorniest such issues, that of tolerating the intolerant, recurs in PL. In addition to serving its main purpose of facilitating reflective equilibrium on Justice as Fairness, Part Two also offers a treasure trove of influential and insightful discussion of these and other topics in political philosophy. There is hardly space here even to summarize all the worthwhile points that Rawls makes about these topics.

    A summary of his controversial and influential discussion of the idea of desert that is, getting what one deserves , however, will illustrate how he proceeds. As we have seen, Rawls was deeply aware of the moral arbitrariness of fortune. He held that no one deserves the social position into which he or she is born or the physical characteristics with which he or she is endowed from birth. He also held that no one deserves the character traits he or she is born with, such as his or her capacity for hard work.

    These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts. In Part Two, Rawls sets out to square this stance on the moral arbitrariness of fortune with our considered judgments about desert, which do hold that desert is relevant to distributive claims. For instance, we tend to think that people who work harder deserve to be rewarded for their effort. We may also think that the talented deserve to be rewarded for the use of their talents, whether or not they deserved those talents in the first place.

    With these common-sense precepts of justice, Rawls does not disagree; but he clarifies them by responding to them dialectically.

    An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

    He questions whether these common-sense claims are meant to stand independently of any assumptions about whether or not the basic institutions of society—especially those institutions of property law, contract law, and taxation that, in effect, define the property claims and transfer rules that make up the marketplace—are just. It is unreasonable, Rawls argues, to say that desert is a direct basis for distributional claims even if the socio-economic system is unfair.

    It is much more reasonable to hold, he suggests, that whether one deserves the compensation one can command in the job marketplace, for instance, depends on whether the basic social institutions are fair. Are they set up so as to assure, among other things, an appropriate relationship between effort and reward? When they are qualified in line with this presupposition, Rawls supports them. This dialectical clarification of the moral import of desert, however, did not satisfy all commentators. See Robert Nozick In pursuing his novel topic of the justice of the basic structure of society, Rawls posed novel questions.

    The stability of the institutions called for by a given set of principles of justice—their ability to endure over time and to re-establish themselves after temporary disturbances—is a quality those principles must have if they are to serve their purposes..