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Rawls' Theory of Liberal Egalitarianism
John Rawls was a well respected and highly influential contemporary American political philosopher. He was born to in 1921 to his lawyer father William Lee Rawls, and Anna Abell Stump, his mother as one of four children. Although his family was well-off, two of his brothers died at very young ages of diseases which they had contracted from John. The knowledge that he was responsible for their deaths haunted him for the rest of his life and possibly promoted him to become the influential philosopher that he was. Another childhood influence was his mother, who fought for an egalitarian society. This can be seen reflected in his political justice theories.
Rawls went to a private elementary school, graduating as valedictorian at age twelve. However, his family sent him to a public high school for two years to show their support for the public education system. At age fourteen, Rawls was moved back to a private school where he was identified by the teachers as “gifted”, but felt the work was unstimulating and as a result felt desperately unhappy.
He began his university schooling at Princeton University in 1939, where he began to develop an aversion to competition. In 1943, Rawls chose to enlist in the army instead of continuing his education and studying to become a priest. Because of his intelligence, Rawls rose through the ranks quickly, all the time fighting an internal battle against the military. In 1945 he was demoted from sergeant to private for not punishing a man for saying something a first lieutenant didn’t like. Rawls left the army a year later in 1946.
Because of his experience in the army, Rawls lost his faith in religion and gave up his dreams of becoming a priest to further study philosophy and publish his works. His ideas have now become widely spread through his professorship at Harvard and through his published works. Unlike many other philosophers of his time, John Rawls' ideas were accepted by society and have helped to form the social justice system that we use today.
In short, Rawls' theory promotes egalitarianism (and also socialism) but in a more liberal way. His objective is the same - to create a fair society - but instead of being based on everybody having exactly the same, his objective is to maximise the benefits to people who would otherwise be worse off. When talking about distributive justice, this means that things can be done for the immediate benefit of the privileged so long as they also leave the less privileged people better off.
One way of expressing this is through money, as we see in the table below. Now, these numbers can represent anything: levels of education, opportunities, burdens, intelligence etc. - not just money. These figures show the idea above that as long as something leaves (in the case of money) the poor better off than before, it is acceptable.
John Rawls Compared to Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is considered the father of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a political system that relies on the greatest happiness of the greatest number, even if it means ignoring the needs of the minorities (almost the exact opposite of Rawls' political theory, which is based around the needs of the people most in danger.) Although utilitarianism and rawlsianism are two very different things, when we look at Rawls' work we can see how this ideaology has influenced him to create an alternative.
Differences between rawlsianism and utilitarianism.
Essential Question : What holds us back from progress?
According to John Rawls, the only thing that holds us back from progress is ourselves. We are held back by our class, our race, our gender, our intelligence, our age, our income, our talents and so forth. In Rawls' A Theory of Justice, he tells us to imagine ourselves behind this veil (deemed the veil of ignorance) which enables us to forget everything about ourselves and our lives . When behind this veil, we are told to choose a society and a place in that society's social hierarchy . The point of this thought experiment is that when we have finally progressed to an equal and fair society, these things will not matter and we would not mind where we were placed. These are the things that hold us back from progress.
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