John Rawls is best known for “A Theory of Justice” but his later work has important political implicationsby William A Edmundson / October 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
John Rawls is one of our greatest philosophers. His 1971 A Theory of Justice has sold more than 300,000 copies. This is remarkable for any academic work, and especially so for a rigorous, densely argued philosophical treatise.
None of his later works has attracted nearly as much interest, but to understand his thought accurately we should pay attention. Only then do we understand what his theory means for politics: Rawls has led us toward socialism.
A Theory of Justice is best known for two ideas. One is the “original position.” The original position was intended to harness the social contract tradition in political philosophy, which includes Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. The core idea is that just and legitimate government is rooted in the free consent of those who are governed to the rules that define the basic structure of society.
The original position is a useful philosophical tool, especially as a way of establishing what is just. A kind of thought experiment, it asks us to choose principles to govern society but, crucially, from behind a “veil of ignorance”: the participant doesn’t know what his or her position in that society will be.
If, faced with a choice between alternative principles, choosers can decide which promises a better outcome for themselves, the bias will be toward their own interests. But if all particular knowledge about oneself is concealed behind the veil, then each will choose on the assumption that he or she is nobody special, but someone basically like all other citizens: free, equal, and with his or her own conception of the good.
Rawls argued that in this original position, choosers would prefer to prioritise certain basic rights, the paradigm case being liberty of conscience. Even on the assumption that everyone wants more of what Rawls called primary goods, they would not be willing to risk losing their liberty of conscience in order to become richer. Similarly, the choosers would not be willing to risk the loss of the political liberties, even if letting experts run the basic structure would generate greater wealth for all, and by the same token they would insist upon freedom of occupational choice.
The other idea for which Rawls is best known is the “difference principle.” Rawls asks us to conceive of society as a fair system of…