Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

John Rawls and the Greening of Liberalism, Part 2

Linda Hirshman contends that the success of John Rawls’s philosophy has a lot to do with the failure of liberal politics. The portion of her argument she has shared with the public so far is neither complete nor compelling. Her primary complaint is that The Theory of Justice is bloodless: “Rawls’s political actors, such as they were, looked a lot like brains in vats – theoretical beings completely disconnected from real-world politics.”

Hirshman is no conservative, and certainly no Straussian, but her critique of Rawls resembles Allan Bloom’s. Rawls makes an argument for redistribution based on his “Original Position,” where humans design a society behind a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing whether they’ll be smart or dumb, beautiful or ugly, in the ethnic majority or minority, etc. Rawls argues that people would be utterly risk-averse in the Original Position, designing a society with extensive income redistribution to make sure the least-advantaged are always as well off as possible.

Bloom’s central problem with this framework is that Rawls doesn’t adequately explain why human beings should adhere to the arrangements they devised in the Original Position once the veil of ignorance has been removed. When the strong know they are strong, not weak, they may not regard the protection of the weak as the highest priority. All Rawls can offer to urge people to maintain the deal he imagines they would have made is, according to Bloom, “sermonizing.”

This is one of the stronger criticisms of John Rawls. The trouble for Hirshman’s position is that it’s difficult to see: 1) how the “brains in vats” quality of Rawls’s philosophy became an attribute of political liberalism generally because of the publication of A Theory of Justice; and 2) how, even if this quality did affect what liberals said and did after 1971, voters noticed or cared.

It is not difficult to identify a less abstract and more obviously unpopular aspect of Rawlsianism. A Theory of Justice is an unyielding argument for a strikingly unrugged individualism. Each person must have everything he thinks he needs to pursue his “life plan,” including self-esteem. The individual whose life plan consists of counting blades of grass deserves not only the wherewithal to do so, but the assurance that he’ll be treated with no less respect than a Harvard professor. As Bloom says, Rawls insists government must be laisser faire about the ends people pursue, but beaucoup faire about providing the means to pursue them.

Hirshman may or may not choose to take issue with this aspect of A Theory of Justice. She would have a hard time, again, arguing that Rawls talked liberals into a position they would not otherwise have taken. The sentiment that people had virtually unconditional welfare rights had pervaded liberalism long before Rawls had any disciples. The prominent sociologist, Christopher Jencks, offered this rebuttal to the “Moynihan Report” in 1965: “If [poor black families] are matriarchal by choice (i.e., if lower-class men, women, and children truly prefer a family consisting of a mother, children, and a series of transient males) then it is hardly the federal government’s proper business to try to alter this choice. Instead, the government ought to invent ways of providing such families with the same physical and psychic necessities of life available to other kinds of families.”

Discussions - 21 Comments

I always figured that man had a propensity to gamble. That he would therefore not be risk adverse in the "original position"...

In fact it is the propensity to gamble that in large part creates income discrepencies...those who trully gamble, from behind a veil of ignorance usually go broke...but not always...and vice versa with those who gamble with virtu, they usually come out ahead...but not always.

The optimal level of welfare is therefore not extensive, such that there is no cost involved in gambling poorly...but rather should only exist to aid those who gamble well but were unlucky.

You could I suppose justify some government programs on the grounds that not everyone starts out the tournament of life with a similar chip stack...but then the question is how do you finance this...and the answer is always that you take the inheritance of those whose parents gambled well...and perhaps an inheritance was motivation for gambling well...the motivation to make the right series of decisions, was so that you could pass on the torch.

Some start with so much others with so little...if this is your primary focus then you will agree with Rawls...but if you realise that no matter how much or how little you start with you are always even...then you agree with Mike Caro.

But Mike Caro is simply a poker theorist...and proffesional poker players have a hard enough time placing in the main event when the chip stacks start even...if proffesionals started with much smaller stacks they would have even more trouble. In a poker tournament sometimes decisions are good depending on stack size...and so in life...few decisions are good decisions money be dammed...but the goodness of any decision is contigent on many factors. If one could demonstrate that the ability to gamble well was severly impared by income inequality then one might be back to Rawls...or at least make headway into saying that government or someone should play an active role in helping the children of the downtrodden, so that a cycle of bad decisions might be broken. But at least in america there is no shortage of such people and programs to say nothing of scholarships and grants... and Mother Theresa will be remmembered with gratitude when that princess born to the silver spoon is long forgotten.

One of the problems with Rawls is that if we are speaking of quantifying things...it is not altogether unclear that the poor in america are not as well off as possible...that is to say: What if we have already reached the "optimum" level of public welfare?

Or to put it another way who is to say that we aren't allocating resources in such a fashion that the least among us is as well off as he could be without bringing down the system that assures that he maintains a decent state of wellness.

