Thanks to Irfan for his generous invitation to join the Policy of Truth blog, and thanks to all of you who are taking the time to read this. As Irfan has said, I’m a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Providence College. If you’d like to know more about me or see some of my other philosophical writing or teaching materials, you can browse my website.
This paper is a conference-length version of a longer paper I’m currently preparing for submission to academic journals. Following the lead set by David Potts, I’ll be posting each section of the paper as separate posts, but you can also consult the full paper at any time. There are currently four sections, and if all goes well I may add a fifth post with material taken from the longer version of the paper. Today’s introductory section is quite short, but one thing we might talk about is why any of this matters. Why did Rawls – why might we – think it important to identify these “circumstances?” Or, in a more skeptical vein, does anyone think there is already something wrong in this way of talking about the role of principles of justice?
Without further ado:
I. The Idea of the ‘Circumstances of Justice’
Justice, in its classic formulation, is the virtue of rendering to each her due. David Hume rejects this as a proper definition of justice fhttps://wordpress.com/post/irfankhawajaphilosopher.com/10033or the obvious reason that it gets its meaning only by a further specification of what each person is due – a specification which must be settled by appeal to principles of justice. Nonetheless, the phrase is useful in locating the subject matter, if not the substance, of justice. As John Rawls says, the concept of justice is defined “by the role of its principles in assigning rights and duties and in defining the appropriate division of social advantages.”
The circumstances of justice, then, are the conditions under which such principles apply. Rawls characterizes them as “the normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary,” and says that outside these conditions, “there would be no occasion for the virtue of justice.” Without the need for cooperation, there would be no need to assign rights and duties and no social advantages to distribute. These circumstances generate the problem to which principles of justice prescribe a solution. What, then, are these circumstances? Rawls credits his account to Hume, claiming to have added “nothing essential” to Hume’s fuller treatment.
As I will argue, however, Rawls’s claim is very much mistaken. His Kantian moral psychology and his more capacious concept of ‘justice’ lead him to adopt a list of circumstances that, despite their substantial overlap, cannot be justified, or even explained, in Humean terms. In order to resolve this problem with the Rawlsian-Humean account, I propose a revised account of the circumstances of justice. Thus, resolving this interpretive puzzle points the way to a deeper understanding of the nature of justice and its grounding in the human condition.
[Continue to Part 2]
 This formulation traces back at least to Plato’s Republic, where Polemarchus attributes it to the poet Simonides. See Republic 331c-332d.
 Hume Treatise, 18.104.22.168 [Book#.Part#.Section#.Paragraph#]
 Rawls 1999, p. 9
 Rawls 1999, p. 109
 Rawls 1999, p. 110
 Rawls 1999, p. 110
Hume, David. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Plato. 1992. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Revised by C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.