My aim in this essay is to discuss, and defend against some frequent objections, John Rawls's rejection of a global principle of distributive justice. As is well known, Rawls's A Theory of Justice argues for a principle of distributive justice, the difference principle, that is to be applied within different societies but not among them. According to A Theory of Justice, each society has the duty to set up its economic and legal institutions in such a way that they make the least advantaged among its own members better off than the least advantaged would be if that society were structured according to any other distribution principle. But each society does not have a duty to structure its system so as to maximize the position of the least advantaged in the world at large. Though it is a universal principle that is to apply severally, or within every society, the difference principle is not global in reach, applying jointly to all societies simultaneously. To critics of many political persuasions, this seems a peculiar position. Why should principles of justice be domestically rather than globally applied?
Rawls's position in A Theory of Justice becomes even more complicated in Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples, where he is guided by questions of political legitimacy, and feasibility (or “stability”) of liberal regimes. In Political Liberalism and later works, Rawls appears to give up on the idea that a well-ordered society of justice as fairness is feasible (such a well-ordered society is one where every rational and reasonable citizen affirms, for moral reasons, justice as fairness, including the difference principle).
One of Rawls's guiding aims in the development and revision of his work has been to show how a well-ordered society of justice as fairness is realistically possible. Rawls thinks establishing the feasibility, or “stability,” of a conception of justice is essential to its justification. My aim is to discuss the role and import of Rawls's stability argument. To do so, I will concentrate primarily on the second part of Rawls's discussion of stability in Theory of Justice, the argument for the “congruence of the right and the good.” This argument particularly exhibits Rawls's indebtedness to Kant in the justification of his view. After discussing the purpose of congruence (in Sections I and II), I outline in detail what the argument is (III and IV), emphasizing the role of the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness. Then in Section V, I discuss how problems with the Kantian congruence argument led Rawls to political liberalism.
STABILITY AND CONGRUENCE: OUTLINE OF ISSUES
Rawls’s congruence argument has been widely neglected in discussions of his work. Reasons for this neglect are several. First there is sheer exhaustion. The congruence argument begins in Part III of Theory of Justice (TJ), is developed for over 200 pages, and culminates (in Section 86) at the end of a very long book. Second, there is Rawls’s uncharacteristic lack of clarity in setting out the congruence argument: it is interrupted and intertwined with other arguments Rawls simultaneously develops. Finally, there is the feeling among some of Rawls’s main commentators that the argument is a failure.
The amount of literature written on Rawls is at least equal to that of any other twentieth-century philosopher. The following bibliography is necessarily selective. Rawls's complete works are first cited. Then follows a list of books and anthologies on Rawls. Most of the bibliography consists of citations of articles in philosophy and other journals. I have not attempted to locate and cite the many important discussions of Rawls that appear in others' books. The two largest divisions of the bibliography list articles on A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. Other divisions reflect topics of special interest which have stimulated discussions of parts of Rawls's work or its implications. Most of the articles listed are in English. (John Rawls and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography by J.H.Wellbank, Denis Snook, and David T. Mason (New York: Garland, 1982) provides abstracts for most of the secondary literature on Rawls prior to 1982. See the bibliography to Thomas W. Pogge's John Rawls (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1994) for many works in German.)
John Rawls's published works extend over fifty years from the middle of the twentieth century to the present. During this period his writings have come to define a substantial portion of the agenda for Anglo-American political philosophy, and they increasingly influence political philosophy in the rest of the world. His primary work, A Theory of Justice (TJ), has been translated into twenty-seven languages. Only ten years after Theory was published, a bibliography of articles on Rawls listed more than 2,500 entries. This extensive commentary indicates the widespread influence of Rawls's ideas as well as the intellectual controversy his ideas stimulate.
From the outset Rawls’s work has been guided by the question, “What is the most appropriate moral conception of justice for a democratic society?” (TJ, p. viii/xiii rev.). In Theory he pursued this question as part of a more general inquiry into the nature of social justice and its compatibility with human nature and a person’s good. Here Rawls aimed to redress the predominance of utilitarianism in modern moral philosophy. As an alternative to utilitarianism, Rawls, drawing on the social contract tradition, developed a conception of justice “that is highly Kantian in nature” (TJ, p. viii/xviii rev.). According to this conception, justice generally requires that basic social goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self – respect – be equally distributed, unless an unequal distribution is to everyone’s advantage ((TJ, p. 62/54 rev.). But under favourable social conditions a special conception, “justice as fairness,” applies; it requires giving priority to certain liberties and opportunities via the institutions of a liberal constitutional democracy.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.