Rawlsian Affirmative Action

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Rawlsian Affirmative Action: Compensatory Justice as Seen from the Original Position *

ABSTRACT: In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls presents a method of determining how a just society would allocate its "primary goods"-that is, those things any rational person would desire, such as opportunities, liberties, rights, wealth, and the bases of self-respect. (1) Rawls' method of adopting the "original position" is supposed to yield a "fair" way of distributing such goods. A just society would also have the need (unmet in the above work) to determine how the victims of injustice ought to be compensated, since history suggests that social contracts are likely to be violated. This paper is an attempt to determine the remedial measures that would be selected using Rawls' method. I contend that only two of the three most widely used "affirmative action" policies would be selected from the original position. I also sketch another compensatory policy that would pass Rawls' fairness test.


Affirmative action is public policy designed to compensate the victims of injustice. (2) To be thus disadvantaged, in Rawls' scheme of things, is to have suffered in some way from having had less than one's fair share of the primary goods (62). This measure, according to Rawls, ought to be determined by the two principles that would be selected in the original position (17-22). The "first principle," which is "lexically prior" to the second, dictates that each member of society be granted every shareable personal liberty, a liberty being shareable just in case one's exercising of it would not prevent others from doing so (60-1, 250). The "second principle" states that the other primary goods are to be distributed in an egalitarian fashion unless...

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...with compensating the victims of injustice.

(3) Having done my best here to defend what follows as a reasonable extension of Rawls' system, I would add that I am not wed to the idea that it be taken as such. If the connection between ideal and nonideal theory is not as I have portrayed it, if the latter is not to be circumscribed by the former, then the ensuing views on affirmative action may simply be understood as those that would follow if one were apply Rawl's method, against his own stricture, to the issue of compensatory justice.

(4) In correspondence and in "A Puzzle About Economic Justice In Rawls' Theory," Social Theory and Practice, vol. 4 #1, pp. 1-27.

(5) "A Puzzle About ..., " p. 3.

(6) Ibid., p. 7.

(7) Ibid., pp. 12-13.

(8) Thomas Nagel, "The Policy of Preference," in Mortal Questions (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979) pp.91-105.
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