A philosopher once described European philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato”. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the history of political philosophy over the past half century as a series of footnotes and responses to John Rawls.
The Harvard philosopher looms large contemporary political thought, particularly on the left, in a way that no other scholar can rival. When he died in 2002, one of his memories indicated that more than 3,000 private articles about Rolls were published during his lifetime. justice theory, his most famous work, has been cited nearly 60,000 times on a single scale. This year marks its 50th anniversary, with conferences to mark the occasion at the University of Virginia and Notre Dame School of Law.
Responses to Rawls and responses to Rawls’ responses have dominated the decades since the book was published. Robert Nozick provided a liberal commentary, however, speaking in Rawls’s language. Susan Mueller-Oken has criticized Rawls’ neglect of the family and gender inequality.
Charles Mills argued that Rawls’ theory could not take white supremacy seriously as a political system. Tommy Shelby has argued that it is possible. Tim Scanlon brought Rawlsian concepts to bear on individual morality. Frank Michelman introduced Rawls into law. Thus, for thousands of books and articles.
This literature, in turn, has had a profound impact on the wider world (Scanlon’s work has even inspired a skit, of all things). But Rawls’ importance extends far beyond the walls of seminars and philosophy departments. His language and ideas have permeated political life, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, due to their own strength in analyzing the deep economic inequalities that have grown in developed countries over the past few decades.
Fifty years later, Rawls’ most enduring legacy has been to help the generations who came after him understand what is unjust in a world of rampant poverty and outrageous wealth.
veil of ignorance
Rawls’ main contribution was the revival of the idea of the social contract, as explained by philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau centuries earlier.
Rawls said that the principles of justice upon which society and government should be based are those enshrined in the social contract that members of society hypothetically agree behind a “veil of ignorance”, which prevents them from knowing what place in that society they will occupy.
The veil is key, because without it a straight white aristocratic man, secure in the knowledge that he will remain an aristocrat in the society he designs, will uphold a social contract with fixed hierarchies, whereby he can continue to control his social tenants.
But if he were forced to consider the possibility of being, instead, a woman, or black, or gay, or poor, he (and anyone else) would agree to different and more just principles.
For Rawls, these principles were, in order, as follows: 1) Equal fundamental liberties must be guaranteed to all people (in freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc.); and that 2) economic and social inequalities can exist, but only 2a) when they correspond to equal opportunity and 2b) when these inequalities help the less fortunate in society.
The principle of difference
2b), better known as the “Principle of Difference,” has become the dominant legacy of Rawls’ work, especially outside of philosophy. He tries to avoid a stricter egalitarianism, whereby the economic outcomes of all must be equal, by allowing some variance of resources to be equitable.
If the inventors of the Pfizer vaccine became billionaires in the context of helping the poorest (in this case, by helping to save their lives), then the inequality could be justified. But if someone becomes a billionaire through rampant internal trade that does not benefit the worst, it cannot be justified.
As a matter of intellectual history, I think the emergence of the principle of difference is a bit strange. Rawls himself argued that fundamental freedoms and equal opportunity should take precedence over the difference principle, a point that critics such as Richard Arnson have exploited. If an aspect of society satisfied the principle of difference but denied people equal opportunity, then that aspect of society was unjust, according to Rawls. The principle of difference plays a less obvious role in his theory than in its general reception.
But I think the stamina of the difference principle says something important about why Rawls is so important.
Rawls and the New Gilded Age
justice theory It was published just as the postwar liberal order in the United States and the United Kingdom was showing signs of tension. The efforts of leaders such as Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and (across the pond) Attlee and Wilson to build and perpetuate welfare states that reduce inequality began to falter.
The war in Vietnam had discredited the liberalism of the great society among the left-wing youth, and after Rawls’ book, the gas and inflation crisis was a fatal blow to Reagan and Thatcher.
Rawls was seen by many as an attempt to codify, with only minor modifications, the kind of big government, anti-communist liberalism of the postwar period. Katrina Forrester’s book under justice is the most accurate version of this story I have seen; Forrester notes that Rawls “gave philosophers a distinct framework for egalitarian thinking to defend against libertarian threats to them and to defuse promises of alternatives on their left.” Aaron Wildavsky, a right-leaning Berkeley political scientist, was more ruthless, writing of Rawls and LBJ’s Great Society, “After action comes justification.”
But as much as Rawls looked back and refined the form of government that characterized America and Britain where he spent his adult life, he also ended up, by chance, looking forward. He offered language the left could use to describe what went wrong in the subsequent explosion of inequality in rich countries.
Conveniently, given that he did most of his work during the Cold War, Rawls’ language was non-Marxist. He did not write about class struggle or the power of the working class, much to the consternation of some of his colleagues.
But the principle of difference offered a distinct way of arguing against the growing inequality of non-Marxist liberal language. The problem was not wealth and the existence of a capitalist class per se. The problem was that this growing inequality did not do any good, indeed did harm, to the less fortunate in society.
This has proven to be very important as the wealth gap persists. It is no coincidence that Bill Clinton pays tribute to Rawls at the White House, telling the audience, “When Hillary and I were in law school, we were among the millions who were touched by a wonderful book he wrote, justice theory. ”
Barack Obama subtly but unequivocally echoed it in his speeches about income inequality and political tolerance.
I don’t want to attribute much of the recent center-left politics to Rawls personally; There are probably a few campaign advisors who have a greater impact. But as Marx explained before him, giving people the language to understand what is wrong with their society can be powerful.
Fifty years after Marx was first published CapitalThe first Marxist state came into existence. Now, 50 years later justice theoryThe book (and the backlash to its effect) stands on the rise as a revitalizing intellectual force behind modern politics.
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