No American author over the previous fifty years has done greater harm to the study of political doctrine, to jurisprudence, or to the very foundations of our Constitutional regime than John Rawls. When some particulars of his theory are ably criticized by Professor Corey, the real problem goes much deeper, in the manner that Rawls conceives his task of”ethical theory” To put it simply, in disregard of the Constitutional arrangement that already exists in the USA, and its base from the thought of comprehensive liberal thinkers and statesmen like Locke, Montesquieu, and the American Founders, Rawls writes as though the very fact that people disagree about the orders of justicea phenomenon feature of political life beneath any non-despotic political program –would be still a problem to be”resolved” by getting everyone to agree on a”theory” chased by a single doctrine professor or the other. The fundamental issue with Rawls’s strategy, as critics like Benjamin Barber and Seyla Benhabib have observed, is that it attempts to do away with politics.
Unlike Corey, despite the bitter controversies that have roiled our politics over the last ten years, many Americans have never believed that”politics is war.” While their intentions may be not as violent, consider how far movements like Antifa and also the Proud Boys are from winning the kind of popular support that enabled the large-sale warfare waged over the streets of Weimar Germany–or people of Thucydides’ Corcyra.
Instead, long before Rawls developed his notion of”overlapping consensus,” nearly all Americans have held to a Constitutional consensus that enabled power to be moved peacefully from 1 party to another–a happening formerly unprecedented outside of 18th-century England. With the exception of 1860 (and perhaps of partisan extremists after the elections of 2016 and 2020), that the vast majority have confessed this, even if their favorite party loses an electionmeaning the coverages authorities pursues on everything from taxes to defense to regulation to offense into judicial appointments aren’t the ones they favored–they will continue to enjoy a sensible safety of life, liberty, and property, as a result of our Constitutional order.
This consensus has been recorded by writers ranging from Tocqueville–view that his discussion of”small” vs.”good” parties–to historians like Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin. If anything should happen to make our politics more warlike, it could be a text like a Theory of Justice which tells people that when their vision of justice or the great life is different from the author’s, their aspirations have”no value.” (Rawls uses that phrase into connote”conceptions of the good” that violate what he maintains are the very”wide limits” his principles impose on”the kind of persons that men want to be.” For example, people whose views of the great society entail setting legal limits to”religious and sexual practices” that look”black or degrading” would mechanically have their views ruled out of the governmental arena. Surely, judicial rulings that examine policies like gay marriage and transgender rights to our Constitution and laws, after Rawls’s strategy of dismissing that the electoral , have tended to spark popular passions into an unhealthy level, generating what is widely called a”culture war.”)
Freedom and Community
I think there is much less to Rawls’s theory, in its first or revised versions, than Corey maintains. Unlike Corey, we never needed Rawls to inform us this a liberal regime must guarantee individual freedom, equality before the law, also”reasonable pluralism.” Nor do we now have”much to learn from Rawls” into the effect that a diverse, liberal country like ours cannot at exactly the exact identical time become a”community” based on some group of shared”moral purposes.” Our need for a widely shared, albeit limited, morality, has been addressed at length by these liberal scholars such as William Galston and also Peter Berkowitz. As Madison observed in Federalist 55, a republican authorities like ours presupposes, over every other type, a high level of moral virtue. (Think of these factors as patriotism, courage, tolerance, compassion, moderation, honesty, industry, thrift, and loyalty to family.) But we hardly needed Rawls to explain our nation will never be”a polity like Calvin’s Geneva”!
From Rawls’s time, naturally, Americans’ general standards of moral behavior had become considerably less restrictive than previously –thanks to innovations like same-sex marriage, the legalization of abortion and pornography, and a judicial mandate of stringent governmental neutrality between religion and atheism. These improvements certainly harmonize with Rawls’s morally libertarian intent. (At the time of this writing, the Biden government had only removed the ban on admitting transgendered individuals to the military, without a thought having been given to the impact on unit cohesion, whereas the New York State legislature is considering a proposal to legalize streetwalking.)
But how would the massive majority of Americans have been forced to endure such sacrifices as they did for their nation in conflicts like World War II without the kind of fellow feeling that Aristotle (Politics III.9) deems crucial for a political network? Consider the peroration of all Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, appealing to just such sentiments of brotherhood in a bid to keep the Union from falling apart. And concerning the effects on our nationwide well-being of the kind of libertarian sexual morality that Rawls and his frenemy Nozick ordained as a source of justice, then consult with the writings of educated observers like Myron Magnet and Mary Eberstadt–or as Christopher Wren’s epitaph ordains, simply look on you.
What Corey means by saying that politics ought to be”non-purposive into the greatest extent possible” is beyond me, as it would have been into the writers of the Declaration of Independence. Just as it is natural to all human beings to pursue specific purposes in their own lives, it is inevitable in forming and seeking to preserve political communities, they will expect the authorities to enact policies that they believe (accurately or not) will benefit them, and will attempt to persuade their fellow citizens to prefer those policies as well. As Aristotle puts it into his screenplay, although human beings initially form cities for the sake of life, those cities remain in life as a way to living well.
