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Research Notes



  • A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls
  • Anarchy, State, Utopia (1974), Nozick
  • “Conscription and the Color Line: Rawls, Race, and Vietnam”, Terry. Online pdf, p
  • “John Rawls in Historical Context”, Bevir and Galisanka. Online pdf, p
  • “The Audacious Humility of John Rawls”, Estlund. Online pdf
  • In the Shadow of Justice, Katrina Forrester. p

John Rawls, Autobiographical Notes

  • p. 50 in PDF: “How did it [A Theory of Justice] become so famous? It was published in 1971. Did it immediately become well known?” “That’s an interesting question. I’m not the best person to answer it… Granting that, I think it gained attention from a conjunction of circumstances. You have to remember [the historical context.] It was a long time ago, so you probably don’t remember. Why should you? I wouldn’t remember in your place. It was during the Vietnam War and soon after the Civil Rights Movement. They dominated the politics of the day. And yet there was no recent book, no systematic treatise, you might say, on a conception of political justice.”
  • p. 53: We should not formulate too broad a concept of political justice. Informed opinion and due consideration are required.
  • p. 54: dorm room Confederate flag controversy – hope for an amicable solution without administrative force

In the Shadow of Justice, Katrina Forrester

Chapter 1: The Making of Justice

  • John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice launched him into fame – very long account of justice as fairness (2)
  • Revival of the liberal social contract tradition – the original position (2)
  • Rawls experience in WWII in the Pacific Theater – inescapability of politics (3)
  • After WWII, Rawls took on barebones liberalism – limitations of concentrations of power. A Theory of Justice as postwar, not Great Society. (3-4)
  • Forms the architecture of his theory by the end of the 1950s (4)
  • Greater wariness of concentrated political adne conomic power returns to liberalism during the Keynesian rise in post-war statist growth (4-6)
  • Focus on a system of objective standards for judgement without a God or state to ground it (6) + open and noncoercive justifications (7) – emphasis on rational discussion, not appeal to authority and the law – “radically minimalist, eliminativist”
  • Racial prejudices – p. 8
  • Drawing from Wittgenstein – morality is interpersonal, social, defined by use; the world is discovered, not chosen.
  • Rawls reads pre-sixties critiques of anticommunist repression, capitalism, racial and labor suppression (11)
  • Game analogies were widespread in postwar thought (13) - economics-ization
  • Rawls later abandons barebons liberalism (18)
  • 1957 – Rawls at the APA, every person “has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all” (25)
    • Preocuppation with moral psychology
    • An engineering problem: social mechanisms
    • Preoccupied with uncertainty and systems of control, bargaining – Galbraith! (29)
    • Rules need more
    • Broadening out to different modes of governance
    • Early 1950s engagement with utilitarianism and economics – why follow rules at all? Rules are constittuive of actions
    • Late 1950s, basic structure (33) – the rules of the game
  • In the 1960s, Rawls introduces the original position, the veil of ignorance (36). Vision of society as a game. “Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons”; individualizes people and eliminates the plurality of their relations
    • Focus on an autonomousness of justice
  • 1964 – finishes the first full draft of A Theory of Justice

Chapter 2: Obligations

  • Civil Rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s (2)
  • Rawls had tried to abstract from politics, but now a philosophy of public affairs is pressing (2)
  • The problem of political obligation and disobedience (3)
  • Stability and order in constitutional democracies as rules of the game (5)
  • Commitment to postwar vision of consensus (5)
  • Society for Ethical and Legal Philosphy (SELF) – good source to look at
  • Philosophy and Public Affairs
  • How to understand black militancy? (4) – good reference (footnote 7)
  • Liberal philosophers defended stability and guarantees (4)
  • In light of growing civil libertarianism, Rawls rethought the individual as an agent – disconnecting agency from redistribution. Dissent is in fact not necessarily incompatible with stability (5)
  • **Obligation here was bsaed on the fairness of rules, and if all play the game… each has a duty not to take advantage of the complicance of others” (7)
  • Prioritizing stability does not mean succumbing to conservatism
  • Rawls rises to the challenge to find why disobedience is necessary not only because of conscience alone: fair play can bge the basis of a theory of obligation
  • Segregation in the South: Blacks as being denied human rights vs not recieving fair benefits

Blacks were not receiving the benefits of participating in a practice as whites did, and so, like other minority groups disadvantaged by laws (religious groups were another example), they were released from duties of fair play and the obligation to obey unjust laws. p. 9

  • Society as a cooperative practice
  • Civil Rights did not feature centrally in Rawls’ account of obligation
  • Rawls initially set forth a very high bar for legitimate protest

