Book Review: The Law of the Peoples

Posted on Actualizado enn

Alex Jackson
April 18, 2013
Professor Barry

Book Review: The Law of the Peoples

In The Law of Peoples, prominent professor and theorist, John Rawls, seeks to expand his liberal theory of “justice as fairness” to the international level. Rawls attempts to argue that a “Law of Peoples”, political conceptions of right and justice that applies to the principles and norms of international law and practice between and among peoples, developed by a “Society of Peoples” can bring about at realistic utopia.

Rawls lays out his theory in two distinct parts. First, Rawls restates his theory of justice established in his earlier book,A Theory of Justice, and explains how the social contract theory can come about in liberal democratic society or “peoples.” Next, Rawls argues how the same theory can be extended to included “decent peoples”, who along with liberal democratic peoples, make up the Society of Peoples. Last, Rawls lays out his non ideal theory as it applies to issues of noncompliance with the Law of Peoples and certain unfavorable conditions that face various societies not deemed liberal or decent. In the end, Rawls’s overall aim is to illustrate how both kinds of societies would agree to the same Law of the Peoples. My paper gives a summary of the Rawls’s theory of justice as extended in The Law of Peoples and examines a few popular criticisms and perceived weaknesses in his argument.

First, Rawls gives a summary of his theory of justice as fairness at a domestic level within liberal democratic societies. Rawls theory is based on the social contract framework that works with hypothetical consent to illustrate how any rational individual would reach and agree on principles of justice that are established. Thus, people will be persuaded by the hypothetical social contract theory and, in turn, will consent to its principles because they will be values that we actually do accept and commit ourselves.

The two key components of Rawls’s theory that establishes these principles of justice are the Original Position (OP) and the Veil of Ignorance (VI). In the Original Position, people free and equal and are considered to be self-interested, rational, and reasonable (Theory 30). However, in the Original Position, the Veil of Ignorance is enacted which they have knowledge of primary goods (liberty, opportunity,wealth, and things concerning general welfare) but they do not know of their status, race, gender, and talents. According to Rawls, people in the original position would deliberate and establish two principles of justice to guide their society; the principle of equal liberty and the difference principle. The principle of equal liberty is that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all (Theory 31).

The difference principle states that unless there is a distribution that makes both persons better off (limiting ourselves to the two-person case for simplicity), an equal distribution is to be preferred. In other words, there should be no differences except those that can be justified on grounds of efficiency. It is Rawls’s belief that in following the two principles created from the Original Position, the institutions in our society that we establish would fair and just as well. This theory of justice proposed by Rawls was originally only applied on the domestic level. However, due to its popularity and public calls for an broader theory, Rawls seeks to extend his theory, in more general terms, to the international realm in the Law of Peoples.

First, Rawls explains why he uses to ‘peoples’ and not states. According to Rawls, liberal peoples are have key characteristics; a reasonably just constitutional democratic government that serves their fundamental interests; unity along shared “common sympathies”; and a moral nature (Law 23). As a result, people are rational and reasonable. Similar to states, people are rational because they pursue their own interests.

However, unlike states, people are constrained by their sense of what is reasonable, which Rawls defines as the concern for reciprocity and the interests of other. It is this sense of what is reasonable that is essential in the formation of a just society at the domestic level and, thus, it is as equally important the creation of the Law of Peoples (Law 32).

Next, Rawls extends the original position to another level to illustrate how liberal democratic peoples could create the Law of Peoples. In this version of the OP, the parties involved are rational representatives of liberal peoples that are guided by the two domestic principles of justice. In addition, the veil of ignorance is intact so they know nothing of their level of economic development, population and territory size, natural resources, etc. (Law 33). According to Rawls, the deliberations in the second original position would produce the Law of the Peoples. The new law would consist of eight principles of justice that guide the interaction between liberal peoples: peoples are free and independent; must observe treaties and undertakings; are equal and are parties to the agreements that bind them; to observe a duty of non-intervention; have the right of self-defense but not to start war; must observe human rights; and peoples have a duty to assist other peoples living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having liberal or decent state (Law 37). This set of principles are the underlying principles that will provide a frame work for the relations of between liberal peoples and their states.

