John Rawls

Sunday, February 21, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, 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?

Comments (3)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, February 19, 2021 -- 8:35 AM

Rawls is the bedrock of

The very nature of humanity and the ecology of the earth is changing from the world of Rawls. Our relations with technology and ecology are going to define our best selves.

The U.S. Military is an interesting use case for the ignorant veil - though I wouldn't want to write that out too far without caveat. In short, the ranks, chain of command, soldiers, non commissioned officers and officers alike - have a Rawlsian nature where everyone's role is defined and monetized for the greater good.

Another interesting use case are the virtual societies like Second Life, the Sims and Minecraft where people sometimes literally buy in with an assumed equality void of cultural pretense.

This is difficult territory. Interesting to hear these older shows hit forward to current politics (we are currently going through the 2nd Impeachment of Donald Trump - where liberal, liberty and assaults on our overlapping consensus are being worked out.)

Fun times... Rawls helps but this is far from the final word.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 -- 4:24 AM

Enjoyed Rawls' tome on

Enjoyed Rawls' tome on justice read several years ago. Working on a treatment of truth, after reading Davidson. May share some of those thoughts, if essay is not published in he next two-three months. Query: has Philosophy Talk ever done a show on that topic? I have been incommunicado since March, 2020, due to the plague.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 -- 6:28 AM

Welcome back Harold! You

Welcome back Harold! You have been missed. I was thinking the worst (as is my bent) but this post is very well received and thought out.

I look forward to your essay. There are many PT shows and blogs on belief and truth but I know you know this. I will read Davidson in anticipation.