Attack on liberalism in the 1960s

  • Gramsci: appearance of consensus is a function of ruling-class hegemony
  • Radical ideas and turns away from liberalism
    • Civil disobedience as a way for citizens to educate each other on obligations
    • Rejection of consensus theory and liberal view of obligation and consent
    • Few people give actual consent needed to ground obedience to law. Sever obligation from consent
    • Setting forth limitations on what philosophy can do (Pitkin)
    • Anathema to liberals – Rawls aims to redeem philosophy in a certain sense

The Draft

  • December 1966, Rawls wants to condemn 2S deferments for students
  • Conscription needs to be distributed fairly; the risks of war should not be inequitably shouldered by the less privileged.
  • Rawls advocated equal subjection to universal conscription
  • Looking beyond distributive concerns to the legitimacy of civil disobedience
  • Conscientious objectors – reformulation of conscience in secular terms
  • Civil libertarian approach to civil disobedience: Civil disobedience should only be taken if there is no legal option

Michael Walzer

  • New approach to obligation which straddles legal and philosophical debates
  • “Harvard School style” use of history and psychology in making normative arguments, reflects postwar emphasis on psychology
  • Critique of the old left, commitment to group life
  • Looked at consent – “with its impersonal administration, its equality before the law, citizens are nameless aliens for whom self-government was more fiction than reality” (p. 16)
  • For Walzer, consent theory is dead; Rawls instead tied obligation to state benefits, but these are negative duties, i.e. do not do this or nthat, not active obligations
  • Walzer: it is consent which makes the government justice
  • Consent theory is Walzer’s way of allocating agency – consent as comitment to other people, principles, parties. Obligations are owed to citizens and small groups of social life.
  • Modern citizens do not give full consent to the state they are alienated from and therefore are not obligated to serve
  • Rawls’ “interpersonal, pluralist life” – p. 17
  • Virginia Held – civil disobedience as a highly individual form of action
  • theorizing resistance beyond the traditional factory strike
  • Walzer: the police are not entitled to act against men who violate the laws of the state solely to challenge the authority of the corporation
  • Walzer: an undemocratic state cannot command obedience
  • Debate about dissent took a conservative turn after the violent turn in the mid to late 60s: civil disobedience as the destroyer of democracy

The moment when political theorists tried to justify a broad range of dissent did not last long. As the democratic, pluralist, and New Left visions of dissent came under attack from the right, liberal philosophers introduced their own account of civil disobedience. p 21

A New Liberal View and the Conservative Turn

  • 1969 – SELF, begin to look at justice theory to replace natural law
  • Crystallization of legal perspectives in philosophy from Rawls – translation from philosophical/political to legal problems
  • ‘Justice’ can be adopted to address political problems and replace intuitionism
  • Is there a legally protected right to civil disobedience?
  • 1960s, civil rights proesters often defined civil obedience in a convenient way
  • Civil Disobedience as a duty of citizenship, improving the state, testing unjust laws
  • The importance of being willing to ‘pay the penalty’ – a constriction of the definition of civil disobedience
  • A conservative turn: Nixon’s law and order campaign.
    • CD as a threat to stability
    • Acceptance of constitutional system as fundamewntal to citizenship
  • The left rejected ‘pay the penalty’
  • Finer delineation of theories of obligation by moral and political philosophers – departing from fair play model of rule breaking to experiment with more principles and find a middle ground
  • 1969 – Rawls publishes account of civil disobedience; injustice of laws is not enough to justify obedience; it must be justified by moral principles which define a conception of civil society and the public good. Accepting democratic society means being compelled to follow some unjust laws.
    • Civil disobedience seeks ot restore what really matters – stability of the basic structure
  • Rawls shifts from fair play argument to ‘natural duties’
  • Civil disobedience had to be nonviolent and an appeal rather than a threat. Coercive disobedience as terrorism.
  • Racial liberalism
    • Aim of black freedom struggle is reconfirmation of the American creed
    • (Rawls & William Buckley in Buckley v. Baldwin?)
    • “Participants in the civil rights movement merely demanded a chance to be included in a game that was nearly fair” p. 29
  • A giving up of economic justice – lawbreaking in the name of redistribution is not justifiable
  • Rawls’ “romantic vision of civil rights”
  • Transformation of Rawls’ thought in the sixties: more constitutionalist and civil-libertarian view of state power
  • Still grasping at the hope for consensus
  • Rawls: philosophically cementing firm, legal boundaries, cautiously policed.

Lots of good stuff on Rawls’ thought on political action and the broader liberal tradition in the last few pages of this chapter

Chapter 3: The War as Moral Crisis

Chapter 5: Going Global

  • Rals anticipates objections to cross-country differences, p. 9: applying principles of justice globally is psychologcially implausible.