The Humean Elements of Rawls' Political Philosophy

In Ilya Kasavin (ed.), David Hume and Contemporary Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2012)
David Hume is a constant, but underappreciated presence in John Rawls’ work. This paper attempts to uncover and explicate the core Humean elements in Rawls’ philosophy and advocates for the merits of a more Humean Rawls. Though Rawls’ familiarity with Hume is well known and his commentators frequently mention the importance of Hume’s circumstances of justice, the depth and range of the Humean influence has not been sufficiently understood. Commentators have been too quick to accept Rawls’ own account of Hume as a largely negative influence superseded by justice as fairness’s formidable alternative to utilitarianism. This is a mistake, as Hume remains a powerful and positive historical influence in Rawls’ political philosophy. Moreover, recognition of Hume’s influence provides cogent ways of responding to some of Rawls’ most prominent critics. Rawls’ early essays and his lectures on the history of moral and political philosophy provide valuable material for understanding how Rawls saw the relation of his own work to that of his predecessors. Through an analysis of Rawls’ texts with emphasis on his early papers and lectures we seek to clarify his understanding of Hume and show how it impacts his work. In what follows, we show Hume’s influence on Rawls’ understanding of the circumstances of justice, the site of justice, the priority of the right, sympathy, the judicious spectator, and his methodology and approach to the problem of stability based on congruence between the good and the right. This illuminates Hume’s influence on contemporary political philosophy and provides a more balanced picture of the historical foundation of Rawls’ political philosophy. We end with some positive remarks on the benefits of embracing Rawls’ Humean side.
Keywords David Hume  Political Philosophy  John Rawls
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