When we last left Rawls, he was trying to identify the ‘concept’ of justice–that is, what it is we’re attributing to a society when we call it ‘just.’ Rawls claimed that a ‘just’ society conforms to the two principles of justice–viz., (i) each person has an equal right to liberty consistent with the same liberty for all, and (ii) inequalities that arise are only tolerable on the conditions that a) they work out to the benefit of everyone and b) attach to positions open to all. Now why again should we accept these principles as the operative principles of a just society? Well, because
…when the logical subject is the fundamental structure of the social system in which everyone must begin, the two principles of justice are those which rational persons would acknowledge when subject to the constraints of the concept of morality in circumstances giving rise to questions of justice.
In this latest essay Rawls’s goal is to render this all a bit less abstract by showing how his conception of ‘justice as fairness’ can be deployed in defense of our generally recognized constitutional liberties. I won’t go into the details about how Rawls sets about accomplishing this goal, but will underscore what for me is the most important ‘take-away’ point of the paper:
In a free society, in which a wide divergence of religious and political belief is to be expected, the concept of justice is…the most rational ground for a common public understanding of the basis of these fundamental liberties.
I would submit that this one sentence has helped me understand Rawls better than any other. Our problem is not that there are too few justifications available for ‘morality,’ but rather that there are too many. We must own up to the fact of value pluralism, and do the best we can to create a well-ordered, rational society in light of this value-pluralism. Rawls’ approach (perhaps it’s been obvious to you for a long time) is designed to answer this need. When you can’t agree on matters of substance, check to see if you can agree on matters of procedure. If so, you’ll probably be able to get along after all.