The Incoherence Between Rawls’s Theories of Justice

September 27, 2011

Would it be desirable to reform the global institutional order in conformity with the principles Rawls defends in A Theory of Justice? Rawls himself denies this and proposes a different moral theory (The Law of Peoples) for the relations among self-governing peoples. While sharing a questionable, purely recipient-oriented approach, his two theories differ importantly in substance and structure. The former gives weight only to the interests of individual persons, yet the latter gives no weight to these interests at all. The former theory is three-tiered and institutional, centering on a public criterion of justice that is justified through a contractualist thought experiment and in turn justifies particular institutional arrangements and reforms under variable empirical circumstances. Yet, the latter theory is two-tiered and interactional, deploying a contractualist thought experiment to justify rigid rules of good conduct for peoples. Poorly motivated, these asymmetries help Rawls’s anticosmopolitan case. But they fail to vindicate his claim that global economic justice demands only a modest “duty of assistance.”

April 2004

No. 5