Private Order and Public Justice: Kant and Rawls

32 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2006

See all articles by Arthur Ripstein

Arthur Ripstein

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law


Private law has a peculiar status in recent political philosophy. It is often said that the law of property and contract establishes basic, pre-political rights that must constrain the activities of states. No less often, it is said that private law just is one of the activities of states, to be assessed in the same way as any other exercise of state power. This second approach has its roots in the utilitarian thought of Bentham and Mill, but in recent decades it has become home to the primary non-utilitarian account of private rights. Many of John Rawls' most ardent admirers in the academy have sought to put his social contract theory foreword as an alternative to utilitarianism, while accepting the basic utilitarian perspective on private law as public law in disguise. My aim in this paper is to provide an alternative to these two prominent views. The alternative I will develop draws on Kant and Rawls. I will articulate Kant's account of the nature and significance of private ordering in relation to freedom. The main part of my argument is concerned with the converse task of showing why private ordering requires public justice. I argue that the rule of law is a prerequisite to enforceable rights being consistent with individual freedom. Unless it issues from a public standpoint that all can share, the use of force subjects one person to the arbitrary choice of another. Turning once more to Rawls, I will argue that the best way of thinking about his emphasis on public provision of adequate rights and opportunities in parallel terms: they are the moral prerequisites for a shared public sphere, which is the precondition of legitimate enforcement of private rights.

Suggested Citation

Ripstein, Arthur, Private Order and Public Justice: Kant and Rawls. U Toronto, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 894431, Virginia Law Review, Vol. 92, No. 7, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Arthur Ripstein (Contact Author)

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