Rawls’s theory Notes for April 19

Main points

We talked about the machinery of Rawls’s theory. This is laid out in the handout.

Comparison with other philosophers

A Theory of Justice is principally aimed at providing an alternative to utilitarianism. More specifically, Rawls sought to show that there is a theoretically sophisticated way of putting common sense ideas about justice into a systematic order. This is something that Mill had denied could be done in his chapter on justice.

The other alternative that Rawls sometimes mentions, intuitionism or intuitionistic balancing, is not theoretically sophisticated. It simply says that some ways of putting our ideas about justice together are intuitively better than others without offering any more explanation of why this is so.

Rawls’s views are similar to Hobbes’s insofar as both held that the specific rights people have depend on the rules of social institutions. Thus, neither believe in natural property rights. Instead, both held that property rights or rights to individual liberty are defined by the rules of social institutions. But while Hobbes held that these rules are all arbitrary, Rawls did not. He thought some are more just or fair than others. His theory of justice was meant to spell this out.


I suggested that the veil of ignorance does not have to be as complete as Rawls asserted in order to be fair. For example, I said that the parties could know what they regard as good in life so long as they didn’t know where they stand in the social hierarchy. The decision would still be fair, I said.

Nathaniel, Michael, and Sam all pointed out that I hadn’t specified how the parties with this knowledge could be prevented from ganging up on minorities. They’re right. I think the advantage goes to Rawls there.

I also pointed out Rawls’s way of dealing with future generations. Rawls had the parties in the original position care about their grandchildren. He did this because the members of different generations are not in the circumstances of justice with one another: they cannot gain from cooperating with one another since earlier generations cannot benefit from what future generations do. It’s an incomplete solution at best: many of our decisions have implications for people far more than two generations away.

Jon asked why we couldn’t have an intergenerational original position. Part of the problem is that the decisions made in one generation affect who is alive in the subsequent generations. But there’s no simple reason why the suggestion has to fail. So why didn’t Rawls follow Jon’s suggestion? Some scholars think that Rawls was simply, and inappropriately, committed to the idea that the parties had to be in the circumstances of justice.** See Brian Barry, Theories of Justice (University of California Press, 1989), pp. 190–196.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 19, 2010.
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