Lecture 12: Forms of Egalitarianism
Lecture 1: Introduction: Legitimacy and Legitimation
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Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know? What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer. (Rousseau: Social Contract: Bk 1, Ch. 1)
1. Power and legitimacy In nearly all societies people are bound by laws and other devices which compel them to engage in or refrain from certain acts or types of acts. And in those societies some people exercise power over others and claim a legitimacy for their actions. Political philosophy, as opposed to political sociology, asks not about the perceived legitimacy of various forms of domination, but rather whether any such domination could ever actually be legitimate.
2. Modernity and legitimation Political philosophy is in the business of reason-giving and the kinds of reasons for the exercise of power that might pass muster in one form of society will not do in another. We can no longer ask intelligibly why I, a peasant, should submit to the authority of my lord. Nor,
in an age of that has been'disenchanted', can we point to an objective moral
order that is 'out there' to ground the exercise of legitimate power.
In the modern world we are constituted as individuals with no fixed place in a
social or moral order. Each may hope for the attainment of their ends, their
hopes and ambitions, no-one is confined to a particular social role just by
virtue of their estate or caste or family. Any justification of power has then
to be an justification to people like that: to individuals with private
interests and ambitions who are apt to reserve to themselves the judgement of
what they ought and ought not to do in particular circumstances.
3. The State and Political Obligation When we seek to identify the
exercises of power that require justification, the most obvious candidate cases
would seem to be ones involving the state and its laws. Most
conventional political philosophy concentrates on answering the question of why
anyone (morally) should obey the state ever, and then on answering questions
about the limits of permissible state power. But to concentrate on these
questions and on the state-citizen/subject relation as central is to miss out
on some of the most important questions of legitimacy in modern societies.
4. The Social Question There are many exercises of power within society
that are not obviously by the state at all (thought they may be bolstered or
underpinned by the state). Further, there may be aspects of social relations
which it is difficult to categorize as the exercise of power by a person or
institution over other persons, but which nevertheless affect people's chances
of securing their ends (or even shape their ends) in subtle ways.Marxism brings
into question the mapping of a public-private division onto the distinctionbetween state and civil society; feminism begins to ask whether even the family
is not part of a public sphere that is a worthy focus of concern for those who
seek to question the distributions of power, authority and advantage. Feminism
also begins to place in question what Rousseau's chains are actually made of.
Are they composed exclusively or even mainly of legal rights and obligations or
do they also consist in patterns of expectation and belief that are embedded in
ideologies or even in language itself?
5. Ways of evaluation Perhaps we ought to favour that social
structure that best realizes some goal or appropriately weighted set of goals?
Another proposal might be to build in some strong safeguards for each
individual into the very foundations of our polity. Alternatively we could look
to that set of institutions that is to the mutual advantage of the many
individuals in a society. Or we might prefer that set of institutions that
would be chosen by people if the self-regarding distortions of their particular
situation were somehow filtered out.I shall be exploring all these approaches
to the problem, but I shall also try not to neglect another perspective, a
perspective that comes in forms that a nostalgic for some precapitalist ideal
of community and also forms that look forward to the reconstitution of
community on some new postcapitalist basis
Suggested further reading:
Max Weber, 'Politics as a Vocation' in C. Wright Mills and H. Gerth eds,
From Max Weber.
Ernest Gellner, 'The Social Roots of Egalitarianism' in Ernest Gellner,
Culture, identity, and politics.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Book 1, chs 1-5
Lecture 2: The Hobbesian argument for the
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Historically, the most important and influential argument for the state
has been that advanced by "http://www.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib/hobb.html">Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
Hobbes, writing at the time of the English Civil War, In the absence of state power, he believed, people would lapse into a
situation of endemic violent conflict which would afford no-one even basic security of the person. So appalling was this prospect,
that any state power, provided it could maintain peace was justified and should be obeyed.
Human nature So why does Hobbes believe that without a state people would be in such a miserable condition? To
understand this we need to take a look at his account of the nature of human beings and human agency. Hobbes was concerned to
deny three of Aristotle's central doctrines about human beings. First, Hobbes denied Aristotle's belief that there was a particular
good way of living and a state of being - eudaemonia - achievable by that way of living. Second, he rejected Aristotle's
belief in the naturalness and permanence of human inequality. Third, he rejected the idea that people are by nature social animals
in favour of a conception that sees people are being basically dissociated; an atomistic view of society.
The State of Nature Hobbes invites us to participate in a thought experiment where these equal and dissociated
individuals are places together in a state of nature without the existence of a state power placed over them. He believes that they
will soon lapse into a state of war where each person is threatened with violent attack. He attributes this conflict to three basic
factors which he calls Competition, Diffidence and Glory. Competition consists in the fact that in the state of nature, if there is
some resource which a person wants there are no restraints on getting it other than the physical and mental powers of other
people. Glory, consists in the concern that each person has to have value for others. But arguably more important than either of
these is 'diffidence'. This is essentially the suspicion that another may be about to attack you, a suspicion which makes it rational
for you to get in the first blow. Many modern theorists have sought to illuminate Hobbes's argument by suggesting that each
person's encounters with other persons in the State of Nature has the structure of a "pd.htm">Prisoner's Dilemma .
The Laws of Nature Hobbes's solution to the problem of endemic conflict engendered by this kind of situation is the
absolute sovereign. Hobbes tells us that in a state of nature each person has a right - that is a liberty - to use all things, including
the bodies of other people. But each person is also possessed of reason. As possessed of reason each person is at the same time
led into pre-emptive non-co-operative action and is also enabled to see the possibility of a set of co-operative conventions (laws
of nature) which, if only they could be generally enforced, would be in everyone's interest. The rational person is bound to will
the implementation of such conventions but also knows that it would be folly to implement them unilaterally since that would be
to deliver oneself up to the predations of would-be exploiters.
