John Rawls’s Theory of Distributive Justice and Its Critics

This article assesses the outcome of the debate between John Rawls and critics of his theory of justice. A distinction is made between two kinds of critique:  internal and external. Proponents of the first critique support the main values and purpose of the theory to establish principles for a just distribution of social goods and material resources and its main values.  Yet, they do not believe that theory is able to achieve its purpose or to embody the values of liberty and equality in the functioning of the major institutions of society. The external critique of Rawls's theory distinguishes between a libertarian critique in which Rawls' theory of justice is viewed as a new kind of justification of the welfare state, with its traditional goal of redistributing income through taxation, and  a communitarian critique. The communitarian rejects the philosophical background of the theory and criticizes the moral epistemology, metaphysics, and anthropology upon which it rests. The paper argues that while Rawls may have succeeded in responding to his egalitarian, socialist and libertarian critics, the communitarian critique had a profound effect on Rawls and led him to make significant revisions in the theory.  It suggests that this transformation stemmed  from his growing concern with the question of political stability in contemporary pluralist democracies, rather than with implementing the conditions of distributive justice. 

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This article assesses the outcome of the debate between John Rawls and critics of his theory of justice. A distinction is made between two kinds of critique:  internal and external. Proponents of the first critique support the main values and purpose of the theory to establish principles for a just distribution of social goods and material resources and its main values.  Yet, they do not believe that theory is able to achieve its purpose or to embody the values of liberty and equality in the functioning of the major institutions of society. The external critique of Rawls's theory distinguishes between a libertarian critique in which Rawls' theory of justice is viewed as a new kind of justification of the welfare state, with its traditional goal of redistributing income through taxation, and  a communitarian critique. The communitarian rejects the philosophical background of the theory and criticizes the moral epistemology, metaphysics, and anthropology upon which it rests. The paper argues that while Rawls may have succeeded in responding to his egalitarian, socialist and libertarian critics, the communitarian critique had a profound effect on Rawls and led him to make significant revisions in the theory.  It suggests that this transformation stemmed  from his growing concern with the question of political stability in contemporary pluralist democracies, rather than with implementing the conditions of distributive justice. 

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