The Magazine

The Academic Liberal

John Rawls, 1921-2002.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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IN HIS LAST MAJOR CONTRIBUTION, "The Law of Peoples," which appeared in 1999, several years after his retirement, Rawls extended his reasoning about justice to international relations. When it comes to foreign affairs, it turns out that Rawlsian philosophy remains reliably left-liberal, suggesting that reason itself entails a progressive, interventionist, international human-rights agenda. Thus Rawls's style of thinking provides support for the increasingly self-righteous view among Europeans (and a sizeable number of international human-rights lawyers in the United States) that elite bureaucrats can, on the basis of study and reflection and conversation among themselves, bring about peace among nations by laying down universal rules for the world to follow.

While Rawls's writings seem to give theoretical expression to an increasingly popular and worrisomely undemocratic way of thinking about politics, those who have chosen to follow in his footsteps and practice political philosophy in his manner have paradoxically revealed themselves to lack, to a stunning degree, political relevance. On the great issues in recent years--the impeachment of President Clinton, the election 2000 controversy and Bush v. Gore, the ethics of cloning, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, the showdown with Iraq--hardly anyone speaking from the Rawlsian paradigm has had anything to say for public consumption that was influential or illuminating.

One of the reasons for this is the obscure and leaden technical language for analyzing politics that Rawls helped establish. Another reason is the drastic limitations on the subject matter of political philosophy imposed under his reign. Although Rawls did not elaborate formal strictures concerning the proper domain of political philosophy, his single-minded focus for a half century on the question of the logic of formal liberal principles of justice contributed to the legitimation of an indifference to, if not disdain for, a variety of topics also critical to the understanding of liberal democracy: virtue and vice, constitutional culture and constitutional design, religion, and war.

When no one else in his profession seemed to be giving it much thought, John Rawls restored rigor and respectability to thinking about liberalism. His books, the work of a lifetime of patient and devoted labor, are very likely to constitute a permanent contribution to the liberal tradition. But part of the task of properly conserving his achievement consists in confronting and taking the measure of the weighty ambiguities of his legacy.

The liberal in John Rawls would have it no other way.

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.