The Sovereign as Solution The problem then is to generate an atmosphere of sufficient confidence that people will be
tend to abide by these laws of nature, to keeps their agreements and so on. Hobbes's answer is straightforward: '...the Lawes of
Nature ... of themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our naturall Passions,
that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like. And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to
secure a man at all.'. But a problem immediately arises: how are people incapable of spontaneous co-operation going to
institute such a power? And we may also notice a subsidiary problem: if they can co-operate to institute a power without the prior
existence of that power, why would they need a power to get them to co-operate?
Somehow, people overcome the collective action problem involved in forming a state. They enter into a once-and-for-all bargain
with one another whereby they mutually renounce their right to all things in favour of themselves considered as a collective body.
The power of this collective body is then vested in a person or a group of persons. This sovereign power inherits the liberty to all
things that each person had possessed in the state of nature, and, having voluntarily ceded that right, persons have no residuary
right to impede the sovereign power. The only grounds on which they may do this is if the sovereign becomes a threat to the very
purposes for which it was instituted (namely the preservation of each person), so people threatened with death by the state may
reasonably resist. The legitimacy of this state seems then to be founded in the agreement that people make.
Contract or Consequences? This part of Hobbes's argument is, to say the least, problematic. He wants to found the
legitimacy of the state and ultimately of all states on consent. But it is far from clear what purpose his principal account actually
serves. If it is, implausibly, given a historical twist, and purports to tell us what out ancestors did in founding the first state, why
should that have any legitimising force for us? If the argument is supposed to show that rational person in the state of nature
would consent, again that seems to have little force for us. Even if it can be shown that we ourselves would agree to something in
certain hypothetical circumstances then that hardly suffices to bind us to that norm or institution now. Moreover, Hobbes's
account of consent seems much too weak to ground any sort of moral obligation. The suspicion is that Hobbes justifies the state
not because people agree to it, or would agree to it, but rather because of the good the state secures. : the avoidance of war.
Reading: Hobbes, Leviathan, chs 13-21 ? C.Bertram, 1995
Political Philosophy Lecture 3: Statism versus
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1. In last week’s lecture we saw people in the
state of nature as facing a "pd.htm">prisoner’s
dilemma . We can notice two initial
problems with this: a) Hobbes may have no right to the motivational
assumption he employs: predominant egoism. This might be an effect of
life with the state rather than a good reason to institute one; b)Whilst
defection may be the dominant strategy in the 2-person one-shot prisoner’s
dilemma, it may not be best in the iterated (repeated) version of the
game. Axelrod’s experiments suggest that tit-for-tat would be a better
2. There are passages in Hobbes that do appear to suggest
the possibility of spontaneous co-operation arising among self-interested
individuals. For instance, Hobbes considers the problem posed by the
‘The Foole hath sayd in his heart, there is no such thing as
Justice; and sometimes also with his tounge; seriously alleaging, that
every mans conservation, and contentment, being committed to his own care,
there could be no reason, why every man might not do what he thought
conduced thereunto: and therefore also to make, or not make; keep, or not
keep Covenants, was not against Reason, when it conduced to ones benefit.
He does not therein deny, that there be Covenants; and that they are
sometimes broken, sometimes kept; and that such breach of them may be
called Injustice, and the observance of them Justice: but he questioneth,
whether, Injustice ... may not sometimes stand with that Reason, which
dictateth to every man his own good....’
‘He ... that breaketh his Covenant, and consequently declareth that he
thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any Society, that
unite themselves for Peace and Defence, but by the errour of them that
receive him; nor when he is received, be retayned in it, without seeing
the danger of their errour; which errours a man cannot reasonably reckon
upon as a means of his security...’
3. Michael Taylor points
to this passages and others as supporting his contention that social order
is possible in anarchy where social relations are based on
community. He ascribes three characteristics to community:
The set of persons who comprise a community have shared beliefs and values;
relations between members are direct and many sided;
community is characterised by reciprocity. This term ‘covers a range of arrangements and relations and exchanges,
some forms of co-operation and some forms of sharing. Each individual act in a system of reciprocity is usually
characterised by a combination of what one might call short-term altruism and long-term self-interest. I help you out
now in the ... expectation that you will help me out in the future.’(CAL 28-9)
One worry we might have about Taylor’s solution concerns the space for individual autonomy in the communities he
4. Constrained Maximisation Another set of possibilities for co-operation in anarchy is opened up by
David Gauthier who suggests that it would be rational for individuals in a Hobbesian state of nature to transform their
characters and dispositions in such a way as to make themselves more suitable partners in co-operative ventures. He suggests
that the best stance to adopt is that of the constrained maximise, who is disposed to co-operate on reasonable terms when
others are too, and is disposed to straightforwardly maximising behaviour when placed in an environment where others are
generally disposed to exploitative behaviour.
5. Nozick If Gauthier is right then we might not eliminate conflict altogether, but the state of nature would be
closer to the account found in Locke than in Hobbes. This would pave the way for the sort of investigation carried out by
Nozick who argues that the state would emerge from a state of nature comprised of self-owners, by a process that no-one
could object to.
‘Out of anarchy, pressed by spontaneous groupings, mutual protection associations, division of labour, market pressures,
economies of scale, and rational self-interest there arises something very much resembling a minimal state’. (ASU 16-
Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 15.
Michael Taylor, Community, Anarchy and Liberty, chs 1 and 2.
David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement, ch. 6.
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia part one.
Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Co-operation.
