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on July 24, 2003
"A Theory of Justice" presented a conception of justice (justice as fairness) in the social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. In "Political Liberalism" Rawls corrects an oversight in Justice as Fairness; he attempts to apply the idea of toleration to political philosophy by recognizing the fact of reasonable pluralism. Caution: Meant only for those who wish to understand political philosophy.
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on May 13, 2003
Imagine that the U.S.A. has decided to re-found itself, and you have been elected by a large geographical constituency as one of the founding fathers who must negotiate the principles for a new Constitution; further imagine that you are similarly elected to the Constitutional Convention to draft the new constitution under these principles, the Legislature which translates this constitution into law, and the Supreme Court which interprets this law in the light of experience.
You must do your duty by the people who have elected you and the generations to follow, but your electorate has no specific social character and your only mandate is to found a just constitution which will provide stable conditions for social cooperation and a well-ordered society.
How will you conduct yourself in negotiations with your fellow nation-founders? What kind of reasoning can you rely upon? You have your beliefs, but the others hold to different beliefs. And you are going to have to justify your actions to your constituency which is made up of all kinds of people, with all kinds of beliefs and all kinds of interests. You are going to have to explain yourself in a way which will seem reasonable to people who may not share your beliefs and be acceptable to those who do share your beliefs.
This is the thought experiment which John Rawls invites his readers to conduct. Rawls argues that ever since Catholicism and Protestantism fought each other to a standstill in Renaissance Europe, and the separation of Church and State was accepted as unavoidable, “reasonable pluralism� has become a fact of life for modern societies, and a fact which should be welcomed. He argues that if you conduct such a thought experiment, then you would have to come up with a conception of political liberalism something like that which he develops in his own thought experiment written up as Theory of Justice (1971) and more recently, Political Liberalism (1995).
Whether to endorse slavery, free market capitalism, democratic socialism or recreate a landed aristocracy, it is up to the “parties� to decide in due course, on the basis of the founding principles they decide, but given that the constitution must be defensible in terms which will be counted reasonable by the populace at large, Rawls is confident that such a thought experiment would come up with some kind of political liberalism. Rawls regards the relations of production as a secondary question which can be sorted out in due course, once the institutions of representative democracy and the judiciary have been settled and the citizens can legislate the social system.
In Rawls’ books this thought experiment is called the “original position� though Rawls describes it in slightly different terms. Rather than supposing one is elected from large geographical electorates, Rawls proposes a hypothetical “veil of ignorance� so that the delegates do not know the social status of those that they represent nor what social position they may occupy in the state to be founded. Otherwise, his thought experiment pretty much matches the current US Constitution, barring political lobbyists, big business control of election campaigns and the naked play of self-interest within the institutions of really existing democracy.
Thus Rawls does much the same as Kant when he re-invented the Revealed Religion of the 18th century Lutheran Church by means of Reason, and Hegel when he set out to discover what was rational in the reality of early 19th century Prussia, but, it has to be said, in a way which is commensurate with a democratic republic of the 20th century, as a “self-standing� conception, limited to that which could be justified from the standpoint of any comprehensive metaphysical, moral or religious doctrine.
Like Kant and Hegel, Rawls does not validate everything that exists in the present-day U.S.A. as rational; he holds that the high cost of US election campaigns which ensures the restriction of nomination of candidates to the very rich, and the lack of an adequate health service and social safety net which ensures that a substantial proportion of the population cannot pursue the good life, are contrary to the requirements of justice. Nevertheless, for Rawls it is the constitution which decides the distribution of wealth and power, not the other way around.
The “original position� which Rawls characterises as a “representation device�, is used to argue for “justice as fairness� as a candidate for an “overlapping consensus� “for the right reasons�, which can withstand the test of “public reason� by “rational� and “reasonable� citizens who count one another as “free and equal�, as a “self-standing� “political� conception, as opposed to a “comprehensive doctrine�, and thus create the basis for a society as a “well-ordered system of social cooperation�.
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on March 15, 2001
Building upon his previous book, "A Theory of Justice", Rawls's thought evolves towards a better comprehension of society, constitutions, and what kind of institutional engineering would be able to best design a "good" (as opposed to "perfect") society. Now, Rawls has revised his previous conception of society: it is not necessary that a society is relatively homogeneous in the moral beliefs of its elements; it is sufficient that the political institutions are suitable to accomodate every line of thought that is not against the "overlapping consensus" of society.
What is this? Rawls calls "overlapping consensus" those beliefs and principles about which every societal group is coincident. The most obvious is that murder is not acceptable and should be hardly punished, that people's goods have to be protected from theft, that free speech should be guaranteed, etc. The overlapping consensus is the sum of every group's own consensus, and thus it should be the core of the Constitution: the principles on which everybody, or almost everybody excluding criminals and other misfits, agree.
Second, Rawls reviews his concept of the "original position". Many critics of Rawls argue that this concept is totally theoretical and impossible to achieve in practice. And they're right. This is not a manual for politicians or a book on public policy: it's pure political philosophy, and certainly of the highest sort. In the "original position", Rawls says that good constitutions and legal systems would be best accomplished by people ignorant of their position in society. For example, if you do not know what your social position will be, you better design a law that takes into account rights and benefits for people with every kind of handicap, lest you turn out to be blind, or deaf. Similarly, you wouldn't either be excessively hard on rich people, lest you turn out to be a big shareholder. If some approach like this could be reached when making laws, society would be better balanced and more just.
Third, Rawls reviews and upholds his concept of "justice as fairness", the core of his previous book on this subject. To be just is to be fair. Sounds simple, but it's not always easy to determine what is fair to someone. But it implies that public policy on justice should not aim at correcting situations out of all proportion.
Summing up, this is an extraordinary book, even if you feel you belong to a different school of thought. It makes you think of what kind of good society is really achievable, far from the disastrous attempts at building utopias that the XX century witnessed.
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on July 7, 2001
Rawl's work here takes his previous articulation of justice and places it inside the context of 'reasonable' society characterized by pluralism (i.e., various peoples who adhere to incompatible comprehensive doctrines). Their coexistence is made possible by the existence of the political 'overlapping consensus'. This entire work awed me page to page. The arguments within this book have the rare beauty of answering many of your questions as they enter your head. Such a work cannot be skimmed, but it must be perused. Even if, like myself, you are not a specialist in politics, this will be an engaging and fruitful reward if the time is taken to read it and ponder it. Rawls has created a truly wonderful contribution to civil society.
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on April 27, 2000
Try to reformulate the own conceptions is perhaps the hardest task a person can take. That's why the Rawl's compromise with readers, but I suspect specially with himself, to put once again his theory of justice in paper updating his ideas (according the current net of conditions and the evolution it additionally implies to the conceptions, besides the personal reflections), is a effort that renews the whole Rawl's works merits. One can say Political Liberalism is the second half of a big contribution to political science or political philosophy as well. Hence, it means the needed continuation to "A Theory of Justice " or "Justice as Fairness" (among his others works) reading. Go ahead.
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on December 9, 2014
Great for philosophy, politics, law students. This is considered a primary (must-read) text in many disciplines and, although repetitive at times, is fairly accessible and not difficult to get through. Rawls had a big vision.
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