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Aaron Lercher

Rawlsian theory can be used to justify reparations for historical crimes and oppressionss. It is part of our general knowledge, admissible in the original position, that human groups have frequently conquered other groups, and then suordinated the conquered or captive groups. Then the hypothetical participants in the original position may argue that this could be their situation.

Rawlsian reasoning might be applied this way. But must it? That's the problem. Rawls's idealizations seem detached. Maybe our immersion is a world formed by massive crimes makes us unable to see beyond it to Rawls's idealized world of moral persons. Rawls himself talks about "redress" just briefly in Theory of Justice.

Or maybe it is merely very difficult, requiring civil disobedience and extreme patience and care for justice.

But this dynamic of a fallen world and gleaming ideal is not unique to Rawls.


This is good, and I'm pretty sympathetic to it. (I'd find it interesting and surprising if Rawls's stutter isn't mentioned by Forrester at all, but I haven't read the book.) I do want to push back on something you suggest about Rawls, where I think you endorse a common reading, but one that seems to me to be wrong and pernicious, although very common - the idea that he endorses a "closed society" in some important sense. This is usually inferred from the bit in the Restatement where he talks about "political society" being something we "enter by birth and leave by death." But note that Rawls says that's "something we may assume for the moment", and it's important to ask why it's assumed, given that it's obviously not a real feature of the world and that it's incompatible with a lot of rights he'd endorse. The answer, I think, is that it's a way to help model the "strains of commitment" - we want to think of principles that we'd accept no matter what place we end up in, and that we'd be willing to live with after the veil of ignorance is lifted. If people are able to leave if they don't like how they end up, they will be less willing and able to meet these requirements. The "closed society" bit models this. This is, I think, all that it does. It's not part of a real-world ideal, nor an assumption of what real-world just societies would be like. Maybe it's not a good way to model the point, or can be criticized in other ways, but I'm pretty sure that this is all the idea does in Rawls, despite how it's often talked about.

Eric Schliesser

Hi Matt,
Thank you for engaging. (I haven't spent time with Rawls for a few years now, and I do start worrying then about my grasp of the details.)
I can see why my post can misleadingly suggest that Rawls' project is hostile to immigration or open borders (or cosmopolitanism). Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò had used the phrase "closed society." And I liked it enough to draw the contrast with the liberal traditions i wanted to highlight.
I agree with you that it would be a mistake to infer such hostility from the modeling conditions. (I am also aware that by now folk like Carens simply model, at least at one point, the original position in terms of a global society.) But I also think that the implied audience for the modeling exercise of a closed society -- I apologize, but I have forgotten where I picked up this point -- is other citizens in order to form a people (this is the republican strain in Rawls' liberalism). This is why Rousseau looms so large, and why I granted (and still grant) Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò's description of Rawls and respectfully don't quite take your push back wholly on board.

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