Friday, March 5, 2010

Political Liberalism by John Rawls

Lecture V: The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good
John Rawls

Justice as fairness (in contrast to utilitarianism) is based on the priority of the right over the good. However, priority of the right doesn’t mean that ideas of the good must be avoided, it just means the ideas they use must be political ideas. Rawls develops five ideas of the good found in justice as fairness. Goodness as rationality implies that members of society have a rational plan of life that they attempt to achieve. He develops the idea of primary goods, such as basic rights, liberties, income, wealth, etc., which citizens need to be fully cooperating members of society. He discusses the idea of permissible comprehensive conceptions of the good, showing that society is neutral as to the conceptions of the good individuals choose to follow, as long as they do not violate the principles of justice. He talks about the idea of political virtues, such as toleration and mutual trust, which are based on taking reasonable measures to sustain fair social cooperation between citizens. And finally he explains that a well-ordered political society is intrinsically good, because it provides mutual justice, which all rational citizens view as good.


The idea of political liberalism relies on the priority of the right over the good. However, Rawls notes that right and good are complementary; no conception of justice can draw entirely from one or the other, but must combine both in some definite way. The question is how to use the ideas without making claims about the truth or this or that comprehensive doctrine. In Justice as Fairness, the priority of the right means that the principles of political justice can impose limits on permissible ways of life – the important thing is to not draw these limits too narrowly.

1. How a Political Conception Limits Conceptions of the Good
A political conception of justice is a moral conception worked out specifically for the basic structure of a constitutional democratic regime. Accepting the political conception does not presuppose accepting any particular comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrine. The political conception is based on fundamental ideas in the public political culture, not on any one comprehensive doctrine. The main difference between a political and a comprehensive conception is their scope. A general conception applies to a wide range of (or even all) subjects, such as the value of human life or ideals of personal virtue.

Political liberalism can be restricted so that the ideas of the good are political ideas, and we should be able to assume that they are a) shared by citizens regarded as free and equal and that they b) do not presuppose any particular comprehensive doctrine.

2. Goodness as Rationality
Rationality is taken for granted by almost any political conception of justice. It implies that members of democratic society have a rational plan of life, which they use to schedule their endeavors and allocate resources (time, energy, etc.). A political doctrine must assume that all participants accept values stating that human life and basic human needs and purposes as in general good, otherwise the problems of political justice would not arise. Goodness as rationality provides a part of a framework serving two main roles: 1) it helps us to identify a workable list of primary goods; and 2) relying on an index of these goods, it enables us both to specify the aims (motivations) of the parties in the original position and to explain why those aims are rational.

3. Primary Goods and Interpersonal Comparisons
The idea of goodness as rationality must be combined with a political conception of citizens as free and equal. This allows us to work out what citizens need to be normal and fully cooperating members of society. In a well-ordered society, there must be agreement about the types of claims citizens can make regarding political justice, and how these claims can be weighed. This requires a conception of citizens needs. Since many people have different (and conflicting) comprehensive conceptions of the good, the political agreement cannot be based simply on preferences or wants (as in utilitarianism) or any particular religious view. Primary goods are based on the similarities among citizens’ conceptions of the good – the things citizens need as free and equal persons. The basic list of primary goods includes: 1) basic rights and liberties, 2) freedom of movement and free choice of occupation, 3) powers of offices and positions of responsibility in the political and economic institutions of the basic structure, 4) income and wealth, and 5) the social bases of self-respect.

Arrow and Sen argue that there are significant variations among people in their capacities (moral, intellectual, physical), conceptions of the good, and preferences. In these cases, it seems to provide the same index of primary goods for everyone would be unfair. However, as long as everyone has the capacity to be a normal cooperating member in society, the principles of justice (with the index of primary good) are satisfied, and none of these variations give rise to injustice. Society deals with differences in capabilities by producing legislation to ensure people with illnesses, etc. are restored to be fully cooperating members of society. This conception of justice also assumes citizens have some part in cultivating their final ends and preferences, so it is not an objection to the use of primary goods that it does not accommodate those with unusual or expensive tastes.

4. Primary Goods as Citizens’ Needs
This account of primary goods has showed how it is possible to create a public understanding of what is advantageous in political justice. Primary goods are based on practical methods of determining citizens’ needs when questions of justice arise. It can be specified to a greater degree at the constitutional and legislative stages, but this specification is not to be based on nonpolitical (comprehensive) conception, but rather provide a more concrete list of citizen’s needs. Under this account of public goods, society (citizens as a collective body) is responsible for maintaining the equal basic liberties and fair equality of opportunity, and for providing a fair share of the primary goods for all within this framework. Citizens as individuals accept responsibility for adjusting their aspirations in view of the means they can expect and moderating their claims on social institutions accordingly. Claims can only be advanced for certain types of things (primary goods) and in ways specified by the political principles. Desires and wants, however intense, are not themselves reasons in matters of basic justice – e.g. no weight is given to the strength of conviction by which we may oppose the religious beliefs of others.

