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John Rawls

Week of: 
December 14, 2008
What is it: 

John Rawls was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century.  In his book A Theory of Justice he articulated a concept of justice as fairness, which won many fans among liberals, and provoked important responses from thoughtful libertarians such as Robert Nozick.  Ken and John discuss the life and ideas of John Rawls with Joshua Cohen, Professor of Political Science, Philosophy, and Law at Stanford University and co-author of Associations and Democracy.

Listening Notes: 

Imagine designing a political state from scratch. Which individuals get which jobs? How much does each job pay? How are scarce resources distributed? In A Theory of Justice, American philosopher John Rawls articulated a method of answering such questions that he considered fair: Make prospective citizens decide the answers collectively, but orchestrate the decision-making process such that none of them knows which role they will occupy in the new state until the process is over. Rawls thought that putting prospective citizens under this veil of ignorance was a way to harness their self interest toward constructing a state in which even the least well off would live comfortably---for, since during the decision-making process nobody knows which role they will occupy in the new state, everyone wants to make sure that even the least privileged role would satisfy their needs if they happened to be assigned to it.

Rawls thought that this method would ensure that two principles of justice were fulfilled. The first, called the principle of equality, states that "each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all."  The second, called the difference principle, declares that "social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions---first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society."  More simplistically, every citizen should have his or her basic needs met, opportunities to satisfy more than those basic needs should be open to everyone, and no one should be allowed to satisfy a non-basic need if not doing so would benefit the least well off.

Joshua Cohen, a former student of Rawls and now a professor of political science, philosophy, and law at Stanford, joins John and Ken to discuss his teacher's life and ideas. According to Cohen, Rawls really lived his phlosophical ideals: There was a moral seriousness about him, and he always treated others with respect and as equals, no matter who they were. In line with this, Rawls thought each person should maximize others' political and economic well being, since this is a way of showing respect for them. One might say the system articulated in A Theory of Justice is a fleshing out of that thought.

Among professional philosophers, Rawls has enjoyed the rare privilege of being read by a broad range of non-philosophers, especially students of politics and law. Famously, Bill Clinton said that Rawls's teachings "helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself." From a Rawlsian perspective, how does the United States measure up these days---have we more or less implemented the principle of equality described in A Theory of Justice? Cohen thinks not: While the United States ensures political equality by extending voting rights and such to the whole populaiton, it still has work to do toward ensuring equality of opportunity and equal distribution of basic resources.

With Cohen, John and Ken make headway on many more intriguing questions about Rawls and his philosophy. Does Rawls's notion of well being have something to do with "subjective" happiness, or does it purely concern "objective" economic status? In a Rawlsian state, would competition in the market disappear? How does Rawlsianism differ from utilitarianism, according to which a state should, by whatever means, achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people? According to Rawls, humans have inalienable rights; but where do these come from---God, society, or somewhere else? What if a benevolent dictator instituted a political system that gave the same results as a Rawlsian state---would there be anything wrong with that, in Rawls's eyes? Did Rawls intend his theory of justice to apply internationally, or just at a national level? Might having one Rawlsian state among many non-Rawlsian nations lead to international inequality that otherwise would not arise?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:15): The income gap between poor and rich has widened in recent years. During his campaign, President Obama won favor with some voters by promising to redistribute wealth more evenly. Zoe Corneli hits the streets to ask San Francisco residents whether they think the distribution of wealth in the United States is fair. Almost universally, people answer 'no'. One respondent thinks those who, like teachers, deeply influence children should have higher salaries. Another maintains there should be an economic "floor" (above rock bottom, presumably) below which no one should be allowed to fall. A third respondent, who lived through the Depression and worked hard to earn her current wealth, laments economic inequality but would be reluctant to have her own money siphoned off to those who have been less industrious and frugal. One respondent even thinks money should be abolished altogether!
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:14): Ian Shoales investigates a potential reductio ad absurdum of Rawls's difference principle, characterized as the rule that, after everyone's basic needs are met, someone's non-basic need should not be met if doing so would worsen the situation of someone else for whom that need were not met. Does this mean that someone should not be allowed to have advantageous physical attributes, since doing so would put others at a disadvantage? Or that the rich should not be allowed to take antidepressants, since doing so might make the poor poorer and, thereby, more depressed?

Joshua Cohen, Professor of Political Science, Philosophy, and Law, Stanford University

Related Resources: 

Online Resources

  • S. Aybar, J. Harlan, and W. Lee (Spring 1991). "John Rawls: For the Record."  (download)  Harvard Review of Philosophy.
  • M. Hauer, L. Young, & F. Cushman (2007).  "Reviving Rawls' Linguistic Analogy."  Moral Psychology, Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness (W. Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.))  (download)
  • J. Rawls
    • (1981).  "The Basic Liberties and Their Priority."  (Tanner Lectures on Human Values)  (download)
  • H. Richardson (2005).  "John Rawls."  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • L. Wenar (2008). "John Rawls."  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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