University of Kansas, Spring 2003
Philosophy 555: Justice and Economic Systems

Paper Topics / Test Questions—Rawls

There are both a paper assignment and a test to be taken on Rawls.

I. Paper

You have two options for the paper assignment, each of which involves writing a paper of about six pages (of double-spaced, 12-point type).

The first option is to develop the most effective objection to Rawls’s theory that you can. 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 the sense 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.)

The second option for the paper concerns R. M. Hare’s 1973 critique of Rawls. Specifically, this option involves (1) selecting one of the four areas into which Hare divides his critique of Rawls, (2) briefly explaining the nature of Hare’s objection(s) in that area, and (3) providing the most effective rejoinder to Hare, on behalf of Rawls, that you can. So whereas the first option asks you to attack Rawls, this option asks you to defend him.

Regardless of which of the two options you choose, there are two due dates for this paper:

  1. The first due date is for peer reading of (and commenting on) papers. You are to bring to class on Monday, March 3, two copies of your paper. Then you and two of your classmates will form a group of three and will read and comment on each other’s papers. You should bring to class two copies of as final and polished a version of your paper as you can manage, so that your peers will have the opportunity to read and comment on your best work.
  2. The second due date is for turning in the final version of your paper to me. Final copies of papers will be due in class on Monday, March 10.

In writing your paper you are welcome to use resources beyond those used in class, but you do not need to do so. For additional suggestions about writing philosophy papers generally, see my “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper.”

II. Test

The test will be given in class on Friday, March 7, and will consist of 100 points’ worth of the following questions. There may also be a bonus question or two, not listed here.

  1. (10 points:) What is the difference between the concept of justice and a conception of justice?
  2. (20 points:) What are the two parts into which Rawls says that any contract theory can be divided? How can a critic reject the first of these, but accept the other, and vice versa?
  3. (20 points:) What are the two distinct strategies of justification that Rawls employs in order to defend his conception of justice?
  4. (10 points:) What does Rawls mean when he says that utilitarianism inappropriately extends a principle that is appropriate for intrapersonal choice to the context of interpersonal choice?
  5. (10 points:) What is the priority problem, and how does Rawls purport to solve it?
  6. (20 points:) What is the substance of the conception of justice that Rawls advocates?
  7. (10 points:) What is the difference between the notion of careers open to talents and the notion of fair equality of opportunity, and why does Rawls prefer the latter to the former?
  8. (20 points:) What are the essential elements (the informational constraints and the motivational constraints) of the original position?
  9. (10 points:) What grounds does Rawls give for the parties’ opting (in the original position) for his conception of justice over some form of utilitarianism?
  10. (10 points:) What are the two distinct points in Rawls’s theory at which the notion of pure procedural justice comes into play?
  11. (10 points:) What is an example that shows how maximizing equal basic liberty involves weighing certain basic liberties against others and trying to arrive at the most desirable total package of basic liberties?
  12. (10 points:) What is the basis for Rawls’s inclusion, in his theory, of a principle requiring some savings from one generation to the next?
  13. (10 points:) What are the main elements of Rawls’s view of civil disobedience?
  14. (20 points:) What are two of Hare’s four broad criticisms of Rawls?