Rawls:
Liberty and Justice for All

By Matt McKeown

One of our first childhood lessons is "Life isn't fair." But what if it could be?

Though one of the most recent figures on our author bank, John Rawls is not exactly a household name for most people, but he is viewed by many contemporary academics as one of the most significant political philosophers of the twentieth century. A veteran of the Second World War and a professor of philosophy in the Ivy League for forty years, he reformulated the basis of classical Liberalism in radical ways that continue to provoke discussion.

Liberalism, as the name suggests, is typically concerned with liberty first of all. This is often felt to be in tension with equality, and both liberty and equality are at times contrasted with justice. Rawls reimagined all of this. Without dismissing liberty as bad, he nevertheless gave justice priority, while also arguing for a vision of justice that was not in tension with equality but actually involved it—a formulation he called justice as fairness.

This idea is expounded in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Like Enlightenment writers such as Hobbes and Rousseau, Rawls takes a “social contract” approach to society (though he clearly articulates his version as a thought experiment, rather than a hypothetical history). The idea is that, in order to establish principles of a just society, the designers are placed behind a “veil of ignorance”: they know the kinds of things that human beings need and want, but they don’t know what position they will hold in the society that results—what sex or race they will be, whether they will be disabled, what religion or irreligion they will be part of, and so on are all concealed from them. This, he postulates, will motivate the designers to construct a system that uplifts and protects its most vulnerable members, because any of the designers might turn out to be one of those people. By working out what sort of society these people behind the veil of ignorance would therefore build, we can apply the same standards to the polity we actually find ourselves in as a basis for legislation and reform.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.

John Rawls

This is related to Rawls’ later book Political Liberalism, in which he tries to set down principles by which actual people, who are of course not behind the veil of ignorance and often have sharply conflicting values, can establish a liberal society which everyone in it can still wholeheartedly endorse. One of the basic principles of Liberalism is that disagreements about what the good of humanity consists in are to some extent rational: no one could seriously claim that, say, a good society tries to kill all of its members, but there is an intelligent and good-faith debate to be had over whether a good society should encourage its members to be religious (and if so, whether it should favor any one religion over another). The liberal ideal of government must accordingly be committed to the principle of public reason. This means that laws and policies must be grounded in reasons that no one can reasonably reject; an evangelical, a Muslim, a Wiccan, and an atheist might have very different private intellectual systems, but insofar as they all endorse the principles of justice, those principles are public reasons and not private ones. For example, in deciding whether to legally permit no-fault divorce, a Catholic legislator could not consult her religious beliefs, since these can be reasonably rejected; what she might do is consider the strength or weakness of the “public” argument that legalizing no-fault divorce encourages casual marriages, which in turn produce a generally flippant attitude towards legal contracts, a negative for society at large.

All this, however, invites the question of what kinds of ideas can have a, well, reasonable claim to being public reasons. The idea that the state should be neutral towards religions, for instance, is quite controversial, historically speaking (however glad we may be of it); King Louis XIV, Oliver Cromwell, and Sultan Mehmed IV, though in favor of fairly different creeds, would all have dismissed it out of hand. The idea that slavery is “publicly” wrong has, tragically, an even shorter history behind it. Rawls attempted to resolve this issue in his third major work, The Law of Peoples. His original concern with justice-as-fairness had primarily been to propose a rationally coherent system; obviously every society contains outliers who reject even its most fundamental theoretical premises, and Rawls did not hope to satisfy them. This extended to his view of international politics, in which he argued that, while illiberal societies (e.g., those that bar members of minority faiths from public office) must be tolerated on the world stage, societies that actively, systematically violated human rights had no right to such international respect. The merits of his system, and whether his later work rightly follows from his earlier premises, continues debated today. ________________________________________________________________________________________________

Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this author profile of Sir Isaac Newton, this “Great Conversation” piece on the concept of evolution, or this student essay on ethics in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And check out our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education, policy, and culture.

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