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Rawlsian Social-Contract Theory and the Severely Disabled

Henry S. Richardson
The Journal of Ethics
Vol. 10, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 419-462
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115871
Page Count: 44
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Abstract

Martha Nussbaum has powerfully argued in Frontiers ofJustice and elsewhere that John Rawls's sort of social-contract theory cannot usefully be deployed to deal with issues pertaining to justice for the disabled. To counter this claim, this article deploys Rawls's sort of social-contract theory in order to deal with issues pertaining to justice for the disabled-or, since, as Nussbaum stresses, we all have some degree of disability-for the severely disabled. In this way, rather than questioning one by one Nussbaum's interpretive claims about Rawls's view, one can simply see how the Rawlsian framework can work in application to this issue. Following Rawls's lead, the paper utilizes the idealized "initial choice situation" as an analytic and comparative device for examining alternative principles of justice, developing three different interpretations of the initial choice situation that each correspond to a different set of principles that apply to people of all levels of disability. One of these sets of principles is a simple extension of Rawls's, one is very close to what Nussbaum herself recommends, and the third is a kind of hybrid. In this way, it is shown not only that Rawls's social-contract device can usefully be applied to these issues, but also that it is helpful for exploring the deep commitments underlying each of these competing sets of principles. This extension to Rawls's device clearly departs to some extent from his intentions; but the paper argues that the ideal of reciprocity, which might be thought to post the biggest obstacle to applying his social-contract device to issues pertaining to the severely disabled (those who are not capable of being cooperative members of society), is not an independently essential commitment of his mature social-contract view, central though it was to Rawls's thought in the 1950s.

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