Lecture 16 - The Rawlsian Social Contract

The Moral Foundations of Politics

Yale

The next and final Enlightenment tradition to be examined in the class is that of John Rawls, who, according to Professor Shapiro, was a hugely important figure not only in contemporary political philosophy, but also in the field of philosophy as a whole. The class is introduced to some of the principal features of Rawls's theory of justice, such as the original position and the veil of ignorance, two of Rawls's most important philosophical innovations. Rawls channels Kant's categorical imperative because he asks individuals who would hypothetically be making choices about the structure of society to consider what would be desirable regardless of who they turned out to be--high IQ or low IQ, male or female, black or white, rich or poor. Rawls does not want to consider utility or welfare, but rather something more concrete: resources. And for him, these resources are liberties, opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect. The first of these leads to Rawls's first principle of justice, which states, "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all." Professor Shapiro animates this principle by asking, "Should there be an established religion?" For Rawls, the approach to answering this question is from the standpoint of the most adversely affected person.

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