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Why Rawls is not a Cosmopolitan Egalitarian (draft)

Wenar, Leif (2006) Why Rawls is not a Cosmopolitan Egalitarian (draft). In: Martin, Rex and Reidy, David, (eds.) Rawls's Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia? Blackwell . ISBN 9781405135306


In John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples we find unfamiliar concepts, surprising pronouncements, and what appear from a familiar Rawlsian perspective to be elementary errors in reasoning. Even Rawls’s most sensitive and sympathetic interpreters have registered unusually deep misgivings about the book. Most perplexing of all is the general character of the view that Rawls sets out to justify. For in this book Rawls, the twentieth century’s leading liberal egalitarian, advances a theory which shows no direct concern for individuals and requires no narrowing of global material inequality.

I believe that The Law of Peoples does present a coherent and powerful argument, if not one beyond criticism. Two points are crucial for understanding the book’s strengths and weaknesses. The first is that Rawls in this work is concerned more with the legitimacy of global coercion than he is with the arbitrariness of the fates of citizens of different countries. This connects The Law of Peoples much more closely to Political Liberalism than to A Theory of Justice. The second relates to Rawls’s unusual conception of the nature and interests of peoples. A people in Rawls’s view is startlingly indifferent to its own material prosperity, and this fact gives Rawls’s law of peoples much of its distinctive cast.

This paper develops these themes by contrasting Rawls’s law of peoples with the cosmopolitan theories of Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge. We begin with a brief review of Rawls’s theory of justice for a single country (justice as fairness) and the cosmopolitan theories that developed out of it. I then summarize Rawls’s law of peoples and some of his puzzling statements about its justification. The bulk of the paper explains why Rawls’s fundamental norm of legitimacy rules out cosmopolitanism, and how Rawls’s conception of a people led him to reject international egalitarianism. In the conclusion I suggest that Rawls’s morality of states may be more plausible than is commonly supposed, especially when contrasted to rival cosmopolitan theories.

Item Type: Book Section
Institution: The University of Sheffield
Academic Units: The University of Sheffield > Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Sheffield) > Department of Philosophy (Sheffield)
Depositing User: Leif Wenar
Date Deposited: 15 Feb 2006
Last Modified: 25 Apr 2015 06:35
Status: Published
Publisher: Blackwell
Related URLs:
URI: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/1018

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