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Hume and Rawls on the Circumstances and Priority of Justice

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This article addresses a historical puzzle that arises from Sandel's critique of Rawls's use of Hume's 'circumstances of justice', and a related philosophical puzzle about the priority of justice over other values. Sandel questioned whether a remedy for selfishness could be the first virtue. Yet, as Rawls understood, Hume's theory gave justice priority over other personal virtues, and was not incompatible with Rawls's claim that justice was the first virtue of institutions. Rawls was mistaken, however, to think that there was room for moral disagreement within a Humean account of the circumstances of justice. Sandel turns out to have been right that there was a problem in Rawls's account of the circumstances and priority of justice, but wrong about what this problem was. Justice can come first, in Humean circumstances, but in the partly non-Humean circumstances Rawls described, agreeing to put justice first is a form of moral compromise.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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