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A New Social Contract

April 28, 2011

Kenneth Minogue in WSJ:

Peter Corning wants to improve, even transform, American life, but perhaps the most dramatic aspect of his project is its sheer ambition. He proposes to “bend the arc of the moral universe” and turn the country into a “fair society.” The transformation can be achieved only by collective action, he says, of the sort that was revealed in the 2008 presidential election campaign—a “take-home lesson” in the possibilities of volunteer participation.

What constitutes “fair,” of course, is not something people entirely agree on, but fairness is everywhere the watchword of today’s radicals. And of many trend-chasing politicians. The British government has declared that its project is to “put fairness at the heart of the government’s program.” When both professors and politicians are to be found singing the same song, we must be in for a happy time, or perhaps we’d better just duck.

Mr. Corning’s “The Fair Society” certainly expresses one of the most powerful politico-moral sentiments of our time. But it owes a great deal to the work of the philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) and the vast literature on “normative politics” that followed the publication in 1971 of Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice,” which asserted that “the most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position.” Rawls gave us the “veil of ignorance” thought-experiment that calls on us to consider any policy or moral proposition without knowing what our own attributes—age, race, intelligence, economic class, education—would be. [More]

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