Contemporary Political Thought and Debate

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Contemporary Political Thought and Debate


Please answer the two questions then reply to two of your classmates

( 380 Word Minimum) Max 500 words for each of the two question

  1. John Rawls: Veil of Ignorance

What do you take to be Rawls central aim in devising the “veil of ignorance” in this theory of justice? Do you think this kind of mental exercise (the veil of ignorance) ought to be applied to formulating a good and just well-ordered society (law and policy)?

  1. Rawls or Nozick? 

Both Rawls and Nozick incorporate forms of distributive justice in their theories. Yet, Rawls understands “justice as fairness” according to his formulation of the “difference principle,” while Nozick carries forward the Lockean idea of self-ownership. What do these two different approaches entail, and what do you see as their respective aims? Whose approach do think is most fair?

John Rawls: Justice as Fairness & Political Liberalism

Robert Nozick: Libertarianism

Biography from Stanford Philosophy website

John Rawls (b. 1921, d. 2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal, social-contract tradition. Rawls was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a prominent lawyer, his mother a chapter president of the League of Women Voters. Rawls studied at Princeton, where he was influenced by Wittgenstein’s student Norman Malcolm, and at Oxford, where he worked with H. L. A. Hart, Isaiah Berlin, and Stuart Hampshire. In 1962 Rawls joined the faculty at Harvard, where he taught for more than thirty years.

As a college student Rawls had considered studying for the priesthood; as an infantryman in the Pacific in World War II he lost his Christian faith on seeing the capriciousness of death in combat and learning of the horrors of the Holocaust. Then in the 1960s Rawls spoke out against the US involvement in Vietnam. It was the Vietnam conflict that motivated Rawls to analyze the defects in the American political system that led to what he saw as an “unjust war” and to consider citizens’ role in conscientious resistance.

Rawls’s most significant and renowned achievement is his theory of a just liberal society: justice as fairness. In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls envisions a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. Rawls restated the theory in Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as Fairness(2001). His account of political liberalism addresses the legitimate use of political power in a democracy, where he shows how enduring unity may be achieved despite diverse worldviews. His writings on the law of peoples extend these theories to liberal foreign policy and a tolerant hence peaceful international order.

Contemporary Political Thought and Debate Lecture Notes

In A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, Rawls offers a Kantian-inspired normative principle of “justice as fairness” suitable for a pluralistic liberal-democratic society. For Rawls, justice is a value of central importance to a civil society. His work explores the question: “[What] is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the fair terms of social co-operation between citizens regarded as free and equal, and as fully co-operating members of a society over a complete life, from one generation to the next?” (Rawls 1996, 3).

In terms of justice, Rawls’ main concerns are the integration of the disenfranchised into society and social stability in the face of competing views on religion, gender, sexuality, culture, and so on. Since society is characterized by a pluralism of often incompatible comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines, a liberal-democratic society must be committed to secure basic rights to all citizens and to ensure that these rights over various ideas of the good are given priority. There must be a commitment to civility as well as a refusal to define the most just approach to a public issue in terms of a particular, nonpublic, comprehensive religious or ethical doctrine. A liberal constitutional democracy can only survive when support for its basic institutions is shared universally.

How it is possible that many conflicting reasonable comprehensive doctrines can coexist in a just and stable society?

Public Reason in Liberal Pluralism. Public Reason is intrinsic to what Rawls calls “political liberalism.” Reason is a mode of organizing interests and ends. The exercise of human reason produces a plurality of reasonable even if incompatible comprehensive doctrines. Here, reason entails public use, that is, argument or justification that others should be able to accept.

Reason is public in three senses. First, public reason is the reason of citizens. Second, the subject of public reason is the public good. Third, the content of reason is given by “the ideals and principles” expressed by society and “conducted open to view on that basis (RAWLS). Public reason therefore (a) accommodates ethical pluralism, (b) obligates citizens to justify positions with one another by way of “overlapping consensus,” (c) and establishes moral consensus on the “right” reason.

Practical aim of overlapping consensus: This means trying to find a basis of public agreement, that is, to present one’s reason as a conception of justice that may be shared by all citizens as a basis of a reasoned, informed, and willing political agreement.

One objective of political liberalism is the disclosure of the conditions of the possibility of a reasonable public basis of justification on fundamental political questions. Note there is a major assumption here. Political liberalism requires impartiality in that it does not criticize or reject any reasonable view, any particular theory of the truth of moral judgments, but it presupposes that these judgments are made from the point of view of some comprehensive moral doctrine.

