June 11, 2008


Reconsiderations: John Rawls and Our Plural Nation (MARTHA NUSSBAUM, June 11, 2008, NY Sun)

Rawls was already famous for "A Theory of Justice" (1971), one of the philosophical classics of the 20th century, which set out basic principles for a just society. Such a society, he argued, would commit itself to the greatest possible liberty that is compatible with a like liberty for all, and would also permit economic inequality only when that raised the level of the least well-off. Rawls never withdrew or in any major way altered the principles for which he had argued in that work. He also continued to endorse its most innovative philosophical device, the "Original Position," according to which political principles are imagined as selected by rational agents who are deprived of all information about their place in society (wealth, class, race, gender, religion, etc.) that would bias the design of principles in favor of their own situation. Rawls remained unswervingly committed to impartiality and equal respect as core political values, and to the selection procedure based upon these values.

In light of the growing religious presence in American public life, however, Rawls felt the need to augment and revise his great work, attempting to show people with deep religious convictions that they had good reason to accept principles that guaranteed liberty and fairness to all. The fruits of Rawls's decade of reflection on this problem became "Political Liberalism," a book less famous today than "A Theory of Justice," but even more urgently relevant for our own time, as we struggle, once again, with problems of religious solidarity and equal respect.

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?"

The confusions there are myriad, but all delicious. In the first instance, it's important to note how spectacularly Rawls and company whiffed on the central political question of humankind, coming down on the French side, requiring equality of results, instead of the Anglo-American, requiring equality of opportunity. Continental Europe, which exemplifies their approach, is sliding into oblivion, while America isn't just stable but thriving.

Second, Europe's problem isn't just the statism that redistribution necessitates but precisely the secularism and multiculturalism that such statism intentionally brings with it. If it was once possible to argue that egalitie was at least well-intentioned, to advocate it today, when its failure is so spectacularly obvious that even France is finally ditching it, is tantamount to encouraging suicide. Sadly for Rawlsians, the religious seem an especially unlikely group to buy a sales pitch for cultural suicide.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2008 7:50 AM

While half of a class in college (1979) read Rawls, the other half of the class read Nozick. I shudder to think how I would have turned out had I drawn the short straw, and not had the option of going with "Anarchy, State, Utopia".

Posted by: DMac at June 11, 2008 4:14 PM