And Justice for All?

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Alex Callinicos reviews the life of liberal political philosopher John Rawls.

The American philosopher John Rawls, who died last November at the age of 82, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. His reputation rests chiefly on 'A Theory of Justice', first published in 1971. This long and densely argued book singlehandedly rescued liberal political philosophy from the decay into which it had descended. Challenged by more radical philosophies from the left and the right, by Marxism and by fascist thinkers influenced by Nietzsche, mainstream political philosophy in the English-speaking world had by the 1950s and 1960s disavowed any concern with matters of substance and taken refuge in intellectual history and the analysis of concepts.

Rawls changed all that. He took western political philosophy back to where it had started, with the debate on the nature of justice in Plato's 'Republic'. 'Justice is the first virtue of social institutions,' Rawls wrote. But how do we determine what justice is? To answer this question Rawls returned to the social contract tradition developed in the early modern era by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.

To arrive at principles of justice we should hypothesise an imaginary 'original situation' where the parties have to agree on social and political institutions behind a 'veil of ignorance' concealing their social position, natural talents and conceptions of the good. Rawls argued that the parties would arrive at two principles of justice. The first embodied the traditional liberal freedoms, but the second incorporated his famous Difference Principle, according to which social and economic inequalities were only acceptable where they were to the advantage of the least well off.

Critics from both right and left were quick to attack Rawls's method, and in particular the implausibility of the parties in the original situation being abstracted from their concrete sociohistorical context and personal identities. But even when these objections were taken into account, there remained something very radical about Rawls's theory of justice as fairness.

The Difference Principle implied a presumption in favour of equality. Indeed he described his two principles as 'a special case of a more general conception of justice' according to which 'all social values...are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage'.

Rawls challenged some of the basic elements of the free market liberalism that is now ideologically dominant. For example, he asserted that there is 'no natural right of private property in the means of production', and dismissed the idea, central to the kind of meritocratic society defended by Tony Blair, that individuals are entitled to extra resources because of their special talents as reducing justice to a 'morally arbitrary' lottery.

Brian Barry, one of Rawls's critical admirers, wrote in his obituary in the 'Financial Times' that Rawls had 'produced the philosophical basis for European social democracy'. Rawls himself said that 'justice as fairness leaves open the question whether its principles are best realised by some form of property-owning democracy or by a liberal socialist regime'. He certainly believed that his conception of justice was compatible with a market economy, and argued that unequal incomes were necessary in order to give the more talented the incentive to produce efficiently, to the benefit of all, including the worst off.

Nevertheless, as the 20th century drew to a close, the gap grew ever wider between Rawls's conception of justice and the realities of western capitalist societies under the neoliberal hegemony. His later work reflects, perhaps partly because of this, a certain retreat from the philosophical and political radicalism of 'A Theory of Justice'. He became preoccupied with the problems of multiculturalism that came to obsess many English-speaking philosophers in the 1980s and 1990s to the point of utter tedium. In 'Political Liberalism' (1993) Rawls pursued the utopian project of restating his theory of justice in terms that were, as far as possible, neutral between individuals' particular conceptions of the good.

Rawls's last book, 'The Law of Peoples' (1999), was his weakest. He refused to extend his principles of justice from the national to the global level and supported the right of the liberal democracies to intervene in 'outlaw states'. But the book also revealed more political fire than his earlier, tortuously abstract writings.

Rawls, who had fought in the Pacific during the Second World War as a young man, strongly condemned the American firebombing of Japan and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And the book ends on a defiant note for a man who was famously mild and modest as a person: 'If a reasonably just Society of Peoples whose members subordinate their power to reasonable aims is not possible...one might ask, with Kant, whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth.' The aspiration to a just world did not die with John Rawls.