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Happy birthday, John Rawls! We celebrate the political philosopher’s centenary, as well as the 50th anniversary of the publication of “A Theory of Justice.”
The American political philosopher John Rawls was born in 1921 and published A Theory of Justice in 1971. In celebration of these 100th and 50th anniversaries, we provide this reading list of great Rawls-related essays that have appeared in Boston Review. One of the pieces is by Rawls himself, and came to us through Owen Fiss. Fiss sent us a 1981 letter that he had received from Rawls recounting a conversation with Harry Kalven—whose book, A Worthy Tradition (1988), shaped Rawls’s understanding of freedom of
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls presented an account of justice—he called it “justice as fairness”—that proposed a striking marriage of the values of liberty and equality. For much of the past century, the idea of a political philosophy devoted to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned classical liberals for giving undue attention to formal rights and liberties while remaining complacent in the face of grim inequalities of fortune on earth. Classical liberals, meanwhile, rejected egalitarianism for its paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of a life-flattening equality. “Equality comes sharply into conflict with freedom,” Milton Friedman had written in Capitalism and Freedom (1962): “one must choose. One cannot be both an egalitarian . . . and a liberal.”
A Theory of Justice redefined the options. Justice as fairness embraced both an egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions and the personal liberties we associate with liberalism. The idea, Rawls said, was to achieve a “reconciliation of liberty and equality.” That idea—that we can simultaneously and whole-heartedly hold both strong egalitarian and strong liberal commitments—has informed our work for the past 30 years.
Along with this commitment to uniting liberty and equality, Rawls argued—especially in his 1993 book Political Liberalism—for a conception of democratic politics as an exercise of public reason. Reason, because political deliberation should appeal to principles, evidence, and argument. Public, because standards of reasoning can be shared among the members of a democratic society despite their disagreements about religious, moral, and philosophical
The following essays explore the power—and test the limits—of Rawls’s profound contributions to our understandings of justice and democracy. We hope you will use the occasion of these two Rawls anniversaries not just to read them but to take up their fundamental challenge: to use collective reasoning and imagination to create a more just world.
—Joshua Cohen, co-editor-in-chief
For five decades Anglophone political philosophy has been dominated by the liberal egalitarianism of John Rawls. With liberalism in crisis, have these ideas outlived their time?
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“Baseball shares with tennis the idea that time never runs out, as it does in basketball and football. This means that there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback. The last of the ninth inning becomes one of the most potentially exciting parts of the game.”
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“Rawls’s theory shows that the rise of someone like Trump, in response to the failures of American political institutions, was entirely consistent with what the most influential contemporary version of liberal theory would lead one to expect.”
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“By establishing equal liberties, robustly equal opportunity, a fair distribution of resources, and support for our self-respect—the basics of Rawlsian justice—we would go a long way to eliminating the most important injustices in health outcomes.”
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“The economy is not a game to reward the swift and the talented. The economy is supposed to be—it goes back to Rawls’s basic idea of ‘justice as fairness’—a fair system of cooperation from which we all gain. It’s about fairness in life, not a talent contest or a race.”
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“To treat Rawls simply as a defender of Democratic Party liberalism and the welfare state is to misread him. Rawls’s critique of contemporary capitalism—and the condition of democratic practice within American capitalism—runs much deeper.”
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“There is today an influential view that Rawlsian egalitarianism is undesirable or too ambitious. Should we really be fretting about whether the politically focused ideas of Rawls need to be supplemented with a new and demanding personal ethic, when the political project itself is under such sharp attack?”
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“The moral goods of exercising freedom through market activities would be more widely realized under a regime of Rawlsian property-owning democracy than under the sort of minimally regulated capitalism that John Tomasi celebrates.”
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“Rawls’s theory thus embraces a Kantian link between respect and self-respect: the expectation is that if the individual in society is accorded the means sufficient for self-respect, the need to exert power over others will dissipate.”
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“The persistence of ghetto poverty is not just a policy failure. In Rawlsian terms, it is a failure of basic justice because it is a failure of shared moral commitments to liberty, equality, and respect for the inherent dignity of all persons.”
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