We have limited resources...and unlimited needs...a limited budget and all sorts of possible ways to spend it.

I want to know at what point we can insert a sort of Categorical imperative...We ought to act only by maxims which would harmonize ends that are attainable. We have perfect duty not to act by maxims that create incoherent or impossible states of natural affairs when we attempt to universalize them.(If you take Rawls too far you violate Kant) and we have imperfect duty not to act by maxims that lead to unstable or greatly undesirable states of affairs.(which microeconomics suggests might occur)

Therefore what is to say that the United States is not already optimizing Rawls moral requirements?

The connection between Rawls and what happened to liberalism (mostly meaning the Democratic Party) after 1971 is for me a non-starter. Implausible and uninteresting.

The liberalism of concern to Rawls was the modern liberal tradition: Rawls' "contractarian" approach was, he said, a way of recasting the thought experiments that began with Hobbes and Locke. That tradition therefore includes much of what comprises both American liberalism and American conservatism.

In Rawls' scheme, the Original Position does not yield a principle of "redistribution" and the so-called difference principle (the product of risk-aversion, as many critics have pointed out) is secondary to principles governing equal liberty.

The problem of "stability" once the veil of ignorance is, so to speak, lifted (the problem known to our forebears as the problem of perpetuation, or a cousin) occupies Rawls in the latter parts of the book. One may not be satisfied with his account (just as one may find his whole conception of theory distasteful), but it is there, and Bloom mistakes Rawls' theory for a lunatic act of statecraft.

As to whether Rawls just records current (1960s) ideology, I don't think so. This misrepresents what he calls "reflective equilibrium" and misses the degree to which modern liberalism contains a jumble of ill-fitting elements. Rawls wanted to see if they could be fit together in a coherent single view. He claims reflective equilibrium as his own method of reality check, once his imaginative apparatus is in place, but it is, you might say, the unrelenting self-consciousness of any (theoretical) decision maker.

Rawls' "brain in a vat" idea is best pursued in Michael Sandel's critique of Rawls, which is a fine critique of Kantianism generally.

It seems sort of silly to try and suggest that a particular philosopher's book had such an important practical outcome, especially in America, where we listen to our professors only to the degree necessary to get the good grade. But here's a striking fact: in spite of the fact that the vast, vast majority of people who write on questions of economic justice (or "distributive justice," if you like) are with Rawls or to his left, the political culture has moved to the right. Pretty interesting, I'd say...

I disagree that the political culture has moved to the right. I also disagree with the suggestion that moral philosophy is powerless. Moral philosophy affects the language we use to describe reality. I cannot argue that the political culture has moved to the right, unless the predominate moral language can be ascribed to the right...which it can't per se. What we have is the left(isothymia)dominating moral philosophy...but we have the right(also isothymic) who argues for less of it. The disagreement between Republicans and Democrats on Health care for example isn't should healthcare exist...but how much should we spend on it...how should it be set up. Differences of degree, not differences of kind.

The political culture is not moving to the right, it is simply making adjustments to reality.

It is a tempting mistake to dismiss or underestimate Rawls' influence. Of course he did not create late liberalism ex nihilo, and his direct influence on the average left-liberal voter may be insignificant. But it cannot be irrelevant that discussions of his work have been dominant in, or at least central to normative academic political theory for over thirty years. We may think we ignore our professors more than in Europe, say, but they still play a crucial role in the articulation and authorization of elite opinion. The patent and definite influence on legal intellectuals (via Ronald Dworkin and so many others)is only the clearest case.
Need I add that this influence has not been wholesome. At its heart, the main damage consists in liquidating any vestiges of substantive individual liberty under the cover of a theory that pretends to make "liberty" a first priority -- and may even think it does. But the "individual" him/herself is finally and absolutely a social construction in Rawls, and so, as Bloom saw clearly (despite some other blind spots), Society is massively, unanswerably sovereign in Rawls thinking. And in contemporary liberalism.

But the "individual" him/herself is finally and absolutely a social construction in Rawls, and so, as Bloom saw clearly (despite some other blind spots), Society is massively, unanswerably sovereign in Rawls' thinking. And in contemporary liberalism.

Ralph, could you spell out this interesting point. Do you mean more than Rawls' notion that the individual's personal attributes and talents are arbitrary (luck of the draw) and therefore in some sense carry social obligations with them? I admit this whiff of Calvinism has always had some appeal for me!

Does anyone know of any attempt to track/measure Rawls' influence in various academic fields - law, political theory, public policy?

Dear Steve, do you know that Ralph wrote his (splendid) dissertation on ... Calvin?

Hi Paul - No, I didn't know that. I don't know who Ralph is, but I look forward to more of this!

I will join in asking Ralph to carry on.

