Rawls' Concept Of Justice As Political: A Defense Against Critics

2238 words - 9 pages

Rawls' Concept Of Justice As Political: A Defense Against Critics

ABSTRACT: Rawls' theory of justice as fairness involves a central contention that principles of justice essential to the structure of a constitutional democracy must be viewed as political in contrast to more comprehensive moral, philosophical or religious doctrines. The concept of justice is not its being true to an antecedent moral order and given to us, but its being congruent with our self-understanding within the history of justice as political is not a mere modus vivendi, for it embodies an overlapping consensus that does have a moral basis. Critical reaction to Rawls has been that what is simply a consensus within ...view middle of the document...

This consensus encompasses the concept of primary goods: basic right and liberties, powers and prerogatives of office; income and wealth; the basis of self-respect. It also encompasses the "difference principle": in which economic inequalities are allowed so long as this improves everyone's situation including that of the least advantaged. The overlapping consensus, Rawls further specifies, is not a consensus simply in accepting a certain authority, or simply as compliance with certain institutional arrangements. "For all those who affirm the political conception start from within their own comprehensive view and draw on the religious, philosophical and moral grounds it provides." (1)

Critical reaction to Rawls' approach to defining the concept of justice as fairness has centered upon an alleged incoherency or problematic in his contention that principles of justice must be seen as political in opposition to a more comprehensive view of the good, while yet also believing that justice as political does have a moral basis. In the view of Patrick Neal, Rawls' theory of justice involves an unresolved tension between political and metaphysical implications. Rawls, on the one hand, speaks of justice as fairness as a political concept independent of controversial philosophical, moral and religious doctrines, and arising from an interpretive understanding within the traditions of constitutional democracy. Yet Rawls believes, at the same time, that justice as fairness is not to be interpreted as a Hobbesian mosus vivendi; it has a moral component, serving as a political agreement between citizens viewed as free and equal persons, an "overlapping consensus" which more comprehensive philosophical, moral and religious doctrine can accept in their own way. In Neal's view, Rawls is thus "oscillating" between metaphysical and political interpretations. "Interpreting it along political lines, Rawls must be careful to keep it from being rendered too politically, lest it become Hobbesian. Yet the remedy for the specter of Hobbesianism is a dose of Kantianism, and this serves only to take justice as fairness beneath the surface, philosophically speaking, raising the specter of controversial metaphysical arguments or turning justice as fairness into a sectarian moral ideal." Neal is convinced that if justice as fairness is to remain a moral theory, as Rawls wishes, the conventional beliefs of contemporary citizens must be something more than mere conventions. (2)

William Galston mounts a similar objection against Rawls' theory of justice. Rawls' concept of a political constructivism, he notes, embodies principle of justice that is constituted by a procedure of construction without appeal to prior moral facts. But the difficulty is that constructivists must offer some support for the specific conception of the person they choose to employ. "Here they encounter a dilemma. If they appeal to something external to the person to justify their choice, they return...

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