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Fr. 741

November 18, 2016

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice sets forth its account of justice as fairness in three parts, of which the first two hold most readers’ attention. This owes to reasons both philosophical and bibliographical. On one hand, Parts 1 and 2 contain the work’s more inventive and most well-known notions, namely the original position and the veil of ignorance, fairness and the two principles of justice, and so on. On the other, Rawls has, to an extent, sworn off Part 3 in which he lays out how a well-ordered society would come to embody a sense of justice as fairness. Indeed, this forswearing owes to a perceived inconsistency on Rawls’ part, brought to his attention by critics and for which he later seeks to compensate via the family of notions presented in Political Liberalism. More specifically, he writes:

The fact of a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines—the fact of reasonable pluralism—shows that, as used in Theory, the idea of a well-ordered society of justice as fairness is unrealistic. This is because it is inconsistent with realizing its own principles under the best of foreseeable conditions. The account of the stability of a well-ordered society in part III is therefore also unrealistic and must be recast (Political Liberalism, p. xvii).

In short, insofar as the idea of a well-ordered society presumes that all share at least a partially comprehensive doctrine in the form of justice as fairness and real democratic societies never demonstrate this level of unanimity with regards to their comprehensive doctrines due to the influence of free institutions over time, historical conditions in democracies necessarily preclude a society like the well-ordered society of justice as fairness described in Part 3 of Theory. Hence the need to develop the notion of political liberalism in the first place.

Yet, for all the force of Rawls’ critics on that count, as evidenced by the author’s own backtracking, one might wonder whether there is not still some value to the development of a well-ordered society of justice as fairness. If a liberal democracy can so make so use of a freestanding notion of justice as fairness in order to develop a moral sense of justice capable of sustaining a society over generations and thereby acquiring a set of virtues, excellences and characters all its own, does this not show that liberal democracy is so far from being the value-barren, mere modus vivendi with which communitarian critics so often charge it? In other words, should liberal democracy prove conceptually capable of generating a tradition from its own resources and no other, it would seem to undercut a growing malaise as regards liberal democracy and the kinds of people which it creates.

Perhaps Rawls was too quick with baby and bathwater, and something important may still be salvaged from Theory‘s third part.

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