Monday, 11 April 2011

A Theory of Justice

After recent postings looking at John Rawls' early writings I come at last to A Theory of Justice, a book that is, as Rawls himself put it, long "not only in pages". I hope to have the energy and engagement to write at length on this blog about this work, looking at it chapter by chapter from beginning to end, first simply to read it and later to test and think through a recent interpretation of the work in relation to the reading I have produced myself.

It is an ambitious task to attempt this and it is worth thinking about a basic reason why this should be attempted on this blog which is because, as Rawls himself states, the theory outlined in A Theory of Justice is to be viewed as "highly Kantian in nature". What the meaning of such a claim consists in is central to the interpretation of the work that will be given in the postings investigating it here. Which does not mean, naturally, that this can be the only concern since, after all, regardless of what this claim consists in, there is a simpler question concerning how the theory is, in general, to be understood through its central statements and aims. 

A Theory of Justice is a complicated work in a number of ways. Firstly, there are textual questions since the work was revised and reissued by Rawls and includes a 1990 preface written for the revised edition. Few interpretations try to rest too much on this point though it is of interest to note sections and places that Rawls saw fit to expand or delete. Second, there is the relationship of the book to the work Rawls did before, a relationship heavily discussed in the preface to the original edition of the book. Thirdly, there is the relationship of the work to Rawls' later work, both in terms of the subsequent work of the 1970s and 1980s and to the second substantial work he wrote, Political Liberalism. This area is one that includes a great number of questions, not least given that Rawls' official line authorises an interpretation both of A Theory of Justice itself and the works subsequent to it that tends to take the arrival at the position of Political Liberalism to be the natural outcome of his work, something that many have, however, found counter-intuitive and, indeed, a product of an undesirable "turn" in Rawls' own thought. Regardless of the attitude here adopted the nature of the change involved and the reasons for it require investigation but this investigation cannot be grounded only on reading A Theory of Justice. Rather the reading of A Theory of Justice should first suggest how the work prior to it led to Rawls' formulations in it and later interpretations of other works should then complicate the question of the self-interpretations of the work that multiply subsequently to its publication.

In this posting I want to stick, for now, to pointing to some significant points raised in Rawls' 1971 preface to the first edition of the book. Here Rawls opens by referring back straightaway to the works written previously to its publication. Rawls refers to the division of the work and relates how the different parts connect to previous publications. So the first part of A Theory of Justice which is concerned, apparently, with "Theory", is related to two papers specifically, the 1958 original paper on "Justice As Fairness" and the 1968 paper "Distributive Justice: Some Addenda" and this hint will be worth following when looking at the first part of the book. The second part of the book, by contrast, which concerns "Institutions" is related to the papers on "Constitutional Liberty" (1963), "Distributive Justice" (1967) and "Civil Disobedience" (1967 but, for some reason, referred to here as 1966).  The third part of the book, concerned with "Ends", is, by contrast to the first two parts, treated as distinct from the previous essays written except for being related to the 1963 paper on the "Sense of Justice". All these connections will bear consideration later.

After referring back to these connections to previous publications Rawls goes on to give the basic rationale for writing the book which is to provide a systematic or, as he terms it, "comprehensive" reply to utilitarianism since the utilitarian theory involves not merely an account of morality but also of social theory and economics and yet there has been little attempt to reply to such a view with something that is as comprehensive and this is why the main opponents of utilitarianism have tended to be intuitionists. The basis of the comprehensive reply that will be given is the distillation of the social contract tradition which occurs through the use of "certain simplifying devices" in a general framework so that the "chief structural features" of an alternative conception come into view.

After making this general claim Rawls provides a view of the main claims of A Theory of Justice indicating a way of understanding its sub-parts. This leads to the view that chapters IV-VIII are not basic to the argument of the book, that is, all of the part dealing with institutions and two-thirds of the part dealing with ends. This is a surprising overview of the book's claims though Rawls modifies this slightly by stating that the discussions in these chapters are "an important test" of how well order and system has been introduced into a wide range of questions. Nonetheless there are likely to be problems that will concern different readers here more or less so latitude is allowed for how much one thinks about or looks at these questions.

The final part of the preface indicates debts Rawls has incurred in arriving at the publication of A Theory of Justice and these basically relate to previous drafts of the work and articles that have addressed some of the essays written on the way to its publication. Whilst there would be something to be said for looking at all the material there listed it would have something of a purely scholarly endeavour, not necessarily of the greatest import for a philosophical evaluation of the work.

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