Chapter 9.  Rawl's Theory: Justice as Fairness
Section 3. Discussion of Rawls

The Plight of the Poor in the Midst of Plenty

A Review of Rawl’s Collected papers

by Jeremy Waldron Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia University.

John Rawls is best known as the author of a large book of 'grand theory', A Theory of Justice, that changed the face and refreshed the spirit of political philosophy when it was published in 1971. He is also the author of about forty scholarly articles, beginning with a chapter on ethics from his Princeton dissertation in 1951 and culminating with a short piece on Hiroshima, published in Dissent on the 50th anniversary of the first use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets.


There is no one single main point of  Rawl's A Theory of Justice, but one of its main points is to try to move from equality to justice (hence justice as fairness) by measured steps that rational persons would be able to embrace. In this regard it may be the most plausible theory of justice that doesn't depend on emotion, upbringing, self-serving prejudice, class consciousness, and so on. 

1) All theories of human action, social organization, morality rest on idealized or schematic persons and not real individuals. They are not fully scientific in the contemporary sense but they are as close as you can get in morally relevant contexts. Hence Rawls deals with representative persons and invests them with several qualities - rationality, and reasonable self interest being two salient features. If that shoe can't fit the reader then there would be no reason to read further as nothing else will be entirely agreeable thereafter.

2) Rawls does not advocate in any form the equal distribution of resources or their blind redistribution to the disadvantaged. Everyone who has thought the matter through knows that these are socially wasteful distributions. The idea behind Rawls' difference principle is to arrange before-hand (behind a veil of ignorance) for a system of distribution of resources which will differentially reward the socially useful so long as it will always also be to the advantage of the least well off. So. e.g. if we determine that a sanitation engineer is necessary to a well ordered society because his/her activities will be to everyone's advantage we have reasonable grounds to award him/her a disproportionate portion of the available pool of social wealth, and then so on down the line of socially useful pursuits (we want to reward all socially useful activities, discourage the opposite and improve the lot of those who may contribute little or even nothing). This we do theoretically beforehand so we can in the blind determine what a 'just' distribution would be like. Then we are in position to criticize actual distributions that substantially vary from the distribution we selected as 'unjust'.

- - -Stefan Baumrin,  CUNY     (by permission)


John Rawls died in November of 2002.  Here are three notices that appeared in the popular press at that time that indicate his importance both in Philosophy and in recent events in US history.  3 notices


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