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John Rawls: Towards a Just World Order by Patrick Hayden

The late John Rawls was a giant of political philosophy; Abdelkader Aoudjit peruses Patrick Hayden’s study of his ideas.

Two major questions of ethics in international relations are the question of who the subject of morality is – individuals, groups or states – and the question of what duties such subjects have beyond borders. Accordingly, writers on the ethics of international relations tend to fall into three categories. At one extreme are the realists who, while not completely rejecting morality, believe that states are the dominant actors in world affairs and that the only appropriate behaviour in international affairs is the pursuit of national interest and the balance of power. In this view, one’s responsibility to fellow citizens far outweighs the obligation to human beings in general. At the other extreme are the cosmopolitans, who assert that individuals, not states, are the ultimate subjects of morality and that values and responsibilities transcend borders. Cosmopolitans also believe that moral principles are authoritative; where demands of morality conflict with those of sovereignty, the former take precedence over the latter. In between the realists and the cosmopolitans are the internationalists for whom states have a privileged moral status but who claim that states are bound by the principle of respect for the sovereignty of other states.

John Rawls: Towards a Just World Order is an exposition and critique from a cosmopolitan point of view of John Rawls’ theory of international justice and human rights, which Patrick Hayden interprets as a form of realism. More precisely, Hayden claims that in order to accommodate cultural pluralism and ensure international stability, Rawls betrayed his earlier methodological principles and his belief that all persons are ‘free and equal in worth and dignity,’ and ended up undermining universal human rights. Hayden believes that only a cosmopolitan scheme of international justice inspired by Immanuel Kant can ensure human rights and peace among nations.

After an introduction that also serves as a summary of the author’s main thesis and argument, comes a chapter in which Hayden draws a historical account of social contract theory, Rawls’ place in it, and its influence on the development of the modern human rights discourse. This is followed in the second chapter by an examination of Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness. In the third and fourth chapters, Hayden critically examines Rawls’ treatment of international justice and human rights, first in A Theory of Justice (1971), and then in the more recent The Law of Peoples (1999).

Before examining Hayden’s arguments, a brief review of Rawls’ philosophy of international justice is necessary.

Rawls’ most famous work, A Theory of Justice is an ambitious book in the social contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau and Kant. Rawls sets out to derive principles of justice from a thought experiment – from a hypothetical situation in which free and rational individuals meet in what he calls the original position to agree from scratch on what the basic structure of society should be. To eliminate the likelihood that these individuals will use the opportunity to advance their own interests, they are made unaware of their own talents and abilities and of the place they occupy in the actual society. This Rawls calls the veil of ignorance. To ensure that his procedure is impartial, Rawls adopts only those ideas about human nature that, he claims, are uncontroversial and widely accepted. Thus, the hypothetical contractors behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ are rational, equal and self-interested but not envious. They are also endowed with a sense of justice and are unwilling to take excessive risks. If they are faced with alternative courses of action, they would take the most rational one, i.e., the course of action that has the least disadvantageous outcome. Given all this, asks Rawls, what sort of contract for society would these individuals draw up? The results of this hypothetical procedure are Rawls’ now famous principles of justice:

1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

2. Social and economic inequalities are permissible, but only to the extent that they are both a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and b) attached to offices open to all under fair equality of opportunity.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls denied that these principles can be extended internationally for the simple reason that justice as fairness makes sense only in the context of societies defined as ‘cooperative ventures’ and there is no such society at the international level. He did, however, think that his method – the original position and the veil of ignorance – applies equally to the domestic and the international situations. Accordingly, he claims that the laws that ought to govern relations among states are those that parties representing nations/states would choose in an original position similar to the domestic original position. If hypothetical representatives of the different nations/states of the world were made unaware of the ‘contingencies and biases of historical fate’ such as their nations’ power, geographical position, population, and so on, they would choose the following principles: equality – “independent peoples organized as states have certain fundamental equal rights”, self-determination – “the right of a people to settle its own affairs without the intervention of foreign powers”, selfdefence – “against attack, including the right to form alliances,” and finally, the principle that treaties are to be respected, “provided they are consistent with the other principles governing the relations of states”.

