Monday, December 29, 2008

Justice as fairness, Rawls said, aims to effect a “reconciliation of liberty and equality”

Rawls from Philosophy Talk: The Blog by John Perry

"In A Theory of Justice (1971, 1999), John Rawls proposed a striking and original marriage of liberty and equality, animated by a tolerant and democratic faith in human possibilities. For much of the past century, the idea of a politcal philosophy devoted to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith for giving undue attention to legalrights and liberties, while remaining in different to the fate of ordinary people.

  • Traditional liberalism, they complained, prized equality before the law, but showed complacency in the face of profound and grim inequalities of fortune on earth.
  • Classical liberals, in contrast, embraced personal liberty, and condemned egalitarians for their paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of some possible future utopia.

Practically speaking, democratic welfare states tried, with more or less success, to ensure personal and political liberties while protecting indviduals from unforgiving markets. But the philosophical options seemed starkly opposed. In between Friedrich von Hayek's classical liberalism and Karl Marx's egalitarianism, every thing was an unstable political compromise, or an ad hoc balancing of competing values.

"A Theory of Justice changed all this. Rawls proposed a conception of justice – he called it “justice as fairness” – that was commited to both the individual rights we associate with classical liberalism, and to an egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions. Justice as fairness, Rawls said, aims to effect a “reconciliation of liberty and equality.” His work prompted a remarable renaissance of political philosophy in the United States and elsewhere (A Theory of Justice has been translated into more than 20 languages), and has provided the foundation for all subsequent discussion about fundametal questions of social justice." From "The Importance of Philosophy: Reflections on John Rawls" S. Afr. J, Philos. 2004, 23(2)

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