Lecture 4 Authority and
democracyBack to index
In the last two lectures, I have approached the question of whether there should be a state, of whether
a state is a good thing. But even a successful consequentialist argument for the state might fail to
resolve some worries. Most important of these is a concern that a state is not just a body which
possesses a certain coercive power over people (lots of bodies do that). Rather states claim
authority for themselves. Could any body or institution have the authority over people which
states typically claim for themselves? To answer this question we need a better understanding of what
authority is and also of the kind of reasons for action that persons have. State officials do not just
assert that they have certain powers as a matter of fact. Rather, they are claiming a right to
be obeyed, and thereby asserting that others (the subjects) have a duty of obedience. In
making such a claim (whether or not it can be vindicated), states are doing something which
distinguishes them from the Mafia. The state does not rest its appeal to the reason of individuals
simply on the fact that they will be punished if they don’t obey. Rather it claims that when it
commands people have a moral reason for obedience. It is this suggestion that we need to expose to
scrutiny now. Is it correct? Could it, or anything like it ever be correct? If not, where would that leave
Wolff seeks to argue that our views about moral agency are incompatible with the notion of political
obligation. An autonomous person, or as Rousseau would have put it a morally free person, is a person
who obeys a law they have given to themselves. . They deliberate, they weigh the reasons for and
against particular courses of actions, and they are accountable for their decisions - they take
responsibility for them. Even when we fall short of autonomy action, we normally expect that others
treat us as autonomous agents. Wolff’s contention is that in all states save one ruled by unanimous
direct democracy, to acknowledge the authority of the law is to put oneself in the condition of the
child or the lunatic. It is to abandon, and abandon voluntarily, the status of moral agent and to allow
oneself to be guided by others.
Raz and Green on the grounds for
One possible means of replying to the Wolffian problem is found in the writings of Joseph Raz and
Leslie Green. People have reason to act upon the reasons that apply to them. There are often cases
where a person’s own judgement of the balance of reasons for and against a course of action is not
decisive as to what they have most reason to do. Sometimes reasons pre-empt other reasons and
prevent reconsideration of the merits and demerits of particular cases. Often, accepting the authority
of the state provides use with a better chance of acting on the reasons which apply to us, than is we
rely directly on our own reason. If Raz and Green are right, then we sometimes have reason to accept
authority. Wolff’s contention (and the act-utilitarian’s) that we should always act on the balance of
reasons as we see them, is too extreme. It fails to take account of how much of our ordinary practical
reasoning requires us to abandon that consideration of the balance of reasons anyway. But the Raz-
Green view nevertheless fails to underwrite the sort of authority that state’s claim for themselves.
States claim to have the right to unconditional and universal obedience. But the grounds for the
acceptance of authority in the scheme are conditional and non-universal.
Democracy, representation and majority rule
The direct democracy embodied in Rousseau’s ideal polity is almost a best-case scenario for the
congruence of individual autonomy and political authority. In all existing real-world states the
situation is much worse. Every functioning ‘democracy’ is in fact governed by representatives,
representatives who are not the agents of those who have elected them but rather represent them ‘in
general’ and deliberate for them about legislation. If I deliberate on a question and then choose
someone else to cast my vote for me then in Wolff’s (and Rousseau’s) view I have retained my right as
a responsible agent; but if I choose someone to do my deliberating for me ‘in general’ then I have
abrogated that responsibility.
Even where I deliberate myself, Wolff claims that the acceptance of majority rule constitutes an
abandonment of autonomy. One possible solution, which Keith Graham puts forward in his The
Battle of Democracy concerns the Wolffian treatment of autonomy. Granted that autonomy is of
very great value, we can notice that there are two ways in which we might implement it. First, we
might see it as what Robert Nozick calls a side-constraint. That is to say, we might view autonomy as
a good that is not tradable for any other good. Respect for autonomy is then seen as an absolute
precondition of the legitimacy of any social or political order. Alternatively, we might value autonomy
as a goal. In other words we might see autonomy as a good whose realisation we would aim to
R. P. Wolff, In Defence of Anarchism[JC571 WOL]
Leslie Green, The Authority of the State, ch. 2 [KA27GRE]
Joseph Raz ed., Authority (especially the essays by Raz and Green).
Keith Graham, The Battle of Democracy (sections dealing with Wolff) [JC423 GRA]
Political Philosophy Lecture 5: Rights and Self-OwnershipBack to index
The law of nature
According to Locke ,
people in a state of nature can arrive at a
set of rules for dealing with one another (the laws of nature), the problem is that there is no common judge to sort out
disputes. Where conflict does occur each person is likely to interpret the facts and the law of nature to their own
advantage and, in the absence of a better way of proceeding, is likely to use force to settle matters. The law of nature
assigns to each individual a set of rights which grant them exclusive use of their own bodies and also of certain
external objects. Questions immediately arise about what sorts of entities ought to have these special moral or legal
powers, with respect to what sorts of things, on what basis might they be justified? Locke’s successors (though
perhaps not Locke himself) pursue one set of answers to these questions. Roughly, they conceive of all rights as
analogous to or forms of property right and they conceive of those rights as forming an absolute barrier (or
side-constraint). As to what grounds there being rights in the first place there is little consensus. Locke seems to have
attributed this to the will of God, though the will of God is discoverable in these matters not by reading scripture or by
revelation but rather by the use of reason. Other theorists appeal to intuition, still others appeal to the power of
property-right based conceptions in affording us a possible resolution of interpersonal conflict.
The self-ownership thesis
Locke conceives of us having a property in our own person. It is not hard to discern some of the attractions of this idea.
