The Magazine

The Academic Liberal

John Rawls, 1921-2002.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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JOHN RAWLS, who died on November 24 at age eighty-one, was the towering figure of academic liberalism. A gentle, dignified, self-effacing man, he taught philosophy at Harvard for more than thirty years and exerted a commanding influence on his profession, single-handedly shifting its dominant picture of itself and the world.

Before Rawls, professors of philosophy, when they addressed questions about politics at all, restricted their analysis to the use of words and their logical relations. But with his 1971 masterwork, "A Theory of Justice"--remarkably, his first book, which he labored on for more than twenty years and did not publish until age fifty--Rawls inaugurated a new era. From intuitions that he held to be all but self-evident, he sought to provide a rigorous deduction of the fundamentals of a well-ordered state. By virtue of its protection of certain basic individual rights combined with its redistribution of wealth to achieve a substantially more egalitarian society, the well-ordered state constructed by Rawls turns out to be the progressive, liberal, welfare state.

The influence of Rawls's work has been massive. One quickly saw professors doing nothing but elaborating or applying ideas from Rawls's theory. And those who did not occupy themselves with criticizing Rawls--those who attempted anything in political philosophy not defined by the Rawlsian project--were thought not to be practicing political philosophy at all. Rawls is rightly praised for his vital contribution in restoring exploration of the moral foundations of liberalism to a place of honor among professional philosophers. But the anti-intellectualism and illiberalism nourished by his thought--which equates liberalism with Rawlsian liberalism, and Rawlsian liberalism with political philosophy itself--is also a major part of Rawls's legacy.

The mixture of humility and hubris that animates the Rawlsian project can be seen from the start, in the guiding aspirations of "A Theory of Justice." Rawls's avowed aim was large but limited. Beginning from purportedly austere assumptions about morality and human nature, he set out to identify the principles of justice under which it would be reasonable for people to choose to live. In contrast to liberalism's utilitarian strand, which he took as his great adversary because it allowed for the sacrifice of individuals in the name of maximizing the public good, Rawls argued that reasonable choices were limited because "each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override." But far from sanctifying the status quo, the inviolability of certain basic rights required, in Rawls's view, that reasonable people choose that government should regulate social and economic life energetically to improve the lives of the least well-off.

Rawls illustrated the reasoning by which one could arrive at this progressive and interventionist liberalism with a philosophical construct he called the "original position." Imagine a condition in which you were stripped of all morally irrelevant information about yourself. For Rawls, this included knowledge of your attachments and associations, your memories, your awareness of your particular passions, talents, and virtues and vices. All this, in Rawls's view, was "arbitrary from a moral point of view." Imagine, in short, that you had been rendered ignorant of everything that made you a unique human being. What you would be left with is the knowledge of what you shared with other human beings: the formal capacity for choice and a rudimentary sense of justice.

Now, having imagined yourself in such a position, ask yourself this question: Under what basic rules would you choose to live? Assuming that anyone in this position will be risk averse--an empirical proposition that Rawls, somewhat arbitrarily, imports into the original position and treats as universal--you would reasonably choose two principles of justice, Rawls argues. First, you would embrace "an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others." Second, you would require the arrangement of inequalities in society so that they are "to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and attached to positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity."

The enduring truth in Rawls's account of justice is that the guarantee of rights in a liberal democracy is necessarily related to the social and economic conditions under which those rights can be exercised effectively. What remains eminently disputable after Rawls--not only from the point of view of morality but also from that of liberalism and democracy--is the extent of government's capacity and obligation to provide for the social and economic bases of equality.