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Consensus on Justice in Rawls and Aristotle

Adviser: John M. Cooper

Benjamin F. Farkas


“... weekly meetings kept the thesis on my mind regularly and forced me to do at least a bit of reading every week. This slow and regular thinking allowed me to develop ideas over the course of the year.”


Perhaps because it is so big and time-consuming, the thesis has a strangely conflicted identity. It is “quintessentially Princeton,” lauded as an unparalleled intellectual opportunity, and yet asking seniors about the progress on their thesis is always a dangerous question, as though having a thesis to write were some sort of unpleasant and slightly shameful disease or an impending disciplinary hearing. It is a matter of perspective. Seen as a product one is required to deliver by a certain date, the thesis is indeed imposing, but seen as a process of exploration aided and guided by a deeply knowledgeable adviser, the thesis is the greatest source of intellectual satisfaction available at Princeton. At any rate, this was true of my thesis-writing process, even though (or perhaps because) it was not at all what I envisioned a year ago. This is not to say that I enjoyed all of it. Partly, I worried too much about the product to enjoy the process; partly, I fell prey to a culture that bemoans the state of having schoolwork to do; and partly, I made some mistakes. Still, I enjoyed a lot of the thesis process, and I should have enjoyed almost all of it.

The summer before senior year, I had no idea what to write my thesis about. I wanted to write about something different than my junior papers mainly for the sake of variety, but aside from that caveat I found a lot of things fairly interesting and no single topic deeply compelling. The previous summer, I had enjoyed a book of essays on a variety of topics by Thomas Nagel, so I read another essay collection by him. Several of the essays were about various aspects of John Rawls’s theory of justice, and these essays raised some questions for me that I found I enjoyed thinking about; I wanted to precisely sketch out the problems I saw and think of possible solutions. So, without having ever read a single word by John Rawls himself, I decided to try to write my thesis about Rawls. At the same time, I was open to writing about something else if a better opportunity presented itself.

In part because I wasn’t particularly firm about my preference for a Rawls thesis, I was slow to ask professors to be my adviser, and so had to rely on the philosophy department to assign me one. I was assigned to Professor John Cooper, who told me that he would be able to give me better guidance if I wrote about something related to ancient philosophy, and recommended that I reread Aristotle’s Politics (which I had read a bit of in an introductory course) to see if any part of it seemed particularly interesting.

Two very important things happened in this meeting or the meeting that followed it. First, I agreed to reread the Politics and look for a topic there. In retrospect, I see that the thesis-writing process is an ideal opportunity to learn about a topic in depth, and it is much easier to do this if one’s adviser knows about the topic in far greater depth. Thesis topics can be somewhat unconventional, as mine was, and so adapting one’s thesis topic to one’s adviser’s specialty need not move the thesis away from one’s own interests. If you are interested in A and your adviser knows a lot about B, it is worth seeing whether something about B can shed light on A, or whether A and B can be fruitfully compared, or whether they relate to each other in some other meaningful way. I think I had more trouble with Rawls than Aristotle (I did end up returning to Rawls), but I also think it was easier for Professor Cooper to help me with Rawls because we both had Aristotle as a point of comparison.

Second, Professor Cooper and I agreed to meet weekly. I slacked off at various points in the year, but these weekly meetings kept the thesis on my mind regularly and forced me to do at least a bit of reading every week. This slow and regular thinking allowed me to develop ideas over the course of the year instead of having to think something up near the end. Doing nothing for some weeks would hardly have been less effort, but the damage to my ability to write later on would have been great. Naturally, the weekly meetings also allowed Professor Cooper to give me regular guidance in developing a topic and understanding what I was reading. I do not think that Professor Cooper’s advising could have been better in any way. He gave suggestions that were clear enough to give me direction but broad enough to allow me to think things through myself; he took the trouble to think through what I was saying even when things were a bit muddled; and he was able to explain things in a way that I understood them.

Anyhow, I began by reading the Politics, and in doing so I quickly found that there were points of comparison between Rawls (or the Rawls I knew from Nagel’s work) and Aristotle in terms of the sort of policy approaches they recommended (that is, the features that they thought well-governed societies ought to display). They were providing answers to some of the same questions, in particular with respect to the distribution of resources and the role of the individual in public life. At the same time, Aristotle and Rawls justified their proposals with reference to very different sets of values. I brought up these rather broad points of comparison with Professor Cooper, and we agreed that I might write a thesis about how Rawls’s and Aristotle’s basic ethical assumptions affect the particulars of their visions of political justice. My first tasks, therefore, were to read and more or less understand Aristotle’s Politics and Rawls’s Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, which Professor Cooper recommended as more concise and yet more complete than the earlier and more famous A Theory of Justice.

I read Aristotle’s Politics and some of the Nicomachean Ethics first, taking copious notes and discussing what I had read every week with Professor Cooper. The greatest challenge here was in picking out which details were relevant to the broader questions I was investigating, since much of the Politics is incredibly practical and specific. In retrospect, I should have turned my notes into coherent, typed summaries, because this would have helped me keep track of important passages and ideas later in the writing process. It was still fairly early (or at least not very late) in the fall semester, though, so I was a bit lazy.

