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How Liberal Is Rawls’s the Law of Peoples?

Info: 2487 words (10 pages) Law Essay
Published: 4th Dec 2020

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Rawls in the Law of Peoples gives his account of global justice, this greatly influential work is however, contested by many political theorists for not being liberal enough. However, this depends on how you define the term liberal, as to many people it can mean to different degrees of liberty. I would argue that a liberal philosophy is one that promotes individual rights, personal freedoms and democracy. Rawls goes about achieving these goals not by looking for ways to redistribute the worlds wealth but by looking at the institutions within states and how they interact with its citizens. Rawls in the Law of Peoples tries to go about his work in an objective manner by respecting different cultures, he doesn’t want to force the westernised liberal human rights acts on societies that have developed in a different way. By doing this Rawls proves his theory is liberal as he is tolerant of other societies where cosmopolitans are not.

It would seem to some that Rawls’ law of Peoples doesn’t promote the liberty of all peoples as he doesn’t suggest all states become liberal democracies however, ‘Rawls has quite consistently articulated his commitment to individual liberty with his notion of toleration. Individuals are not atomic entities isolated from the rest of society without any cultural identity and a comprehensive doctrine.’ (Dogan. A, 2004, p152) Rawls’ notion of toleration means that his theory doesn’t dismiss non-liberal democracies as being the only way to ensure that people have freedom and liberty. He also encompasses ‘well-ordered liberal societies’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p48) as well as liberal democracies in his ‘ideal theory’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p48). Rawls’ ‘ideal theory’ or a fully just society is one that isn’t aggressive and doesn’t infringe on the human rights. ‘Where are the reasonable limits of toleration to be drawn? It turns out that a well-ordered, nonliberal society will accept the same law of peoples that well-ordered, liberal societies…its legal system satisfies certain requisite conditions of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people; and, as a consequence of this, it honors basic human rights’(Rawls. J, 1993, p37) To be a decent or liberal peoples a country must adhere to a certain set of liberal human rights 

‘7. Peoples are to honor human rights.’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p46)

‘Further, they require much explanation and interpretation, and some of them are superfluous in a society of well ordered democratic peoples, namely… the seventh regarding human rights.’ (Rawls. J, 1993 p47)

Despite Rawls saying that all decent peoples need to follow human rights he says that some are unnecessary in a well ordered society. In an attempt not to force the westernised idea of the liberal democratic state being the perfect creation onto the rest of the world, Rawls gives some leeway to some societies where ‘the conditions of societies that lack the political and cultural traditions, the human capital and know-how, and the resources, material and technological, that make well ordered societies possible’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p62). Burdened societies are not yet ready to support a full list of human rights as they lack the infrastructure and don’t have the social institutions to cope with such demand. Rawls’ goal for them is for, ‘eventually each society now burdened by unfavorable conditions is to be raised to, or assisted towards, conditions that make a well-ordered society possible’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p62)

In Rawls’ non-ideal theory, different societies with different cultures shouldn’t be forced to adopt westernised laws that would seem extremely strange to them. This is why countries should only have to accept a few of the most important Human rights laws to transition from an outlaw state to a well-ordered society. While the human rights may be a long-term target for global justice, it is the product of liberal democracies and a lot of states aren’t ready for such change and it is not necessarily right to impose the liberal democratic view of all other types of society. Therefore, I would argue that Rawls is liberal in The Law of Peoples as he makes sure that all societies have the basic conditions for human life to be respected, however he isn’t as liberal as the cosmopolitan view on global justice where some would see a movement towards a global tax to resolve any injustices that are happening now or that have happened in the past.

Rawls notices that ‘principles of justice cannot be based solely on an individual’s framework. Rather, they are based on the way the individual’s sense of morality is expressed and preserved in social institutions- such as the educations system, the healthcare system, the tax collection system, and the electoral system’ (Colson. R, 2003, p300) Rawls looks to base his principles of justice into the institutions of society rather than relying on individuals to carry them as they are not responsible enough to enforce them, institutions are, due to their unbiased nature.

Rawls introduces us to the idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’. ‘Rawls assumed that, from behind the veil of ignorance, the social contract would necessarily be constructed to help the least well-off members of society, since everyone is ultimately afraid of becoming poor and will want to construct social institutions that protect against it.’ (Colson. R, 2003, p302) However is the ‘veil of ignorance’ of any use if we are not starting over from scratch? Are the inequalities in society already too deeply imbedded to benefit us? Rawls’ idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’ is not a practical way to try and solve inequality as it is truly impossible to put one’s self in that position with no bias at all. Although, what it does do is try to help us understand how to set about looking at theories of inequality. If Rawls’ starting position looking at justice is a fair-minded one as he looks to make sure everyone is of equal footing.

Robert Nowzick provides a libertarian argument in ‘anarchy, state and utopia’ he argues for a ‘minimal state’ (Colson. R, 2003, p327). He believes ‘that any form of state other than the minimal was incompatible with individual rights, and therefore unjustifiable’ (Colson. R, 2003, p327) Nowzick’s libertarian account of the state clearly views Rawls work to be too liberal and even goes on to describe taxation as a form of slavery.

