University of Kansas, Spring 2004
Philosophy 555: Justice and Economic Systems

Class notes: Rawls, preface and chapter 1

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. preface
    1. vs. utilitarianism: Rawls makes it clear that he does not accept utilitarianism, and is offering his own theory as an alternative to utilitarianism (p. xvii.6). (This will be elaborated later.)
    2. vs. intuitionism: Rawls also makes it clear that he does not accept intuitionism, and means for his theory not to be a form of intuitionism (p. xvii.9). (This will also be elaborated later.)
    3. social-contract theory: Rawls regards himself as developing a more sophisticated version of the idea of the social contract, as found in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant (p. xviii.2)
  2. chapter 1: “Justice as Fairness”
    1. p. 4.7: what a conception of justice is for: assigning basic rights and duties and distributing benefits and burdens (also p. 6.3)
    2. § 2: the subject of justice: the basic structure of society. This includes
      1. the way in which major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation
      2. the political constitution and the major economic and social arrangements
      3. examples: freedom of speech, private property, monogamous family
      4. not the activities of private associations
      5. not international relations
    3. p. 5.4: concept vs. conception
      1. A conception is a specification of a concept; a concept presents a problem and a conception presents a solution to it (Korsgaard). See also p. 9.4–6.
      2. p. 5.3–6: The concept of justice involves the notions of arbitrariness (lack thereof) and of striking a proper balance between things; a conception of justice offers interpretations of arbitrariness and propriety.
    4. p. 14.3: contractarian theory
      1. two parts
        1. a specification of the initial situation (Rawls’s is called the original position)
        2. a set of principles that, it is claimed, would be agreed to
      2. the scheme of the argument
        1. The original position is a fair (or otherwise morally significant) interpretation of the initial situation.
        2. The conception of justice (“the two principles”) that Rawls defends would be chosen in the original position.
        3. Therefore, the two principles that Rawls defends are the best conception of justice.
      3. So, one might agree with Rawls that the original position is the best interpretation of the initial situation but dispute that the principles Rawls defends would be selected there; or one might agree with Rawls that the principles he defends would be selected in the original position but dispute that the original position is a fair (or otherwise morally significant) interpretation of the initial situation. Or one might disagree with both of Rawls’s premises.
    5. pp. 16–17: the original position
      1. need for specification of the original position (p. 16.3)
      2. p. 16.6: “weak” premises (see also pp. 111.9–112.1)
      3. veil of ignorance (p. 17.3)
    6. §§ 5–6: utilitarianism
      1. considerations in favor
        1. extension of the principle of choice for the individual to the social context (p. 21)
        2. defining right in terms of good (specifically, maximization of the good) (pp. 21–22)
      2. objections
        1. p. 23.6: according to utilitarianism “there is no reason in principle why the greater gains of some should not compensate for the lesser losses of others; or more importantly, why the violation of the liberty of a few might not be made right by the greater good shared by many.”
        2. p. 24.7: “Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.”
      3. three contrasts
        1. convictions about the priority of justice: sound commitment vs. social useful illusion (p. 25.6)
        2. principles of justice: object of agreement vs. extension of intrapersonal principle of choice (p. 25.7)
        3. principles of justice: deontological vs. teleological (p. 26.6) (See also p. 28.1, on the priority of the right to the good.)
      4. p. 29.7: clear statement of the main contrast
    7. § 7–8: intuitionism and the priority problem
      1. p. 30.5: The essential feature of intuitionism, for Rawls, is that there are no rules for settling conflicts among moral principles. You just have to use your judgment.
      2. p. 32.7: An example of an intuitionist approach is that we need to balance equality and total welfare.
      3. p. 34.3: The problem with intuitionism is expressed here—that an intuitionist conception of justice allows different persons to arrive at different judgments, and provides no way of discriminating among them. In other words, intuitionism fails to solve the priority problem.
      4. Justice as fairness solves, or partially solves, the priority problem in three ways.
        1. by making the principles of justice an object of choice—obviously choosers will not be content to settle on anything too vague or variable, if it will be employed to regulate the basic structure of their society
        2. by putting principles in lexical order
        3. by asking narrowed questions: prudential not moral, worst-off not everyone. (More on this later.)
    8. justification
      1. reflective equilibrium: seeking a theory that meshes with our considered judgments
        1. p. 17.8: considered convictions
        2. p. 18.3: ”work from both ends”
      2. moral theory
        1. not merely descriptive; this would be too conservative (p. 42.7)
        2. p. 43.2–3: Rawls’s criterion for selecting a moral theory