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For anyone who chooses to follow this, here is a link to the online PDF version of John Rawls A Theory of Justice – Revised Edition.

December 22, 2016

Notes on the Preface for the Revised Edition

Describing “justice as fairness,” Rawls notes “The central ideas and aims of this conception I see as those of a philosophical conception for a constitutional democracy” (xi). This is self-explanatory and sets the basis for what concepts his idea of justice are made in light of. Furthermore, his idea of justice is born out of the idea that Utilitarianism is incompatible with how a democratic society should base itself: “I wanted to work out a conception of justice that provides a reasonably systematic alternative to utilitarianism, which in one form or another has long dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought” (xi). The idea is to move away from systems that equate justice to satisfying the good of the many at the expense of the few.

There are a series of revisions that Rawls states he made. Below are their summaries

First Revision

Rawls speaks of a 1982 paper titled The Basic Liberties and Their Priority that develops what he says “guarantee equally for all citizens the social conditions essential for the adequate development and the full and informed exercise of their moral powers” which are:

  1. Their capacity for a sense of justice
  2. Their capacity for a conception of the good

These two moral powers are then exercised in two fundamental cases:

  1. The application of the principles of justice to the basic structure of society by the exercise of citizens’ sense of justice.
  2. The application of citizens’ powers of practical reason and thought in forming, revising, and rationally pursuing their conception of the good.

Rawls points out that these changes are key in the revised edition and help his argument against H.L.A. Hart’s criticism in Rawls on Liberty and Its Priority.

Second Revision

The account of primary goods now reads as: “persons are to be viewed as having two moral powers (those mentioned above) and as having higher-order interests in developing and exercising those powers” (xiii). In other words, primary goods are those goods needed to develop, to their fullest potential, the capacities for a sense of justice and a conception of the good.

Multiple other revisions were made but not as stark as above two. At this point, Rawls points out two things he would “handle differently” were he to write ATOJ at the time he wrote the revised edition (xiv).

  1. How to present the argument from the original position
  2. To distinguish more sharply the idea of a property-owning democracy from the idea of a welfare state.

As I write this, I do not have an understanding as to how he approaches either of these ideas, so I will leave this for later, but I want to make clear that these are essential ideas to both his theory of justice and why I am interested in it. It is not so much how he defines or interprets these principles as much as it is the subject matter itself and how it affects ideas of justice and inequality. Pay attention to his distinctions between the two:

  • “In a welfare state the aim is that none should fall below a decent standard of life, and that all should receive certain protections against accident and misfortune–for example, unemployment compensation and medical care.”
  • “In a property-owning democracy the aim is to carry out the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation over time among citizens as free and equal persons.”

At this point, I do not go into detail; this is a preface and therefore, would only allow me a mischaracterized analysis of something based on my prior, biased knowledge. But my takeaway question from reading this asks Can “justice as fairness” exist in, and of, itself? With no outside force? (in other words, can justice exist outside of a welfare state or property-owning democracy?) This is something Rawls addresses in his original preface.

Notes on the Preface

The original preface to the book lays the groundwork for A Theory of Justice with its specificity on distinguishing Rawls vision of an alternative to the dichotomy of “utilitarianism and intuitionism” (xvii). In his theory, Rawls attempts “to generalize and carry to a higher order of abstraction the traditional theory of the social contract as represented by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant” (xviii). For this reason, it is good to have an understanding of the social contract regarding these three, which I admittedly have only a basic understanding. He further links to the importance of Kant when Rawls states “the theory that results is highly Kantian in nature,” so it behooves me to at the very least, take a first reading of Kant.

The essential quote in the preface follows: Rawls’ “ambitions for the book will be completely realized if it enables one to see more clearly the chief structural features of the alternative conception of justice that is implicit in the contract tradition and points the way to its further elaboration” (xvii). His aim is not to knock out utilitarianism as a chief means to “contract tradition” but to provide a clear understanding of “chief structural features” that allow his definition of justice to be considered. He furthers his argument for his definition of justice as fairness as “the most appropriate moral basis for a democratic society” (xviii). With this last statement, Rawls ties his argument of justice to a moral responsibility for a society built on democratic principles.

The remainder of the preface serves to guide a reader to the essence of A Theory of Justice, highlighting pertinent chapters and passages, that will “make things easier for the reader” (xviii). It also serves to thank many of his colleagues for support and criticism that shaped the book. In the footnotes are the titles of many works that helped Rawls form his theory.

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