Many of the conclusions it generates about what people may and may not legitimately do to one another coincide with
and may appear to underpin many of our intuitions about the same things. For instance, it might be very laudable for
me to donate some of my body parts to help a sick child (say by donating one of my kidneys) but it would surely be
wrong to take a kidney from me without my consent simply on the grounds that more good than harm is effected by the
However, this device for determining who is allowed to do what with who or what is going to be limited in its
usefulness unless we say some more about the connection between people’s ownership of themselves and the
disposition of external resources on which human life depends. Can we establish private property rights in external
objects? If we can then that provides a justification for the use of at least some coercive force against others (when they
try to make use of our property). But how extensive can property rights be? After all, if one person were to own
themselves and the whole world of external objects on which life depends they would exercise total power over the
others who owned only themselves. Locke argues that people have a God given duty to improve the earth and that
private property is a necessary adjunct to this task and to that of sustaining human life. He also specifies, more
importantly, a number of routes by which a self-owner might come to own part of the world and an accompanying
limitation on the extent of ownership. The most well-known of Locke’s methods for legitimately acquiring private
property is where a self-owners ‘mixes’ what he owns (his labour) with some previously unowned bit of the world and
thereby makes it his own. A more promising argument is one that is based directly on Locke’s limitation to property
acquisition. Locke permits the privatisation of bits of the world so long as ‘enough and as good’ is left for others and
that what is appropriated is not wasted or spoiled. Locke’s own formulation of this ‘proviso’, is notoriously vulnerable
to a regress argument.
It ought not to be hard to see that such a system, by giving rise to alienable private property, will quickly give rise to
inequalities in the distribution of external resources. And the inequality in the distribution of external resources will
give rise to a further inequality in the relative bargaining positions of the propertied and the propertyless. The self-
ownership principle had been meant to prevent people from being used in various ways against their will. It looks as if
one of its consequences is that at least some people will be left in a situation where there best option is to choose to
allow themselves to be used in just those ways. How are we to respond in the face of these problems? There are three
options. First we could, in the face of these examples, simply affirm that the voluntary nature of the choices involved
negates the morally objectionable character of the actions. Second, we could abandon the self- ownership thesis. This
has the disadvantage that the thesis does accord with many commonly held intuitions about how people may and may
not be treated and it may be difficult to capture those intuitions without appearing to affirm something like the self-
ownership principle. Third, we could continue to affirm self- ownership whilst building in conditions that guarantee
access to the means of production.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, second treatise, Ch. 5.
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Ch. 7, part 1.
A good recent guide to Locke is David Lloyd-Thomas, Locke on Government.
The best recent books on self-ownership are G.A.Cohen, Self Ownership, Freedom and Equality and Hillel
Steiner, An Essay on Rights.
Political Philosophy Lecture 6. The General WillBack to index
1. One thinkerwho hoped to go beyond both Hobbes and Locke by combining both a respect
for individual autonomy with a sensitivity to the whole social dimension
of human existence was =
"http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/academic/digitexts/rousseau/bio_rousseau.html"> Jean-Jacques Rousseau . Rousseau rejects
the naive and ahistorical conception of human nature associate with the
Enlightenment (in favour of a new, social, conception of selfhood. Second,
he poses, and gives an answer to the following problem: ‘To find a form of
association that defends and protects the person and possessions of each
associate with all the common strength, and by means of which each person,joining forces with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as
free as before.’ Rousseau’s answer to this challenge is his doctrine of
the general will.
2. Rousseau draws our attention to the fact that
people have two distinct sort of needs: natural and social. When man is in
his most primitive state he cares only for himself as a physical being. He
experiences hunger, thirst, cold etc. You and I however have quite other
basic requirements for our well being. We live in a world not simply
composed of physical objects and resources but also of other people. The
modern world is born when we cease to see others as simply parts of the
material world in which we live and begin to see others as other selves
who in turn perceive us as selves. Once that development has happened
Rousseau believes that the content of what makes our lives go well has
changed forever and a new mode of self-interest concerned with this new
way of being in the world comes into play - amour propre.
3. In the Second Discourse Rousseau places most emphasis on the negative
side of amour propre, on feelings of pride and vanity. One form
this negative or inflamed mode of amour propre takes is seen in the
master-servant/slave relationship which Hegel takes over from Rousseau.
4. Rousseau thought it almost inevitable that people would succumb to
inflamed amour propre and would, in consequence, fail to satisfy
their deepest needs. But he did sketch two routes by which people could
avoid this fate. In Emile the main character finds salvation in a
relationship of erotic love. But Rousseau also provides us with a social
route to universal recognition through his idea of a republic based on the
general will. Central to this idea is a conception of a republic of
persons. Whereas the glue that holds the Hobbesian commonwealth together
is, at bottom, the instrumental reason of asocial individuals, the
citizens of a Rousseauian republic have an enriched and socialized idea of
themselves as a result of their association and in participating in the
life of the community they best realize and express their deepest
5. One way of looking at the general will is as a solution to
collective action problems such as the prisoner’s dillemma. Here the
general will points to some collective good and the individual will to
some selfish one. Hobbesian rational utility maximizers either fail to
co-operate (to their collective disadvantage) or they devise carrots and
sticks to make individual interest coincide with collective interest.
