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John Rawls Theory of Justice

John Rawls

Contemporary thinkers generally try to understand the institution of morality. Unlike analytical philosophers, they avoid hair-splitting and logic-chopping discussions of moral terms or concepts. This recent approach explains the contemporary interest in John Rawls, whose treatise A Theory of Justice has strongly influenced recent moral philosophy. We will have occasion to mention John Rawls also while discussing administrative ethics.

John Rawls does not discuss general ethics, but examines a particular species of ethics, namely, justice. But the wide canvas of A Theory of Justice covers several ethical themes ranging from intuitionism and utilitarianism to the ethics of Kant and Aristotle. As such, it contains the central issues of ethics from within its own interest.

John Rawls argues that the adoption of two fundamental principles of justice would guarantee a just and morally acceptable society:

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:
  3. to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and
  4. attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls tries to show how such principles would be universally adopted, and in this way, moves partly towards general ethical issues. He introduces a theoretical “veil of ignorance” It ensures that all the “players” in the social game would be placed in a particular situation. Rawls calls it the “original position.” In this position, everyone only has a general knowledge about the facts of “life and society”. Therefore, each player is to make a “rationally prudential choice” concerning the kind of social institution they would enter into contract with. As the players have no specific information about themselves, they cannot adopt a partisan or self regarding view. They are forced to adopt a generalized point of view that bears a strong resemblance to the moral point of view.

“Moral conclusions can be reached without abandoning the prudential standpoint and positing a moral outlook merely by pursuing one’s own prudential reasoning under certain procedural bargaining and knowledge constraints.” This view of Rawls represents “rational choice’ within a veil of ignorance”

This is an appropriate point to close our discussion on twentieth century moral thinkers. We need to discuss only the major thinkers. We need to follow the main trends of moral theories in the twentieth century. As we saw, till about sixties, barring a few, philosophers adopted a positivistic and analytical approach. They analyzed moral concepts and provided little moral guidance for practical situations of life. Their work has no normative content. This approach is hardly relevant to practicing administrators. At best it can help in understanding moral concepts that come into play in many administrative situations. But, as we shall see, administrators have to have commitment to definite moral values. However, as we saw, philosophers from the seventies shifted again to moral norms as part of society and as “games” reflecting many situations of life.



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