A well-ordered society and state should represent this “public use of reason.” The liberal principle of legitimate exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational (PL, my emphasis).

If all of this reminds you of Kant’s categorical imperative, it should. The legitimate exercise of political power requires an ideal of citizenship that imposes a moral duty – the duty of civility. The duty of civility is that everyone has to explain to one another on those fundamental questions how the principles and policies they advocate can be supported by the political values of public reason. The duty of civility and the political values of public reason form a “union” that yields the ideal of citizens governing themselves in ways that each thinks the others might reasonably be expected to accept” (PL, my emphasis). (Note: Kant) This ideal in turn is supported by the comprehensive doctrines reasonable persons affirm.

Thus, the concept of political liberalism accepts the fact of reasonable pluralism and further suggests that each citizen affirms both a comprehensive (religious, philosophical, or moral) doctrine and the ideal of public reason from within their own reasonable comprehensivereligious, philosophical, or moral doctrine.

Political Conception of Justice. What emerges from this right-over-good approach is a politicalconception of justice as fairness as the basis of society. Rawls proposes what he calls a “political conception of justice” that will not displace the various “comprehensive doctrines” – numerous particular ethical and cultural background world views – that people hold. The political conception must be one that all of us may reasonably expect adherents of reasonable (though distinct) comprehensive doctrines to endorse, not as a temporary strategic means of furthering our own comprehensive doctrines but rather as the basis for an enduring, fair democratic society predicated on social cooperation.

What is a political conception? Rawls offers a conceptual differentiation between moral and political theorizing of justice. He distinguishes between a moral doctrine of justice and a political conception of justice in order to conceptually differentiate between a moral comprehensive philosophical domain and a strictly political domain. The difference between the moral and the political allows Rawls to deal with the problems of justice wherein the essential feature of a well-ordered society is associated with citizens= endorsement of justice on the basis of their comprehensive and partially comprehensive, doctrines.

In other words, the political conception of justice is shared by everyone, while the reasonable comprehensive doctrines are not; hence, one must distinguish between a public basis of justification that is generally acceptable on fundamental political questions and Athe many nonpublic bases of justifications that belong to comprehensive doctrines and that are acceptable only to those who affirm them. The principles of the political conception of justice are based on ones of practical reason.

Justice as fairness. Rawls defines justice as “justice as fairness.” His theory of justice defines how basic goods should be distributed which he sees as crucial for ensuring equal rights in a setting characterized by differences in wealth and status.

Justice as fairness consists of two principles. One is known as the “liberty principle;” the other, the “difference principle.”

First, the basic structure of society’s political institutions must be designed to protect the same basic rights for all persons. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.

Second, the better off (due to status and wealth) of society should be committed to helping make possible full equality of opportunity for all. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (1) they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and, second, (2) are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society (Rawls 1996, 5-6) (2000, 93).

Rawls emphasizes the equal distribu­tion of the goods people need to achieve a valued life. So, the first (liberty) principle requires the equal distribution of what is called “primary goods.” For Rawls, these primary goods are “basic rights, liberties, and opportunities, and the … all-purpose means such as income and wealth,” but also the “bases of self-respect” (1996, 180-81). These goods are “things citizens need as free and equal persons ( )” Equality of primary goods can also be seen in terms of equal freedom. The concentration on the distribution of ‘primary goods – rights, liberties and opportunities, income and wealth, and social bases of self-respect – in his difference principle can be seen along the lines of equality of opportunities and equality of resources.

Justice as fairness therefore requires that these goods be equally provided to all of society’s members, so that each has equal substan­tive ability to pursue one’s conception of the good and the right deter­mined by one’s “comprehensive doctrine.”

These goods can be considered means to one’s ends and Rawls contends that without such sufficient means, the formal rights and opportunities that people enjoy remain empty promises. The deprived are unable to secure the “fair value” of these rights and opportunities (1996, 6). Rawls sets out to establish a criterion for distribution of goods that is just by virtue of its inherent fairness.

The second, part of the “difference principle,” modifies the first, liberty principle. Justice as fairness permits inequality in the dis­tribution of primary goods provided the worst off benefits most. Note that Rawls does not claim that liberties can only be exercised in ways conducive to equal distribution of resources. Rawls allows for the case in which the equal distribution of primary goods may actually harm all of society’s members.

