By David Gordon
The American Conservative, July 28, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
A Theory of Justice
By John Rawls
Harvard University Press, 1971
John Rawls is the most important political philosopher of the 20th century.
Rawls provided a comprehensive philosophical system that justified the main
preoccupations of the center-left and put classical liberals and
conservatives at a disadvantage.
Rawls was born into a well-connected
family in Baltimore. He attended Princeton University, fought in the Pacific
during World War II, and thereafter led the life of a quiet academic. For
most of his career he taught at Harvard.
Rawls asks what we can do when faced
with the fact that people do not agree on a common conception of the good.
He answers that even if people do not agree on the good, they can accept a
fair procedure for settling what the principles of justice should be.
Rawls invokes a veil of ignorance. Suppose five children have to divide
a cake among themselves. One child cuts the cake, but he does not know who
will get the shares. He is likely to divide the cake into equal shares. By
denying the child information that would bias the result, a fair outcome can
Rawls asks that we imagine an original position in which
people do not know their own abilities, tastes, and conceptions of the good.
Under this limit, individuals motivated by self-interest endeavor to arrive
at principles of justice.
Rawls thinks that everyone will want
certain primary goods, including rights and liberties, powers and
opportunities, income and wealth, and self-respect. Without these primary
goods, no one can accomplish his goals. Hence, individuals in the original
position will agree that everyone should get at least a minimum amount of
these primary goods.
Rawls thinks that people will agree to two
principles of justice. The first calls for the greatest liberty for each
person, consistent with equal liberty for all. Rawls contends that people
in the original position would start by wanting to distribute wealth and
income equally, but this is soon modified. People realize that we respond to
Rawls proposes that all inequalities must be to the
advantage of the least well off group. His theory does not rule out the
competitive pursuit of excellence. But he believes individuals cannot
justifiably complain if they do not benefit fully from the fruits of their
superior achievement. He argues that people do not deserve to reap the
rewards of their talents.
Rawls never abandoned his theory of
justice, but in his 1993 work Political Liberalism, he began emphasizing
that in modern constitutional democracies like the United States,
disagreements over fundamental values and issues such as abortion can
threaten the stability of society. But Rawls never shows that something bad will
happen if a society is not stable in his sense.
By Adam Kirsch
City Journal, September 11, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?
By Michael Sandel
Straus and Giroux
Michael Sandel aims at readers who enjoy debating moral conundrums and
current political issues but who are not familiar with the traditional
vocabulary of political philosophy. His favorite technique is to present the
reader with a real-life dilemma, then show how our intuitive responses to it
have been anticipated, and challenged, by thinkers like Mill, Kant, and
Take the runaway trolley: should you allow it to kill five workers on
the track, or divert it onto another track where it would kill only one
person? Sandel turns to a real incident that took place in 2005. A Navy SEAL
operating behind enemy lines in Afghanistan came across some unarmed
goatherds: should he kill them or let them go, and take the risk that they
would warn the Taliban? The SEAL let the goatherds go. They alerted the
Taliban, his unit was ambushed, and 19 American soldiers were killed.
Sandel uses such stories to introduce the reader to three major schools
of thought about justice: the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill; the
deontological, rights-based theories of Kant and Rawls; and finally the
teleological ethics of Aristotle. Sandel demonstrates the inadequacies of
the first two schools so that we are led to prefer the third.
gives his least serious consideration to utilitarianism. He rejects any
theory of justice that leaves no place for inalienable rights. Nor does he
engage fully with the categorical imperative. Instead, he focuses on the
absurd conclusions to which it seems to lead.
Sandel criticizes the
idea of the veil of ignorance by arguing that we are ineluctably entangled
with our communities, our pasts, and our sense of the possible future. If we
are ashamed of what our country does, or proud of it, we are tacitly
admitting that we are "claimed by moral ties that we have not chosen and
implicated in the narratives that shape our identity as moral agents."
Sandel believes the just society can be better achieved through a more
emotional, patriotic, and even religious appeal, rather than through abstract liberalism.
AR Rawls' theory of justice was the latest
fashion when I was a philosophy student at Oxford.