When he wrote A Theory of Justice, Rawls thought that the principles of justice as fairness are derived from a true conception of human nature and rational choice, and thus, are universal: anyone can arrive at them provided they set aside their personal prejudices and interests and adopt a rational perspective. After reflecting for a number of years on the foundations of his theory and the different objections that had been addressed to it, Rawls came to the conclusion that justice as fairness is not as neutral as he previously thought. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls now says that it is built on the shared convictions implicit in the political culture of democratic societies and that some of those convictions are specific to those societies. As a consequence, “to work out a reasonable liberal Law of Peoples” that does not “simply assume that only a liberal democratic society can be acceptable”, The Law of Peoples provides two original positions. In the first, Rawls sets out to identify the principles that representatives of liberal societies would choose to regulate relations among the societies they represent. Once this is done, Rawls sets up a second original position to identify the rules of international behaviour that would agree upon representatives of ‘decent hierarchical’ societies, which, although nonliberal (i.e., they do not accept political pluralism and are organized according to comprehensive metaphysical or religious doctrines), are peaceful, have a reasonably well-organized legal system, admit a measure of political and religious freedom, and allow emigration.

Rawls claims that the representatives of both the liberal and the decent societies would accept eight principles to govern their relations with one another. Furthermore, they would agree on a limited number of politically neutral and fundamental human rights. The principles that will be accepted by representatives of liberal and non-liberal-but-decent societies alike include: independence, equality, the right of self defence, the duty of non-intervention, the observance of treaties, certain restrictions in the conduct of war, the respect of human rights, and the duty of assistance to peoples living under unfavourable conditions.

Among the human rights that representatives of liberal and decent hierarchical societies would agree on, according to Rawls, are the rights to life, to liberty, to property and to equality before the law. For Rawls, the rights that would be respected by all do not include some of the rights advocated in liberal democracies. For example, states with state religions may limit the rights of other religions. He also insists that liberal toleration requires that liberal states do not try to make nonliberal but decent societies liberal.

Hayden has two criticisms of Rawls. One, directed at both the early and the later Rawls, concerns the way Rawls constructed the original position and what Hayden thinks are the realist implications of such a construction. The other, directed at the later Rawls, deals with the list of human rights that Rawls says wellordered societies would agree on.

For Rawls, in order to inquire about international justice, it is necessary to first determine what terms of association members of a society would choose, by contract, under ideal conditions. Only then would it be useful to ask what representatives of different nations/states would agree upon, also under ideal conditions. Hayden argues that by designing the original position in the way he did, i.e., giving priority to the domestic position, Rawls stacked the deck. Once the parties to the original position are made representatives of states rather individuals, they have no choice but to adopt realist principles: their only goal is going to be to protect the national interests of the states they represent, and these interests, says Hayden, “do not necessarily coincide with the interests of moral persons.” Just as Rawls considers a person’s race, talents, social class, etc., to be morally irrelevant, so too, argues Hayden, is nationality morally irrelevant. The nation state, he says, is a contingent fact of history and ought, therefore, to be hidden by the veil of ignorance in a “genuinely fair-choice situation from which principles of international justice can be derived in ideal theory.” Furthermore, for Hayden, to believe that it is possible to draw moral principles from the kind of original position that Rawls has designed is to draws a false analogy between the individual and the state. States, according to cosmopolitans like Hayden, are artificial entities lacking the necessary characteristics of moral agents; they have only selfish interests. Hayden adds that to endow the state with self-determination makes humanitarian intervention unjustifiable. “In the end,” says Hayden, “Rawls sacrifices the normative strength of his theory of justice as fairness in favour of the status quo description of international affairs, thereby weakening his attempt to account for human rights.”