Rousseau doesn’t rule out the possibility of using coercive force, but
more important for him is the connection between a person’s identity -
their sense of who they are - and the collective of which they form a
part. The individuals who make up Rousseau’s state think of themselves
primarily as citizens and as citizens they individually will the
6. It is important to notice at this point that the
general will already has two different incarnations. The general will is
both what people would will if they considered themselves to be members of
the relevant collective and put its collective interest to the fore (and
had all pertinent information at their disposal) and it also what people
do will insofar as they actually do consider themselves to be members and
derive a consitutive sense of what they are from the collective. Now
Rousseau believes that in a just state these two senses will co- incide in
practice, because, first, the state will be small in number, technically
unsophisticated and roughtly egalitarian in conditions of life and second,
the general will determines the content of the law and this, by its
nature, is general and universal in its application. But many of
Rousseau’s critics have worried about the application of an idea like the
general will, which Rousseau says is never wrong and may often be
contrasted with the empirical will of all, in a modern differentiated
7. A smoothly running Rousseauian state will aim to meet his
criterion of legitimacy then by adopting the Hobbesian strategy of having
everyone alienate their rights to the sovereign, but then allowing the
sovereign to consist of everyone. Eveyone alienates their original right
to all things in favour of themselves! Whilst this might be thought to
imply the tyranny of the collective over the individual, Rousseau believes
that membership of the collective will so inform an individual’s sense of
self that they will not see the general will as an onerous imposition by
an alien body but rather as expressive of their own moral personality.
Moreover, the egalitarian republic avoids the self-defeating inflamed
amour-propre characteristic of the Lockean state. Through their
recognition as citizen, the self-respect of each is assured.Unfortunately,
this picture is too rosy. Whilst he has opened some possibilities for us
to explore we can see at least two ways in which his ideal republic falls
short of his standard of legitimacy. The first of these concerns the
shadowy figure of the ‘lawgiver’ and the second some of Rousseau’s own
remarks on freedom in the state.
Social Contract, Books 1 and 2.
Rousseau, Discourse on
the Orgins of Inequality.
Rousseau, Emile, book 4.
N. J. H. Dent, Rousseau. (c) Christopher Bertram (1995)
Lecture 7: Rawls: The Original PositionBack to index
Rawls argues that the principles that should govern the ‘basic structure’ of a just or ‘well-ordered’
society are principles that would be chosen by individuals in a specially constructed imaginary
circumstance called the ‘original position’. The principles that emerge from this hypothetical procedure
are principles guaranteeing first, a substantial and equally distributed set of basic liberties, second, a
genuine equality of opportunity, and third, a defeasible presumption in favour of equality in the
distribution of certain ‘primary goods’, such as wealth and income.
One reason for using the contract device of the original position is to overcome the indeterminacy in our
concept of justice. Perhaps we can make progress in hitting on fair principles by devising a fair
procedure and then seeing whether what result from it gels with our considered judgements about
justice. We aim at what Rawls calls, ‘reflective equilibrium’.
But we can also seen Rawls’s contract procedure as being a response to the failure of alternative ways of
tackling the problem. Perfectionist theories are infeasible given our assumption of a lack of consensus on
what gives value to life. Utilitarian theories fail because of their aggregative character: they fail
adequately to take account of the interest of individuals. Contractarian theories explicitly take note of the
interest of each, but without some restriction on information would tend to reproduce an existing pattern
of advantage and disadvantage.
The fair procedure that Rawls uses is one embodied in what he calls ‘The Original Position’, this has
five main features:
1. First, the task facing the parties to the agreement is specified. They are to reach a consensus on the
principles to govern the basic structure of a society in which they themselves will be placed. This
society is conceived of as being in Hume’s ‘circumstances of justice’: that is it is a society of limited
generosity and moderate scarcity.
2. Second, the character of the parties is settled. They are conceived of as instrumentally rational in the
sense employed in economic theory (that is they seek the most efficient means to realise the goals
they happen to have) and mutually disinterested (they do not care whether other people do well or
badly compared to themselves).
3. Third, they are conceived of as choosing behind what Rawls calls the ‘veil of ignorance’. They are
ignorant of two sorts of things: first their own talents and abilities and their place in society; and
second, their own conception of what gives value to life (their conception of the good, which may
include religious and aesthetic ideals or even just tastes and preferences). Rawls introduces these
restrictions so that people cannot tailor the principles of the just society to suit themselves. The veil
of ignorance implements the idea of impartiality which is an essential component of the concept of
4. Fourth, the choice of principles is constrained by various formal considerations which Rawls takes to
be essential to the concept of law. Principles must apply universally and generally, they must be
capable of generating a definite answer in case of conflict and they must, crucially, be capable of
being made public. The principles that are to govern the just society must be principles that are
known and understood by citizens rather than being reserved to an elite of guardians.
5. Fifth, the parties do not choose their principles from scratch, but rather are presented with a list of
alternatives which represent various conceptions of justice that as plausible as prima facie
interpretations of the concept of justice as applied to the basic structure of society. These
alternatives are drawn from our tradition of reasoning about such questions and include amongst
their number classical utilitarianism, average utilitarianism, various perfectionist principles and
some mixed ones.
Rawls suggests that the parties will hit on two principles to govern the basic structure of society:
FIRST PRINCIPLE: Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic
liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
SECOND PRINCIPLE Social and economic principles are to satisfy two conditions. First, they
must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of
opportunity (the opportunity principle); and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the
least advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
The first principle is considered as lexically prior to the second and the first part of the second is
lexically prior to the second part of the second.
See also, a Rawls glossary , for
definitions of key terms
Reading: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Ch 1. ? C.Bertram 1995
Lecture 8. The Difference
PrincipleBack to index
The official canonical formulation of the difference principle, as Rawls states it in sec.46 of A Theory of
Justice is ‘Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are ... to the greatest benefit of
the least advantaged, ... consistent with the just savings principle’. It is lexically subordinate both the to first
principle of justice, which governs the basic liberties, and also to the other part of the second principle which
guarantees fair equality of opportunity.
