Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 November 2009
In the previous chapter we considered the account of justice propounded by John Rawls. This saw justice as the central value in a decent society, shaping both behaviour and social institutions. Rawls is concerned with processes and institutions as well as outcomes. He believes that a just society reflects a belief in human equality and that society should have a special concern for the poor and the weak. Justice gives guidance on the distribution of advantages, responsibilities and liabilities within a society. As far as possible, a just society should set right the unjust outcomes of social institutions and strike an acceptable balance between liberty and equality. We also saw that Rawls's account of justice does not claim to be rooted in the nature of things or in any specific metaphysical or religious beliefs. Rather, it is an articulation and refinement of what most people in a modern liberal democracy believe; it rests on what he calls an ‘overlapping consensus’.
Despite the problems that we discussed in the previous chapter, it is not hard to see why Rawls's theory of justice has become something of a prevailing orthodoxy among left-of-centre politicians and policy-makers in America, Britain and some other western democratic societies. In the aftermath of the apparent collapse of the varied socialist ideologies, Rawls seems to provide an alternative theoretical framework which is less grandiose, but capable of providing a defence of the extension of the social experiments of the New Deal, the welfare state and so forth. It seems to sustain some central socialist values while setting aside the Utopian expectations and the suspect accounts of history and of human perfectibility which gave an unreal skew to much socialist reflection.