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Liberalism: The New Twist

Political Liberalism

by John Rawls
Columbia University Press, 401 pp., $29.95

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1970) gave a new start to political philosophy, which had been in the doldrums for many decades, having been overshadowed by developments in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of mind. The study of the past masters of political philosophy was dutifully prolonged in universities, but without much hope of a new vision that would be likely to stir the interest of a wider public. The dust jacket says that A Theory of Justice has been translated into every major European language as well as into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean: a wider public indeed.

After Rawls followed not only a rush of books and articles in learned journals commenting on his work but also at least two well-argued parallel theories, each conveying a distinctive vision of liberalism: by Ronald Dworkin in Taking Rights Seriously and by Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice. All three writers have been trying to formulate, as clearly as they can, the moral foundations of liberalism, as this slippery term is understood in political arguments within the US.

It is important, I think, to acknowledge that Rawls’s theories and arguments have to be understood, in the first place, as having their origin in the special setting of American history and of the American Constitution. Obviously liberalism is a political creed, with a set of political attitudes, which has flourished in Europe since Napoleon and which there has been supported by the arguments of Kant, Constant, Humboldt, Mill, and Sidgwick, among others. But American liberalism calls upon specific historical memories of the War of Independence, the debates on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation, all relatively recent events that have no equivalents in Europe. For this reason the search in the US for the justification of coercive government, and for the grounds of legitimacy, has employed a distinctive moral vocabulary which places a greater stress upon essential or primary human rights than has been usual in European thought about politics. Reading Rawls one is impressed by his distinctively American account of republican virtue, and of the political conception of persons as free and equal participants in a democracy.

Rawls’s great achievement in international thought was to restore the notion of justice to its proper place at the center of arguments about politics, the place that it had occupied at the very beginning of theorizing in Plato’s Republic. Justice is a necessary virtue of individuals both in their day-to-day conduct and in their personal relations, and it is the principal virtue of institutions and the social order. Plato described justice in the city state, social justice, as both reflecting and promoting the wisdom and moral soundness of those individual citizens who are themselves just, and Rawls’s account is in this tradition.

The second great contribution of A Theory of Justice was to detach the definition of social justice from the diverse moral aspirations and goals of individuals within the society. Moral ideals, in the sense of conceptions of the good life, are one thing, and justice is another: and precisely this separation constitutes the problem for a liberal theory of justice.

How can persons with contrary moral ideals coexist in harmony within a single society, possessing a unitary conception of justice? All the most authoritative political philosophers within the Western tradition, including Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, and Mill, had assumed that the virtue of justice, including social justice, had to be defined within a comprehensive theory of the human virtues, which each philosopher had in his turn supplied. A society ordered in accordance with the principles of justice must be so ordered as to sustain the best life for its citizens, and what this form of life is must be independently determined by philosophical argument. The utilitarian philosophies of Bentham and Mill have been the justificatory foundation of movements of social reform for many, perhaps most, secular liberals in Britain for a century or more, and utilitarianism was a comprehensive morality prescribing clear principles of action which are to be equally valid in public and in private life, for individuals and also for institutions.

But a well-argued doubt about the claims of all comprehensive moral theories has spread around the world in the last fifty years. It has come to seem both impossible and undesirable that anyone, whether a philosopher or not, should be able to identify one form of life as the best for all mankind at all times, unless he happens to have some direct access to the creator’s intentions. The distinction of humanity, and its interest in its own eyes, lies in the variety and unending competition of ideals and languages, and in the absurdity of a moral Esperanto. There have been many sources for this pluralist faith, including the evidences of social anthropology, the history of art, and the history of sexuality and family structures. The ideals of the monk and the soldier, of the revolutionary and the poet, of the aesthete and the politician, seem incurably at odds with each other, even as ideal types, and even more so when individuals of these types are inserted into a particular historical setting.

The clash of moral and religious loyalties has come to seem, in the light of recent history, much more than a temporary accident of human development, to be dispelled by the spreading natural sciences and by healthy enlightenment. Rather the deep-seated spiritual antagonisms have come to seem the essence of humanity, and it is an accident of history if, in some regions and for some period of time, a relative harmony of shared values prevails within a modern society. The natural condition of men and women is to cling to their distinguishing languages and to their divisive customs and rituals, and thereby to ensure that they will always misunderstand and distrust their neighbors anxiously clustered in their rival churches and assemblies.

