Free: Listen to John Rawls’ Course on “Modern Political Philosophy” (Recorded at Harvard, 1984)

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: 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

via Dai­ly Nous

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A The­o­ry of Jus­tice, the Musi­cal Imag­ines Philoso­pher John Rawls as a Time-Trav­el­ing Adven­tur­er

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

An Intro­duc­tion to the Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of Isa­iah Berlin Through His Free Writ­ings & Audio Lec­tures

Jus­tice: Putting a Price Tag on Life & How to Mea­sure Plea­sure

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Luana says:

    Hi, Jones! Thanks very much for the post, although it makes me sad not to read a sin­gle men­tion to Han­nah Arendt’s work. She wrote about the same social phe­nom­e­non in 1958: a “orig­i­nal posi­tion” that could not be orig­i­nal at all, in more than one sense, for it does not allow the “new” (born out of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion con­nect­ed to a shared expe­ri­ence of the human-made world).

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.