An example often offered is to consider a group of people cast adrift in a lifeboat with limited food and water. Justice as fairness warrants an unequal distribution of resources with those who are most capable of rowing the boat receiving a disproportionate share because this distribution serves the interests of those least provisioned (by increasing their chances of survival) far better than would a strictly equal distribution. Justice as fairness thus consists of equal distribution of primary goods unless otherwise justified to be unequal.

These two principles of justice exemplify the content of the political conception of justice and its three elements: (i) a specification of certain basic rights, liberties and opportunities; (ii) an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties and opportunities B especially with respect to claims of the general good and of perfectionist values; and (iii) measures assuring all citizens aequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their liberties and opportunities.

Also, these two principles provide for an egalitarian form of liberalism by virtue of these three elements: (i) the guarantee of a fair value of the political liberties (that are not purely formal); (ii) fair equality of opportunity (that is not purely formal); (iii) the difference principle to address social and economic inequalities that are to be adjusted to contribute in the most effective way to the benefit of the least advantaged.

The aim of justice as fairness is to express citizens= shared and public political reason in attaining a shared reason justice as fairness must remain independent (as much as possible) of the opposing and conflicting philosophical, moral and religious doctrines that citizens affirm. In its practical expression, then, justice as fairness attains the features of the political conception of justice, one that political liberalism looks for and one that can gain the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines in a society regulated by it.

Rawls’s Social Contract. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls generalizes and carries to a higher order of abstraction the traditional doctrine of the social contract and elaborates a conception of justice as superior to utilitarianism. His social contract sets out to achieve the objectives of political liberalism. But, how are these fair terms of social cooperation are to be determined?

The fair terms of social cooperation must be conceived as agreed to by those engaged in it, that is, by free and equal citizens who are born into society in which they lead their lives, and that the conditions of a social contract must situate free and equal persons fairly and must not allow some persons greater bargaining advantages that others.

More specifically, these conditions are those of an original position, which for Rawls is the veil of ignorance. An original position under the veil of ignorance means conditions that are abstracted from and not affected by the contingencies of the social world (contingent advantages and accidental influences) in order to provide for fair agreement on the principles of political justice between free and equal persons. We must find a common, universal standard, then, which Rawls identifies as the “original position”: this is the place/point where all rational persons or parties stand (so to speak) behind a “veil of ignorance.”

It is an objective position. Behind the veil of ignorance, we do not know our own particular degree of wealth, status, or background. This original position would be an acceptable starting point for deliberating justice in the ordering of the basic structure of society. The elimination of contingencies from the original condition blocks any bargaining advantages that inevitably arise within the background institutions of any society from cumulative social, historical, and natural tendencies, and allows for a construction of a well-ordered society.

A well-ordered society means a society that is regulated by a public political conception of justice. For a society to be conceived as a well-ordered it must be a society in which: everyone accepts and knows that everyone else accepts the very same principles of justice and its citizens must have an effective sense of justice that would allow them to comply with the general institutions which they regard as just. Thus, a political conception of justice as fairness establishes in a well-ordered society promotes a shared point of view for adjudication.


Web reading:

  1. John Rawls, SEP: Sections 1 (Life and Work), 3 (Political Liberalism), and 4 (Justice as Fairness)

  1. Robert Nozick, IEP: Section 2 (Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Libertarianism)
  1. Distributive Justice, SEP: Sections 1 (Scope and Role of Distrib. Principles), 3 (Difference Principle), 5 (Welfare-Based Principles), 6 (Desert-Based Principles), 7 (Libertarian Principles), and 8 (Feminist Principles)

  1. Contemporary Critiques of Social Contract Theory, IEP: Sections a. (Feminist Arguments) and b. (Race-Conscious Arguments)

Contemporary Political Thought and Debate Documents:


1. The Rawlsian Social Contract: This Yale Video Lecture is not required but highly recommended. Professor Shapiro offers a last look at the Enlightenment tradition of social contract theorists, namely John Rawls. Rawls is one of the most important if not the most important figures of contemporary political philosophy and a starting point for all social and political justice theorists. Rawls’s theory of justice, such as the original position and the veil of ignorance, channel Kant’s categorical imperative.

  1. Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? Episode 08: “WHATS A FAIR START?”: This is another excellent Yale Video Lecture from Professor Sandel. Again, not required but recommended.


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