Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #1

Harvard political philosopher John Rawls released his difficult-to-read tome “A Theory of Justice” 45 years ago, containing a sustained defense of a model of justice reliant on a democratic society.

The most memorable idea is a method for doing ethics called, “The Veil of Ignorance:” This is, how would you have or arrange a society if you personally did not know how you would be born into it? Race, class, sex, gender, nationality, health, and age must all be taken into account as you conceive of a just set of laws, norms, and procedures for your society.

This line of reason is inspired by the Titan of Enlightenment philosophy, Immanuel Kant. The Prussian professor argued that morality is derived from the autonomous will of a rational being: as we create prescriptions or laws for ourselves or others, we must consider that these prescriptions could be universalized, and that they do not create a contradiction when applied (i.e. if I think it’s OK to cheat on my taxes, then I must consider if EVERYBODY cheated on their taxes. Since that outcome would create a contradiction, I cannot, as a rational party, will to cheat on my taxes).

Rawls expands on this to consider how we politically create an unfair, partial system in regards to different identities, and how this contradicts our autonomous will’s desire for a universal, impartial justice.

So ask yourself, would you re-enter the lottery of birth? And if not, what are those systematic inequalities that need to be addressed?

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