50th anniversary of the political philosophy book A Theory of Justice by John Rawls


A philosopher once described European philosophy as essentially “a series of footnotes on Plato”; it would not be a stretch to describe the history of political philosophy over the past half century as a series of footnotes and responses to John Rawls.

The Harvard philosopher soars over contemporary political thought, especially on the left, in a way no other scholar rivals. Upon his death in 2002, a recollection noted that over 3,000 articles specifically about Rawls had been published during his lifetime. A theory of justice, his most famous work, has been cited nearly 60,000 times by a single metric. This year marks its 50th anniversary, with occasional lectures at the University of Virginia Law School and Notre Dame.

The decades after the book’s publication have been dominated by responses to Rawls and responses to responses to Rawls. Robert Nozick offered a libertarian reply which nevertheless spoke the language of Rawls; Susan Moller Okin criticized Rawls’ neglect of family and gender inequality.

Charles Mills argued that Rawls’ theory could not take white supremacy seriously as a political system. Tommie Shelby argued it was possible. Tim Scanlon brought Rawlsian concepts to individual ethics. Frank Michelman brought Rawls into the law. And so on, for thousands of books and articles.

This literature, in turn, has had a profound influence on the world (Scanlon’s work has even inspired a sitcom, of all things). But Rawls’ importance extends far beyond the walls of seminars and philosophy departments. His language and ideas have permeated political life, particularly in the UK and US, due to their special power in analyzing the deep economic inequalities that have developed in developed countries over the past decades. .

Fifty years later, Rawls’ most enduring legacy has been helping his succeeding generations understand what is wrong in a world characterized by both widespread destitution and scandalous wealth.

The veil of ignorance

Rawls’ key contribution was to revive the idea of ​​a social contract, as detailed by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau centuries before.

The principles of justice that should underpin a society and a government, according to Rawls, are those set out in the social contract that members of society would hypothetically accept behind a “veil of ignorance”, which prevents them from knowing what place they are. have in this company. would occupy.

The veil is the key, for without it a straight white aristocrat, knowing that he would remain an aristocrat in the society he conceives of, would uphold a social contract with solid hierarchies, where he could continue to rule over his social inferiors.

But if he were forced to consider the possibility that he was more of a woman, black, homosexual or poor, he (and everyone) would accept different and fairer principles.

For Rawls, these principles were, in order, that 1) all people should be guaranteed equal fundamental freedoms (to freedom of expression, assembly, religion, etc.); and that 2) economic and social inequalities can exist, but only 2a) when they are compatible with equal opportunities and 2b) when these inequalities benefit the less advantaged in society.

The principle of difference

2b), better known as the “principle of difference”, has become the dominant legacy of Rawls’ work, especially outside of philosophy. It tries to avoid a more rigid egalitarianism, in which everyone’s economic outcomes must be equal, by allowing some variation in resources to be fair.

If the inventors of the Pfizer vaccine become billionaires in helping the poor (in this case, helping them save their lives), then this inequality can be justified. But if someone becomes a billionaire through widespread insider trading that does not benefit those most in need, it cannot be justified.

From the point of view of intellectual history, I think the importance of the principle of difference is a little strange. Rawls himself argued that fundamental freedoms and equality of opportunity should take precedence over the principle of difference, a point which critics like Richard Arneson have grasped; if one aspect of society satisfied the principle of difference but denied people equal opportunity, that aspect of society was unfair, according to Rawls. The principle of difference plays a much less pronounced role in its theory than in its public reception.

But I think the endurance of the difference principle says something important about the importance of Rawls.

Rawls and the new golden age

A theory of justice was released just as the post-war liberal order in the US and UK was showing signs of strain. The efforts of leaders like Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and (across the pond) Attlee and Wilson to build and maintain inequality-reducing welfare states were beginning to fail.

The Vietnam War had discredited Great Society liberalism among the young left, and after Rawls’ book the gas crisis and inflation would deal it a death blow and usher in Reagan and Thatcher.

Many have viewed Rawls as an attempt to codify, with only slight amendments, this kind of anti-communist postwar liberalism and big government. Katrina Forrester’s Book In the shadow of justice is the most nuanced version of this story that I have seen; Forrester notes that Rawls “gave philosophers a distinctive structure of egalitarian thought to defend themselves against libertarian threats to their right and to spread the promise of alternatives to their left.” Aaron Wildavsky, a right-wing political scientist at Berkeley, was more severe, writing of Rawls and LBJ’s Great Society, “After the act comes rationalization.”

But as much of Rawls looked back and refined the form of government that characterized America and Britain where he had spent his adult life, he also ended up, by accident, looking to the future. He provided language the left could use to describe what was wrong with the explosion of inequality that followed in rich countries.

Relevantly, given that he did most of his work during the Cold War, Rawls’ language was non-Marxist. He did not write about the class struggle or the power of the working class, much to the dismay of some of his colleagues.

But the principle of difference has provided a distinct way of arguing against growing inequality in liberal and non-Marxist language. The problem was not wealth and the existence of a capitalist class per se. The problem was that this growing inequality brought no benefit, and even inflicted damage, on the less fortunate in society.

This has proven to be extremely important as the wealth gap persists. It is no coincidence that Bill Clinton paid homage to Rawls in the White House, telling the audience: “When Hillary and I were in law school, we were among the millions of people moved by a remarkable book that he wrote, A theory of justice. ”

Barack Obama echoed it subtly but unmistakably in his speeches on income inequality and political tolerance.

I don’t want to give too much credit for the recent center-left politics to Rawls personally; there are probably a few campaign consultants with more influence. But as Marx before him demonstrated, giving people the language to understand what is wrong with their society can be powerful.

Fifty years after the first publication of Marx Capital city, the first Marxist state was born. Today, 50 years later A theory of justice, the book (and the aftermath of its influence) is gaining ground as the driving intellectual force behind modern politics.

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