Comparing Rawls’ Law of Peoples to cosmopolitan accounts of global justice, one might think that Rawls simply isn’t liberal enough, as they take a more extreme view on the global redistribution of wealth. Singer “argues for a comprehensive principle of assistance where ‘if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance we ought, morally, to do it’ (1985:231).” (Balis. J, Smith. S, Owens. P, 2017, p211) This argument however, is claimed by some to be ineffective as it relies on individuals having their own moral obligation to do what is right. Some also believe that society as a whole is unwilling and not yet capable of fulfilling such demands due to the anarchical state of international power politics.

Pogge thinks that he takes the idea of liberal toleration too far, Pogge says “If actual decent regimes were so justified, or if no such regimes existed, then a liberal commitment to accommodate actual decent peoples would not support an international original position that represents peoples rather than persons.”(Pogge, 2004). Rawls has many reasons why decent hierarchical states should be accepted into the society of peoples. Firstly, to dismiss decent hierarchical societies based on the way they chose to run their society is unjust. As long as such states uphold some of the most important human rights, such as freedom from slavery, genocide and some form of political input from it’s citizens, they should be classed as decent and liberal democratic societies and wealthy liberal democratic states should hold relations with them.

‘to require all societies to be liberal is an indication of a failure to recognize that the idea of political liberalism entails toleration for other acceptable ways of ordering society.’ (Dogan. A, 2004, p139)

Here Dogan recognises that Rawls’ toleration principle, to be a liberal society one must tolerate other forms of society that may not necessarily be run in a similar way for example the hierarchical society. Of which there are many examples of hierarchical societies that take a liberal approach, not oppressing its citizens. Rawls only wants to chart a course through to a future where people have their own political freedoms.

How can we redistribute wealth when there are oppressive and corrupt governments and diverse religions with different ideas on wealth. Which is why Rawls has a duty of assistance

‘Thus, the basis of the duty of assistance is not some liberal principle of distributive justice. Rather, it is the ideal conception of the society of peoples itself as consisting of well-ordered societies, with each people, as I have said, a full and self-standing member of the society of peoples and capable of taking charge of their political life and maintaining decent political and social institutions’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p63)

Rawls here explains that the ‘duty of assistance’ is not for the redistribution of wealth, but to make sure that people in their own society are able to stand up for their own rights and ‘maintaining decent political and social institutions’. Rawls argument here is that redistribution of wealth isn’t what we need to do to achieve a sense of global justice, it is helping peoples shape their own political future. Some would disagree with Rawls explaining that his theory ignores peoples that are in dire need of the basic necessities of life, however giving such aid can sometimes cause more harm than good. However, solving the problems with the institutions of such societies will help these countries in the long term and bring about lasting change, which in turn helps solve the problem of such frivolous inequality. I would strongly argue that this is a liberal argument, compared to such people who would ignore the problems of global inequality due to there not being the right international circumstances.

Nagel argues that justice depends on the special relations a state’s citizens have with their political institutions, this egalitarian obligation to fellow citizens is not the same as it is with people from other states and therefore the requirements of justice do not apply to the states of the world as a whole, until the whole world is governed a unified sovereign power that holds its citizens to account. Negal ‘regards the sovereign state as the only way, under modern conditions, for people to escape from a Hobbesian condition of anarchic violence. Unless people cement themselves together as Rawls mandates, disaster threatens.’ (Gordon. D, 2005) While Nagel completely doesn’t believe we have an obligation to other peoples in the world unless in a sovereign state, I think it is still necessary that ‘peoples are to honour human rights’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p46) as Rawls mandates and for peoples to provide a ‘duty of assistance’ instead of an international difference principle as this only applies to liberal peoples. ‘not all of them can reasonably be expected to accept any particular liberal principle of distributive justice; and even different liberal societies adopt different principles for their domestic institutions’ (Rawls. J, 1993, p63) Not all societies can be forced to take on the liberal principles of global justice.

In conclusion, I would reject the cosmopolitan account of liberalism as this focuses on too many of the human rights acts, which are difficult to interpret. This is especially true due to there being so many different cultures and beliefs in this world. Many cosmopolitans want to look at ending world poverty immediately, however, Rawls recognises that the world isn’t so simple and is more realistic with his approach. He argues that it is the institutions within states that need to change in order to make a real transformation happen. Rawls’ argument is convincing, I believe it is certainly a liberal theory. He takes great thought and consideration into the different types of societies across the world and attempts to create a theory that doesn’t dismiss or impose on the different cultures, yet still offering solutions and a global aim to help end the global poverty and inequality the world faces today. Despite the cosmopolitan criticisms, Rawls theories in The Law of Peoples still stand strong today and his arguments have influenced many political theorists that preceded him. Rawls is criticised from both sides of the spectrum, one for being too liberal and the other for not being liberal enough. Rawls’ practical approach to solving the global poverty issue may look not liberal compared to cosmopolitan accounts. However, it is precisely his practicality that makes his theories in The Law of Peoples liberal. A very different interpretation of liberalism to be sure, but liberal nonetheless. 

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