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Straus Center Course Spotlight: Rawls’ Theory of Justice

By Samuel Gelman
Straus Center Communications and Program Officer

John Rawls

Over the course of the spring 2021 semester, Rabbi Itamar Rosensweig taught Rawls’ Theory of Justice, an in-depth seminar on John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Samuel Gelman, Straus Center communications and program officer, sat down with Rabbi Rosensweig to discuss the class, which was offered at Yeshiva College in collaboration with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.


Can you give a brief biography of John Rawls? Who was he?

John Rawls was the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. Rawls grew up in Baltimore, went to college and graduate school at Princeton, and served in the Pacific during World War II. From 1960 to 1995, he was a central figure in the Harvard Philosophy department.

Rawls published his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, in 1971. Theory is an inquiry into the principles of justice that ought to govern society. Does justice require us to maximize the happiness of the most people (as utilitarians hold)? To promote artistic and scientific excellence (as perfectionists believe)? Or simply to implement the will of the majority?

Rawls argues that the principles of justice are those principles that would be accepted by individuals in the “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance.” The original position is a fictional condition—a philosophical device—where representatives of the different members of society get together to vote on principles of government. These representatives are veiled in ignorance concerning how rich, healthy, or educated they’d be in the society they’re erecting. The purpose of the veil of ignorance is to ensure that the principles accepted in the original position are as fair as can be. Thus veiled, the representatives cannot attempt to secure economic or political advantages for one group at the expense of another.

Rawls argues that individuals in the original position will agree on two principles of justice. The first principle guarantees basic rights and liberties to citizens, such as freedom of expression, the rule of law, a right to property, liberty of conscience, and the right to the integrity of the person. The second principle guarantees robust economic protections for the least advantaged members of society. Rawls argues that because the individuals behind the veil of ignorance do not know where they will end up in society, they’ll endorse strong constitutional protections for minorities and economic protections for the least advantaged. The underlying idea is that it is never rational for people to gamble with their basic liberties and economic opportunities. Thus, in the original position, the parties will agree on these two principles of justice.

Let’s think about Rawls’ theory concretely by applying it to a real-world scenario. The German Nurenberg laws of 1935 were voted into law by the German parliament. The majority unfairly secured legal advantages for itself while discriminating against the minority group. The veil of ignorance blocks this kind of behavior. It would be irrational for legislators behind the veil to adopt the Nurenberg laws since they do not know whether they will wind up belonging to the majority or to persecuted minorities. By analogy, the basic principles of justice are to be chosen from behind a veil of ignorance to ensure that they are fair and that they would be freely chosen by all members of society.


How do Rawls’ theories and ideas intersect with Jewish philosophical ideas?

Let’s take economic justice. The obligations of society to the poor were historically conceptualized by philosophers as supererogatory acts of beneficence and kindness. Rawls reconceptualized this as a basic duty of justice. In Rawls’ system, representatives in the original position behind the veil of ignorance are not willing to take the risk of being a member of the poorest class of society while the rest of society is allowed to advance to greater levels of prosperity. Therefore, the representatives agree to guarantee certain economic protections for the least advantaged class, effectively insuring themselves against the worst possible outcome. (This is sometimes called the maximin rule of choice.)

Many Jewish law authorities and commentators share this conception of tzedakah as a duty of justice. Some scholars note that, etymologically, the word tzedakah is a variation of the hebrew word tzedek, which means justice. The substantive rules of tzedakah also bear out this conception. Some scholars think that a person of considerable means who refuses to give his fair share of tzedakah can be legally compelled to do so (See Bava Batra 8b, Rambam Matnot Aniyim 7:10). This suggests that the Jewish conception of tzedakah is closer to the concept of taxation (specifically, taxes used to fund economic benefits for the least advantaged, such as medicaid, food stamps, affordable housing, etc.) than to the concept of charitable giving or philanthropy.

Similarly, Rawls argues that economic justice requires more than satisfying the basic needs of the least advantaged members of society. It is not enough to simply provide food and shelter to the poor. In part this flows from Rawls’s conception of self-respect. People lack a sense of self-respect and dignity when they are left behind as society advances, even if they have a roof over their head and food on their table.

