Washington and Lee University, Fall 2001

Philosophy 395: Advanced Seminar

TTh, HI hours (Newcomb 28A)

Ben Eggleston—EgglestonB@wlu.edu

office hours: M&F, 2–4, and T&Th, 9–11 (Newcomb 25)


Paper Assignment no. 1


We have been reading Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and we have seen both Rawls’s conception of justice and most of the support that he provides for it. Your assignment is to develop the most effective objection to Rawls’s theory that you can. Your paper should be about six pages long, double-spaced.

In order to formulate an objection to develop, you may wish to begin by considering that Rawls has two broad strategies of justification. One goes like this:

  1. The original position is the interpretation of the initial situation that makes that situation morally significant in that whatever conception of justice would be chosen there is what we, in real life, ought to regard as the best conception of justice.
  2. Rawls’s conception of justice would be chosen in the original position.
  3. Therefore, Rawls’s conception of justice is the best one.

The other justificatory strategy goes like this:

  1. Rawls’s conception of justice has implications for specific problems that fit our intuitions about these problems better than do the implications of any other conception of justice.
  2. The conception of justice whose implications best fit our intuitions is the best one.
  3. Therefore, Rawls’s conception of justice is the best one.

Since statements 3 and 6 are the conclusions of their respective arguments, you can proceed by trying to undermine any of the premises giving rise to them: statements 1, 2, 4, and 5. As you know from your reading, statements 1 and 2 are argued for throughout chapters II and III, and statement 4 is argued for in Part Two. Rawls’s defense of statement 5 is less conspicuous, but some hints of how he would attempt to justify it are found in §§ 4, 9, and 87.

There are, then, many angles from which you can launch an objection against Rawls’s view. To undermine statement 1, you could argue that the veil of ignorance is too thick or too thin (or both, in various ways), or that what the parties in the original position are characterized as aiming at is misconceived, or that the risk-aversion attributed to them is arbitrary, or that the very idea of a contract is inapt here, or any of many other things. To undermine statement 2, you could argue that some other conception of justice than Rawls’s would be chosen there (and clearly the possibilities here are as limitless as are the alternatives to Rawls’s conception of justice). To undermine statement 4, you could argue that the implications of Rawls’s theory are unacceptable in regard to any number of things: the protection of liberties, equality of opportunity, justice between generations, the distribution of wealth and income, civil disobedience, and conscientious objection, to name just a few.

Note that this assignment does not call for a comprehensive investigation of any of statements 1, 2, 4, and 5 (much less of Rawls’s theory as a whole). Rather, it calls for a criticism of some very specific aspect of Rawls’s theory. The statements above are provided in order to help you to see some of the general angles from which you can develop an objection to Rawls’s theory, not in order to suggest the scale or level of generality at which your objection should proceed. (It is just as if I were to ask you to design a two-week vacation, and I mentioned that some possible destinations can be found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. That wouldn’t mean that I would expect the resulting vacation to cover any of those continents thoroughly or evenly. Some choices, about what to attend to and what to ignore, will still have to be made.)

For this paper there are two due dates: Tuesday, October 9, and Thursday, October 18. On October 9 (a date for which, you will have noticed, there is an unusually small amount of assigned reading), you are to bring to class two copies of a rough draft of your paper. In class you will read two of your classmates’ papers, and will receive comments on your paper from two of your classmates. Then you will have some time in which to improve your paper in light of your peers’ comments, and on October 18 you will turn in to me one copy of the revised version of your paper. This is what I will read and grade.


To be more precise about what I’ve said so far, following is a detailed account of the criteria according to which I will grade.



points possible:

points earned:

1.      Your paper accurately explains some part of Rawls’s theory:



2.      Your paper accurately explains the justificatory importance of that part of Rawls’s theory:



3.      Your paper offers an effective objection to that part of Rawls’s theory:



4.      Your paper is well organized and clearly written, with good spelling and grammar:



5.      For October 18 (not October 9): your paper is approximately six pages in length and is double-spaced, and this sheet (with this side up) is stapled or paper-clipped to the front of your paper:



6.      For October 18 (not October 9): lateness penalty (if applicable):

(3 points off per unexcused day late, excluding weekends)



total score




Finally, a word about the honor system. As you know, all work turned in for credit at Washington and Lee is presumed to have been done without the giving or receiving of unacknowledged aid. This paper shall be no exception. But this does not mean that you cannot get help on this paper; on the contrary, you can get all sorts of help, but you must acknowledge it. That is, you must indicate—with footnotes, ideally—all of the ways in which you have gotten help, whether from other people (such as the staff of the Writing Center, which you are encouraged to take advantage of), or from books other than the Rawls text itself, or Web sites, and so on. Where possible, help that you have received should be noted in connection with the part of your paper to which it pertains. (For example, if someone helps you find a more persuasive way of expressing some thought of yours, then that should be noted with a footnote in that part of your paper.) But help whose effects extend throughout the paper (such as when someone reads your whole paper and gives you comments on many parts of it) can be noted as such in a single footnote at the beginning or end. In acknowledging aid, there is a balance to be struck between thoroughness and manageability; the key is to be as thorough as you need to be in order for the reader not to mistakenly attribute to you anything that you owe to someone or something else. So when in doubt, err on the side of thoroughness in acknowledging aid.