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Rawls’ Political Liberalism 1

Political Justice

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The Place of Political Theory

John Rawls’ philosophical thought targets the political.

For Rawls, political philosophy is practical: it is aimed at providing ideas that could form the basis for agreement in society, where to not agree could lead to conflict; and it assists with citizens’ understanding of, and orientation in, their social world.

Political thought is practical thought regarding how social and political institutions might best be ordered and arranged, and is not concerned with metaphysical and epistemological theory.

Rawls considers politics and public morality to be independent of questions such as reality and truth; and instead, matters to be agreed in public via practical public debate and deliberation.

Diverse Conceptions of the Good

In a modern, open and free democracy, citizens have diverse world views.

They have differing ideas of right and wrong, and differing ideas of what defines the good life. But society is essential given our interdependent nature and the need for social cooperation.

There can only be at any one point in time in any given society one ordering of social and political institutions; one set of laws that we must all agree on.

Rawls’ theory of political liberalism aims to address two challenges that arise from these facts:

Given that citizens have differing world views, how can the state legitimately use coercive power to force all citizens to follow one set of laws? And on what basis will citizens be willing obey such laws?

The first is a question of legitimacy, the second a question of stability.


Rawls’s states his liberal principle of legitimacy as follows:

Our exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human reason. (Political Liberalism)

The ordering of social and political institutions must be such that it would be reasonable to assume that citizens would freely endorse them, and not be coerced or manipulated into doing so.

The Reasonable Citizen

Reasonable citizens value a society in which they cooperate with one another on mutually acceptable terms.

Reasonable citizens will accept the legitimate use of coercive power, and sacrifice their own personal interests, in order to live in a society in which all members mutually benefit from the presence of coercive power.

Reasonable citizens accept that there are a diversity of views about what is the good life, religious or otherwise, and there are deep divisions on world views.

But reasonable citizens also understand that they can disagree reasonably and at the same time act such as to not impose their own views on others.

Tolerance and Respect

At the core of this line of thought is Rawls’ view that human beings are not exclusively self-centered, dogmatic or driven by the need to exercise power over one another.

Rawls views human beings as inherently having the capacity for toleration and mutual respect of one another.

And although human beings may have very different views on important issues, they have the capacity to engage in the political on the basis of a what Rawls terms as a shared “public political culture,” which:

Comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation (including those of the judiciary), as well as historic texts and documents that are common knowledge. (Political Liberalism)

A Political Conception of Justice

A liberal society legitimately exercises political power only when it is exercised in accordance with what Rawls refers to as a “political conception of justice”: a commonly shared interpretation of the fundamental ideas implicit in that society’s public political culture.

A political conception of justice is not a comprehensive theory of right and wrong, nor is it a compromise in a pluralistic society composed of citizens with different worlds views.

A political conception of justice is freestanding and independent of citizens’ conception of the good.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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Tomas Byrne

Tomas Byrne

Jagged Tracks Music, Process Philosophy, Progressive Ethics, Transformative Political Theory, Informed Thrillers, XLawyer