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Rawls on Kant

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John Rawls saw himself as an heir of Immanuel Kant.

I have long had this tidbit of knowledge stuck in the back of my head, a remnant of my law school days when Rawls was a common subject of discussion. But I've never bothered to document it.

Recent interests have led me to do so, and among supporting texts I'll offer only three. One comes from the Preface, where he states clearly, that his theory is "highly Kantian in nature. Indeed, I must disclaim any originality for the views I put forward."

A little later, in his Chapter One, he invokes Kant to explain the "original position," his reworking of the old idea of the "state of nature." This original position "is not, of course, thought of as a an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice." That phrasing seems to admit that the structure of thought is circular. The superscript number that follows the phrase "certain conception of justice" leads us to a note that says, "Kant is clear that the original agreement is hypothetical," and then references the pertinent Kantian texts.

A bit later, there's amore elaborate footnote that says this about a key element in the 'original position.' : "The veil of ignorance is so natural a condition that something like it must have occurred to many. The formulation in the text is implicit, I believe, in Kant's doctrine of the categorical imperative, both in the way this procedural criterion is defined and in the use Kant makes of it. Thus when Kant tells us to test our maxim by considering what would be the case were it a universal law of nature, he must suppose that we do not know our place within this imagined system of nature."


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