Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 369–386 | Cite as

Burdened Societies and Transitional Justice



Following John Rawls, nonideal theory is typically divided into: (1) “partial-compliance theory” and (2) “transitional theory." The former is concerned with those circumstances in which individuals and political regimes do not fully comply with the requirements of justice, such as when people break the law or some individuals do not do their fair share within a distributive scheme. The latter is concerned with circumstances in which background institutions may be unjust or may not exist at all. This paper focuses on issues arising in transitional theory. In particular, I am concerned with what Rawls’ has called “burdened societies," that is, those societies that find themselves in unfavorable conditions, such that their historical, social or economic circumstances make it difficult to establish just institutions. The paper investigates exactly how such burdened societies should proceed towards a more just condition in an acceptable fashion. Rawls himself tells us very little, except to suggest that societies in this condition should look for policies and courses of action that are morally permissible, politically possible and likely to be effective. In this paper I first try to anticipate what a Rawlsian might say about the best way for burdened societies to handle transitional problems and so move towards the ideal of justice. Next, I construct a model of transitional justice for burdened societies. Ultimately, I argue for a model of transitional justice that makes use of a nonideal version of Rawls’ notion of the worst-off representative person.


Burdened societies Transitional theory Nonideal theory Development Human rights 



I am grateful to audiences at both the North American Society for Social Philosophy Conference (July 2010) and the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (August 2010) for their excellent feedback. I would also like to thank Steve Vanderheiden, Helga Varden and Jon Mandle for their detailed and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity at Albany (SUNY)AlbanyUSA

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