John Rawls (1921-2002) was an American philosopher, whose defence of liberalism was responsible for the revitalisation of English-language political philosophy from the late 1960s onwards.
His philosophy, presented in A Theory of Justice (1972), draws its inspiration in large part from a renewal of the tradition of liberal social contract theory. Such accounts of political society, dating from the seventeenth century, saw society as being formed by the voluntary subscription of autonomous individuals to a contract that defines their reciprocal obligations and rights. While Rawls defines society as ‘a cooperative venture for mutual advantage’, he does not see society literally as a social contract. Rather, he suggests that if real society, with the freedoms that it guarantees to its members and its distribution of resources between individuals, was such that all its members would have freely signed up as if it were a contract, then it would be a just society. Everyone would feel that the freedoms and resources that society guarantees them were justified.
In order to develop this account, Rawls invites his readers to participate in a thought experiment. Imagine that you are in an ‘original position’ prior to society, and that you have the task of planning the society in which you will live. You are likely to plan a society that gives you, and people like you, a certain advantage. But this, for Rawls, would not be fair. It would treat certain people quite arbitrarily as more important or privileged than others. So, Rawls demands that the people planning the society know little about their personal characteristics and preferences. While you know some basic facts about what it is to be human and what motivates human action, you are placed behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ as to your own talents, intelligence and abilities, your gender, race, and health, and so on. When the veil is lifted you may find yourself to be intelligent, beautiful and healthy, or physically disabled, having learning difficulties, or just downright average. In effect, this thought experiment is designed to encourage the reader to empathise with the position of others, and thus to aspire to a certain objectivity in perceiving how society treats its members. (Imagine, Rawls suggests, that when you plan a society, that your worst enemy has the job of determining your place within it.) Rawls’s point is that a just society is one that treats everyone appropriately. He argues that, from behind this veil of ignorance, you would accept two principles to organise your society. First, everyone has as extensive a set of equal liberties as is compatible with similar liberty for all. Such liberties would include the right to own property, to have freedom of speech and movement, to have a fair trial, and to participate in the political process. Second, a just society is a meritocratic one. There will be inequalities of wealth and income, but these inequalities are justified only in so far as they serve to encourage individuals to develop whatever abilities they have, and to employ them for the collective good. Ultimately, Rawls’s measure of the justice of a society is the way in which it treats the least advantaged of its members. Rich capitalist entrepreneurs are justified, for example, only if their financial rewards are bringing about employment and the production of goods that are improving the life of people throughout society. In addition, if inequality comes about through the work one does, then it is also important that everyone has an equal opportunity to compete for all offices. This in turn presupposes that one has the opportunity, for example through the educational system, to recognise and develop one’s talents. Hereditary inequalities are prima facie unjust.
Rawls has developed his position, not least in response to criticisms from communitarian philosophers (Sandel 1982). It was argued that his account of the original position failed to recognise the importance that communal and social resources play in allowing the individual to make decisions about justice. Different concrete communities will develop different traditions of what a just society is. In response, in Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls claims that he is addressing only readers who are already embedded within the Western liberal tradition. In the concept of the ‘overlapping consensus‘ (Rawls 1987), he tries to account for the pluralism of contemporary liberal societies. Members of society will be committed to ‘comprehensive doctrines’ (such as religious, artistic and communal worldviews), that play a large role in constituting their self-understanding and sense of identity. In a just pluralist society, individuals will recognise that not everyone can be convinced of the truth of their own doctrine. They must then accept a degree of ‘reasonable disagreement’, so that their differences with others are never resolved. They must be tolerant of other comprehensive doctrines. Thus, in a just society, all ‘reasonable comprehensive doctrines’ will have a common overlapping ground of mutual toleration and commitment to the liberal principles detailed in A Theory of Justice. In effect, the citizen separates the complex self that is constituted through their comprehensive doctrines, from their participation as a political being in social structures that are shared with others, who come from often radically divergent communities.
Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge
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