I did begin writing, though, as soon as I began reading Justice as Fairness. The challenge here was to explicitly identify the basic outlines of Rawls’s vision: what values and principles he expected the reader to take as given and what he saw these assumptions as implying. In my first pieces of writing, I analyzed bits of the book that seemed to shed light on these issues and did my best to compare them to Aristotle, focusing on getting ideas down rather than justifying everything and finding every quote. It was very good that I did this, because I had a hard time understanding Rawls, and these pieces of writing helped Professor Cooper help me. Writing down what I was thinking crystallized my confusion; I am quite sure that if I had simply tried to express what I was thinking verbally, it would not have been as clear to Professor Cooper exactly what I was thinking. One week early in the spring semester, I failed to write anything at all, but trying—and failing—to write allowed me to identify what I didn’t understand. The meeting with Professor Cooper that followed was probably the best I had; I remember it as a turning point, after which my view of Rawls clicked into place.

Even better, I did get some things right, and so I was able to accumulate a fair amount of written material that was generally related to what I was supposed to be writing about. Thus, once I had read all that I needed of both Aristotle and Rawls—a point, I should add, that came later than it should have because I read slowly—I was not staring at a blank page. Still, the things I was supposed to write were not clear enough in my mind for me to draft a specific outline and begin filling it in, so instead I kept writing, filling out the comparisons that had come from reading.

Finally, and a bit later than would have been ideal, an outline more or less fell into place. Rather fortuitously, I found that I could apply a feature of “polities” to what I saw as a flaw in Rawls’s system. To be specific, Aristotle thought that a polity, a state with a mixed form of government, could be virtuous even though no single citizen or group of citizens had a particularly great share of virtue, provided that various groups performed roles appropriate to their abilities. The virtue of individuals can add up in a society, if it is well organized and harmonious. For Rawls, an agreement on principles of justice is a necessary characteristic of a “well-governed state,” but I felt that Rawls’s principles of justice, which include a very strong principle of equality, were too specific to be agreed upon by an economically and socially diverse society such as the United States. Instead, I suggested that the fair representation of citizens’ diverse views on justice could “add up” to a form of practical political justice, analogously to virtue in Aristotle’s polity. It was this (admittedly vague) final thought that allowed me to see how the thesis would take shape, but I was able to use much of what I had already written. Fortunately, it was not necessary to know exactly what my thesis would say before I could start writing it.

All of this clicked later than it should have, and so the process of writing (and reusing older material) was a bit of a rush. Because I held myself strictly to a few artificial deadlines, I did finish everything on time and without panic. Still, I wish that I had imposed some earlier deadlines on myself and been more diligent in my reading earlier in the year. The two things I would have done with more time are further editing and revising, and, more importantly, finding more secondary sources. I ended up using very few secondary materials, because I found that reading secondary materials was less productive than reading primary materials; not every article that was about what I was writing about could be productively applied to my work. On the other hand, there certainly were secondary sources that would have helped me better understand the issues I was writing about and better frame my arguments. One source I found that I was able to use in my thesis, for example, identified a problem that I also had noticed in Rawls and offered a solution to it, allowing me to use that solution in making sense of and analyzing Rawls. Finding secondary sources requires a fair amount of effort in the reading/preparation phase of thesis writing, but in my case doing more of it would have paid off handsomely in the writing itself.

The result of spending so much time on the primary sources, though, was that I ended up thinking about them and talking about them quite a lot. This, rather than the final product, was the most rewarding aspect of the thesis for me; I was able to develop a reasonable degree of understanding of the work of two brilliant, fascinating thinkers, and even compare them and bring them together a bit. It is quite rare that one gets an opportunity to spend a whole year trying to really understand all of the intricacies of something, and even rarer to receive the support and guidance I received from Professor Cooper.

Consensus on Justice in Rawls and Aristotle

Benjamin F. Farkas

John M. Cooper

Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy

“Everything is up to the student, and I let them know this from the very outset. Students of all levels of ability, I have found, rise to the challenge, and produce theses of which they can legitimately feel proud.”

Advising seniors on their theses is my favorite form of teaching. Ever since I came to Princeton in 1980, I have occasionally heard faculty colleagues complain that requiring theses of every student does not work out well. In one way or another, they say, some, or even many, Princeton undergraduates don’t make good use of the opportunity; we faculty members waste our teaching effort, and they waste their time, when such students are required to spend a quarter or more of their senior work writing theses; their education would be better if as seniors they took an additional couple of advanced departmental courses or seminars instead; senior theses should be an option for select students, not a requirement for all. My experience over these 30 years with seniors (mostly philosophy concentrators), with GPAs across the full range, does not make me feel that way. So long as—this is a big “if”—the overall teaching load in a department permits each adviser, as it does in mine, to devote close and personal attention to the student’s work throughout the two semesters—with weekly or biweekly scheduled meetings of up to an hour or more—then, in my experience at any rate, every Princeton student can profit from writing a thesis, in ways that are often unique in their college studies and are highly worthwhile aspects of their overall education.