Self-respect and dignity are central to the Jewish conception of tzedakah as well. The Tosefta (Pe’ah 4:10) and Talmud (Ketubot 67b, especially Shita Mekubetzet citing the Geonim) hold that the obligation of tzedakah includes maintaining the recipient’s dignified standard of living. Thus, if the recipient was accustomed to a certain standard of dress, food, or transportation before becoming poor, tzedakah may entitle him to comparable quality goods, if they are necessary to maintain his sense of self-respect. Tzedakah is not merely about satisfying the recipient’s basic needs. It includes providing the means necessary to restore the recipient’s sense of self-respect and dignity.

Another important area of intersection is the special moral worth of persons. Rawls follows Kant in thinking that human beings deserve special moral consideration and respect. The parallel to Jewish thought should be obvious to anyone who takes the concept of Tzelem Elokim seriously. (See, for example, my father’s recent article on racism.)

Following Kant, Rawls thinks that it is always wrong to treat the humanity in someone else as a mere means towards your own ends. Human beings are ends in themselves and not mere means for someone else’s goals. Rawls argues that we can enshrine this maxim in our political system by organizing society according to the principles of justice that all members of society would freely choose behind the veil of ignorance.

Thus, we express the proper kind of respect for each other when we create a society in accordance with the principles of justice that would be chosen in the original person. Here there are strong parallels to the Jewish principle of “loving your fellow as yourself” (ואהבת לרעך כמוך). Rawls provides a blueprint for a society where we can act on principles that express this sense of respect to our fellow citizens. There is striking overlap between Rawls’s theory and Ramban’s interpretation of “love your fellow as yourself” in Vayikra 19:18.


What are the students gaining from this course?

The seminar has three primary goals. The first is to familiarize the students with some of the most important ideas and debates in contemporary political philosophy. Rawls is the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century and he engages with many of the central questions of twentieth-century political philosophy, including utilitarianism, perfectionism, the duty to obey the law, political legitimacy, economic justice, market capitalism, socialism, constitutional rights, resisting an unjust regime, and more. More specifically, students are gaining intimate knowledge of Rawls’ complex social contract theory and the careful arguments that he puts forth to motivate his theory of justice.

The second goal is to train students to evaluate philosophical arguments. Two notions are crucial here: logical validity and soundness. If the premises of the argument logically entail the conclusion, then the argument is valid. If all of the premises are compelling, then the argument is sound. In the seminar, students are able to engage with Rawl’s ideas and arguments at a high level and evaluate for themselves whether Rawls’ arguments are compelling. The seminar offers students an environment where they can engage each other in lively philosophical debate and think seriously about ideas that continue to shape our society.

The third goal is for the students to consider how some of the most influential ideas in Western philosophy might shed light on Jewish law and Jewish philosophy. In some cases, as I mentioned above, there are very strong parallels. Rawls’ theory allows us to appreciate and articulate aspects of our Jewish legal tradition that we might otherwise gloss over. In other cases, the contrasts highlight important differences between the systems. For example, Rawlsian political philosophy, like most theories within political liberalism, are organized around rights and liberties, whereas Jewish law is primarily organized around duties and obligations.


Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it meaningful to you?

The lives we live and the opportunities we can pursue are profoundly influenced by the society and social institutions that surround us. Political philosophy is in an inquiry into how society and its institutions ought to be shaped. Rawls offers a compelling framework for how we can think about these issues and design our social institutions accordingly. Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is a significant improvement over the theories that preceded it. It is a social contract theory that surmounts many of the difficulties that plague Locke’s theory, and it is a far more plausible theory than Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism.

Beyond that, I think that certain aspects of Rawls’ political philosophy can illuminate principles within Jewish law and philosophy. As I indicated above, Rawls’ conception of economic justice can help explicate aspects of the Jewish conception of tzedakah. Also, the core of Rawls’ theory is an attempt to unearth the principles of justice that take seriously the Kantian conception of persons as free and equal. According to Rawls, the two principles of justice at the heart of his theory yield a society that expresses the right kind of respect for persons as creatures endowed with special moral worth. This is a project that should be taken seriously by anyone committed to the Torah’s conception of persons as endowed with Tzelem Elokim.


Can you recommend one book for someone who is not in the course but still wants to learn about Rawls and his philosophy?

Absolutely! Samuel Freeman’s book Rawls, published by Routledge in 2007. It’s available on Amazon, here.

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