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John Rawls’ Theory of Justice

‘Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore ina just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests’ (John Rawls). Critically assess Rawls’s defence of this view.

John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is a landmark in contemporary philosophy. It has challenged what was the “the predominant systematic theory” , namelyutilitarianism. Rawls suggests an alternative theory to the utilitarian tradition, under the format of a contract that allows him to provide a moral foundation to his principles of justice. He targets the moral shortcoming of utilitarianism, insofar as it confuses justice and utility. His arguments against the systematic maximisation of the overall good in society are founded in an intuitive senseof justice. The calculus of social welfare is intolerable in the light of his principles. In order to assess Rawls’ defence of this view, an evaluation of his peculiar account of justice and how it differs essentially from the utilitarian account is needed. Given the above passage, it seems appropriate to focus on the moral justification of his principles. The reliance on natural rights asthe foundation of his theory needs to be put under scrutiny, in order to determine if his criticism of utilitarianism can survive without such contentious grounds. Rawls provides various arguments against utilitarianism, operating at different levels. However, the core of his theory of justice is based on moral grounds. His rejection of utilitarianism rests on a fundamental idea of justice, whichis uncompromising and beyond circumstantial concerns. His criticism of “political bargaining” or “calculus” for the greater good relies on a foundational conception of justice. It is therefore necessary to consider Rawls’s attack on utilitarianism in the light of his account of justice. Once the nature of Rawls’ conception of justice is identified, its fundamental differences with utilitarianJustice can be investigated. Despite his unconvincing account of universal and inviolable rights on which his theory of Justice is founded, his attack on utilitarianism remains a valuable alternative in political thought.

Rawls’ principles of justice are beyond pragmatic considerations. He seems to suggest that they are Universal, both in their essence and in their means of existence. Rawlsadopts a Kantian approach to rights, based on the autonomous and rational self. The principles of justice that Rawls develops are conceivable and chosen under a hypothetical veil of ignorance, an original position of abstraction of one’s individuality. This exercise is set up to allow a fair procedure in order to secure the agreement is just . Through the standpoint of the original position,Rawls want to justify that his principle are purely rational. This abstract rationality, which leads to the principles he presents, is accessed through a process of self-negation. Thus, those principles are inherent to one’s rationality, and expressed under the appropriate conditions. It supposes an ability to connect with a transcendent rationality in which each is equally selfless. Hence,Rawls’ theory of justice is not solely political but it appears utterly moral. Teleological or contextual reasoning is ignored in favour of a universal foundation to Justice. The political individual is not the passive subject of an objective rule maximising utility and privileging the greater good, but the rational founder of principles, which he adopts as his own. Rawls seems to revive the...
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