CRF Blog

Rawls Visits the Pyramids

by Bill Hayes

Who was the most important political philosopher of the 20th century? Bueller, Bueller, anyone, anyone? Most would probably answer John Rawls. A few years ago, we devoted an article in Bill of Rights in Action to Rawls. Now the July–August issue of The National Interest has an interesting article titled Rawls Visits the Pyramids on how Egypt is experiencing a “Rawlsian moment.”

And in the warm but very inchoate atmosphere of the revolution’s triumph, Egyptians began discussing their political future. Did they want a parliamentary system in order to combat the presidential authoritarianism of the past? What systems would provide for the freest and fairest elections?

The country was experiencing what might be called a “Rawlsian moment.” Before his death in 2002, American political philosopher John Rawls had made a name for himself leading a couple generations of scholars in exploring ways to assess and maintain the justice of a political order. His basic approach included an invitation to imagine what sort of system people in a society might construct if they did not know in advance what their position would be in it. Rawls never envisioned this “veil of ignorance” as something that was actually possible; imagining such an abstract deliberation among people writing rules under such circumstances was simply a good way of assessing whether the rules in place were fair or not.

But in February and March, Egyptians seemed actually to be living in a Rawlsian environment. Nobody knew who the relevant political actors would be, what shape their platforms would take, or how strong they would be electorally. Of course, general tendencies could be discerned, but when Egyptians argued about questions of constitutional design, the political scene was so unclear they could put abstract principles above partisan interest. [more]