Who are the ‘least advantaged’? Rawls understands this in terms of the prospects of some representative
member of a class (he suggests unskilled workers) or in terms of the average income of those with less than the
median income. Neither of these is especially satisfactory and Rawls seems to ignore the possibility that the
least advantaged might be members of some permanently unemployed underclass with much less than the
median income. He also seems tacitly to assume that much the same people will be ‘the least advantaged’ in
different possible societies. A second ambiguity concerns the way in which Rawls builds inequality into the
formulation of the principle. The way Rawls originally puts the principle it looks as if inequalities are only
permissible if they better the lot of the least advantaged. But that interpretation seems inconsistent with
Rawls’s claim that the parties to the original position do not take an interest in one another’s interests.
Arguments for the difference
1. The argument from the original position
Rawls claims that the parties to the original position will use as a principle of rational choice the so-called
maximin decision rule. This decision rule states that faced with a choice of alternative states of the world with
each state containing a range of possible outcomes, one should choose the state of affairs where the worst
outcome in that state of affairs is better than the worst outcome in any alternative. This decision rule is
different from the one commonly employed in rational-choice theory which states that one should choose in
order to maximize expected utility. Rawls claims that the normal utility-maximizing rule is not applicable
where one is denied a knowledge of the probabilities attached to particular outcomes.
2. The ‘Pareto’ argument
Rawls’s official argument for the difference principle is then less than fully convincing. Fortunately he also has
a subsidiary argument in favour of the difference principle. Here, he bases his defence not on contractarian
rational choice but on moral argument. He begins from the familiar idea that people do not deserve either their
natural abilities or their place in the social hierarchy. Where one was born and the assets one was born with are
seen as matters of brute luck. In a free market system, of course, one trades on those assets to get more in the
way of income and wealth. But Rawls contends that it would be unfair to allow distributive shares to be
influenced by factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. According to him, this fact establishes a
presumption in favour of an initial equality in social primary goods. But he then suggests that it would be
irrational to insist of maintaining this equality if everyone could do better by abandoning it. He suggests that
where the lot of everyone (and therefore the least advantaged) is improved by departing from equality this is
what we should do.
Predictably, since the difference principle is a principle of distribution that sits between a strict egalitarianism
and an acceptance of whatever distribution issues from market interactions, the difference principle has
attracted critics from both left and right .Right-wing criticisms have tended to focus on the apparent
inconsistency between Rawls’s critique of utilitarianism and the acknowledged effects of the difference
principle. Rawls, in his critique of utilitarianism makes much of the fact that utilitarianism ‘Fails to take
seriously the difference between persons’. But doesn’t the difference principle do just this by using the talents
of the better endowed as a resource for the less well endowed? A left-wing criticism might be to argue that if
the sense of justice is motivationally effective, the more advantaged will not need unequalizing incentives to
get them to contribute to the common good.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice section 11-17
Brian Barry, Theories of Justice, ch. 6, and Appendix C.
Christopher Bertram, ‘Principles of Distributive Justice, Counterfactuals and History’, Journal of Political
Philosophy I, 3 (1993).
G. A. Cohen, ‘The Pareto Argument for Inequality’, Social Philosophy and Policy, 1995.
John Harsanyi, ‘Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality’, American Political Science
Review, (69) (1974), pp. 594-606.
Lecture 9 Communitarian critics of
liberalismBack to index
One of the most prominent strands of reaction to Rawls’s work has gone by the name of
communitarianism. This current of thought revives some historically prominent lines of anti-liberal
thought, of both right and left, drawing on ideas from Aristotle, Burke, Hegel and Marx to greater or
lesser degrees. It opposes the universalism, individualism and abstraction of liberal thinking about society
with an emphasis on the particular, the social and the concrete. It looks backwards to an ideal of human
society as a community, rather than an association of individuals, and it looks forward to the revival of
such community on a new basis.
The just society and the good
Communitarians allege that liberals, by presupposing that human beings are best seen as separate
individuals pursuing their private goals are led to see society as a mere means for the pursuit of those
separate goals. On the one hand, this is a false account of our nature. Our identity is not something
original that is given to us prior to our participation in society, and many of the goals that we pursue are
not private but social and common. On the other hand, it is also a deeply damaging one. Insofar as
liberalism gains the upper hand, it is alleged, individual goods with be prioritised over social ones, people
will become more individualistic and also more unhappy as they are cut off from the possibilities of
shared human life together which are in fact essential to the good life.
How far does Rawls actually exemplify the position that communitarians demonise? First, we could look
at the design of the original position. Here we have separate individuals who take no interest in one
another’s interests and who are in ignorance of their own conception of what gives value to life. Both the
individualism and the abstraction of this picture might seem problematic. Second, communitarians might
question Rawls’s emphasis on primary goods. goods that are valuable to someone whatever their plan for
life. It might be questioned, for instance, how far Rawls’s list in fact incorporated a bias in favour of
liberal individualism, screening out conceptions of the good which are intrinsically social in nature.
Third, the priority of the right over the good, or neutrality about the kind of life human beings ought to
lead, might be seen as a dangerous abstentionism in the face of knowledge about certain goods and bads,
and might seem to preclude the possibility of state action in defence of those common goods or in defence
of a shared identity. Fourth, the emphasis on justice, a remedial virtue, as ‘the first virtue of social
institutions’ might be thought to divert effort and attention from the construction of a society which, not
being sick, was not in need of such remedies. Finally, the universalism of A Theory of Justice
might be seen as diverting us from the truth that the good life for human beings is always the particular
form of life lived by particular human beings with particular traditions and falsely representing as
universal, needs, aims and forms of life that are both themselves local and particular (just what people
around here happen to do) and actually not very desirable by historical standards (people lead unhappy
and frustrated lives).
