John Rawls

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 be achieved.

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 incentives.

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.

Michael Sandel

By Adam Kirsch
City Journal, September 11, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?
By Michael Sandel
Farrar, 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 Aristotle.

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.

Sandel 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.