Political Philosophy Part 2


pp13 Liberalism: John Rawls - a modern ‘liberal’ thinker - 1921 - 2002


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Summary/Outline of these notes: (NB these are incomplete – much is still in rough note form)


A. Summary of Rawls’s achievement (more detailed notes follow this summary, section B):


He attempted - in the Theory of Justice 1971 - to provide a solid theoretical basis for modern liberal ideas: although liberalism is now the predominant political theory in America and Europe (Marxism is in decline) no-one has tried to say why we should believe it (since the classical writers of the 18th and 19th centuries – Locke, Mill, Kant and perhaps Hegel).


His method was to suggest we carry out a thought experiment: if we imagine ourselves to be in an environment where there are not yet any laws or governmental institutions (this is similar to classical a ‘state of nature’ argument, but note that Rawls is not suggesting there ever was such a state – rather, as stated, this is a thought experiment), and if none of has any social position as yet (we do not know if we will be rich or poor, have power or not etc – what Rawls describes as our being behind ‘a veil of ignorance’), then what would be the basic principles we would want to see put in place in order to arrange society in a fair way?


Justice, therefore is seen as ‘fairness’ – that is, it is procedural – rather than being concerned with an ‘end-state’ such as equality.


Rawls’s formulation of the two fundamental principles for the organisation of a fair society are:


1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.


2. 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 savings principle, and

(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.


Simply put (see Heywood, 2003, p 62), (i) everyone would recognise the need for individual freedom, provided it didn’t hurt anyone else (the first principle) and (ii) people would regard an egalitarian society as more fair (as they would want to avoid poverty) – though some measure of inequality would be needed to provide an incentive for people to work (he called this – his second principle – the ‘difference principle’). Another way of interpreting the ‘difference principle’ is to say that inequalities are acceptable provided they can be argued to benefit the less well-off in some way. As Jane O’Grady points out (obituary of G.A. Cohen, Guardian 11.08.09), Nigel Lawson justified his tax cuts in 1988 by arguing that they provided incentives for the production of wealth which would then benefit everyone…


Cohen argued, further, that the ‘incentive’ argument echoes Marxist arguments about the ‘determinism’ that is accepted as part of capitalism: the better-off cannot work well without extra financial incentives. It is therefore hardly consistent with the first principle, the need for liberty. Moreover, as O’Grady says, it ‘confuses the relationship between facts and moral principles…’ Finally, surely the well-off are not entitled to use such arguments: this is like a kidnapper saying that the relatives ought to pay him a ransom because that way everyone benefits – any moral argument has to meet the “interpersonal test” – i.e. it has to work whoever is putting it forward (‘the identity of anyone proposing it has to be irrelevant’). 



B. Notes on Rawls:

          1 Life

          2 Appraisal

          3 Context

          4 Aims - general, and in relation to other thinkers

          5 Particular aims and method

          6 Rawls’s procedure and formulation of principles of justice

          7 Second part of T of J makes further points

          8 Political Liberalism 1993

          9 criticisms of T of J

          10 responses by Rawls and further points made




1 Life:

Professor at Harvard

Theory of Justice 1971 – his first book, took nearly 20 years to write...

Political Liberalism 1993 

Collected Papers 1999


2 Appraisal:

1.       (BR – see #References at foot of page): “the most important English-speaking political philosopher of his generation” – possibly of the century in any language!


2.       Mixture of bold thought experiment, with conceptual rigour, and historical imagination – more or less invented analytic political thought....


3.       (AV): social liberalism, which has influenced Labour Party


3 Context:


1. Little political philosophy in USA from mid-19th century to post World War II, except for Marxism.  Because of complacency about (or acceptance of) western way of life?  Also remember domination of linguistic philosophy.


2. Then Marxism came under attack (late ‘50s especially) – e.g. from Hayek and Popper (also from within – dissidents, and in European Communist Parties). But neither Popper nor Hayek had much effect.


3. Rawls saw that liberalism lacked an ideology....


4 Aims - general, and in relation to other thinkers:


1. (RS): attempts to combine liberal ideal of political obligation with re-distributive conception of social justice...  i.e. liberal plus socialist ideas.


2. (AV): Links with Paine: substantive equality and distributive justice; we ought to accord each other equal opportunities for development, and argues that rational self-interest leads to same ends as benevolence and altruism.


3. (AV): Rejects: natural rights, utilitarianism, pure liberalism (e.g. Hayek, esp. in role of state)


4. (RS): Is anti-utilitarian, but incorporates rational choice ideas – see also (MR)


5. Kantian: sense of duty, internal moral qualities/intentions (“deontological”)


5 Particular aims and method:


1. to find principles underlying our convictions of justice, (i.e. even if there is disagreement on what justice is, there is agreement on the need for it…)


2. so is concerned with rules/procedures.. especially, way of assigning rights and duties


3. T of J p 4. Identifies two principles, which he refines later in the book… (see below for how he arrives at these, and what they consist of)


4. then can use these general/procedural rules to settle more difficult problems – dialectical progression from abstract principles through applications which pose dilemmas to revised principles, until "reflective equilibrium" is reached – i.e. political philosophy is rational


5. or can see as an “ideal theory” (requiring “strict compliance”) on basis of which can decide specific (“partial compliance”) issues (e.g. civil disobedience, see below) T of J p 8 – 9


6. gives human rights philosophical foundation to protect individual rights against the common good, and thereby put utilitarianism on the defensive: T of J p 3 - 4


7. inequalities are only justified if benefit the worst-off  (by use of the “difference principle” as a principle of distribution)


6 Rawls’s procedure and formulation of principles of justice:


1. hypothetical social contract  [T of J p 4 –5] involving:

(a) “original position” – abstraction from actual social arrangements to appeal to rationality alone ( = state of nature – but differs from earlier thinkers on this), and

(b) “veil of ignorance”… p 12.

