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John Rawls: An Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2006

Brooke Ackerly
Vandervilt University (


Imagine for a moment, that we—we in this liberal democracy—want to design the basic institutions of our economic and political interactions so that they are just. In order that just institutions be designed fairly, we will not be allowed to reason from our own particular circumstances. We are not to know our own race or religion, our own material resources, or even our own personal abilities and whether these abilities are valued by our society. Imagine that once this “veil of ignorance” about ourselves is lifted, we might discover that we are the person least advantaged by racist social norms or least advantaged by the relative value that our society places on skills (for example, that we have the skills of a seamstress, not of a professional basketball player). In this view of the bases for an agreement about first principles of justice, the things that we think of as “ours”—our innate skills and those we develop through education and commitment—do not entitle us to the benefits of deploying them in our political economy. Instead, our personal endowments and the value that society puts on them are morally arbitrary. From the moral view of this “original position”, choosing the principles used to guide the distribution of the benefits that accrue from exercising these should be a political decision that we make together. Yet, imagining that we might be a seamstress, a basketball player, or unemployable, each of us reasons the same way.Brooke Ackerly is Assistant Professor at Vandervilt University ( She is the author of Political Theory and Feminist Social Criticism (2000). Special thanks to W. James Booth, to the participants in the Vanderbilt interdisciplinary theory seminar Mark Brandon, John Goldberg, Steve Hetcher, Bob Talisse, and John Weymark and to Talisse, John Geer, and the anonymous reviewers of Perspectives on Politics.

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