Acta Cogitata: An Undergraduate Journal in Philosophy


Climate change is one of the most important social and environmental justice issues of the 21st century. As such, it deserves serious treatment by John Rawls, perhaps the most important social justice theorist of the 20th century. In this paper, I first discuss Rawls’ conception of a well-ordered society presented in A Theory of Justice and how climate change may be incorporated in his principles of justice as an intergenerational savings problem. Then, I present a characterization of environmental goods like clean air and clean water as a special kind of good in Rawlsian justice and argue that this is a more effective way of incorporating environmental considerations into the framework of a well-ordered society. Essential goods, as I call them, can be distinguished by two particular traits: 1) their status as a public good, and 2) their status as preconditions for the usage of our primary goods.

By recognizing that environmental goods are preconditions for the proper exercise of our social primary goods, we establish a precedent for the incorporation of environmental and climate considerations into the fundamental structure of a Rawlsian framework. This approach is unique in the literature because past papers addressing a Rawlsian reply to climate change and environmental concerns have focused primarily on the original position, the just savings principle, or the two principles of justice. My conception of essential goods accounts for environmental goods as a necessary, and not merely peripheral, element in Rawlsian political philosophy.

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