This study looks at John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). These theories will, as Rawls intended, be seen as one giant theory. The main focus has been on his neutrality and his notion of self-respect. The tension between these elements is obvious. Neutrality emphasizes independence of substantial values, whereas self-respect is clearly a notion based on substantial values.
Rawls’ neutrality is obscure since he justifies his theory by relying on substantial values seen as shared and political. In other words, he relies on a political conception of the good. Rawls’ theory is therefore neutral between people who share this thin theory of the good. If this means that his theory is justified by a superior political conception of the good, I have suggested that his theory could be called political perfectionism.
To support this suggestion I have inspected Rawls’ objections to the principle of perfection and found them invalid against the modern versions of perfectionism, namely liberal perfectionism. Some theories of liberal perfectionism – Thomas Hurka’s Perfectionism (1993) and George Sher’s Beyond Neutrality (1997) – have been used to this purpose. These versions would undoubtedly promote the notion of self-respect to a large extent.
Being concerned with the political sphere Rawls does not promote the whole notion of self-respect. He only promotes the political aspect of self-respect. I have used the analysis of how Rawls’ theory is neutral as a point of departure for analyzing whether the whole notion of self-respect should be promoted. It seems like he has not good reasons for only supporting the political aspect. If this is correct, the substantial values in the notion of self-respect can draw Rawls’ theory even further towards a perfectionist stand.