I'm impressed by the interest, but I'm not sure how to do much more without posting large sections of lectures notes. The key is simply that Rawls seems to give a certain priority to "the individual" and his liberty, but then the very constitution of the individual is given over to the collectivity. As Pierre Manent says of Locke: man is an "X" with rights -- but who gets to define the "X"? The only conceivable ground of an "individual's" self-affirmation -- some notion of what is good by nature for him -- is denied him at the outset. Anything the person might stand up for is held to be purely optional, at the mercy of a socio-political decision. The underlying logic is thus profoundly Hobbesian: all morality, indeed the whole orientation of human action by "reason" is determined in the closed of horizon of social necessity. This is the effectual truth of "the priority of the right to the good." Rawls is smart enough to see that human existence must be oriented towards some good (this is the part of the argument -- Part III, "Ends" -- that Bloom doesn't pay enough attention to), but he requires that we define the right first, without interference from the good, and then define the good in terms of the right. The right is in fact defined by the necessity of us all getting along, and the good is then defined as devotion to the regime of such "rights." A key premise is that our nature is plastic -- we can orient ourselves towards any good we like. So why not do the convenient thing and define the good as commitment to the regime of rights? And since there is no authoritative good, the rights themselves can only be defined w/reference to social convenience. "Reason" itself as the authoritative regulative principle for human existence and thus the very concept of the "self" is defined with reference to this social concept of "right." The last words of A Theory of Justice hold up this "form of thoguht ... within the world" as the translation of our deepest religious longing: "Purity of heart... would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view."

To response to Ralph's interesting remarks. . .

Samuel Adams, Anti-Federalist, said he stumbled on the threshold as he read the proposed Constitution: "We the people. . ." Ralph, too: that is, his opposition arises immediately from the "deontological" nature of Rawls undertaking -- the priority of the right over the good. This modern idea was perhaps meant to filter out dangerous "Great Politics": indeed, it may be said to filter out politics as such. (This is Harvey Mansfield's point about modern political science in his little ISI book; it could, I think, also be said of Kantian ethics. Rawls in effect wanted to make his theory attractive and intelligible to contemporary decision science.)

I therefore do not think Rawls can satisfy Ralph's demands for a plausible conception of the individual. Still, I think Rawls does a bit better than Ralph implies. The initial condition, so called (I think: I am away from home, without the book or my own notes), includes Hume's "circumstances of justice" and it includes the "Primary Goods" (those goods that an abstract Everyman will need in order to pursue his thicker ends, whatever they turn out to be).

This Comment is not up to the standard Ralph sets, but if I don't do this now it will be days, and the thread will be long gone.

Rawls calls his state of nature the Original Position, not the initial condition.

Steve is right, of course, that I've skipped over some essentials in my critique of Rawls. Rawls does admit certain elements of an idea of "human nature" that can plausibly be claimed to be universal. What these amount to is that we are material beings living under "moderate scarcity" who would rather have more resources than less. Fair enough. At various points he also admits, vaguely, that the parties to the original position are in possession of generally accepted "scientific" knowledge of human beings and their social & economic characteristics. But what cannot be defined or even glimpsed in advance is the meaning of our humanity. The privilege of defining the human difference falls to the theoretician of justice alone. How we interpret this difference for ourselves, how we understand what makes us human, turns out to be precisely our capacity to be "just" in Rawls' resolutely immanent sense -- and nothing but that. What makes human is that we can define and redefine our humanity in order to get along with others with a view to peace and prosperity in this world. Sound familiar?

Well, it is true that there is nothing transcendent in Rawls' theory, but I don't think it is fair to say that Rawls claims the privilege of "defining the human difference" or defining it completely. What the principles of justice require is that among a plurality of such fuller or "thicker" conceptions of the human good, none has priority; none can rightly claim to organize the regime to its satisfaction. Abiding by laws and institutions consistent with "justice as fairness" does not exhaust our humanity, but is the necessary but insufficient condition. I think Ralph's objections to Rawls are rightly directed at liberalism as such, including that of the American Founders. Or perhaps I have missed some implication behind the "sound familiar?"

Many people have observed a boundary problem in Rawls: what makes "one people" (as our Declaration says) a people separate from others when they define themselves in part in accordance with evidently universal principles? More than once on this blog we have gone round and round about American culture and (versus?) American principles. Principles of justice do not exhaust life as it is lived by particular peoples in this vale of tears.

Well then, Steve, we disagree. Rawls' apparently pluralistic "priority of right" in fact fills the vacuum of a theory of the good. This I think is the lesson of Part III of A Theory of Justice. (Whether or in what way this religion of socially constructed rights is maintained in the latter Rawls is a further question -- but I think the answer is yes, in a subtle and surreptitious way.) Reason requires a regulative principle (an authoritative interpretation of our humanity), and the Theory is supposed to supply this new content for a post-Christian "purity of heart." Of course Rawls doesn't hit you over the head with the fact that he is redefining The Good -- but that is what is happening.

By "socially constructed" rights I guess you mean rights that lack a transcendent source. OK, but that's not the usual use of the term: certainly Rawls' two principles are not constructed by any actual working society.

I don't know what you mean by a "religion" of socially constructed rights. Perhaps you are being sardonic.

Reason requires a regulative principle (an authoritative interpretation of our humanity). . . I wonder if you could spell this out. Do you mean something like the story Plato has Socrates tell in the Apology: something that is not-reason has to spark reason?

See the next to last section (III.86) of Theory of Justice. He aims to prove what Plato failed to prove in The Republic: that "to be guided by the standpoint of justice accords with the individual's good." He concludes that "the desire to express ournature as a free adn equal rational being can be fulfilled only by acting on the principles of right and justice as having first priority....Therefore in order ot realize our nature we have no alternative but to plan to preserve our sense of justice as governing our other aims."

And Rawls DOES intend his two principles to frame a morality that will be worked out, enforced, and become the settled, final ground of opinion in the society based on these principles. That is social construction, and I don't know of a better short description than to call it the secular "religion" of a new society. Except, as John Stuart Mill says of the potential of his own moral theory (in Utilitarianism), it can have a more final, unquestionable, airtight authority than any religion open to transcendence.

Yes, that's what Mill says: precisely becaus nature does not supply a sanction -- because there is no justice by nature -- we enlightened humans can make a sanction that surpasses in effectual power anything that traditional religions have been able to deploy. Rawls, despite his dry, academic, non-confrontational prose, has exactly the same kind of project.

Ralph - All well said. We disagree, no doubt, but not primarily about Rawls, I think.

The one main area of disagreement about Rawls may have to do with what it means to frame a morality that will be worked out, enforced, and become the settled, final ground of opinion in the society based on these principles. Justice as fairness is a framework admitting of many (though not all) conceptions of a good and fulfilling life. One can be a Thomist but not a Nazi. The principles would discourage one's development into a Nazi or a Leninist; the Federalist constitution aims to do the same. Moreover, I don't think Rawls' theory is hostile to transcendent ideas of the good, though it does not share them or depend upon them.

It is the very non-teleological ambition of A Theory of Justice, I think, that you quite ably reject.

No, I don't think the Federalist constitution is equivalent to Rawls theory in this regard. The former is a prudent political design, indeed intended to shape an opinion compatible with its institutions, but not, Like Rawls' Theory, a comprehensive "regulatory" principle of reason, not a fusion of theory and practice, not an attempt finally to settle the tension between the right and the good. I think you underestimate Rawls' (at least his original) ambition, his post-Protestant "purity of heart." The last part of A Theory of Justice is in effect about Justice as a comprehensive ground of reason, and therefore as a substitute for traditional religion. Rawls of course thinks this is moderate and reasonable, because he is sure nature and God give no guidance, and thus that professors like himself must assume the burden of clarifying our predicament.

I meant the remark about the American constitution as a narrower analogy than it perhaps came through as suggesting. Certainly not equivalence.

We simply disagree about the import of the last sections of the book. When I first read the "purity of heart" [to will one thing] line, I thought of Kierkegaard, but I did not infer what you did. Nor do I think you are right on either of two other matters -- that Rawls finds nature of no guidance, and that he meant "to assume the burden of our predicament." The first is contrary to the method (the Original Position and reflective equilibrium); or do you, like many others, believe the metaphysics cannot be escaped? The second is contrary to the transparency of the (contestable) argument, to say nothing of the character of the author.

Very good discussion between Ralph and Steve Thomas.

Sadly for my soul, Ralph makes me like Rawls...I think I might structure it differently but I love the idea of such a project. That was my conclusion from reading both Hume and Mill. Of course I am way more earthly and Machiavellian, so I have no soul to speak of. Speaking of Machiavelli I think Linda Hershman needs the perspective of the Prince to make her case. The Prince is really about lawgivers creating and redefining the good, or creating and manipulating the standards by which one is praised or blamed. If Rawls is the Lawgiver for modern liberalism and therefore for the Democrats, it would stand to reason that Hershman would be correct if Machiavelli is right. If Rawls's ethics can be described as deontological then certainly this should cause trouble for Democrats who are rulled by such principles...the ontological structure by which they are blamed or praised would not allow for sufficient adjustment to the realities of a consequentialist world(which is Machiavelli's world...and the world of those whose brains are not in vats...immersed in Plato's fotenotes...blogging on NoLeftTurns or DailyKos...or otherwise bogged down in Ivory Towers.)

In other words Democrats have failed because the ontological structure or law giver that they rely upon for the allocation of praise and blame is not sufficiently consequentialist.

Just as a Christian or Muslim bank might fail if it rejected lending for interest.

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