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Rawls’s Concept of Decent Peoples – Members of Good Standing Within the International System?

Annette Foerster
The London School of Economics & Political Science
Annette Foerster
The London School of Economics & Political Science
Open Panel

Abstract

In his last monograph, “The Law of Peoples”, John Rawls introduced the concept of ‘decent peoples’. These are autocratic in character, but nevertheless members of good standing within the international system. Liberal societies should tolerate them as free and equal partners under fair terms of cooperation. The liberal concept of reasonable pluralism, accepted in Rawls’s domestic theory of justice, is extended to the international domain. Alternative political forms other than liberal democratic regimes can also be reasonable and well-ordered, thus deserving respect. Rawls’s breaking up of the democracy-autocracy divide by introducing a regime type, autocratic in character but offering “meaningful” forms of political participation, deserves further exploration and it is helpful in the understanding of existing or historic decent regimes. The paper argues, that there are – following Rawls’s conception – legitimate reasonably just societies, authoritarian in character, that – according to the principle of reasonable pluralism – deserve not only toleration, but respect and fair cooperation. To do so, I first introduce and analyze Rawls’s conception of ‘decent societies’ and then apply it to existing or historic states. Secondly, I discuss whether Rawls’s claim to welcome ‘decent societies’ as equal cooperation partners in the international realm is justified and on what grounds. Finally I explore the impact Rawls’s ideas have on the international system. The way Rawls justifies these regimes as “members of good standing”, the need of respecting them as equal cooperation partners, may add to the understanding of their legitimacy as domestic and international actors. This might then lead to a closer cooperation between liberal and decent societies and thereby – as Rawls suggests – to more peace and stability in the international realm.