John Rawls, Philosopher

by Tim Sommers

John Rawls, the author of “A Theory of Justice” and “Political Liberalism”, was the most important political philosopher of the twentieth-century – and the most influential. His theory of justice, “justice as fairness”, and, much later, his theory of political legitimacy via the free use of “public reason”, transformed philosophy and provided the most systematic, comprehensive normative political theory since Utilitarianism more than a century earlier. He was (and is) widely read by lawyers, economists, and public policy makers.  He was on Vaclav Havel’s bookshelf during the Velvet Revolution. His theory of civil disobedience, not Thoreau’s or Gandhi’s, “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” describes as “the most widely accepted”. He was the foremost liberal egalitarian – arguing that while we all have certain rights, freedoms, and liberties that the state cannot violate, in a just society the least well-off members should be as well-off as possible – even while, outside of the academy, liberal politics splintered into right neoliberalism and left identity-politics. He trained two generations of moral philosophers who went on to dominate the field. To this day, in any survey of the most important, or most cited philosophers of the twentieth-century, he is consistently in the top five – and is always the most highly-ranked moral philosopher.

I was lucky enough to be a student in the last class Rawls taught as a full professor in 1991 and to be in touch on-and-off for a few years after. Many, many people knew him much better than I did. And nothing I say about his views relies solely on any private conversations I had with him. But, like so many people his life touched, I was deeply affected not only his intellect, but his dignity, his warmth, his generosity, and his humility. So, full disclosure, I don’t pretend to be objective on the subject of Rawls.

When I left academic philosophy in the mid-1990s Rawls was still the dominant voice. Even if you disagreed with Rawls, you began by arguing with him. When I returned to academic philosophy a couple of years ago, his influenced had waned enough that when I did an index search for his name in the abstracts of papers presented at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Society it returned 0 hits. I believe this decline in influence will be temporary. But, in the meantime, a new genre of books about Rawls seems to be emerging, a second-wave, grappling, not with the technical, philosophical details of Rawls theory, but the biographical, political, and historical John Rawls

Andrius Gališanka published an intellectual biography on Rawls, “The Path to a Theory of Justice”, a few years ago, doing something Rawls would have hated: studying his biography and letters to guess what parts of his life various bits of his theory came from. In 2017, William Edmundson published a thoughtful, careful book arguing that Rawls was, or should have been, a socialist. “John Rawls: Reticent Socialist”, he called it, and it certainly is true that Rawls was reticent about pretty much everything; and that he had himself acknowledged that capitalism, at least as currently practiced, is not compatible with his theory, but that one system that it probably is compatible with it is “market socialism”. But, again, I think, Edmundson was doing something Rawls would not have approved of: approaching real-world politics with a ready-made theoretical solution supplied by philosophy.

Rawls almost always avoided politics. His only published work that takes a specific stance on a political issue was an article in “Dissent” arguing, on the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII, that we were morally wrong to have done so. (Rawls was not a bystander, by the way, he had fought in the Pacific.) He normally refused even to be interviewed. In one case, an Esquire cover story on Rawls and Nozick, he refused to be interviewed or photographed. (Nozick’s head-shot takes up a full page.) Much later when he did give an interview to the students at the Harvard Review of Philosophy, he said that giving any kind of comment on specific political issues gives people the wrong idea about philosophy.

The book that worries me the most, however, is one I haven’t read yet. Katrina Forrester’s “In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking Philosophy” isn’t due out until September 24, but I cringed at her recent claims that after the war Rawls’ came along and “showed that philosophy…could…dream big” and that “the most influential political philosopher of the late twentieth century isn’t always who we think he is”. One thing I feel pretty confident about is that at no point would Rawls have described anything he was doing as having anything to do with “dreaming big”. In excerpts and public statements, Forrester does raise a substantive issue about Rawls view worth canvassing. She says that Rawls ”emphasizes that government should leave people alone…except insofar as it has to provide the minimum necessary for them to have a fair chance in life” and that, therefore, Rawls subscribed to the “umpire” metaphor of the government that was prevalent at the time. Partly for this reason, she doubts that Rawls would have had anything valuable to say about neoliberalism and other issues facing us today.

I think she’s wrong. But I won’t say why until next month’s column. Here I want to take a moment to just make one point. Rawls was a philosopher. Above and before all else, he wrote philosophy. Politics is a different subject. For better or worse Rawls made almost a motto out of amending James Freeman Clarke’s remark that, “A politician … is a man who thinks of the next election; while the statesman thinks of the next generation” by adding that a philosopher thinks about the next 100 years. This may seem arrogant or disengaged, but, as political philosopher David Estlund put it shortly after Rawls’ death, “This remote or reticent approach to political philosophy can easily look like a symptoms of Rawls’s legendary personal humility.” But “At other times, in its hope of philosophy’s making any difference at all, it looks positively audacious.”

So, even though parts of Rawls theory are widely-known, and even though one of the great strengths of his view was how it hung together as a whole and managed to cover so much, I think I need to say something about the content of his view. Inevitably, I will over-simplify.

Let’s start with this. The primary subject of justice for Rawls was the basic structure of society. He believed that justice was “the first virtue of institutions, as truth is to systems of statements”. His animating question, then, was what principles should organize our basic social, political, and economic institutions. His answered with three principles (though he preferred to say two principles with the second one having two parts):

1.) Everyone is entitled to certain rights, liberties, or freedoms including “freedom of thought and liberty of conscience; the political liberties and freedoms of association as well as the freedoms specified by the liberty and integrity of the person, and, finally, the rights and liberties covered by the rule of law”.

Far from being new, of course, the idea that the first principle of justice is the protection of certain basic rights is definitive of liberalism. But originality in ethics is no virtue. As Kant said, “Who would even want to introduce a new principle of all morality and, as it were, first invent it?”

