John Rawls' Actual Contractualism

Abstract

This thesis argues for an unorthodox interpretation of John Rawls's egalitarianism as a hybrid of ‘actual contractualism’ and ‘modal contractualism’. It also offers a defence of the theory so understood. According to actual contractualism, a system of political institutions and norms is just only if each person over whom it claims authority actually accepts it in some sense. Actual contractualists stand in contrast with modal contractualists, who take justice to require that no one could reasonably reject the institutions and norms in question. Rawls is standardly read as a modal contractualist, but I argue that his view includes an significant element of actual contractualism. The thesis is divided into three parts. The first part describes actual contractualism and contrasts it with modal contractualism. It goes on to consider the possibility of a hybrid theory, which appeals to modal contractualist reasons to justify an actual contractualist test for justice. I suggest that this is an attractive view. In the second part I go on to argue that a careful understanding of Rawls’s theory view reveals it to be hybrid contractualist. I elaborate Rawls’s strategy of ‘political constructivism’ in the light of this interpretation, and attempt to show that it is very much in the Lockean actual contractualist tradition. The final part of the thesis concerns the justification of specifically Rawls’s egalitarianism. I contend that Rawls’s argument for justice as fairness can be seen as a detailed effort to explain why his egalitarianism is, in the relevant sense, actually accepted by each person, and I argue that as such it succeeds. I then contrast the Rawlsian view with left-libertarianism, another attempt to marry actual contractualism and egalitarianism. I argue that Rawls’s is the more thoroughgoing, unified view, and should be preferred on that basis.

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