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  • Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice by Erin M. Cline
  • Sungmoon Kim
Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice. By Erin M. Cline. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii + 354. $65.00, Hardcover isbn 978-0-823-24508-6.

Erin Cline’s Confucius, Rawls, and the Sense of Justice makes a timely contribution to the fields of comparative philosophy and Confucian political philosophy, not least because of its unique interpretations of Rawls’ and Confucius’ philosophical thought and its sophisticated cross-cultural philosophical comparison, but also because of how it addresses misunderstandings of Rawls’ political philosophy that are prevalent among students of Chinese philosophy. At the heart of such misunderstandings are the failure to distinguish the later Rawls from the earlier (particularly as the author of A Theory of Justice) and, more fundamentally, the complete dismissal of the Humean elements in Rawls (especially in his earlier works), namely his profound interest in moral psychology, particularly moral motivation and moral development. Echoing (though without citing) recent Humean reinterpretations of Rawls’ political philosophy,1 Cline not only revisits one of the most neglected areas in Rawls’ political philosophy but also reinterprets and further reconstructs Confucius’ thought with special attention to his unarticulated idea of a sense of justice. What makes this book really interesting is that it also explores a way to improve Rawls’ idea of moral development from the Confucian perspective of self-cultivation.

Cline successfully forestalls one possible criticism of her attempt to investigate the sense of justice in the Analects, the objection that there is no term in the text that directly corresponds to “justice,” by focusing on “the capacity for a sense of justice, or the capacity to feel or perceive what is fair” (p. 18) instead of a particular conception or theory of justice. More specifically, Cline, following Rawls, distinguishes [End Page 344] (a) the concept of justice, according to which “[a] society’s institutions are just when they do not make arbitrary distinctions between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties, and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life” (p. 77), from (b) the conception of justice composed of a detailed formulation of what counts as arbitrary distinctions and a proper balance. Then, she argues that though subscribing to different conceptions of justice, Rawls and Confucius share the concept of justice, and they equally emphasize the importance of the (innate) capacity for a sense of justice. Cline’s central claim is that “there is a shared understanding of and appreciation for [the] capacity [for a sense of justice] in both Rawls and the Analects and that both express an interest in how this capacity is developed” (p. 18). Therefore, instead of “compar[ing] individual terms or concepts found in Rawls and the Analects,” Cline examines “the way certain concepts and themes function together to create a sense of justice that in turn contributes to a larger account of a well-ordered and stable society in Rawls and a harmonious and humane society in the Analects” (p. 24).

In chapter 1, Cline explains her choice to compare Rawls, a contemporary American analytic philosopher, and Confucius, an ancient Chinese thinker, and justifies her cross-cultural methodology, which she calls an “anti-method approach,” by carefully distinguishing between the different kinds of methodological issues in crosscultural philosophical comparison, namely thematic, interpretive, and procedural issues, and paying attention to complex challenges arising from all three issues.

In chapter 2, Cline offers an account of Rawls’ idea of the capacity for a sense of justice, which Rawls presents as one of the two moral powers that citizens in a well-ordered (liberal-democratic) society have, along with the capacity for a conception of the good. After showing the centrality of the capacity for a sense of justice to the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens who are free and equal in (the later) Rawls’ political philosophy, Cline draws special attention to his earlier essay “The Sense of Justice” (originally published in 1963) and argues that for Rawls “a sense of justice is a capacity to be cultivated within the context of...