A Mooring for Ethical Life

Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (2014)
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Abstract
Since G.A. Cohen’s influential criticism, John Rawls’s focus on the basic structure of society has fallen out of favor in moral and political philosophy. The most prominent defenses of this focus has argued from particular conceptions of justice or from a moral division of labor. In this dissertation, I instead argue for the Rawlsian focus from the ways in which social institutions establish new obligations, rights and powers. I argue that full evaluation of individual conduct requires that we evaluate the practices within which an individual’s actions occur. Likewise, full evaluation of practices often requires evaluating the systems within which actions occur. I argue that we should treat the basic structure of society as a moral subject because the full evaluation of the various institutions that constitute the basic structure requires that we evaluate the basic structure as a whole. This argument shows the advantages of the Rawlsian approach even when we do not accept contractualism, constructivism or the two principles of justice. We need only accept the view that the major social institutions establish obligations, rights, and powers for individuals as members of society.
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