wealth distribution

John Rawls and Liberalism’s Selective Conscience

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In December of 1944, on the Philippine island of Leyte, the soldiers of F Company of the 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, dug in. Stationed just outside the town of Limon, they were attempting to take a strategic ridge overlooking the town. In the face of fierce Japanese resistance, it was all they could do to hold their position. A first lieutenant who was also a Lutheran pastor addressed the company and gave words of encouragement by means of a brief sermon. God guides the US Army’s bullets toward the Japanese, the lieutenant assured his fellow soldiers, while protecting us from theirs.

These words failed to lift the spirits of at least one young soldier in F Company; instead, they infuriated him. Years later, he described this incident as one of the experiences that best explained why he eventually abandoned his faith. Whatever God’s will actually was, he decided, it would have to accord with the most basic ideas of justice that we have—thereby ruling out the lieutenant’s assertion that God had selective concerns for one side in a clearly godless war. What else could the will of an all-just God be? By that same token, what else could justice be? If absolutely nothing else, any true God would have to be fair.

Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice provides a detailed account of the intellectual development of this young soldier, John Rawls, who eventually became the celebrated philosopher. The question of fairness would remain with Rawls for the rest of his life. In 1971, his 600-page magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, debuted to critical acclaim and cemented his position as one of the most famous political philosophers in the English-speaking world by insisting that justice was fairness—that the kind of objective standards for human society and individual action capable of replacing God required an ability to view the world from a distance and assess what allocations of duties and wealth were fair. In the book, Rawls argued that “basic liberties” and the equality of citizens were essential to this idea of fairness. Societies could deviate from an equal distribution of benefits and burdens only in cases governed by the “difference principle”—which includes a requirement that inequalities should provide the most benefits to the least advantaged. Otherwise, a just society would have to be governed by the fair distribution of responsibility, work, hardship, and the wealth produced by a community—a distribution whose fairness, he insisted, could be determined from behind a “veil of ignorance” that prevented a hypothetical person from knowing exactly where he or she would end up in the social hierarchy.

With its doctrine of fairness, A Theory of Justice transformed political philosophy. The English historian Peter Laslett had described the field as “dead” in 1956; with Rawls’s book that changed almost overnight. Now philosophers were arguing about the nature of Rawlsian principles and their implications—and for that matter were once again interested in matters of political and economic justice. Rawls’s terms became lingua franca: Many considered how his arguments, focused mostly on domestic or national issues of justice, might be applied to questions of international justice as well. Others sought to extend his theory’s set of political principles, while still others probed the limits of Rawls’s epistemology and the narrowness of his focus on individuals. A decade after A Theory of Justice appeared, Forrester notes, 2,512 books and articles had been published engaging with its central claims.

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