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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 Haydens
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 therealists 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, ones 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
authors 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 Haydens 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 twooriginal
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 wellorganized 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-butdecent 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 persons
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 selfdetermination 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 Haydens 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, Haydens
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.
https://philosophynow.org/issues/40/John_Rawls_Towards_a_Jus
t_World_Order_by_Patrick_Hayden