One difficulty for communitarianism is that insofar as it emphasises the internal values of particular
societies, then liberalism can claim those as its own for this society. Insofar as it adopts an external
relativistic stance, it fails to provide the kind of concrete support that members of a moral community
would want to have.
. In the course of exploring our shared meanings about justice Walzer notices something very interesting
about societies like our own (and a fortiori the United States ) on the one hand, and societies like the now
defunct Soviet Union on the other. He notices that in both of these societies a single principle of
distribution tends to dominate all others. So that in market societies the purchasing power of cash tends
to secure not just a few consumer goods but a whole range of good (even including social honour) and in
Soviet type societies bureaucratic power had the same capacity. Walzer argued that for single principles
to dominate in this way is unhealthy and the we should look instead to a plurality of principles: some
things should be distributed according to money, some according to merit, some according to need
Papers by Macintyre and Sandel; in Michael Sandel ed, Liberalism and its Critics.
Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift, Liberals and Communitarians, Introduction. ch 1, 2 [3 and
Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, ch 6.
Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, ch. 1.
Jeremy Waldron, ‘Particular values and critical morality’ in his Liberal Rights.
Political Philosophy: Lecture 10:
Rawls’s Political LiberalismBack to index
In A Theory of Justice Rawls is committed to something like the liberal principle of
legitimacy. If we are to justify the use of the coercive power of the state over individuals it ought to be
in terms of reasons that all can accept (or at least ought to accept). But people disagree with one
another not just because of their unreasonable selfishness but also because of their quite reasonable
attachment to a diversity of incompatible religious and philosophical doctrines. A Theory of
Justice has a picture of the well-ordered society as being one where citizens affirm something
like the doctrine of Theory. If the coercive power of the state ever needs to be deployed it will
be deployed for the reasons outlined in Theory and when citizens advance justifications to one
another they are advanced in terms derived from Theory. But it is perfectly possible to be a
reasonable person and to disagree with the reasonings of A Theory of Justice. Nor is there any
reason to suppose that this problem will go away. Rather a theory of justice has to take cognisance of
what Rawls calls ‘Four general facts’ about modern societies. These are: (1) The fact of pluralism; (2)
The only way round the fact of pluralism is the oppressive use of state power to enforce unity; (3) If a
well-ordered society is to survive it much enjoy the support of the majority of its citizens and so it
must be justified in terms of reasons that most of them can affirm (yet most of them cannot affirm
particular sectarian doctrines); (4) The public culture of most democratic societies contains intuitive
ideas which it is possible to work up into the justificatory basis for a constitutional regime.
This fourth fact leads Rawls to believe that it is possible to elaborate principles to govern the basic
structure of society (its political realm) which will be acceptable to most citizens despite their
conflicting views. Citizens may have all kinds of beliefs but they also have, Rawls believes, a public
persona as citizens. In that role they see themselves and others as free choosers of ends and capable of
revising and examining the conception of the good which they are to pursue. . Not only do people see
themselves and others as free, pursuers of ends, they also have a conception of themselves and others
as equal which disposes them to moderate their own claims in order to accommodate the reasonable
claims of others and (a further and new dimension to reasonability) they can understand that how ever
much they believe that their views about the good life, how to live, the existence of God etc., are true,
yet another reasonable person might come to quite different conclusions about those same matters.
Because of that fact of reasonable disagreement it would be quite wrong (and unreasonable) to insist
on the enforcement by the state of that part of my beliefs that can be the object of such reasonable
Now Rawls describes his new theory as being ‘political not metaphysical’. He means two things: first
that the theory is restricted in scope to cover the ‘basic structure’ of society. Second, it is political in
that it does not rely on any of the general metaphysical facts that are disputed among reasonable
persons in a pluralistic society. Rather it relies on working up the shared values of freedom and
equality that he presumes are shared among citizens into more determinate principles to govern
society. These shared values are the focus of what Rawls calls an ‘overlapping consensus’.
What about the societies where there is no such overlapping consensus? Surely Rawls wants to say
that such societies are defective in some way and that it would be better for them if they were to have
liberal institutions? Yet he seems to have deprived himself through his new-found contextualism of
the means to make these points.
A further criticism we might make is to point to the uncertain status of the reasonable within Rawls’s
later theory. At its most basic level the reasonable has to do with the capacity for forbearance, for
being willing to moderated one’s own claims when others are also prepared to moderate theirs. But
Rawls also seems to want to use the term in a more neutral, epistemic sense. These senses
Why should someone grant priority to the values of the political domain ? Rawls fails to give an
adequate answer to this problem. Someone who is already predisposed to liberalism will no doubt
agree with (or at least tend to give considerable weight to) the suggestion that those matters that will
be the object of intractable disagreement between reasonable people (such as abortion, foxhunting and
pornography) ought to be outside the province of legislation, but it is unclear that the demand to be
reasonable is in itself enough to secure this conclusion.
John Rawls, Political Liberalism.
Jean Hampton, ‘The Moral Commitments of Liberalism’, in Copp, Roemer and Hampton eds.,
The Idea of Democracy.
Political Philosophy Lecture 11.
Democracy, Preference and ConsensusBack to index
As citizens of liberal democracies we live in societies shaped by two sets of imperatives and with social goods
distributed by two sets of mechanisms. Those mechanisms are, of course, political democracy and the market.
