One of the most remarkable claims Rawls (1971, 343) makes in A Theory of Justice is when he refers to unjust social arrangements as a kind of violence: ‘Unjust social arrangements are themselves a kind of extortion, even violence, and consent to them does not bind’. This is also one of his least celebrated claims, which explains why it has gone almost totally unnoticed. By comparing unjust social arrangements to a kind of violence, Rawls combines in one sentence the major moral, social and political concern of the time, with the new paradigm that was to take its place, respectively political violence and social justice. It is now widely recognized that it is because of Rawls’s seminal work that the question of social justice has taken centre stage in political philosophy. As Barry (1990) poignantly remarks, in political philosophy there is a pre-Rawlsian and a post-Rawlsian world, and A Theory of Justice marks the watershed between the past and the present. Almost forty years after A Theory of Justice was first published, we are still living in a post-Rawlsian era. Formulating, defending and promoting principles of justice that mould the basic structure of society remain the major preoccupation for most political philosophers, and rightly so. But in 1971 things were different.
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