Rawls Theory

Topics: John Rawls, Political philosophy, Original position Pages: 9 (3348 words) Published: February 27, 2013
A contemporary philosopher, John Rawls (1921-2002), is noted for his contributions to political and moral philosophy.  In particular, Rawls' discussion about justice introduced five important concepts into discourse, including: the two principles of justice, the “original position” and “veil of ignorance,” reflective equilibrium, overlapping consensus, and public reason.  What is interesting about these five contributions is how Rawls’ speculative thought has been used by scholars across disciplinary lines, influencing such diverse academic disciplines as economics, law, political science, sociology, and theology. A theory of justice...

Rawls’ most famous work, A Theory of Justice (1971), provides an introduction to this body of thought as well as some of its implications for ethics.  Like many philosophers before him, Rawls focused upon justice because of its substantive importance for organizing and governing society. The problem, however, involves defining what that term means theoretically (i.e., speculatively about organizing and governing society) and practically (i.e., the consequences for people and their lives). Generally, speaking, justice can be defined in one of two ways.  One definition emphasizes an individual’s merit or lack of it.  According to this definition, each individual must be treated exactly as one deserves.  This "merit theory" of justice, reflecting utilitarian ethics, uses merit to determine just how individual members of society will be rewarded or punished based solely upon whether one's conduct is useful or harmful to society.  The "need theory" of justice, which assumes that individual members of society should help those other members who are most in need so as to redress their disadvantages, reflects the influence of natural law theory and Kant's categorical imperative.  In this view, “doing good” dictates that every member of society recognize that need entitles the most disadvantaged to some sort of special consideration and that the more advantaged must compensate the disadvantaged with the goal of bringing them up to an acceptable level of advantage. Attempting to balance the demands posed by these rival theories, Rawls maintained that inequalities in society can only be justified if they produce increased benefits for the entire society and only if those previously the most disadvantaged members of society are no worse off as a result of any inequality.  An inequality, then, is justified if it contributes to social utility, as the merit theory asserts.  But, at the same time, Rawls argued, priority must be given to the needs of the least advantaged, as the needs theory asserts.  Thus, differential rewards are allowed to the advantaged members of society but not because of any merit on their part.  No, these rewards are tolerated because they provide an incentive for the advantaged which ultimately will prove beneficial to society (e.g., taxing the advantaged with the goal of redistributing the wealth to provide for the least advantaged). The original position...

Using a thought experiment Rawls called “the original position” from which agents behind a “veil of ignorance” select principles of justice to govern society, Rawls argued that two principles serve to organize society, the "liberty principle" and the "difference principle."  He rooted the original position in and extended the concept of “social contract” previously espoused by Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke which made the principles of justice the object of the contract binding members of society together.  In addition, Rawls’ advocacy of treating people only as ends and never as means rooted his philosophical speculations in and extended Kant’s categorical imperative. According to Rawls, a society is a cooperative venture between free and equal persons for the purpose of mutual advantage.  Cooperation among members makes life better because cooperation increases the stock of what it is rational for members of society to desire...

References: Aristotle. (1958). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.) In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 158-274). New York: Washington Square Press.
Maclagan, P.  (1998).  Management & morality.  Thousand Oaks, IL: Sage Press.
Rawls, J.  (2001).  Justice as fairness: A restatement.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Rawls, J.  (1999a).  A theory of justice (rev. ed.).  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Rawls, J.  (1999b).  The law of peoples with “the idea of public reason” revisited.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rawls, J.  (1996).  Political liberalism.  New York: Columbia University Press.
Rawls, J.  (1971).  A theory of justice.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Thompson, D. F.  (1990).  Political ethics and public office.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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