Unsavory implications of a theory of justice and the law of peoples: The denial of human rights and the justification of slavery

Philosophical Forum 43 (2):175-196 (2012)


Many philosophers have criticized John Rawls’s Law of Peoples. However, often these criticisms take it for granted that the moral conclusions drawn in A Theory of Justice are superior to those in the former book. In my view, however, Rawls comes to many of his 'conclusions' without too many actual inferences. More precisely, my argument here is that if one takes Rawls’s premises and the assumptions made about the original position(s) seriously and does in fact think them through to their logical conclusions, both 'A Theory of Justice' and 'The Law of Peoples' have abysmally counterintuitive and immoral implications. To wit, if the members in the original position think, as Rawls suggests,that their society is closed and they will have no interaction with outsiders, and if, furthermore, they are self-interested and concerned with the basic structure of their own society, than there is absolutely no reason for them to use the terms “persons” or “least advantaged” in the formulation of the two principles. Rather, they will use the terms “citizens of our society” and “least advantaged of our society” instead. But thus revised, the principles of justice imply that the genocide or the enslavement of outsiders is unobjectionable. I will consider attempts to block this conclusion and demonstrate that they all fail. The Law of Peoples, moreover, faces similar problems.

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Uwe Steinhoff
University of Hong Kong

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