Next, Rawls argues whether or not the Law of Peoples can be extended to non-liberal peoples. Rawls states that if a non-liberal peoples’ basic institutions meet certain conditions, then they would consult approve an accept the Law of Peoples and become included in the Society of Peoples (Law 60). Rawls defines non-liberal peoples that warrant such an extension and meet the conditions as “decent” peoples. Decent peoples, according to Rawls, respect a minimal set of basic human rights, including rights to life, liberty, and formal equality; they are nonaggressive with respect to other peoples; they live under something like the rule of law; they have a decent consultation hierarchy in which the interests of all groups are represented; and they view all persons as moral citizens (Law 64). However, they are not liberal societies because they privilege a particular comprehensive doctrine, religious or political, and perceived opponents to this doctrine are not accorded the same rights as adherents. Rawls’s overall argument in this section is that the foreign policy of liberalism does not and should require that all peoples be liberal, but should tolerate and respect the domestic political choices of decent peoples, if they meet the above conditions. In addition, in meeting the conditions, Rawls states that a decent people would inherently accept the same principles in the Law of Peoples if they were represented in the second original position (Law 84).

In the next and final part of Rawls theory of the Law of Peoples, he moves past his ideal theory and what he calls well-ordered societies, liberal and decent peoples. Instead, Rawls shifts to his non-ideal theory and determines how well-ordered societies should act in regards to societies that are not well-ordered. Here, he suggests that as well as liberal and decent peoples, there are outlaw states, burdened societies, benevolent absolutisms. These three types of societies either are noncompliant with the Law of Peoples and/or consists of unfavorable conditions that hinder them from becoming either liberal or decent. First, outlaw states are those that regimes that believe that the war is a legitimate means of advancing their interests. Next, Rawls defines burned societies as societies “whose historical, social and economic circumstances make their achieving a well-ordered regime, whether liberal or decent, difficult if not impossible” (Law 90). Finally, benevolent absolutist societies respects human rights but allow its citizens a “meaningful role” the the political arena.

Rawls states that the Law of Peoples acts as a guide in determining what duties and actions are justified in dealing with the three non-well-ordered societies. First, Rawls states that one of the overall goals of the Law of Peoples is that all peoples will eventually become well-ordered. In regards to outlaw states, Rawls states that liberal and decent people ought not to tolerate states that violate the minimum set of human rights and incite war. He suggests that well-ordered peoples have the right to war in self-defense against outlaw states.

However, unless there are grave abuses of human rights, such well-ordered states can subject outlaw states to public condemnation, economic sanctions, and other forms of non-violence in the hope that the outlaw states reform. Even if well-ordered societies decide to go to war with an outlaw state, their conduct in war is restricted by the Law of Peoples(i.e they must still respect human rights of all citizens in the outlaw state)(Law 96). In regards to burdened societies, liberal and decent peoples have an obligation to assist burdened societies in becoming well-ordered, but only in ways that help such societies in developing and preserving just or decent institutions, establish an the appropriate political and social culture, and ensure that they have rational and reasonable approach to their domestic affairs (Law 111). According to Rawls, the following actions taken by well-ordered society(along with a few others) would effectively fulfill their “duties of assistance” to non-well-ordered societies.

The rest of Rawls, The Law of Peoples, wraps up his theory of the Law of Peoples and deals more with his viewpoints on public reason. However, I will not discuss these final points in my evaluation of Rawls’s international theory of justice. Instead, I will briefly highlight key concerns and potential weaknesses of Rawls’s theory, and how his theory applies to modern global ethics. Despite the widespread appeal and praise given to Rawls domestic theory of justice as fairness, his international theory of justice has been heavily debated and criticized. Main points of criticism usually follow that the Law of Peoples is lacks detailed principle of international distributive justice, wrongly defines and uses the terms “peoples” and “states”, accommodates decent peoples to much, does not address key issues like immigration and disabled individuals, and general questions about the overall applicability of the theory in the real world. Prominent theorist that have argued these contentions are Thomas Pogge, Allen Buchanan, Charles Beitz and Martha Nussbaum.

However, I believe that many of these criticism and contentions to Rawls theory do not effectively take away from its overall impact and credibility as a basis for a legitimate international theory of justice. Instead, I hold that Rawls’s theory greatly helps guide the much needed discussion of critical issues that still pertain to global ethics today; the protection of human rights as opposed to a state’s right to sovereignty, conditions for a “just” war among states, whether or not we have an intrinsic duty to others less fortunate. Therefore, I strongly believe that similar to his domestic theory of justice, Rawls’s Law of the Peoples will be at the forefront of the debate regarding many of the issues that confront our world today and for years to come

Works Cited
Rawls, John, and John Rawls. The Law of Peoples: With the Idea of Public Reason Revisited. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1971. Print.

Source: Global Ethics Network

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