In no other teaching do I have the satisfaction of witnessing close up such dramatic growth in accomplishment and ability. My aim is to help students find their own way into and through some intellectually challenging and worthwhile set of philosophical texts and problems. Sometimes students come with ideas for a project that need reworking and redesign in order to lead to work of that sort. Sometimes they come with very vague or no real ideas at all about what to work on (only some general sense of which areas of philosophy they like the most). After a meeting or two, and some preliminary reading I might suggest, they settle on some initial general direction for their work. Thereafter, my role is first of all to offer guidance on what to read, next to help in formulating and narrowing down the specific project and to discuss issues that arise as the reading and thinking proceed, and finally (and, I have found, most importantly) to write detailed comments and criticisms on the writing as it takes shape in drafts. The priority throughout lies on the student’s own ideas. I try to follow the example of Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus, in helping the student to bring their own ideas to birth, by sharpening them with criticism, and by raising doubts and objections when that seems called for. Always, the aim is not to tell students what to think, or to teach them any set material, but to get them to do the best they can with their own ideas, suitably revised in the light of any objections I may feel I should pose. Everything is up to the student, and I let them know this from the very outset. Students of all levels of ability, I have found, rise to the challenge, and produce theses of which they can legitimately feel proud. They learn something about thinking for themselves in a disciplined and intellectually responsible way on a large scale, and (I hope) learn to value doing so. They grow intellectually and as persons.

When Ben Farkas came to see me last fall about his thesis, I already knew he was one of our best departmental students. The previous spring semester he had taken my upper-level course on Plato, with a good grade (but he was not in my precept, so I didn’t have personal knowledge of his work). He wasn’t thinking about a project in ancient philosophy, my main area, and he didn’t have a definite idea to propose. But he said he had been thinking it might be a good idea to work in ethics and political philosophy, and those are my main areas of work outside ancient philosophy. He mentioned John Rawls, the most important philosopher of political justice of the last century. I know Rawls’s work well, but I have not kept up with the huge secondary literature on it, nor have I actively followed the enormous expansion over the past several decades of work in political philosophy in reaction to Rawls’s ideas. So I asked Ben about his knowledge and interests in ancient political thought: Plato and Aristotle, primarily. Perhaps there might be some angle coming from Plato’s or Aristotle’s theories of justice from which to approach questions in Rawls that interested him? That would allow him to pursue his interest in questions of political justice in our own day with a historical perspective from antiquity, and that could prove illuminating in various ways. For such a project I thought I could be a good choice of adviser; my less-than-complete knowledge of the Rawls literature and that of post-Rawls contemporary political philosophy would not be a major obstacle. 

Ben got off to a quick start, I thought: He had no hesitation in choosing Aristotle over Plato for the ancient side of the project, and worked through the Politics and the politics-related parts of the Nicomachean Ethics over the first month or so, and (as I recall, anyhow) had already located some aspects of Aristotle’s theories that he thought connected to the questions that had initially interested him in Rawls. (These aspects concerned Aristotle’s theory of the form of government that he calls a “polity,” which is the one form, among those he counts as good ones for a people to have, that gives all political decision making to a large body of citizens; this is the closest Aristotle comes to endorsing something comparable to a modern liberal democracy. Ben was interested in what Aristotle had to say about the specific conception of political justice that would lead a populace to support such a form of government.) He thought that here Aristotle and Rawls address a similar question, and disagree; besides, he thought Aristotle’s theory had a lot in its favor, and could provide a basis for formulating precise criticisms of Rawls’s arguments. Next he worked through Rawls’s final presentation of his theory in his 2001 book. 

By early January, when our departmental rules require students to submit a 10-page-or-so draft of some part of the project, he was ready to get to work on the writing. We continued to meet weekly, with only a few omissions, to discuss in detail crucial issues in Rawls’s and Aristotle’s theories, and some secondary literature that were relevant to these. Ben produced bits of writing throughout both semesters, and I would write comments on them and discuss them with him, but in fact the final product was produced, it seemed to me, very quickly, over the last month. In fact, in my experience, the best theses, and the ones from writing which students have learned the most, are like that. At some late point in the process, things fall into place, a leading idea comes to the fore, and, fired by that idea, the student can make the writing take off. 

In Ben’s case, things fell into place extremely well. After receiving from me some rushed detailed comments on the chapters as they were drafted, he submitted one of the best theses, maybe the best overall, I have advised or read as an examiner. It was beautifully and confidently written. Unlike so many good undergraduate theses in philosophy that deal with major authors, it was not straight exegesis and defense of some chosen author’s views, and was not any simple “comparison” of views, either. It was an interesting and independent study of important questions in political philosophy. (It won a prize from the University Center for Human Values, as well as a departmental prize.) I think Ben learned a lot about writing and about thinking on important issues of philosophy and political life, and I was very pleased to be a witness and participant in that process.