Rawls, Sartre, and the Question of Camaraderie

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In his classic text, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that the structural principles of a society are just when they issue from a procedure that is fair. One crucial feature that makes the procedure fair is that the persons who will be subjected to these principles choose them after they have deliberated together in a condition marked by a certain balance of knowledge and ignorance. In particular, these people know enough to consider principles that are workable, yet converse behind a "veil of ignorance," unable to predict what their place in society will be and hence discouraged from slanting the principles toward any preferential interests. My paper questions whether this attempt to ensure the disinterestedness of the conversation of justice is feasible. I worry that when we approach this question practically, we discover that the education that furnishes us with the knowledge necessary to choose viable principles must at the same time preclude genuine ignorance about our social position and interests. As an alternative, I suggest that we convene the conversation of justice behind a "veil of existence." In this condition, people possess knowledge about how their society works and even about their places in it; however, this knowledge does not foster preferential interests because all interests are subjected to the question of their existential meaning. As Jean-Paul Sartre explains in his essay, "Existentialism is a Humanism," for our interests to be truly meaningful, they must be affirmed as free responses to our thrownness into existence. Yet how do we find the wherewithal to make such responsible choices rather than lapse into paralysis before their essentially arbitrary differences? My positive thesis is that we may do so by acknowledging how all of us in this existential predicament critically and mutually provoke each to commit oneself to depart from the others in specific ways. This process of provocation is thus educational. It broaches a conception of non-instrumental, non-mimetic, liberal study, one which I try to enact in a writing that employs direct address, regular returns to questions that put discourse at a loss, and expanding webs of association. In this manner, I hope to demonstrate that liberal study may deepen our appreciation of our communal nature, our camaraderie, and thus motivate us to participate unselfishly in the conversation of justice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)491-502
Number of pages12
JournalStudies in Philosophy and Education
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Democratic education
  • Existentialism
  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • John Rawls
  • Original position

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Philosophy


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