2.) Everyone is entitled to fair equality of opportunity.

That is, everyone is entitled not only to not be discriminated against on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, nor other irrelevant and pernicious categories; but everyone is owed the education, health-care, and limits on inequality that undermine our actual fair chances. Equal opportunity is a familiar enough liberal principle, though the conditions Rawls added to make that opportunity “fair” are more controversial. But here comes the real controversy.

3.) The third principle, what Rawls called the “difference principle”, says that income and wealth is ideally to be distributed so that the least well-off people in society are as well-off as possible.

How did Rawls arrive at this egalitarian liberalism? He argued that if people were situated in, what he called, an “original position” and asked to chose principles of justice, then, in order to make that choice fair, they would have to be behind a “veil of ignorance” such that they were unaware of their gender, race, religion, moral beliefs, social class, background and more. All they would really know is that there were certain “primary goods” that anyone would want to maximize their share of including basic rights, a wide choice of occupations, and income and wealth, among others.

In the original position, behind the veil of ignorance, he believed that people would choose the principles he advocated.

Why should we care about what purely hypothetical people in a completely ahistorical situation would choose? Rawls argued that the original position was not a thought experiment, but a device of representation. It allowed us a necessary distance from our own prejudices and, more importantly, modeled the proper conditions on our choice of principles that we already accept.

For example, saying you shouldn’t know your own race when selecting principles of justice rightly models our considered conviction that the fundamental principles of basic justice should not be affected by, or based on, race. If that’s true, then it doesn’t matter that no one has ever, or will ever, be in the original position. What matters is that we accept the constraints on our judgment that it models.

Rawls regarded his theory of justice as neither the final word on justice nor anything like the Platonic ideal of justice for all time and all places. His theory was, he hoped, the best theory possible for us, at this moment, in our society, at this point in history. He was particularly interested in finding the right compromise between liberty and equality in the continuing aftermath of the American and French Revolutions. And in answering a question that has been asked urgently since at least the Reformation, and is still asked, even more urgently, in our increasingly cosmopolitan world: How do people with fundamentally different beliefs – different religions, philosophies, and different ideas about the good life – compromise on principles to cooperate together to build a just and productive society?

How did Rawls change philosophy? First of all, when Rawls arrived on the scene almost no one doing English-Language philosophy did political or moral philosophy. Normative philosophy had been considered a peripheral matter by metaphysicists and epistemologists at least since Descartes. Descartes had argued that progress in ethics would have to wait until the foundational questions of philosophy had all been answered. In the meantime, he argued we were obligated to obey the church, the state, and conventional, traditional morality. (So, much for the philosopher as the person with the courage to question everything.) Flash forward to the early twentieth-century with most English-language philosophers focusing on science and language. The few that did write on ethics didn’t write on ethics. They wrote on metaethics. That is, they were largely concerned with how to interpret moral language – and most endorsed some kind of non-cognitivism or other where moral language expresses our subjective, emotional reactions or is an attempt to influence others. For example, A.J. Ayer’s emotivism is often referred to as the “hurrah/boo” theory of morality, since it suggests that saying something is good or right, as opposed to bad or wrong, is just a matter of saying “hurrah”, rather than, “boo” to it.

Analytic philosophy also tended towards ahistoricism. The refrain that was still persistent even when I first started studying philosophy in the 1980s was that we were supposed to be philosophers not historians.

Outside of philosophy in politics, economics, and the emerging disciplines of public policy, utilitarianism was king. “Scientific morality” seemed obvious (as it still does to Sam Harris and Sean Carrol today): we should always do whatever has the best consequences. All we need to do is figure out what the best consequences are. Human welfare or flourishing is good, of course, so, probably, morality is just maximizing that – let’s call it “utility” – and so the right thing to do is always just whatever maximizes overall utility.

Imagine the reaction when Rawls arrived on that scene. He avoided metaphysics and epistemology. Not only did he not expect that we could wait for the rest of philosophy to be “finished” before we started in on ethics, but also he thought that in a liberal, multi-cultural democracy, we had a political obligation to (at least to some extent) bracket not only our religious disagreements, but our philosophical ones as well. One of his later articles is called “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical”. But he didn’t focus, especially early on, on arguing about that. He did something much more radical. He simply presented tout coeur a new substantive, comprehensive theory of justice. And it was anti-utilitarian on top of that. “Justice denies that the loss of good by some is made right by a greater good shared by others. In a just society, the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled and not subject to political bargaining or the calculus of social interest.”

Rawls thought that progress in ethics depended on philosophers developing rich, comprehensive alternatives and comparing those over time – not by arguing about the foundations of ethics. Arguments about those foundations were not unimportant. They were just a different subject.

Rawls also transformed how we think about the history of philosophy. He drew a line from Hobbes to Sidgwick that connected a rich, continuous history of English-language moral and political thought that did not depend importantly on other philosophical topics. His own historical studies were only published posthumously, but he insisted that his students write only on important historical works and not on Rawls’ own theory or other contemporary works. Hume, Kant, and Mill had already stood the test of time, he argued, as for his own work, well, wait and see.

What I know right now about Forrester’s new book seems to suggest that she thinks that Rawls’ time may well have passed; specifically, for example, she says that Rawls has nothing to say about the rise of neoliberalism. In any case, she’s not alone in questioning the relevance of Rawls. Charles Mills thinks Rawls’ philosophy is ideological and, maybe, implicitly, racist. And many feminists think that he did not adequately address gender justice. So, next time, in partial violation of Rawls’ own stricture against commenting on specific political topics (by commenting on neoliberalism), I will try to unearth what “Rawls (or at least a Rawlsian) would say about Neoliberalism, Race, and Gender”.