This dissertation offers a critical discussion of the prioritisation of ‘the right’ in John Rawls’s theory of justice. Rawls’s theory of justice – ‘justice as fairness’ – is arguably one of the best illustrations of the prioritisation of ‘the right’ in current political literature. However, his theory has been criticised by a diversity of thinkers for its implied structural relation between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’. Some theorists argue that conceptually ‘the good’ can never be derived from ‘the right’; others argue that, even if it were possible, the social implications of such a conceptualisation would devastating as it would result in a so-called “community of strangers” (Rorty 1988, 273).
In this dissertation, I argue that be on the one hand, theories that prioritise ‘the right’– such as ‘justice as fairness’ – enable the attractive possibility of the multiple coexistence of ‘comprehensive goods’. This is attractive as it upholds the liberating ethos: ‘I have the freedom to determine my own ends’. This possibility is attributed to the fact of neutrality, which characterises the priority of ‘the right’. The claim of neutrality is embedded in the ideal that political principles can be developed prior to and independently of any content of ‘the good’. This is then supposed to justify the claim that political principles are non-reliant on comprehensive moral ideals. In this way, the prioritisation of ‘the right’, as evident in ‘justice as fairness’, supposedly enables citizens to construct impartial universal principles that govern their society.
Yet, on the other hand, I question the degree of neutrality present in ‘justice as fairness’. I argue that ‘justice as fairness’, although its justification is independent of a singular moral truth, is not neutral concerning ‘the good’. In fact, the moral values encapsulated in the priority of ‘the right’, I argue, set the conditions of justification of all doctrines of ‘the good’ because any idea of ‘the good’ that embodies contradictory values to those encapsulated in the priority of ‘the right’ would necessarily be excluded from a Rawlsian society. Therefore, I argue that Rawls’s theory of justice cannot be said to take into account “a diversity of conflicting and irreconcilable yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines” (Rawls 2001, 34); as moral values are already implied in the prioritising of ‘the right’.
In light of how Rawls’s theory of justice is simultaneously neutral and prescriptive regarding ‘the good’, I suggest a re-problematisation of the debate on the relationship between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’. The literature on theories that prioritise ‘the right’ or ‘the good’ seems to imply such theories either embody the one or the other methodological approach. I argue that this debate has been presented as a false dichotomy and, as such, the debate itself seems to be exhausted, because it creates a kind of natural impasse. Therefore, I suggest recasting the debate in terms of representing ‘the right’ and ‘the good’ as two methodological positions on a continuum, that are at the same time both more or less gradually similar and divergent from one another. The purpose of this continuum is to demonstrate that notions such as neutrality, objectivity and comprehensiveness are not clear-cut.