Rawls round-up

by Micah on January 5, 2004

There’s been no shortage of Rawls talk in the blogosphere over the last week or so.

Warning: lots of Rawls-related (but otherwise un-related?) stuff to follow.

(i) Larry Solum’s Legal Theory Lexicon discusses the Rule of Law and offers a schematic Rawlsian view of it. (Solum has done students of legal and political philosophy a great service by posting an index to his Legal Theory Lexicon entries here.)

(ii) Will Wilkinson and Matt Yglesias seem to agree that Rawls didn’t really save us from the death of political philosophy at the hands of positivism because he didn’t resolve any of the foundational, or metaethical, concerns that bothered positivists in the first place. This line from Wilkinson’s post struck me as rather strange:

And Rawls is not concerned with the veracity of the elements of moral conceptions. He is simply concerned to tease out the structure of various moral conceptions—that’s the work of “moral theory” as opposed to a comprehensive moral philosophy—and to analyze various formal properties of moral conceptions once their implicit logic is refined through a process of reflective equilabration. (italics added)

It’s the “simply” that really gets me. Even if Wilkinson’s right that this is all Rawls was doing—that is, even if his only purpose was to lay out two moral conceptions (i.e., utilitarianism and justice as fairness)—he would have succeeded in reviving political philosophy. The systematic articulation of justice as fairness alone would have been sufficient for that purpose. Of course, systematic description of moral conceptions was not Rawls’s only purpose. The point of doing systematic work in moral theory is to provide the proper materials for comparing and choosing a superior theory. And A Theory of Justice is loaded with arguments recommending one conception over another.

(This reminds me of an amusing line from the introduction of Brian Barry’s book on TJ:

In the final paragraph [of TJ] (on page 587) we find Rawls still firing arguments at us in a last attempt to remove any lingering doubts we may still be harbouring. ‘Finally, we we may remind ourselves that the hypothetical nature of the original position invites the question: why should we take any interest in it, moral or otherwise? Recall the answer . . .’ and then bang, bang, bang for the last time.)

It’s hard to recognize Rawls’ constructive (and critical) ambitions in Wilkinson’s “post positivist” description of him. The argument seems to be that you can’t really be doing substantive moral or political philosophy unless you have an objective (read: correspondence theory) of moral truth to support it. Now, Rawls was explicit about his view that moral and political philosophy should proceed independently of a true account of right and wrong. He thought if we waited for someone to prove an objective theory of moral truth, we’d be waiting a really long time. Better to get on with the business of working out our moral views with the only materials presently available to us—our most confident and settled moral beliefs and our ability to work out their implications more systematically, even if that means radically revising our moral and political views. But I don’t see why this method of doing political philosophy is somehow less “substantive” than the (unstated?) methods Wilkinson and Yglesias seem to prefer. Maybe it would help to know more about what they mean by “substance” in this context, and why they think it’s important.

(iii) Stemming from discussion about the opening of this faith-based prison, there’s been an intra-blog debate of sorts about the merits of public reason over at Punishment Theory, with Kyron Huigens roughly pro and Rick Garnett against, and with Solum weighing in here. In what I think might be the most interesting contribution to this discussion, John Gardner comments (scroll down) that:

The principle of public justification central to the liberal tradition is the principle that government should not rely on reasons that it cannot or will not make public . . . If governments should not rely on reasons of respect for God, that is only because there are no such reasons. For governments, like the rest of us, should only rely on reasons that actually exist. The liberal tradition is a humanist tradition according to which there is no God and there therefore cannot be reasons for respecting Him. Anyone who acts out of a respect for God acts not for a (real) reason but only for what they mistakenly take to be a reason.

Gardner’s view is only sustainable if you date the “liberal tradition” roughly from Bentham (“On Publicity”) and J.S. Mill forward to . . . Raz? Maybe this is Bright Liberalism? But it sure isn’t the liberalism that starts with seventeenth-century lessons about religious toleration—the liberalism that still thinks it’s worth reading Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. That liberalism, the one that inspires Rawls’ project, starts with the basic idea that governments should not only make their reasons public, but that those reasons should be acceptable to those governed by them. Arguably, the conception of public justification most central to the liberal tradition is one that requires governments to rely only on reasons that are, in principle, acceptable to their citizens. Of course, there’s a world of trouble lurking in the phrase “in principle,” but the fact that it’s troublesome doesn’t make the contractarian conception of public justification any less central to the liberal tradition.

