Friday, February 26, 2021

Rawls at 100: Three Critiques

 by Michael C. Dorf

In an important essay earlier this week, Prof Lawrence Solum marked the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Rawls and the impending fiftieth anniversary of Rawls's landmark book A Theory of Justice. Prof Solum focuses on the ongoing influence of Rawls, both through his students and otherwise. I recommend it to readers, who might also be interested in an essay I wrote in memory of Rawls on the occasion of his death.

Both Prof Solum and I include some personal recollections. My essay noted that as a student I was lucky enough to study with Rawls--from whom I took a large lecture class on moral and political philosophy, with a heavy focus on the usual suspects: Locke, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Marx, and then, as I recall, skipping over nearly a century to get to Rawls himself. Rawls was very much interested in counter-arguments, but he did not specifically consider what was then (in the early-to-mid-1980s) widely regarded as the leading challenge to his approach--Robert Nozick's libertarianism as set forth in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick was a substantially less rigid and more subtle libertarian than the likes of Ayn Rand, and precisely for that reason, any fair-minded attempt to respond to libertarian objections to Rawls's defense of the liberal welfare state should target Nozick's watchman state.

Rawls and those who followed in his footsteps offered responses to the core argument of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but it's important to understand that even if one thinks those arguments were not successful, it hardly matters for defeating what passes for libertarianism in public debate. On the ground, the sorts of actors who purport to be inspired by libertarian thought either really are relying on Ayn Rand (think of the now-moderate-seeming-by-comparison-to-Trumpers former House Speaker Paul Ryan) or simply using libertarianism as a veneer for crony capitalism (think of Republican elected officials in Texas). Meanwhile, although a fair number of principled libertarians stood against Trump and Trumpism, it is clear that they are no longer a dominant force on the right. The libertarian critique of Rawls remains theoretically significant but not especially significant as a practical matter.

Let us turn then to two other critiques. Each critique can be understood as objecting to the seeming bloodlessness of A Theory of Justice--its claiming to speak from the viewpoint of nowhere, as it were.

In what we might somewhat pejoratively call the "identity politics" critique of Rawls, the people choosing the arrangements of the basic structure behind the veil of ignorance are not so much individuals with their specific characteristics abstracted away as they are archetypal members of the dominant group--white, male, cisgender heterosexuals like Rawls (and me), who can only guess at or worse, assume, what people with other experiences would choose. As I noted in my eulogy (linked above), Rawls tried to respond to this critique in his book Political Liberalism by conceiving of his project as less about constructing an ideal liberal democratic society than about constructing a society within the historical framework that had evolved in certain Western societies.

That move may have been somewhat effective, but it's not clear that it did the work necessary, given that part of the critique is that a great many people in contemporary "Western" societies reflect other cultures, experiences, etc. Put differently, the concession that Rawls was prescribing rules for governing a particular kind of society still might not get Rawls as far as he needed to go--which was to cover at least our own multi-cultural society.

A somewhat different critique came from communitarians, with Michael Sandel as the leading critic. Sandel argued that Rawls and liberals more broadly abstracted away so much and were left with an idealized freely choosing self who was disconnected from the actual societies in which people live. In this view, the social contract as imagined by Rawls and others is itself problematic. We do not choose our connections, not even in thought experiments. We are instead born and remain inter-connected.

Sandel has gotten some considerable attention lately for his critique of meritocracy, which has a great deal to recommend it. But even if one is not fully persuaded by Sandel's argument, there is reason to think that he and other communitarians point to an important value that Rawlsians under-value. For Rawls and other liberals, the great project is to reconcile liberty and equality. (This was a theme of Ronald Dworkin's work too.) The communitarians point to the further value of solidarity--or to use the somewhat antiquated language of the French Revolution: fraternity.

Put simply, where Rawls would have us decide behind the veil of ignorance that we ought to provide the least fortunate with a decent life because we could be among the least fortunate, adherence to the virtue of solidarity would have the fortunate among us provide for the least fortunate even if we could not see ourselves in their position.

I cannot speak for others, but for myself, I find it difficult to imagine building a broadly appealing left/liberalism that does not appeal to solidarity in at least as much measure as appealing to liberty and equality. And for that reason, much as I admire Rawls, I think his project incomplete.


kotodama said...

Good stuff, I'll be sure to check both essays.

Also, I'm curious, who are some leading proponents of the "identity politics" critique? I was hoping to explore that a little more.

Next, it's sort a minor point in the scheme of things, but I'm not sure Paul Ryan really qualifies as a moderate. Per 538, he voted in line with Trump's position over 95% of the time. And the one instance where he expressly voted against (instead of just abstaining), that was actually for the more reactionary position than Trump. Of course there are some important caveats. For one, he was only around through the end of 2018. And as speaker, he abstained from voting on a lot of things. I also recognize that Ryan has on occasion issues limply-worded statements criticizing Trump, but (1) a statement of concern is about as impactful as a Susan Collins furrowed brow and (2) especially since Ryan stopped actively seeking any office, he basically has no skin in the game.

Finally, Ryan gets a bit touchy if people bring up the Ayn Rand point these days, and denies any inspiration from her. But his protests aren't so convincing methinks.

Lisa-Herbert said...
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markusru85 said...

I don't think that Rawls's project is as "incomplete" in this regard as you would have your readers believe. After all, he does supplement his attempt to reconcile liberty and equality with a brief account of "fraternity". In TJ § 17, he writes:

“[p. 90] A further merit of the difference principle is that it provides an interpretation of the principle of fraternity. In comparison with liberty and equality, the idea of fraternity has had a lesser place in democratic theory. It is thought to be less specifically a political concept, not in itself defining any of the democratic rights but conveying instead certain attitudes of mind and forms of conduct without which we would lose sight of the values expressed by these rights. […] The difference principle, however, does seem to correspond to a natural meaning of fraternity: namely, to the idea of not wanting to have greater advantages unless this is to the benefit of others who are less well off. The family, in its ideal conception and often in practice, is one place where the principle of maximizing the sum of advantages is rejected. Members of a family commonly do not wish to gain unless they can do so in ways that further the interests of the rest. Now wanting to act on the difference principle has precisely this consequence. […] The ideal of fraternity is sometimes thought to involve ties of sentiment and feeling which it is unrealistic to expect between members of the wider society. And this is surely a further reason for its relative neglect in [p. 91] democratic theory. Many have felt that it has no proper place in political affairs. But if it is interpreted as incorporating the requirements of the difference principle, it is not an impracticable conception. […] On this interpretation, then, the principle of fraternity is a perfectly feasible standard. Once we accept it we can associate the traditional ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity with the democratic interpretation of the two principles of justice as follows: liberty corresponds to the first principle, equality to the idea of equality in the first principle together with equality of fair opportunity, and fraternity to the difference principle. In this way we have found a place for the conception of fraternity in the democratic interpretation of the two principles, and we see that it imposes a definite requirement on the basic structure of society.”

I wonder if this passage might alleviate some of your concerns?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks to markusru85 for the quotation. I think it clearly shows that Rawls CARED about solidarity/fraternity. I also think it shows that it's very likely that a broadly solidaristic society would look a lot like the one Rawls envisioned. The communitarian critique as I understand it is less about the output but about the mechanism: The veil of ignorance in the original position, it is said, blinds us to the connections we have in the real world that should lead us to care for others. To get to the difference principle and similarly humane policies, the critique goes, we need to build on our situatedness, not abstract away from it.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...
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