Turning to the particulars of Rawls’s”two principles of justice,” Corey rightly criticizes the very first principle, ordaining that the”greatest equal liberty” for everybody, and assigning it”priority” over the next principle (which legitimizes inequalities in economic and social products provided they maximize the well-being of the”least advantaged”) because of its abstractness. In actuality, Rawls’s mandate that”liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty” is without substantive meaning at allevery law restricts people’s liberty to do something or other! Rawls’s consignment of financial liberties into his next principle–as if the best to make a living in a trade of a person’s choosing, or to possess one’s land secured against theft or lawless governmental confiscation, were not as vital than freedom of speech, the press, or religion–was absolutely random, a reflection of this Progressive liberalism of his time and milieu, was given judicial imprimatur by the Supreme Court’s”favorite position” philosophy in the 1930’s.
Those who want truly to encourage liberty and justice ought to abandon”moral theory” and then return to the study of classic texts of political philosophy in addition to the writings of the best American statesmen, all of whose reflections involved the serious, open-minded thought of alternative political statements, and also grounded their balances of justice within an understanding of human nature.Contrary into Corey, Rawls doesn’t literally mandate governmental redistribution of property, in the sense of its lead seizure. Rather, he advocated such traditional liberal policies since progressive income and estate taxes. Nevertheless, as classical liberal and libertarian writers like John Tomasi have pointed out (as Corey correctly notes), there is no reason to suppose the financial well-being of the”least advantaged” would not be more likely to be maximized by means of a system that permits and encourages the most talented and industrious members of society to make high rewards, rather than through redistributive taxation, because in so doing they are elevating the great deal of the weakest fellow citizens as well. This, clearly, was John Locke’s point in Chapter 5 of his Second Treatise,”Of Property”: under a regime of financial freedom with secure property rights, also a day-laborer in England is much better fed, clothed, and housed than the wealthiest of Indian chiefs.
But there is a deeper rationale inherent Rawls’s difference principle than solicitude for your welfare of the poor. In Part Three of Theory, he enunciates a remarkable philosophy of”excusable envy”–in violation of every one of the wonderful religious and philosophical traditions–according to which it is”rational” for all those lower down the economic scale to feel jealous of those richer than they’re, in the event the inequalities between them exceed certain (unspecified) limits. It’s now that we find the inherent if unacknowledged connection between Rawls’s philosophy and of Karl Marx, perhaps inspiring the title of a recent research by William Edmundson, John Rawls: Reticent Socialist. So far as I know, the only precedent behind Rawls’s difference principle is Marx’s and Engels’s mockery of the so-called”utopian” socialist competitions, in Part III of this Communist Manifesto, on the floor that they sought”to enhance the state of every member of society” instead of benefit only the oppressed proletarians.
As there wasn’t any space from the Marxian strategy for people who found the guaranteed proletarian dictatorship (to be administered by”Communists” like Marx and Engels themselves) harmful for their well-being,” Rawls informs readers that find his scheme antithetical for their great that”their character is their misfortune.” Even though Rawls was no violent radical, he, including Marx and Engels, aimed to encourage resentment among the different classes, as opposed to serve the common good. (He offered only the lame explanation that given the need to operationalize the term”common good,” it would be simplest, provided the”ethos” of a contemporary democratic society, to recognize that the common good with that of the least advantaged.
In this light, it is imperative to note that Rawls did not in the end prioritize political liberty in any way, against his claims. He expressed a researched agnosticism as to whether his fundamentals tended to prefer a free-market economy over a socialist person, oblivious to the causal association between the latter and the denial of political freedom. He evinced no awareness that a political regime that produces everybody an employee of the state deprives them of the independence that would enable them to criticize the government–or perhaps openly deviate from currently reigning political fashions. (Consider now’s”cancel civilization.”) In his earlier writings, Rawls let the priority of liberty can justifiably be suspended if this suspension proved crucial to advance the”economic and social” state of the poor–thus sanctioning the alibi provided by every Marxist despotism for the denial of freedom and the rule of law, even though the denial functioned only to enhance the despots’ riches and power.
In the 1996 introduction to Political Liberalism, Rawls really endorsed the criticism of”Hegel, Marxist, and socialist writers” the liberties guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence, taken by themselves, would be”purely formal” and amount at best to”an undercover kind of liberalism.” Instead of permit the level of financial regulation or level of tax in a free society to be negotiated through the governmental process, taking account of varying circumstances and competing partisan demands, Rawls insisted his own notion be substituted for the great old one embodied in the documents that Americans inherited against the patriots of 1776, 1787, and 1865, ideally placing political dispute to a conclusion.
“Moral Theory” Versus Political Philosophy and Liberal Statesmanship
Ever since Theory was first released, it’s functioned as a model for professors of political or ethical”theory” or jurisprudence to create their own subjective, utopian versions of a just society, hardwired to political and financial realities. Rawls’s schooling has served merely to hamper the true bases of political freedom and of traditional,”bourgeois” morality.
Those who want truly to encourage liberty and justice ought to abandon”moral theory” and then return to the study of classic texts of political philosophy in addition to the writings of the best American statesmen, all of whose reflections involved the serious, open-minded thought of alternative political statements, and also grounded their balances of justice within an understanding of human character.