No work of modern political philosophy, in any language, has generated such a enormous output of learned commentary as John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. After some twenty years of uninterrupted critical flow, Rawls’s new book is billed as a correction of the original, in the light of subsequent discussion. Political Liberalism offers abundant— even superabundant—evidence of careful response to the reception of A Theory of Justice, in a forest of footnotes to different readings of it. But the attention proves selective, and the result disconcerting.
Rawls’s pristine theory argued for two fundamental principles of justice: first, equal political rights and liberties for all; and second, only such social or economic inequalities as are compatible with equal opportunity and yield most benefit to the least well-off. These principles, Rawls maintained, would infallibly be chosen by us if we were to imagine ourselves deciding the form of a just society from the hypothetical standpoint of an “original position,” without any knowledge of what might be our particular lot within it. Around this core doctrine, conceived as an updated variant of Kantian constructivism to supersede all latter-day forms of utilitarian calculus, Rawls developed a capacious intellectual edifice, culminating in ethical reflections of noble scope....
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