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John Evans: The Illustrious John Rawls
Freigegeben von: Wolfgang Melchior
The Illustrious John Rawls

By Evan Young

It is a sad but true fact that few of us are able to slip through the four years of our undergraduate careers without meeting, in some capacity, the Illustrious and Unforgettable John Rawls. Rawls, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Harvard University, is of course the author of the well-known tome A Theory of Justice.

Here are a few of the topics I would like to cover as I develop this page:



However, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the teachings of this guru and would like to have a rather short and objective explanation, I would encourage you to visit the philosophy lectures at CalTech and read the lectures (4, 5, 6, 7, 8) which deal with Rawls. You'd rather do that than read A Theory of Justice. Believe me.


Who is Rawls, anyway?

Well, basically John Rawls represents, for liberal egalitarians, the second coming of Christ. He is/was a professor of moral philosophy at Harvard University; in 1971 he came up with his masterpiece, A Theory of Justice. In all fairness, this book is a very intellectual and thought-provoking piece of scholarship which has rocked the philosophic and political worlds: but it has several flaws which shall be quickly listed here but not discussed, since we are, after all, in the "Who is Rawls" section (there's a catch).

  • It is poorly written. Rawls writes sentences that are longer than your small intestines. He does not care about rambling. He is unimpressed by pleas for clarity. In the words of Professor Tom Spragens of Duke University, "Sometimes academics feel that if their writing is too clear, concise and to the point, noone will think that they are scholarly." You heard it here.
  • It is very long. In fact, someone has computed that the average Rawlsian page contains 16.4 normal pages, all compressed--yet strangely expanded in that he is far from concise.
  • Many other things to be listed when I get the chance.


Yet, the question still remains: Who is Rawls?
Well, the answer can be found by turning to literature and literary criticism. Anybody can be a Rawls, as long as they are sufficiently wordy, disagreeable, and nonsensical. In fact, a certain Ralph Crowder, philosopher at Berkeley, has advocated incorporating the word "Rawls" into the English language to signify anyone who says things you strongly disagree with, or whom you hate. Examples:

  • Situation: The lady at the cafeteria only gives you half a serving of mashed potatoes. Your comment: "What a Rawls!"
  • Situation: Your friend does not properly park in the parking lot. Your comment: "What a bad parker you are." (Wouldn't want to overuse Rawls, now.)
  • Situation: The President of the United States tries to suck three-quarters of your paycheck out before you even see it to pay for his pet programs. Your comment: "What a Rawls!" In this case, as we shall see, you would be strangely literal.


Thus, Rawls can be interpreted as a state of mind as well as a person. We shall move right along to the next question.


What is the Original Position? the Veil of Ignorance?"

These are interesting concepts that don't really have any reasonable or logical counterparts in real life. But they are, as I say, quite fun to look at; and we must at least admit that Rawls was quite clever to come up with them. Let's start with the sneaky of sneakies:

The Original Position

The way that Rawls lures people into this trap is to make them think that the Original Position is a new and improved! version of the exalted State of Nature invented by John Locke. You see, Locke automatically implies corerctness (which is not up for argument here, we all like Locke), and so Rawls craftily believes that if we view his theory as an improvement on Locke, we would all jump up and down, joyfully even, proclaiming the second coming of Christ. We can imagine the following situation, in which Locke is resurrected from the dead:

  • Rawls: Hey, John, glad you're not dead any more.
  • Locke: Me too, John. I heard that you wrote A Theory of Justice so of course I had to spring to life again to read it.
  • Rawls: (modestly) Well....
  • Locke: No, no, no! None of this bashfulness here! I know when I am bested, and you've done, old chap. Little would I ever have thought that my theories on freedom actually meant that none of us have the right to our own qualities and bodies, even, but you showed me!
  • Rawls: Well, Johnny, thanks, thanks. You see, unfortunately, I am the philosopher in vogue these days, so you can die again now.
  • Locke: (dies)


You see, it is all a hoax. Rawls doesn't really care about Locke! In fact, he has contempt for his ideas, as anyone who has read A Theory of Justice could tell you. All right, enough games, I'll just tell you what the Original Position is.

Essentially, Rawls believes that the state of nature as understand by Locke and Hobbes is not really taking things back far enough. At the point Locke takes us to, some people know that they are advantaged and have certain ways to make society better for them.
Rawls says that this is no way to form a just society. His idea is that justice equals fairness. In order to establish justice, he brings all the inhabitants of the world together in a council, where we will choose the principles of justice that will govern our society. This is where the Veil of Ignorancefits in.

The Veil of Ignorance

This is where I'll pick up next time...thanks for reading!

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