5. Permissible Conceptions of the Good and Political Virtues
One common theme of liberal thought is that the state must not favor any comprehensive doctrines and their associated conceptions of the good, however, it often fails to do this. The idea of neutrality helps to introduce the main problems. Neutrality can be thought of as procedural (procedures that are justified without reference to moral values or only to neutral values). Justice as fairness is not procedurally neutral, instead it focuses on overlapping consensus – abstracting from comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. Another way of defining neutrality is in terms of the aims of basic institutions with respect to comprehensive doctrines – i.e. institutions and policy are neutral in the sense that they can be endorsed by citizens generally. In this sense neutrality could mean: 1) the doctrine allows citizens to advance any permissible conception of the good they affirm, 2) it doesn’t favor or promote any particular comprehensive doctrine, or 3) it doesn’t do anything to make it more likely that individuals will accept a particular conceptions than another. Justice as fairness may be able to meet the first two definitions, but not the third – it is impossible for the basic structure of a just constitutional regime not to have important effects and influences as to which comprehensive doctrines gain adherents over time.

Political liberalism may emphasize certain forms of moral character and virtues, such as toleration and mutual trust. However, it is based on taking reasonable measures to sustain fair social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal, not on an effort to become a perfectionist or religious state or to advance any particular comprehensive doctrine.

6. Is Justice as Fairness Fair to Conceptions of the Good?
The principles of any reasonable political conception must impose restrictions on permissible comprehensive views, and the basic institutions will inevitably encourage some ways of life and discourage others. However, comprehensive doctrines are only encouraged or discouraged because either 1) their associated ways of life are in direct conflict with the principles of justice, or 2) they any be admissible by fail to gain adherents under the conditions of the just regime. This is not unfair, because social influences favoring some doctrines over others cannot be avoided by any view of political justice. Political liberalism does not aim to foster the values of autonomy and individuality to govern all of life, but instead only asks that children’s education include such things as knowledge of their constitutional and civic rights. In religious sects that shun the modern world, for example, this level of knowledge ensures that membership in any belief system is not based on an ignorance of one’s basic rights. The education also prepares individuals to be fully cooperating members of society. Society’s concern with children’s education lies in their role as future citizens; acquiring the capability to understand public culture and participate in its institutions is important within a political point of view.

7. The Good of Political Society
The fifth idea of the good in justice in fairness is that of the good of political society – i.e. the good that citizens realize both as persons and as a corporate body in maintaining a just constitutional regime. Though, under justice as fairness, there is not complete unity in society, citizens do have final ends in common – they affirm the same political conception of justice. These shared ends provide the basis for the good of a well-ordered society. The well-ordered society of justice as fairness is a good in two ways: 1) as a good for persons individually because the exercise of the two moral powers that allow them to participate in fair social cooperation and secure for them the good of justice and the social bases of their mutual self respect, and 2) as a social good realized through citizens’ joint activity in mutual dependence on the appropriate actions being taken by others. This is shown by the fact that individuals take pride in the democratic institutions of their society. Justice as fairness supports the importance of political participation and does not deny that some will find their most important good in political life, but it does not argue that this must be true for everyone (i.e. it is not a comprehensive conception).

8. That Justice as Fairness is Complete
Justice as fairness is a complete political conception. 1) Its ideas of the good are political ideas, generated by beginning with goodness as rationality. This was used to explain primary goods as things citizens need. From this point, the argument from the original position can proceed, which allows us to specify permissible conceptions of the good and characterize the political virtues of citizens required to support a just basic structure. Finally, we show how the well ordered political society of justice as fairness is instrinsically good. Rationally, things are good if they have properties it is rational for us to want. Since citizens in a society want justice from everyone else, we can see that a political conception supported by overlapping consensus is a moral conception affirmed on moral grounds. Also, allegiance based on political values is stronger than that based on comprehensive doctrines (since comprehensive doctrines often are only partially comprehensive in most cases) so the likelihood it will be outweighed by opposing values is much less.


Rudney Novaes said...

hey.... I am writing about polical liberalism and would like to chat with you. I am from Brazil studying in Boston and reading Rawls + Eberle!

my email is

Anonymous said...

I am currently studying politics in the UK and i am finding it difficult to interpret what 'liberalism gives priority over the right than over the good' means.