One way of looking at these mechanisms is to see them as merely neutral instruments of social choice, with
some goods (fruit and hi-fis) naturally best distributed by one (the market) and others (public order, defence)
naturally best distributed by the other (the political system). Some people even see one of these mechanisms
(the market) as somehow constituting a quasi-natural social order with the other as being an unwelcome
parasite, to be dispensed with where possible. But to look these institutions in such a way is to presuppose
something like the truth of the Hobbesian or Humean picture, and to see human needs as motivations as being
external to the instututions that shape and pre-empt them. look at practices of voting and political argument.
Both of these practices offer the possibility of a bridge from the self-interested self of the marketplace to the
public-spirited citizen of the Rousseauain republic.
According the instrumental view of rationality I act rationally when I act in such a way as to maximize the
satisfaction of my preferences. Now there is a well-known problem about people so understood. This is that it
seems to be irrational for them to vote in the first place.
If the theory does't get people to the polls in the first place, nor is it going to do the job of explaining how they
vote when they get there. In the polling booth, as I look at my ballot paper, I am conscious of myself as both
consumer and citizen. Happily I am able both to express my judgment about the common good without
incurring the cost of any net loss in terms of my personal interests. We can see here an asymmetry between the
market and a political democracy as a social choice mechanism. In the market if I use my assets in one way I
forgo the opportunity to derive the benefits that would have come to me had a I spent them in some other way.
But the political case is quite different, I can enjoy the luxury of expressing my support for a particular vision
of the common good without incurring any costs associated with my self-interest since the chances of my
affecting the result are so small.
Insofar as people are prepared to express and affirm a view on the common good they seem to be doing
something which is open to criticism, which calls out for discursive justification etc. When we interact
discurisively with others, when we communicate, converse etc. We often do this non-manipulatively. This is
true when we are discussing some positive question about the way the world is where we all have an interest in
the truth. But it is also true in discussion of politics, in collective practical deliberation about ends, and often
about the means to secure those ends.
A conversation conforms to the norms of rational communication insofar as it is free from domination (the
exercise of power); free from strategic behaviour by those engaged in the conversation; and free from lying and
self-deception. The conversation should also be conceived of as taking place between equals who are all
competent to advance and criticize arguments. We all know of situations where these circumstances fail to
hold. Do they hold to any degree in this case?
Bringing the two parts of the argument together we can see that each person if they are rational is likely to cast
their vote according to a judgement about the common good and that insofar as they engage with others in
communicative action oriented towards reaching a consensus on the common good they presuppose certain
conditions. Now very few of us has a systematic interest in distorting the conditions of communication in order
to bring it about that a consensus is reached on other grounds than those of rational argument. In any case,
given the scale of modern political discourse, few of us are in any position to couch our input in anything other
than argumentative form.
Geoffrey Brennan, 'Politics with Romance: Towards a Theory of Democratic Socialism', in Alan Hamlin and
Philip Pettit eds, The Good Polity.
Jon Elster, 'The Market and the Forum', in Jon Elster and Aanund Hyland eds, Foundations of Social
Christopher Bertram, ‘Self-Effacing Hobbesianism’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol
Political Philosophy: Lecture 12:
EgalitarianismBack to index
Equality is a value that figures prominently in the writings of both egalitarian socialists and
egalitarian liberals. Even those who do not adhere to such views usually concede that equality is
part of the story in political morality. The question naturally arises: what sort of equality should an
egalitarian care about? The question is all the more pertinent since promoting equality on one
dimension - say 'opportunity' - leads to inequality on another - say, wealth.
In this lecture I discuss only briefly arguments for and against equality, such as those for Rawls's
difference principle or those contending that the pursuit of equality is inimical to some other value
such as freedom. My main concern is with competing concepts of equality.
Equality of welfare. Welfare is a natural choice for the dimension on which people should be
treated equally. After all, if people care most about their welfare it presents itself as a plausible
candidate. But there are formidable objections to such a view whether we take a hedonistic or
preference based view of welfare.
1. The problem of other minds
2. Welfare is not all we care about
3. Other-regarding and impersonal preferences
4. Offensive tastes
5. Expensive tastes
The difficulties with the equality of welfare conception have led some theorists, notably Ronald
Dworkin to propose an alternative: equality of resources. Equality of resources can have two main
forms: (1) it can be sensitive to the distribution of Rawlsian social primary goods; or (2) it can
include within the scope of 'resources' not only the material resources available to a person but
also a person's talents and abilities. Ceteris paribus under equality of resources a person will be
worse off if they have expensive tastes or are inefficient resource to welfare converters but not as a
result of poverty or mental or physical incapacity. Equality of resources is attractive partly
because of the way it chimes with liberal neutrality.
As an interpretation of equality it is, however, inferior to equality of opportunity for welfare. This
interpretation is successful in defeating the expensive tastes objection but fails for other
Egalitarians often favour compensation for disadvantage that is not properly cashed-out as welfare
deficit (e.g. the unusually cheerful person who is paralysed still gets a wheelchair in an egalitarian
scheme). But although egalitarians are often disposed to compensate for disadvantage in the sphere
of capability, they also sometimes favour compensation in the sphere of welfare (would they refuse
to issue painkilling medicine on the same terms as they did the wheelchair to a person who was an
unusually capable athlete but who suffered great pain from moving her limbs?). On possible final
candidate for consideration is that egalitarians should compensate people for disadvantage that is
not the result of their own choices.
Amartya Sen, 'Equality of What?', in S. McMurrin ed. The Tanner Lectures on Human
Values vol. 8 and in his Choice, Welfare and Measurement.
Ronald Dworkin, 'What is Equality?' parts one and two, Philosophy and Public Affairs
Richard Arneson, 'Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare', Philosophical Studies 56
G. A. Cohen, 'On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice', Ethics 99 (1989).
W. Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy see chs 2, 3, 5.
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