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Rawls and contemporary liberal (or is it progressive?) politics

Linda Hirshman and Jacob T. Levy have been going back and forth at this TNR blog about the role of John Rawls and of "theory" in general in contemporary politics and in politics in general. I’m generally sympathetic to Hirshman’s position, i.e., that ideas matter, especially to elites in politics, though I also agree with Levy’s--in some respects, anti-Rawlsian--caveat, which is that social and cultural conditions aren’t simply susceptible to our Promethean refashioning.

What I found unhealthy about Rawls’s position--a position that probably had more influence in law schools and hence with law professors and hence with judges--is its presumption that, ultimately, our "natures" (both in general and as expressed in our particular cases) don’t matter. The only constraints to which we should pay attention that those that come from our rationality and reasonableness. I regard this as a kind of hyper-Kantianism, which paves the way for a kind of liberal idealism that morphs into "progressivism." Levy says he wants no part of this, and I think that’s a good instinct, for what it requires is a confidence that we can, in effect, be causes of nature as a whole, that we can entirely master our circumstances. This, as I’ve argued before, is at the core of much of contemporary liberalism (or should we call it by its new name?). It’s also connected with what all too often passes for a certain kind of liberal electoral strategery, as if all that’s required is the correct language or frames.

When I welcome the return of thoughtful liberals to "the great conversation," what I mean is a return to talk about nature, human nature, and the imperatives and constraints connected with them.

Discussions - 9 Comments

Rawls may have been thoughtful, mild-mannered, and intellectually rigorous, but his philosophy was an extreme one at odds (to put it mildly) with civilization and human individuality. The extremity of his "Theory of Justice" is mind-boggling. He revisited this in "Political Liberalism," but I have to think his overall impact was pernicious.

I must have hit college in the height of Rawlsmania because we read him both in philosophy and law school, and I while I didn't always understand him, I was still suspicious. He was being used to advance..some agenda or other. And I've got a theory that It All Comes Down to Abortion; the Rawlsians, sensing the problem, wanted to exclude it from the public conversation as a "religious" hence private issue.

But, speaking purely physically of his "original position," what would a fetus choose?

Actually, it all comes down to a mania for equality.

Equality for all means we all get the same poor sh@$!

Carol, a devastating question, and at least in retrospect, a plausible theory. And it goes without saying that the academic and popular reception of/use of Rawls is more important than Rawls himself.

But academics are funny creatures, and I would just say that another thing that I suspect made Rawls so enticing was the way his theory simultaneously adhered to the rigorous style of analytic philosophy, with all its hidden arrogance, while also providing unexpected ways for such philosophy to be morally relevant, somehow getting echoes of the golden rule and the year of jubilee into those drab logic equations.

But like you, I speak from a substantial ignorance about Rawls--I've read more pages of Rawls-critiques/summaries than of Rawls himself, as his overall presentation just wears me out. The boredom and tedium factor just outweighs all promise of rewarding insights.

That's why I should shut up on this, but it's also why Rawls' books will not last.

And thanks for this Joe. It will be interesting and perhaps even signficant to see what she comes up with in her forthcoming work--I'd much rather read her and her model Galston than Rawls. Levy's nitpicks about her causality relation b/t pol phil and elections are obviously merited, but hers remains the more significant argument. A taste: "It's not that Rawls caused the philosophical failure of the liberal political party, it's that his dominant way of thinking drowned out most other potential liberal philosophies and did not nourish effective political liberalism (too thin)." She also says Rawlsian liberalism ceded moral language to conservatives.

Rawls' work is an utter bore to read and it abstracts excessively from real human life. This will greatly limit its influence in the future. Probably already has.

When somebody finds something an utter bore to read, there is usually little to be said.

Nevertheless. . .

Many people find Rawls boring because they aren't familiar with the analytic landscape (in both philosophy and economics) that interested him and that he enriched. Even as Rawls encountered it, it was not chopped liver. (That lawyers found Rawls appealing came from the fact that they had already discovered the relevant branches of economics and were therefore especially vulnerable.)

That landscape, for better or worse, was Rawls' point of departure. He wanted to see if there was an alternative to utilitarianism with plausible moral content. Most people interested in political philosophy are not interested in contemporary decision theory, and vice-versa. Rawls was interested in both, and he tried to find pathways between them.

Joe's "hyper-Kantianism" is a fair observation, one that Rawls was himself well aware of and that he tried to respond to.

Well put Steve Thomas. It is the tower of babble effect...specialists speak different languages.

The philosophical premises or starting points always dictate the end, but human nature contains biases towards ends that return to affect deliberation over the premises. But if Descartes+Kant couldn't help cheating, then no one could. The problem of Philosophical foresight.

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