Did Rawls restore political philosophy?

David Corey’s excellent and balanced discussion and tribute to Rawls on the anniversary of the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice [TJ] may just suffer from not being tribute enough. Not only is it correct to say that TJ was the most important work of political philosophy in the twentieth century, but also that it continues to be so in many ways, if only as a generator of new forms of political philosophizing. Let’s start with why the work became so important (assuming Rawls’s academic pedigree and Harvard stint go without saying). If you weren’t there then, it’s easy to forget that political philosophy was dominated by two schools of thought: Marxism and utilitarianism. We use the term “political philosophy” carefully here. Political theory in the political science departments may have been more diverse, but this was not the case in philosophy. Rawls’ TJ emerged as a whole new breed of political philosophy.

Furthermore, Rawls’ conclusions were accessible to the Academy’s “liberal” political leanings, while at the same time concerns from “conservatives” were not excluded. For example, he was friends with James Buchanan, who admired Rawls’ theoretical approach to the “social contract,” even if their final conclusions were different. The confluence of academic prestige and new approach opened both the floodgates for criticism that could come from different perspectives and the liberation of political philosophy from the shackles of Marxism and utilitarianism. Corey is certainly right to catalog the criticism of TJ, but we should recognize that Nozick was not just a critic, he was a descendant of the climate Rawls created.

The philosophical climate created by Rawls not only opened the doors for philosophers to learn about the theory of “public choice,” but through Nozick, Rawls also made libertarianism more visible. Today, the reflection on Rawls has led to alternative schools or approaches to political philosophy such as those found in the now great criticism of the “ideal theory” and the school of “public reason” often associated with Jerry Gaus. The legal approach to liberalism that we ourselves advocated may have preceded Rawls, but it also came out of hiding because of Rawls and Nozick. Whatever one thinks of Rawls’ particular teachings and arguments, he should be celebrated for helping to create a world in which different approaches to political philosophy can flourish.

As Corey also notes, Rawls’ liberalism encourages us to ponder the very nature of liberalism itself. Noticing what is seen as a flaw in Rawls suggests that we “build on the ruins.” The ruins here are on the one hand the desirable political conditions (peace, order, legitimacy) and on the other hand the requirements Rawls placed on these conditions – namely individual freedom, formal equality and “reasonable” pluralism. But why not leave the ruins as ruins, perhaps to visit them on an intellectual vacation? One could answer by saying that if one wants to be a liberal or theorize as one, these are the parameters to work within. This is of course a good way. It just leaves the door open to go elsewhere. We can have peace, order and legitimacy in non-liberal regimes. Then why observe the restrictive conditions that Rawls thought we should impose on this desired order?

In one way, Rawls may not have been interested in this last question. Perhaps he just wanted to talk to liberals about how best to view liberal theory, much like Nozick, who wanted to consider the implications of a rights-based representation of libertarianism without bothering with legal theory. However limited such a project may be, it certainly has value, as we have seen from the various accounts of liberalism that Rawls’ work has produced. However, the walls may have collapsed and left these ruins for another reason – the foundations were shaky. The approach of worrying about the basics or “comprehensive doctrine” is expressly rejected by Rawls.

Fundamentalism here is the view that we need to pay attention to non-political issues in order to justify the political properly. Such concerns would include theories of human nature, moral theory in general, and even questions of metaphysics and epistemology. Although we have argued elsewhere that fundamental concerns are often implied even when not explicitly addressed, Rawls appears to be convinced that fundamental problems are both unnecessary to the construction of a good theory and unsolvable to a useful extent. However, if Corey is right that there are ruins, then perhaps one needs to dig further into the foundations to build on.

Building on the ruins by foundations does not mean that the resulting structure has to look like the old one or that new rooms cannot be added.

The other thing Corey asks us to do is understand collaboration as a fundamental principle of liberalism. Corey claims Rawls wants this and suggests that a better way to get there is to limit the scope of the obsessional state rather than widen it. We would surely agree. However, if we don’t want to combine cooperation and conformity, the cooperation has to be about something. A candidate is selfishness as we may find it in markets. Markets, however, may need a structure within which the collaboration found there can take place. In and of itself, self-interest may not be consistent enough to establish a stable political order. If we continue to follow Corey on the need for collaboration, another candidate for the justification of the collaboration will share common acceptance of certain principles. Principles have bases, and ignoring or removing these bases reduces principles to opinions and thus of little structural value. We are not suggesting that other factors such as tradition, culture, social institutions and the like should be ignored when considering collaboration. However, those factors that contribute to collaboration are best ensured by adhering to relevant principles. In this regard, we are returning to the need for foundations and thus to fundamentalism.

Building on the ruins by foundations does not mean that the resulting structure has to look like the old one or that new rooms cannot be added. The intellectual pluralism generated by the TJ was all for good. The result was many useful and interesting theories and social science approaches. In the end, however, the “Pluribus” requires a “Unum,” which suggests that we need to fix deeper foundations than just the political.

In this regard, and especially at this time, it is important to note that many of the philosophical fads that led Rawls to reject broader philosophical theories are no longer as dominant as they were before. The logically positivist understanding of ethics, metaphysics, theology, and science that was practically dead at the time TJ was published but still cast its anti-metaphysical shadow over philosophy is now dead and gone. More importantly, Rawls’ claim that metaphysics can be abandoned or withdrawn in the development of political philosophy has been subjected to withered criticism by Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre. In ethics, while there are still those who defend versions of ethical non-cognitivism and invoke so-called naturalistic error, they no longer monopolize ethics. Furthermore, there is nothing in the current philosophical scene that requires restricting ethics to moral constructivism and avoiding moral realism. Indeed, there are powerful advocates of moral realism through the traditions of natural law and virtue ethics – to name a few: Julia Annas, Paul Bloomfield, Talbot Brewer, Philippa Foot, Anthony Lisska, and Henry B. Veatch. And although these ethical approaches have a long intellectual history that should actually be viewed as something positive, they still show great vitality and relevance today.

More generally, there are certainly versions of so-called postmodern thinking underway, ranging from crude versions of relativism to highly developed forms of neo-Kantian and neo-pragmatic epistemic constructivism, but again, they do not dominate. There are strong arguments in defense of both metaphysical realism and so-called “Aristotelian essentialism”. Furthermore, there is a deep realization that our thinking about metaphysics, epistemology, and indeed the sciences, must transcend many of the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that have shaped so much of modern philosophical thought. In other words, there is a growing realization that there needs to be a truly postmodern approach to our comprehensive thinking. We’re talking very broadly here, but only to briefly illustrate what we’re seeing: For example, a truly postmodern approach can find common ground between seemingly different thinkers like Wittgenstein and Aquinas – by rejecting certain Cartesian epistemological beginnings points (we discuss this in Chapter 7 by The Realist Turn). The departure from the metaphysical and epistemological limitations of modern philosophy is well on the way.

Our point here is simply that the philosophical scene is not as bleak and monolithic as it is often said. We would insist that instead of wringing our hands, because we have not solved many of the great philosophical problems, we would “conclude” that we cannot find answers, as those who oppose forays can do express in comprehensive teachings, or instead of assuming that it is us, flood into an ideological sea that is an acid that will destroy any claim to knowledge of the world. We simply take on the job of developing accounts of human nature and well-being that can support an ethical and political philosophy. The hope here is that such an endeavor could lay a foundation for both moral and political freedom. This task in itself will not create a philosophical unity, but if we consider it our task, this might just be enough.

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