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  • Why the Basic Structure?
  • Louis-Philippe Hodgson (bio)


John Rawls famously holds that the basic structure is the 'primary subject of justice.'1 By this, he means that his two principles of justice apply only to a society's major political and social institutions, including chiefly the constitution, the economic and legal systems, and (more contentiously) the family structure.2 This thesis — call it the basic structure restriction — entails that the celebrated difference principle has a narrower scope than one might have expected. It doesn't apply directly to choices that individuals make within the basic structure. Individuals can live up to the demands of justice simply by obeying whatever rules [End Page 303] are set by, and by doing what is necessary to sustain, the basic structure; they needn't attempt to benefit maximally the worst off through their personal choices.3 Nor does the principle apply to interactions taking place beyond the basic structure, on the international stage. International actors can live up to the demands of justice by observing a comparatively modest 'duty of assistance' toward severely destitute societies; they needn't make it their aim to benefit maximally the world's poorest individuals.4

The difficulties begin when you ask why the scope of justice should be so restricted. Rawls's remarks on the matter are sparse and certainly don't add up to anything like a sustained argument. As a result, there is much debate about how to understand his position and, more fundamentally, about how defensible the idea of a basic structure restriction truly is. Mostly, the parties cluster into two camps. In one, you have those who take Rawls at his word when he writes that the basic structure is the primary subject of justice because of the 'pervasive influence'5 it exerts on individuals' life prospects. They typically go on to conclude that the basic structure restriction is untenable, since any concern with pervasive influence gives one reason to focus on much beside the basic structure. Thus G.A. Cohen argues that the choices made by one's fellow citizens can exert an influence on one's life prospects comparable to that of the basic structure,6 while countless cosmopolitans [End Page 304] maintain that the same goes for actions carried out by various agents on the international stage.7 In the other camp, you have those who hold that Rawls's focus on the basic structure is best understood as stemming, not from a general concern with pervasive influence, but rather from a specific concern with legal coercion.8 Particularly stringent principles of justice apply to the basic structure, the thought goes, because it is coercively imposed on individuals. To the extent that this isn't true of choices made within the basic structure or of actions carried out on the international stage, they do not raise similar justificatory problems.

As far as Rawls interpretation is concerned, neither view seems quite correct. Rawls is elusive about his reasons for embracing the basic structure restriction, but he is more explicit in drawing the line between what is part of the basic structure (the legal system, the economic structure, the family) and what is not (individual choices, national borders, churches, universities). The two standard views — call them the pervasive influence view and the coercion view — have strikingly little success when it comes to accounting for this aspect of Rawls's position. The shortcoming is most obvious in the case of the pervasive influence view, which entails that the primary subject of justice should include far more than Rawls allows, to the point of rendering the very notion of a basic structure restriction meaningless. But the coercion view has its own troubles, notably in explaining Rawls's claim that the basic structure should include the family but exclude borders, when a focus on legal coercion would seem to require precisely the opposite.9 [End Page 305]

There are deeper problems with these two views. Textual interpretation aside, we need to ask what could lend the basic structure the special importance that Rawls claims for it and, more generally, what could mark something as the primary subject of justice. These questions have deep ramifications...


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pp. 303-334
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