Global Lecture Series: John Rawls and the Theory of Justice

Global Lecture Series: John Rawls and the Theory of Justice

All social interactions invariably involve political relationships, therefore Politics is an inescapable part of human existence. Politics covers a vast terrain and does not only include all aspects of contemporary society that affect the state, but also those aspects of life that have public significance.

In an effort to construct the foundation for profound political discourse, AfricentricsLIVE is proud to explore remarkable global profiles of political introspection and theories through the launch of The Global Lecture Series.

John Rawls (b. 1921, d. 2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. His theory of justice as fairness envisions a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. His account of political liberalism addresses the legitimate use of political power in a democracy, aiming to show how enduring unity may be achieved despite the diversity of worldviews that free institutions allow. His writings on the law of peoples extend these theories to liberal foreign policy, with the goal of imagining how a peaceful and tolerant international order might be possible.

Rawls saw political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles in a society’s public life. The first role is practical: political philosophy can discover bases for reasoned agreement in a society where sharp divisions threaten to lead to conflict. Rawls cites Hobbes’s Leviathan as an attempt to solve the problem of order during the English civil war, and the Federalist Papers as emerging from the debate over the US Constitution.

A second role of political philosophy is to help citizens to orient themselves within their own social world. Philosophy can describe what it is to be a member of a society with a certain political status, and suggest how the nature and history of that society can be understood from a broader perspective.

A third role is to probe the limits of practicable political possibility. Political philosophy must describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people. Yet within these limits philosophy can be utopian: it can depict a social order that is the best that one can hope for. Given men as they are, as Rousseau said, philosophy imagines how laws might be.

A fourth role of political philosophy is reconciliation: “to calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history by showing us the way in which its institutions… are rational, and developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational form” (JF, 3). Philosophy can show that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly and corruption; but that at least in some ways it is better that it has become as it is.

Rawls viewed his own work as a practical contribution toward settling the long-standing conflict in democratic thought between liberty and equality, and toward describing the limits of civic and of international toleration. He offers the members of his own society a way of understanding themselves as free and equal citizens within a fair democratic polity, and describes a hopeful but limited vision of a stably just constitutional democracy doing its part within a peaceful international community. To individuals who are frustrated that their fellow citizens and fellow humans do not see the whole truth as they do, Rawls offers the reconciling thought that this diversity of worldviews results from, and can support, a social order with greater freedom for all.

-Information courtesy of Standford.Edu

Rawls’s theory of justice revolves around the adaptation of two fundamental principles of justice which would, in turn, guarantee a just and morally acceptable society. The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others. The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be (a) to everyone’s advantage and (b) open to all.

A key problem for Rawls is to show how such principles would be universally adopted, and here the work borders on general ethical issues. He introduces a theoretical “veil of ignorance” in which all the “players” in the social game would be placed in a situation which is called the “original position.” Having only a general knowledge about the facts of “life and society,” each player is to make a “rationally prudential choice” concerning the kind of social institution they would enter into contract with. By denying the players any specific information about themselves it forces them to adopt a generalized point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view. “Moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint and positing a moral outlook merely by pursuing one’s own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints.”

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