I think a liberal conception of public justification has two aspects. First, political justifications should be made (actually) public, except where there is sufficient reason to keep certain classes of decisions secret; and, second, they should be public in the sense of being publicly acceptable. Gardner might disagree with the second part of this conception of public justification, but it is recognizably liberal and draws on a tradition of political thought going back at least as far as Locke. (Jeremy Waldron wasn’t just making it up in his essay on the “Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism,” where he argues that the fundamental liberal thesis is that political legitimacy is “rooted” in the consent of the governed. In what sense it is “rooted” is part of the trouble. But that really isn’t the point here.) It’s one thing to disagree with this contractarian (and possibly religious) strain of liberal thought, quite another to read it out of the tradition altogether.



Rv. Agnos 01.05.04 at 8:34 pm

If I promise that I have successfully reached full reflective equilibrium, am I excused from reading all of the links?


Chris Bertram 01.05.04 at 8:52 pm

So far as I can understand them, Wilkinson and Yglesias seem to be asserting (somewhat dogmatically) that one can’t just put the metaethical questions to one side and just get on with doing moral or political philosophy in a systematic fashion. But the burden of proof is surely on them here, rather than on Rawls.

I’m also inclined to agree with you Micah that it is not part of the liberal tradition that God does not exist. Given reasonable disagreements on that question, and the fact that the public power belongs to all citizens, governments should refrain from action on either the presupposition that God does or does not exist (but here we’re straight into the kind of political liberalism that Gardner is rejecting).


PG 01.06.04 at 12:45 am

The nice thing about Rawls’s ideas is that once you’ve halfway digested them, they can be used in absurd contexts that he probably never envisioned.


Lwandile Sisilana 01.06.04 at 6:52 am

Not a Rawlsian myself, but a good post Micah!



Will Wilkinson 01.07.04 at 6:53 am

Micah, Yeah, it all does depend on what substantive is supposed to mean. I take it that it means something like the opposite of ‘formal’. And in this sense Rawls is plenty substantive, so maybe I picked the wrong word. I often confuse substantive with something like concern for the truth and justification of our beliefs, rather than exploration of what we happen to think, right or wrong. But that’s not really what it means. But ‘deflationary’ is right. Or ‘pragmatic.’

Principles of justice are justified in the relevant sense not because their terms refer, or whether we are warranted in believing them according to some epistemologist’s standard, or because the conception of the person underlying them is true. They are justified because they WORK, in the sense that they fulfill the role of principles of justice: to facilitate a well-ordered (stably self-reinforcing) system of fair cooperation over time. And this is the role they must fulfill because that is the role implied in our various conceptions of a good or just society. (If another role happened to be implied by our conceptions, then the principles would have to fulfill that instead.)

I think you’re missing the point if you think Rawls sees his method as the right one _in lieu_ of some distant theory of objective moral truth. His point, as I read him, is that a theory of objective moral truth just doesn’t matter, even if one is available, unless everyone believes it. People are guided by their conceptions, true of false, and the patterns of individual activity that constitutes social order (or don’t), is a function of these. You seem to be thinking that there is something creditably justifactory about working our conceptions out more systematically just by itself. But the only point of working out our conceptions more systematically is to help define principles that that will seem to us as authoritative due to their connection with what we already believe and are disposed to endorse. The point of this process is that it NOT require us to *radically* revise our moral and political views. The argument against utilitarianism, in a nutshell, is that we don’t believe it, so we won’t reliably comply with its principles, and so it can’t define a well-ordered society. (And we can’t be made to believe in it except by coercive or otherwise illiberal means.) Almost the whole of Rawls is dominated by coming up with a way to define ideals that depart adequately from the status quo to count as ideals while remaining rooted firmly enough in our actual beliefs and behavioral dispositions to make a society based on them genuinely feasible, i.e., non-utopian.

My intention was to say that folks have not sufficiently grasped the radically pragmatist character of Rawls’s enterprise, and the foundational reliance of that enterprise on the contingent content of our moral conceptions, or the contingent constitution of our sense of justice. I don’t say any of this as an argument against Rawls, or an argument for replacing his concerns with heavy-going metaethics. Indeed, it is a huge merit of Rawls that he was deeply concerned to make political philosophy relevant by structuring his entire theory with problems of compliance firmly in mind.

I don’t believe any theorist has grappled with these issues with anything close to the seriousness and sophistication of Rawls. My beef is not at so much with Rawls (except insofar as his very contractarian concerns with compliance and stability get swamped by his touching commitment to Kantian ideals), but the lack of attention to the really deep problem he was trying to solve.


Will Wilkinson 01.07.04 at 7:02 am

Oh, here’s another way to put what I was getting at: you shouldn’t assume I think ‘deflationary post-positivist’ is pejorative.

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