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Criminology Concepts, Fall 1999

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: November 6, 1999
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Concept 1: Rawls' Theory of Justice

Information on this concept was taken from pp. 76-77 of Arrigo.

Quinney, in his discussion of prophetic justice, makes an intertextual reference to Rawls' Theory of Justice. Quinney, as a critical theorist, is that Rawls constructed his theory on many liberal assumptions. He suggests that Rawls' theory is "rooted in the moral and political problems generated by advanced capitalism. Let's examine what Quinney is saying.

How is Rawls' concept of justice rooted in advanced capitalism? First, Quinney is referring to Rawls' concern for individual freedom to achieve, and to amass capital. Rawls remains within the traditional American freedom to go after wealth and riches on the "streets paved in gold." But simultaneously, Rawls recognizes the societal function of creating a community within which we live in peace, and within which resources must be distributed with an eye to feeding, clothing, and providing for dwellings for all members of that society, in keeping with our goals for societal standards of living. That same distribution of basic resources is what permits the individual to pursue his/her own more ambitious goals. Quinney calls this the "modern welfare state."

Quinney's primary argument with Rawls is one that is shared by many critics. Rawls' assumes a tabula rasa from which we define justice: "the original position." In Rawls' original position "rational people . . .[operate on a ] consensus on the principles of living together, a liberal agreement of what is important for the fulfillment of individual goals. Omitted freom this individualistic view are the realities of class conflict, exploitation, and ruling-class power. [ref. omitted] Moreover, the 'original position' is neutral toward values that emphasize cooperative relations between people and collective or communal activity. Opposed is any conception of socieety that sees human life as the collective achievement of a social good."

Here Quinney is clearly pointing out some major unstated assumptions that affect the very alternatives we consider in attempting philosophically to understand justice and what we mean by it. "An alternative theory of justice in society, one based on cooperative and collective action, must be found in socialist philosophy. This is a philosophy worked out in the course of socialist practice." Note how Quinney, like many critical theorists, brings us back to the issue of theory to policy to PRACTICE.

Questions to Spark Ideas

  1. In what way does Rawls' theory reflect advanced capitalism?

  2. What does Quinney mean by "a modern welfare state?"

  3. Why does critical theory always come back to practice?