In his critique of The Law of Peoples, Hayden objects to the idea that what rights a person is entitled to depends on the society one belongs to. This, he believes, contradicts universal human rights, which, he says, “are premised on the ideal that all persons are free and equal, regardless of the society in which they happen to be born.” Hayden adds that it is unlikely that representatives of liberal and non-liberal societies would agree on the same principles. Finally, for Hayden, to give priority to established cultural and political norms at the expense of what he calls “universal human rights” is to make social criticism and change impossible. He concludes that “[Rawls’] treatment of human rights leads him to the verge of a cultural relativism that is not able to support efforts to strengthen international human rights norms.”

There are some serious difficulties with Hayden’s book. First, even though he bases his argument on the claim that belonging to one society rather than another is morally irrelevant, he sidesteps any direct engagement with communitarianism, according to which individuals become human persons and thrive only in the context of particular communities or traditions. Second, Hayden’s contention that Rawls is a realist seems to be based on an incomplete reading of The Law of Peoples. He makes only cursory references to the way Rawls distinguishes between states and peoples and the conditions that, he says, the latter have to satisfy to belong to a global moral community. Even though, for Rawls, peoples have some features in common with states, they are not “states as traditionally conceived.” Thus, while both have governments to defend their interests and represent them in the international arena, their interests and the ways they pursue them do not completely overlap. Whereas states are primarily concerned with power unconstrained by morality, peoples have “a moral nature” which limits the pursuit of state interests. Furthermore, for Rawls, respect for human rights is one condition for a society to be well-ordered. Societies that do not recognize and respect basic human rights and are aggressive and expansionist are outlaw societies which would not be accepted in the community of nations.

Finally, Hayden presents human rights as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as if they were the final truth, unambiguous and uncontroversial, and makes Rawls’ theory rise or fall depending on whether or not it accommodates them. Yet, neither the meaning of these rights, nor which type should have priority – economic and social or civil and political – is obvious. Nor is there agreement on how one can determine what counts as a right, how rights can be justified philosophically, or whether rights are neutral or politically and culturally biased. For example, while some philosophers ground rights in a common human nature or human needs, others argue that a universal notion of human rights that apply to all human beings in all societies makes no sense. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre claims that the belief in human rights is on a par with the belief in witches or unicorns. Hayden fails to provide arguments in defence of what he calls ‘universal human rights’ and pays little attention to the objections that have been raised against them. His strategy consists of putting forward a cosmopolitan definition of human rights and then, by way of argument, restating exactly what he is supposed to prove: “the normative premiss justifying universal rights is the principle that each human being as a moral person is entitled to freedom and to equal dignity. Persons are so entitled because human beings are due freedom and equal dignity as a matter of reciprocal moral recognition.” What he calls ‘universal human rights,’ or at least some of them, may be neither after all, and, perhaps, ought to be revised rather than strengthened.

John Rawls: Towards a Just World Order offers a good sense of the tension between cosmopolitanism and realism, but, ultimately, Hayden fails to achieve his intended goal.

© Dr Abdelkader Aoudjit 2003

Kader Aoudjit studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and at Georgetown University. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

John Rawls: Towards a Just World Order by Patrick Hayden, (University of Wales Press 2002), pb £14.99/$19.95 ISBN 0708317286.

John Rawls (1921-2002)

After serving nearly four decades as a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, 81-year-old John Rawls died of heart failure last November in his Massachusetts home. Rawls began studying philosophy as an undergraduate at Princeton University in 1939 but was interrupted by World War II, during which the U.S. Military stationed him in New Guinea and Japan, where he saw the ruins of Hiroshima in 1945. With this maturity, he returned to Princeton and earned a doctorate in moral philosophy in 1950, and in 1952, embarked for Britain to study as a Fullbright fellow at Oxford. After joining the Harvard faculty in 1962, Rawls published his central work, A Theory of Justice (1971), which is discussed in this review. This text is widely considered one the most influential on political philosophy in the twentieth century. For many years, Rawls had the office next to the late Robert Nozick.

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