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The good society
on March 15, 2001
Building upon his previous book, "A Theory of Justice", Rawls's thought evolves towards a better comprehension of society, constitutions, and what kind of institutional engineering would be able to best design a "good" (as opposed to "perfect") society. Now, Rawls has revised his previous conception of society: it is not necessary that a society is relatively homogeneous in the moral beliefs of its elements; it is sufficient that the political institutions are suitable to accomodate every line of thought that is not against the "overlapping consensus" of society.
What is this? Rawls calls "overlapping consensus" those beliefs and principles about which every societal group is coincident. The most obvious is that murder is not acceptable and should be hardly punished, that people's goods have to be protected from theft, that free speech should be guaranteed, etc. The overlapping consensus is the sum of every group's own consensus, and thus it should be the core of the Constitution: the principles on which everybody, or almost everybody excluding criminals and other misfits, agree.
Second, Rawls reviews his concept of the "original position". Many critics of Rawls argue that this concept is totally theoretical and impossible to achieve in practice. And they're right. This is not a manual for politicians or a book on public policy: it's pure political philosophy, and certainly of the highest sort. In the "original position", Rawls says that good constitutions and legal systems would be best accomplished by people ignorant of their position in society. For example, if you do not know what your social position will be, you better design a law that takes into account rights and benefits for people with every kind of handicap, lest you turn out to be blind, or deaf. Similarly, you wouldn't either be excessively hard on rich people, lest you turn out to be a big shareholder. If some approach like this could be reached when making laws, society would be better balanced and more just.
Third, Rawls reviews and upholds his concept of "justice as fairness", the core of his previous book on this subject. To be just is to be fair. Sounds simple, but it's not always easy to determine what is fair to someone. But it implies that public policy on justice should not aim at correcting situations out of all proportion.
Summing up, this is an extraordinary book, even if you feel you belong to a different school of thought. It makes you think of what kind of good society is really achievable, far from the disastrous attempts at building utopias that the XX century witnessed.