Working Paper BETA #2021-47

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Title : Rawls and the economists: the (im)possible dialogue

Author(s) : Herrade Igersheim

Abstract : Although falling within the scope of political and moral philosophy, it is well known that A Theory of Justice has also had a great impact on economists. As such, Rawls put great emphasis on his desire to combine economics and philosophy, and particularly to deal with rational choice theory, notably and famously claiming that “the theory of justice is a part, perhaps the most significant part, of the theory of rational choice” (1971, 15). After the publication of A Theory of Justice, aspects of it came in for criticism – often very vehement – by economists such as Arrow (1973), Musgrave (1974), Harsanyi (1975) and later by Sen (1980). Rawls’s immediate answers (1974a,b in particular) showed that he first wanted to maintain a dialogue with the economists, but the later evolutions of his works (1993, 2001) clearly demonstrated that he had removed himself from the economic realm, returning to his initial philosophical territory in order to overcome the internal inconsistencies of A Theory of Justice. In this paper, by focusing extensively on the letter exchanges between Rawls and the economists before and after the publication of A Theory of Justice, I attempt to shed light on other (complementary) elements which can explain Rawls’s retreat from the realm of economics, and his progressive disenchantment regarding the possibility of a dialogue on equal footing between economists and philosophers.

Key-words : Rawls, Sen, social justice, rational choice

JEL Classification : B21, B31, D63