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Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren
Chapter 55: John Rawls
Hilde Bojer Introduction John Rawls (1921–2002) is the most influential moral and political philosopher of the last 100 years. His major book, A Theory of Justice, first appeared in 1971 and has since been translated into 27 languages. A bibliography of articles on Rawls published in 1981 listed more than 2500 entries (Freeman 2003, p. 1). Rawls is the founding father of contemporary debates on social justice. He is also one of the very few moral philosophers taken notice of by economists. Economic literature speaks of him mainly as the inspiration for the maximin social welfare function, which is also – and somewhat mistakenly – called the Rawlsian social welfare function. The name is a misnomer, because Rawls argues most decisively against utility, or individual welfare, as the distribuendum of distributive justice. In fact, one reason for his great impact is his pioneering opposition to utilitarianism and to welfarism in general. Rawls wrote widely and in depth about all aspects of the just society. Among the many subjects he discussed, his analysis of distributive justice has the most relevance to economic thought. That will be discussed here. As a method for studying questions of social justice, Rawls proposed what he called ‘reflective equilibrium’. Reflective equilibrium is achieved when our abstract principles and our concrete intuitions are in harmony. For example, the abstract principle may be that people should be rewarded according to their contribution to production. But this principle leaves those unable to work, like children and the disabled, with no...
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