In these circumstances, any rational person would come up with certain general principles and rules for a just society… (see below)


2. this is justice as fairness – because the original position is fair (procedural emphasis) – also (RS): procedural because all arrangements are just which can be traced back to the two principles - not primarily concerned with end-state (because liberty overrides redistribution) – the “right” is prior to (more important, more logical than) “the good” – can’t sacrifice anyone’s rights to some “good”  


3. there are two principles, (a) of rights to liberty and (b) concerning inequalities i.e. the “difference principle” - a principle of distribution: see T of J p. 60, and refined on p. 302:


First Principle:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.


Second 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 savings principle, and

(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity


7 Second part of T of J makes further points e.g.: 


1. role of the state….


2. need bill of rights, bi-cameral legislature and separation of powers, rule of law, in order to ensure the two principles are implemented


3. state could be socialist or capitalist, but recommends: compulsory and subsidised state education; positive employment policies, anti-monopoly legislation, national minimum wage ( = welfare state?)


4. morally incumbent on us not to produce policies which impoverish future generations (“just savings” policy) – e.g. UK pension funds running out of cash...


5. civil disobedience possible if procedures are not implemented (? become inadequate)


8 Political Liberalism 1993


1. accepted criticisms that T of J had rested on liberal prejudices which had been half-articulated and were debatable – i.e. liberal conception of good life: each of us has a duty to search out our good from alternatives – but this not suit e.g. Catholicism - or any other doctrine where fidelity and submission are more important than autonomy or experimentation (BR)


9 Criticisms of T of J:


1. (BR) argues his conception is “political not metaphysical” (see below on status of the theory): point is to show how any society can decide its principles of justice but the principles in T of J, might not be acceptable to other societies and traditions


2. Nozick criticises for being “end-state” oriented (rather than primarily [or sufficiently] concerned with rightness of transaction) (RS) i.e.: is the original position in fact teleological, in the sense that Rawls knew beforehand where he wanted to go?


3. (RS): Status of theory is unclear: epistemological, and therefore binding on all rational human beings, (or: a rationalisation of moral intuitions that may be rationally rejected) - or: political  i.e. if can show is not philosophically “grounded”, but is based on what a community decides, then principles of justice would vary among different communities ( = relativism)


4. Sandel: mistaken to think is epistemological… and ignores social context, i.e. fact that peoples’ wants etc are essentially determined by society and history (and (me): their moral principles are too!)


5. Isn’t the account of peoples’ decisions in the original position an over-cautious one? Does the maximin principle reflect how people think? Don’t people, rather, try to maximise own benefit, or take risks?


6. Alasdair MacIntyre: real political thinking is just not like this, the exercise is stage-managed, ignores real context


10 Responses by Rawls and further points made:


1. Not merely an apologist for liberal capitalism? In Pref. to French edition of T of J argues his principles are not realisable in a welfare state, only in a “liberal socialist” or “egalitarian property-owning” democracy


2. In “Fifty years After Hiroshima” he criticises the dropping of the Bomb – violation of laws of war


3. Accepted feminist criticisms of his position on the family (a natural non-political unit): may be source of injustice and of unjust desires – state should act to advance interests of wives and children...


Justice as Fairness by John Rawls – review from Amazon:

                  Few philosophers have made as much of a splash with a single book as John Rawls did with the 1971 publication of A Theory of Justice. Thirty years later, Justice as Fairness rearticulates the main themes of his earlier work and defends it against the swarm of criticisms it has attracted. Throughout the book, Rawls continues to defend his well-known thought experiment in which an "original position"--a sort of prenatal perspective ignorant of our race, class, and gender--provides the basis for formulating ethical principles that result in a harmonious liberal state. In addition, he supplies carefully worked-out responses and, in some cases,                  reformulations of his theory. Those coming to Rawls for the first time will find a lucid portrayal of his position; those embroiled in the ongoing debate will encounter a closely argued and subtle rejoinder to his adversaries. Readers will be pleased that the daunting volumes of Rawls's previous work have been distilled to a digestible 214 pages. --Eric de Place © 1998-2001, Inc. und Tochtergesellschaften


            The Law of Peoples by John Rawls

            A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

            Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy by John Rawls, Barbara Herman (Herausgeber)

            Political Liberalism (John Dewey Essays in Philosophy) by John Rawls


References: (Main Sources used)

(AV): Andrew Vincent: Modern Political Ideologies:

(BR): Ben Rogers (New Statesman 20/9/99) review of Collected Papers: John Rawls ed. Samuel Freeman (Harvard UP)

(RS): Roger Scruton: (Dictionary of Political Thought):

(MR): M. Ramsay: What’s Wrong with Liberalism? 1997