Tag Archives: John Rawls

Amartya Sen

I taught a class with Ken Arrow and John Rawls in ’68-’69. I was visiting here at Harvard. Arrow was then on the faculty of Harvard for some years, and Rawls was very established at Harvard. So the three of us together, we did a class on justice and social choice, which was quite fun. I remember, while flying to a meeting in Washington, my neighbor on the plane asked me what did I do? I said, “I teach in Delhi, but at the moment I’m visiting Harvard.” I told him that I’m concerned with justice and social choice involving aggregation of individuals’ disparate views. And he said, “Oh, let me tell you: There is a very interesting class taught by Kenneth Arrow, John Rawls, and some unknown guy on this very subject. You should check it out!”

Amartya Sen, ‘I’ve never done work that I was not interested in. That is a very good reason to go on’, The Harvard Gazette, June 3, 2021

Perry Anderson

In The Law of Peoples, this circular knowledge resurfaces as the ‘political culture’ of a liberal society. But just because such a culture inevitably varies from nation to nation, the route to any simple universalization of the principles of justice is barred. States, not individuals, have to be contracting parties at a global level, since there is no commonality between the political cultures that inspire the citizens of each. More than this: it is precisely the differences between political cultures which explain the socio-economic inequality that divides them. “The causes of the wealth of a people and the forms it takes lie in their political culture and in the religious, philosophical and moral traditions that support the basic structure of their political institutions.” Prosperous nations owe their success to the diligence fostered by industrious traditions; lacking the same, laggards have only themselves to blame if they are less prosperous. Thus Rawls, while insisting that there is a right to emigration from ‘burdened’ societies, rejects any comparable right to immigration into liberal societies, since that would only reward the feckless, who cannot look after their own property. Such peoples ‘cannot make up for their irresponsibility in caring for their land and its natural resources’, he argues, ‘by migrating into other people’s territory without their consent’.

Decorating the cover of the work that contains these reflections is a blurred representation, swathed in a pale nimbus of gold, of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The nationalist icon is appropriate. That the United States owes its own existence to the violent dispossession of native peoples on just the grounds—their inability to make ‘responsible’ use of its land or resources—alleged by Rawls for refusal of redistribution of opportunity or wealth beyond its borders today, never seems to have occurred to him. The Founders who presided over these clearances, and those who followed, are accorded a customary reverence in his late writings. Lincoln, however, held a special position in his pantheon, as The Law of Peoples—where he is hailed as an exemplar of the ‘wisdom, strength and courage’ of statesmen who, unlike Bismarck, ‘guide their people in turbulent and dangerous times’—makes clear, and colleagues have since testified. The abolition of slavery clearly loomed large in Rawls’s admiration for him. Maryland was one of the slave states that rallied to the North at the outbreak of the Civil War, and it would still have been highly segegrated in Rawls’s youth. But Lincoln, of course, did not fight the Civil War to free slaves, whose emancipation was an instrumental by-blow of the struggle. He waged it to preserve the Union, a standard nationalist objective. The cost in lives of securing the territorial integrity of the nation—600,000 dead—was far higher than all Bismarck’s wars combined. A generation later, emancipation was achieved in Brazil with scarcely any bloodshed. Official histories, rather than philosophers, exist to furnish mystiques of those who forged the nation. Rawls’s style of patriotism sets him apart from Kant. The Law of Peoples, as he explained, is not a cosmopolitan view.

Perry Anderson, ‘Arms and Rights’, New Left Review, no. 31 (January-February, 2005), pp. 13-14

R. M. Hare

[T]here have been several important books about [distributive justice], notably Rawls’s book, and also that of Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He works at Harvard too, and it is curious that two people with such a similar background should produce books which politically are poles apart. It shows that we can’t depend on people’s intuitions agreeing.

R. M. Hare, ‘Dialogue with R. M. Hare’, in Brian Magee, Men of Ideas, London, 1978, p. 160

Edward O. Wilson

John Rawls opens his influential A Theory of Justice (1971) with a proposition he regards as beyond dispute: “In a 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.” Robert Nozick begins Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) with an equally firm proposition: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights they rise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.” These two premises are somewhat different in content, and they lead to radically different prescriptions. Rawls would allow rigid social control to secure as close an approach as possible to the equal distribution of society’s rewards. Nozick sees the ideal society as one governed by a minimal state, empowered only to protect its citizens from force and fraud, and with unequal distribution of rewards wholly permissible. Rawls rejects the meritocracy; Nozick accepts it as desirable except in those cases where local communities voluntarily decide to experiment with egalitarianism. Like everyone else, philosophers measure their personal emotional responses to various alternatives as though consulting a hidden oracle.

Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978, pp. 5-6

William Shaw

In the past twenty-five years, many philosophers have been persuaded by John Rawls that the root problem is that utilitarianism ignores “the separateness of persons.” So widespread is this contention, that it has become a virtual mantra.

William Shaw, Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, pp. 124-125

Mary Midgley

I am simply pointing out what the history of ethics shows all too clearly—how much our thinking has been shaped by what our stages omit to mention. The Greek philosophers never really raised the problem of slavery till towards the end of their speech, and then few of them did so with conviction. This happened even though it lay right in the path of their enquiries into political justice and the value of the individual soul. Christianity did raise that problem, because its class background was different and because the world in the Christian era was already in turmoil, so that men were not presented with the narcotic of a happy stability. But Christianity itself did not, until quite recently, raise the problem o the morality of punishment, and particularly of eternal punishment. This failure to raise central questions was not, in either case, complete. Once can find very intelligent and penetrating criticisms of slavery occurring from time to time in Greek writings—even in Aristotle’s defence of that institution. But they are mostly like Rawls’ remark here. They conclude that “this should be investigated some day”. The same thing happens with Christian writings concerning punishment, except that the consideration, “this is a great mystery”, acts as an even more powerful paralytic to though. Not much more powerful, however. Natural inertia, when it coincides with vested interest or the illusion of vested interest, is as strong as gravitation.

Mary Midgley, ‘Duties concerning islands’, Encounter, vol. 60, no. 2 (February 1983), pp. 36-43.