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  • Reciprocity as Mutual Recognition
  • Thom Brooks (bio)


For Rawls, there is an important difference between competing forms of regimes and what he calls a "property-owning democracy" and "liberal socialism."1 This difference includes that only the latter best guarantees principles of justice and satisfies the criterion of reciprocity. In this article, I will focus on the importance of reciprocity for this account and what it reveals about the citizens found in property-owning democracies and liberal socialist regimes.2 These regimes do not merely correctly recognize and uphold the importance of central principles of justice, but they also correctly recognize each other in an identity-forming way. These citizens mutually recognize one another as free and equal, but also they identify with others in a common bond of citizenship. Rawlsian justice is more than about principles and reciprocity; it is also about mutual recognition and shared identity. This becomes clearer when we look to the reasons why Rawls favors some regimes over others.

The structure of this article is as follows. First, I begin with a brief explication of the relevant background. This will focus on Rawls's two principles of justice. Secondly, I will then explain how these principles are applied by Rawls to demonstrate which regimes may be acceptable for justice as fairness. This discussion will highlight the central importance of the criterion of reciprocity. The article will conclude with an examination of the importance of reciprocity in Rawls's account and how it may say something new [End Page 21] about the citizens Rawls has in mind for regimes such as a property-owning democracy.

Two Principles of Justice

Rawls's discussion of property-owning democracy is within a particular context. He asks: "what kind of regime and basic structure would be right and just, could it be effectively and workably maintained?"3 This context presupposes specific results that arise from Rawls's analysis of the basic structure and two principles of justice.4 I will address this analysis here. The following section will consider whether an application of this analysis supports property-owning democracy and why it does this.

Rawls understands political philosophy as "realistically utopian," or in other words "as probing the limits of the practicable political possibility."5 It is utopian in that we should aim for the reasonably just, but realistic in not pursuing what is perfect and beyond our horizon of possibilities. Furthermore, we must operate against the background of the fact of reasonable pluralism. This fact limits possible options in that it imposes some restraints, but it also offers new possibilities in how options can be managed. One such possibility is that we must think about political society from a new perspective and Rawls offers several new conceptual devices by which we may attain such a perspective.

Rawls's realistic utopia is centred on the idea of society as a fair system of social cooperation over time from one generation to the next.6 This includes the idea of citizens as free and equal, as well as the idea of a well-ordered society regulated effectively by a public conception of justice.7 One key task is determining the principles that will specify fair terms of cooperation.8 These principles will apply to the basic structure securing background justice. Rawls says:

The basic structure of society is the way in which the main political and social institutions of society fit together into one system of social cooperation, and the way they assign basic rights and duties and regulate the division of advantages that arises from social cooperation over time.9 [End Page 22]

The basic structure is the primary subject of social and political justice. We must determine principles to apply to the basic structure and establish a framework for a political conception of justice. Our object is not to settle all political questions from the start, but instead to provide the framework within which such questions should be addressed.

We determine principles of justice in the following way. Rawls argues that we should employ the idea of the original position. Parties to the original position are understood to lie behind a veil of ignorance. This veil masks self...


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