The great philosopher offered a new way to think about how our social and political world is organisedby James Garvey / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
John Rawls died 15 years ago this month, on the 24th of November. According to the moral philosopher TM Scanlon, “John Rawls was widely recognised as the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. His work revived and reshaped the entire field, and its profound influence on the way justice is understood and argued about will last long into the future.”
His masterpiece is A Theory of Justice, which appeared in 1971. Its opening line says a lot about its content. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” It might strike you as a little too lofty, but he brings his subject matter right down to earth in the next sentence. “A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”
The book was written during the Vietnam War, at a time when America was struggling to come to grips with all sorts of things, not least the idea of civil rights. Political philosophy in previous decades focussed on history and conceptual analysis, not the ragged edges of real world problems, and probably the time was ripe for a big change. Rawls promised a new way to think about justice and fairness, about how our social and political world is organised and whether or not it’s morally right. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was translated into more than 25 languages. The ideas in it continue to strike a chord.
Rawls argues for a theory of justice as fairness, and at the heart of his thinking is a remarkable thought experiment. It’s been recast in all sorts of ways, but a version of it goes like this. Imagine people who are asked to choose the principles of a just society. To make certain that their conclusions are fair for everyone, and to ensure that their deliberations are unbiased and impartial—there’s no horse-trading, no bargaining based on differences in wealth or power—Rawls imagines them operating behind “the veil of ignorance.” In short, they don’t know what their place will be in the society they’re setting up. They don’t know their eventual social position, race, gender, natural talents or limitations, inheritance, job, views…