A liberal philosopher who still wants to wrest some harmony and a degree of tolerance from this otherwise interesting chaos must not make the simple move of the utilitarians, and call on everyone to come together in assessing the consequences of their practices and institutions, as being favorable or unfavorable to the general welfare. This summons will not work, if only because every faction will interpret welfare differently, and in any case they normally also want justice as fairness, and the right to be inconveniently different from their neighbors, and even the right to be unhappy for their own peculiar reasons.

To meet these difficulties Rawls thought of an imaginary assembly of abstract persons who are supposed to choose the ideally just institutions for a society, without presupposing any specific conception of the good: the choosing persons are abstract choosers, because they are required to discount any knowledge that they have of their own position in society, of their own abilities and dispositions, and of their particular advantages and disadvantages. Behind the “veil of ignorance” they are to decide what sort of society they would consider to be just if they had to live in it.

Such an undifferentiated person speaks with the voice of the man within the breast, as Adam Smith first imagined him, which is the voice of shared humanity, and he knows enough of the general tendencies of people to enable him to agree with his peers on a set of principles, in an order of priority, that will define the just institutions for a society. For example, the abstract persons will, as reasonable thinkers, all agree that the liberty of the individual should have an overriding importance. They will agree also that the worst-off members of society, whoever they may be, must be protected against any worsening of their situation; this principle must be built into the basic structure of a liberal society from the beginning.

Critics of A Theory of Justice remarked that the abstract persons who are choosing the basic institutions seem already to be carrying with them the full liberal ideal of treating all persons as free and equal in a democratic state. Without this assumed liberal ideal there could be no constraint that would compel every rational man to prefer liberty to all other human goods, or that would compel him to mitigate, or never to increase, natural human inequalities.

In the eight lectures collected in his new book, Rawls has, step by step, modified and restated his theory in response to the critics who had accused him of presupposing, or of bluntly asserting, what he had undertaken to demonstrate: that any reasonable body of men, if they disregarded their own particular interests and characters, would arrive at principles of social justice which would be recognizably liberal.

It was not altogether clear how much had to be included in “reasonable”: Did this refer to enlightened calculations of self-interest or did it also include some minimum notion of moral decency? If the former, there is always the possibility that an apparently reasonable person might decide to gamble on the chance of his having natural advantages and not to bother too much about the liberties and the deprivations of others. Such a reasonable, but illiberal, person might cling to the principle that persons should be rewarded in proportion to their gifts and attainments without further correction. Or, if the constraint on the choice of institutional structures is a moral constraint, then it seems likely that some conception of the good has crept in, and Rawls would have allowed some exception to his respect for moral pluralism—for the great variety of reasonable opinions about what is good in human life.

For example, a person may have reasons to believe that a small group of human beings has access to the truth about good and evil, and that all the others will be ruined if they are not induced to respect the authority of the few; such a person will not believe that absolute priority should be given to the liberty of the individual, and yet he may be equipped with a battery of philosophical arguments, and with acute observations of human nature and of history, and he may be a calm and soft-spoken person; in all these senses he is eminently “reasonable.” After reflection he chooses a hierarchical society which engenders respect for principles of justice allotting appropriate privileges and constitutional powers to the group of superior and discerning persons. This would be illiberal and perhaps also un-American, but certainly not, in the ordinary sense of the word, crazy or unreasonable.

These were some of the simple and straightforward objections to the original theory of justice, and over the years Rawls has published more or less effective replies to them. But he finally came to recognize, as he explains here, that he had misdescribed his own enterprise, which is something that very easily happens in philosophy. He saw that he had been formulating the constitutional principles underlying the sense of justice that is employed in political situations and for political purposes within a democratic society by all those who acknowledge that citizens should be equally free to pursue their own good in their own way. The principles are the principles of political liberalism, and not of liberalism in a wider sense, which might include, for example, permissiveness in sexual morality or laissez faire in economic arrangements. Reasonable men and women will arrive at a consensus about a fair structure of institutions if they share a political conception of persons as free and equal for all political purposes and “a certain natural political virtue.” These reasonable men and women need to be sensitive to “the political value of a public life” and to the duty of civility as one duty among others.

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