First Advisor

Craig L. Carr

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Political Science


Political Science




Liberalism, Justice, John Rawls (1921-2002). Theory of justice



Physical Description

1 online resource (3, vii, 186 p.)


Without doubt, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice is one of the most important statements of Anglo-American political philosophy in the twentieth century. Through a revival of the social contract device, Rawls formulates a set of principles of correct political association ("the right") that he argues must be considered as prior to any conception of the good. These principles apply to all persons as free and equal beings in society, but more importantly they assume some things about the nature of persons in that society. On the institutional aspect of his theory, Rawls conceives of the state as a neutral arbiter of the good. This, coupled with a conception of persons as individuals that affirm the values of autonomy and equality, has drawn extensive critical fire from philosophers within and without liberalism. One such group of critics, the communitarians, claim that Rawls's idea of the person is too abstract or "groundless" to account for shared values, and thus fails to appreciate the extent to which we understand ourselves as embedded within our culture. Michael Sandel has thus argued that Rawls's person so conceived is too abstract to be of any theoretical let alone practical use, while Alasdair Macintyre has argued that such a conception of persons is incoherent: liberal "persons" do not know themselves, and so they cannot know what is right or what is good. This thesis analyzes the liberal-communitarian debate by comparing and contrasting some terms used by both sides in the debate. By analyzing the terms, I will present a liberal conception of the person as properly understood in Rawls's theory. ' Rawls has not been idle since the publication of A Theory of Justice. He has defended his theory in a series of articles and lectures that have developed his position in response to these and other criticisms. Specifically, by positing his theory within liberal-democratic culture, by acknowledging individual formative conceptions of the good, and by emphasizing and relying upon a modus vivendi view as the basis for political liberalism and a liberal culture, Rawls has answered the communitarian objections by incorporating and responding to those pertinent criticisms. I will argue that Rawls's recent emphasis on a theory of political liberalism successfully accounts for his idea of persons because it accords with our considered moral principles, it treats persons as free and equal beings worthy of respect, and it incorporates the only coherent construction of the social embeddedness thesis to a greater degree than communitarians acknowledge or appreciate. Rawls's political liberalism thus surpasses this aspect of the communitarian critique.


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