Last week, I was invited to say some introductory words at a non-academic event dedicated to the work of John Rawls. As the main speaker would tell more about the content of Rawls’ theory, I decided to focus on the following question: why is Rawls seen as the most important contemporary political philosopher? Robert Nozick’s claim of 1974, that contemporary political theorists either have to work within Rawls’ framework or explicitly explain why they don’t, is still applicable today. For Jerry Cohen, Rawls’ masterpiece A Theory of Justice is the third most important book in the history of Western political thought. Only Plato’s Politeia and Hobbes’ Leviathan have a higher status, or so does Cohen claim. But what is it, precisely, that makes the work of John Rawls that significant?
In this post I will give three suggestions. For those of you with a background in political theory, these three reasons are well-known. My aim here is very modest and two-fold: (a) I want to introduce the significance of Rawls’ theory to non-philosophers and (b) I’m interested to hear suggestions of contributions of Rawls to the field of political philosophy that might be more important than the ones I present here (in other words: what should I focus on next time I present Rawls to a broad audience?).
First, it is often argued that Rawls’ impact can be explained by reference to the sad state of political philosophy, as a discipline, in the first half of the 20th century. In 1961, Isaiah Berlin claimed that “no commanding work of political philosophy has appeared in the twentieth century” and therefore asked “Does political theory still exist?”. The discipline was preoccupied by conceptual analysis. Theorists mainly asked questions like ‘What is freedom?’, ‘What is liberty?’ and ‘What is a right’. Rawls, on the other hand, provided the discipline with a full-fletched normative theory. Instead of a sole focus on the meaning of freedom, liberty and rights, Rawls also explained which freedoms, liberties and rights people ought to have in a just society. Moreover, contrary to the praxis at the time, he even provided his theory with a new, systematic and consistent argument.
A second reason why Rawls is, arguably, the most important contemporary political theorist is that he convincingly rejected utilitarianism. Until late in the 20th century, the debate was dominated by the political theories of the 19th century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They argued that we ought to organize our political and economic institutions in a way that maximizes total utility or wellbeing in society. Although this might sound as an attractive guideline, Rawls explains that we have to renounce utilitarianism. The reason is that utilitarianism allows to significantly decrease the utility or wellbeing of certain individuals in order benefit many more other persons so that, in the end, the total sum of utility or wellbeing in society increases. It thereby allows to use some persons as a means for the benefit of others. For example, depending on the conditions, utilitarianism might not be able to explain what is wrong with political and economic institutions that allow some to work in sweatshops, at bad working conditions and very low wages, so that millions of others are provided with very cheap clothes. Rawls rejected this idea, and suggested an alternative theory based on some fundamental and equal rights and liberties, fair opportunities and some social and economic rights to income and wealth. These rights and liberties are essential to a just society, Rawls claimed, and cannot be bypassed in order to maximize utility or to achieve some other collective goal.
Thirdly, Rawls spread the idea, both within and outside academia, that we should judge a society based on how it treats its worst-off members, i.e. those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Instead of using a cost-benefit analysis or some other method to increase efficiency, policymakers should question how their policies impact on the rights, opportunities and welfare of the worst-off. Rawls argues that in a just society the worst-off ought to be as well-off as possible. The reason is two-fold: (a) society is a social cooperation in which everyone takes part and, thus, all have a right to a fair share of the opportunities and welfare it produces and (b) most of the existing inequalities in opportunities and wealth are a matter of brute luck (i.e. the consequence of the natural and/or social lottery) rather than a matter of merit (or individual responsibility). Therefore, our social, political and economic institutions should make sure the worst-off are as well-off as possible.
I believe that those three reasons explain a large part of the significance of John Rawls for the field of contemporary political philosophy. Nevertheless, I’m equally convinced that those are not the only explanations, and they might not even be the most important ones. Feel free to suggest some other reasons, or reject any of the above.