The Magazine

The Academic Liberal

John Rawls, 1921-2002.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Despite its avowedly limited aims, Rawls's theory was in fact exceedingly ambitious. His supposedly austere assumptions were not really austere at all. The inviolability of individuals was not, as his argument sometimes suggested, a deduction from non-moral premises but rather a grand moral judgment masquerading as a deduction. He demanded the primacy of individual choice in his theory and the assumption that on all morally relevant choices all individuals must reason and choose in exactly the same way. But these are not really conclusions yielded by the original position but foundation stones out of which it was constructed.

The corollary moral and metaphysical idea--that our vices, like our virtues and accomplishments, are "arbitrary from a moral point of view"--flies in the face of common sense and is anything but axiomatic for moral and political life (though Rawls wielded it at crucial junctures in his argument and came close to presenting it as a truth of reason). So, too, Rawls's contention that human beings are basically risk averse, and would choose to live under rules of justice that would ensure generous government guaranteed minimums for them in case they found themselves in the worst off position in society, was more than debatable as a universal proposition about human psychology. And perhaps most fateful for the intellectual vitality of professional philosophy, Rawls dressed up a partisan interpretation of liberalism--that the state had a moral obligation to intervene aggressively in society and the economy so as to promote a more egalitarian distribution of basic goods and life opportunities--as if it were a universal, necessary, and objective moral law.

RAWLS WAS NOT WITHOUT HIS CRITICS, but the criticism of his theory that had the biggest impact by far on his thinking was a version of communitarian criticism. Perhaps not coincidentally, this version of communitarian criticism was essentially another form of progressive liberalism, which in no way challenged the far-reaching redistributivist implications of "A Theory of Justice." Nor did it take exception to the implicit Rawlsian claim that the primary task for political philosophy was to justify a left-liberal interpretation of American democracy. Rather, it reaffirmed (in the idiom of analytic moral philosophy that it shared with Rawls) a point at home in the liberal tradition though obscured in Rawls's work: Human beings do not exist in isolation; rather, we are in part constituted by the associations--friendships, family, neighborhoods, clubs and committees, nation, and religion--of which we are a part. And although we often do not freely choose these associations, membership in them is an important good that the state must respect in the process of respecting us as individuals.

Twenty years after "A Theory of Justice," Rawls published a major revision of his views that appeared to be, in significant measure, a response to his liberal communitarian critics. In 1993, with "Political Liberalism," he sought to provide a defense of a redistributivist liberalism that was "political, not metaphysical," that is, that did not purport to be derived from first principles but which rather gave reasonable political expression to widely shared values. And in one sense his aim was on target. In the United States, the commitment to equality in freedom runs deep, and any serious exploration of American liberalism must begin from its grip on our hearts and minds.

Yet Rawls was no more interested in "Political Liberalism" in the choices and policy preferences of actual people than he had been in "A Theory of Justice." His theme remained what people would choose if they reasoned properly, and so he continued to focus exclusively on general ideas and what he took to be their political implications and not on the actual wants, needs, and desires of his fellow citizens. Moreover, despite the variety of competing conservative and progressive interpretations of liberal democracy, Rawls once again in "Political Liberalism" gave to a particular partisan interpretation of American liberalism the color of universality, objectivity, and necessity.

This certainly had consequences inside the academy. As the Rawlsians rose to positions of power and prominence in the university world, they created an environment in which to disagree with them about what the principles of justice required in regard to abortion, affirmative action, welfare reform, or any number of other divisive questions of public policy was, in their eyes, to place oneself beyond the boundaries of reasonable discourse. For many who see themselves as carrying forward Rawls's project, the philosophically valid and the politically correct have become increasingly difficult to distinguish.