John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1970) gave a new start to political philosophy, which had been in the doldrums for many decades, having been overshadowed by developments in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind. The study of the past masters of political philosophy was dutifully prolonged in universities, but without much hope of a new vision that would be likely to stir the interest of a wider public. The dust jacket says that A Theory of Justice has been translated into every major European language as well as into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean: a wider public indeed.
After Rawls followed not only a rush of books and articles in learned journals commenting on his work but also at least two well-argued parallel theories, each conveying a distinctive vision of liberalism: by Ronald Dworkin in Taking Rights Seriously and by Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice. All three writers have been trying to formulate, as clearly as they can, the moral foundations of liberalism, as this slippery term is understood in political arguments within the US.
It is important, I think, to acknowledge that Rawls’s theories and arguments have to be understood, in the first place, as having their origin in the special setting of American history and of the American Constitution. Obviously liberalism is a political creed, with a set of political attitudes, which has flourished in Europe since Napoleon and which there has been supported by the arguments of Kant, Constant, Humboldt, Mill, and Sidgwick, among others. But American liberalism calls upon specific historical memories of the War of Independence, the debates on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation, all relatively recent events that have no equivalents in Europe. For this reason the search in the US for the justification of coercive government, and for the grounds of legitimacy, has employed a distinctive moral vocabulary which places a greater stress upon essential or primary human rights than has been usual in European thought about politics. Reading Rawls one is impressed by his distinctively American account of republican virtue, and of the political conception of persons as free and equal participants in a democracy.
Rawls’s great achievement in international thought was to restore the notion of justice to its proper place at the center of arguments about politics, the place that it had occupied at the very beginning of theorizing in Plato’s Republic. Justice is a necessary virtue of individuals both in their day-to-day conduct and in their personal relations, and it is the principal virtue of institutions and the social order. Plato described justice in the city state, social justice, as both reflecting and promoting the wisdom and moral soundness of those individual citizens who are themselves just, and Rawls’s account is in this tradition.
The second great contribution of A Theory of Justice was to detach the definition of social justice from the diverse moral aspirations and goals of individuals within the …