Liberalism and Justice: an Introduction to John Rawls
The legacy of American political philosopher John Rawls is deeply contested. His landmark A Theory of Justice, which draws on Kantian and social contract traditions to offer a thorough-going defense of liberalism, has been agenda-setting for political philosophy since its publication. For some, Rawls is the most important figure in Anglo-American political philosophy, the pre-eminent modern theorist of justice, equality, and democracy. For others, he’s a rosy idealist incapable of seriously addressing the central challenges of racism, class conflict, and other forms of domination in contemporary political life. No less controversial is Rawls’s post-Justice work, which attempts to develop a “political” liberalism aimed at achieving consensus among individuals who hold radically differing opinions on questions of human purpose and meaning. How can we understand Rawls’s political thought, both in its early and later stages, and how compelling is it, not only as a defense of liberalism, but also as a vision of a realistic and worthwhile political order?
In this course, we will investigate Rawls’s political theory by reading, first, significant parts of A Theory of Justice, and turning later to Rawls’s subsequent proposals for a “political liberalism.” We will ask: What are the essential elements of “justices as fairness,” the distinctive conception of justice that Rawls develops in Theory? What is a social contract, and how can we understand Rawls’s conception of a “veil of ignorance”? Is Rawls an egalitarian, particularly if he holds that some social and economic inequalities are compatible with justice? Is it possible for those with radically different conceptions of the good to agree on issues of justice? Indeed, is justice a worthwhile basis on which to construct a political order? What are the prospects for success of Rawls’s “political liberalism” in an age when liberalism seems to be on the retreat across the globe, with deepening social conflict on the rise? Readings will be drawn from Rawls’s major works and essays, as well as works and criticism by Michael Sandel, Raymond Geuss, G. A. Cohen, Annette Baier, Charles Mills, Jürgen Habermas, and others.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
May 03 — May 24, 2021