Some of the most-referenced Western political thinkers - like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson - have taken hierarchies of class, race, or both, for granted.
Not so some of their more radical contemporaries, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who made forceful arguments against inequality.
A strain of utopianism runs through more egalitarian positions, and a calculating pragmatism through more libertarian. Rarely have these two threads woven neatly together.
In the work of 20th century political philosopher John Rawls, they do, with maybe a knot or a kink here and there, in a unique philosophy first articulated in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, a novel attempt at reconciling abstract principles of liberty and equality (recently turned into a musical).
Like the Enlightenment philosophers before him, Rawls’ system of distributive justice invokes a thought experiment as the ground of his philosophy, but it is not an original myth, like the state of nature in nearly every early modern thinker, but an original position, as he calls it, of a society that lives behind a “veil of ignorance.” In this condition, wrote Rawls:
No-one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.Clearly, then, this idea presupposes the opposite of a meritocracy built on labor, conquest, or natural superiority. In fact, some of Rawls’ critics suggested, the “original position” presupposes a kind of nothingness, a state of incoherent nonexistence.
What does it mean, after all, to exist without histories, differences, attributes, or aspirations? And how can we visualize an equality of conditions when no one experiences anything like it? What kind of position can possibly be “original”?
To clarify his theory and answer reasonable objections, Rawls followed A Theory of Justice with a 1985 essay called “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical.” This rethinking coincided with a series of lecture classes he taught at Harvard in the 80s, which were eventually published in a 2001 book also titled Justice as Fairness, a promised “restatement” of the original position.
Now we can hear these lectures, or most of them, with the rest to come, on Youtube. Get started with the first lecture in his 1984 seminar “Philosophy 171: Modern Political Philosophy,” at the top, with lectures two and three above and below. There are six additional classes on the Harvard Philosophy Department’s Youtube channel, with a final two more to follow. (Get them all here).
In these talks, Rawls explains and expands on his core principles: equality of opportunity and the “difference principle,” which states that any and all inequality should benefit the least well-off members of a society.
Rawls’ brand of political liberalism (also a title of one of his books) has influenced presidents, judges, and legislators with arguments directly contrary to some of the right’s ideological architects, many of whom in fact wrote in reaction to Rawls. We are free to accept his claims or not, but Rawls’ significant contribution to the terms of modern political discourse is inarguable.
This set of lectures will be added to our collection of 140 Free Online Philosophy Courses, a subset of our meta collection: 1100 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness