Reconsidering Rawls and Pluralism

Martha Nussbaum in the NY Sun:

Rawls’s “Political Liberalism” asks an urgent question: Can liberal constitutional democracy, built on values of mutual respect and reciprocity, be stable, or even survive, in a world of religious and secular pluralism? Or, to use his words, “[H]ow is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?”

Rawls puts the question in this way — “how is it possible” — because he is not convinced that such a thing is possible. Indeed, the introduction he added to the paperback edition of 1996 expresses real anguish on that score. The events of the twentieth century, he says there, raise real doubts about the fate of justice in this world. But if the question cannot be answered in the affirmative, and people are largely amoral and self-centered, then “one might ask with Kant whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth.” We must therefore, he says, begin “with the assumption that a reasonably just political society is possible,” and with the related assumption that human beings have enough of a moral nature that they can be moved by considerations of fairness and respect. Beginning from such assumptions, he sets out to produce a plausible blueprint for an affirmative answer to the question of political stability.

The central political principles of “A Theory of Justice” remain constant in “Political Liberalism,” but the problem of stability gives them a new shape.