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Comments on Rawls

As punishment for my sins (which must be scarlet indeed) I’ve been obliged once again to read John Rawls’s Political Liberalism. Some comments (further comments as always are welcome):

  1. Rawls was evidently an extremely careful and hardworking man. He is said to have been quite shy. I met him once in a group, and would add “very awkward with people he didn’t know.” So far as I can tell, he was a classic nerd, an Asperger type who compensated for social cluelessness by conscientiousness, altruism and continual attempts at outreach.
  2. The effect was that he spent a lifetime systematizing what he considered the fundamentals of human relations in a huge abstract system of doctrine intended to codify political justice. His conception of “reflective equilibrium,” together with (i) constant intense discussions with other well-placed liberal academics over a period of decades and (ii) his concern to come to an agreement or at least reasonable accommodation with other people, meant that the theory ended up a classic summation of the settled convictions of his class, the bureaucracy of expertise.
  3. At bottom, that class thinks of itself as a meritocracy entitled by its special knowledge to rule the world. His doctrine therefore calls for comprehensive bureaucratic regulation of society to compensate for the tendency of the world to deviate from overall rationality as seen by an altruistic expert custodian who thinks the point of social order is to see that everyone is able to do what he wants as much and as equally as possible. Specifically, regulation is required to (i) guarantee that every citizens’ basic needs are met, (ii) liberal rights like those relating to political participation have “fair value” (meaning roughly equal value) for everyone, (iii) social and economic inequalities are attached only to positions open to all “under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (meaning affirmative action on steroids), and (iv) only those inequalities are permitted that confer the greatest benefit on the least advantaged (through improvements in efficiency or whatever).
  4. A lot of people seem to think the effect of all that would be the blossoming of a thousand flowers in a paradise of multicultural freedom, since everyone would be in a maximum equal position to form and pursue his own conception of the good life. To me it seems obvious the theory would tend to create an inhuman and oppressive socialist hellhole. For example, the requirement that inequalities attach only to positions to which equal opportunity rules apply means that there can be no significant social institution that is neither bureaucratic nor closely supervised by bureaucracy. The requirement that the inequalities serve only the interests of the people at the bottom would require comprehensive supervening action from someone absolutely superior to all particular social interests and thus from an irresponsible ideological ruling class. Rawls nonetheless considered his system democratic, because he wanted to bring it about through a combination of politics and actions by courts, bureaucrats and various other experts etc. that the people didn’t dislike enough to reverse. He also thought or at least hoped that every reasonable person should and eventually would support it.
  5. The overall point seems to be that everyone should have the fair effective ability to pursue whatever his scheme of preferences may be, as much and as equally as possible. Rawls says (Lect. 1, Sec. 7) that his well-ordered democratic society has no final end and aims in the sense persons and associations do. Nonetheless, it looks very much like a venture organized on the understanding that the human summum bonum is the exercise of power, the general ability to do what one chooses, and the supreme purpose of politics is to promote the summum bonum as much and as equally as possible. It’s worth noting that the “maximin principle” (3. iv. above) says that people who contribute more to the organizational goal of increasing equal power should be given more, a feature Rawls says is characteristic of purpose-based associations but not of his political society (Lect. 1, Sec. 7).
  6. Nonetheless, the previous point shouldn’t matter for Rawls. His basic pitch is that the principles of his theory of political liberalism can be affirmed from within a variety of comprehensive views, in fact from within all comprehensive views that in some broad sense are reasonable. The fact (if it’s a fact) that his favored society seems to implement the outlook of an everyman-his-own-Nietzsche egalitarian power maximizer who also believes in comprehensive bureaucratic social administration shouldn’t be a problem as long as it’s still true that other people can affirm it from within all views that are reasonable in some generous and not-altogether-circular sense.
  7. The real issue in all this is whether making equal mutual empowerment the basis of public life is really something everybody with a sensible view of the good can agree on. A problem with it is that in effect it pre-characterizes the highest good as getting whatever you think you want. “Good” is an objective and therefore public conception. In a Rawlsian state only “primary goods”—things like money, rights and opportunities—are treated publicly as objective goods, because they are the things that typically enable people to get what they want. Everything else is treated as a personal taste of no public concern. Is that really a view everybody reasonable can agree on? Attempts to tell people what they have to view as good often don’t work and show a certain lack of mutual respect and realization that after all one might be wrong. Still, basic conceptual points like the nature of the good are important even if they don’t lead in a simple way to immediate commands to put particular things into effect.
  8. One problem with making power to advance one’s actual goals the supreme standard is that not everybody thinks that power is what get you where you really want to go. Someone might think that wisdom, virtue, sanctification etc. are better than success as ordinarily conceived. He might think that those things come about when you realize that you are not the center of things, that the moral world is much bigger than you and your purposes and wants, and that your highest good is accepting that larger moral world and bringing yourself in line with it. From such a point of view a Rawlsian state would be objectionable because it establishes and propagates a false understanding (or at least family of understandings) of the human good. It would be as if America adopted a civic religion that might get support from a variety of sources but many people nonetheless reject and consider false and destructive.
  9. Naturally there’s no absolute conflict between virtuous self-actualization or sanctification or pursuit of wisdom and a system that takes ability to succeed as the highest good, just as there’s no conflict between practicing Islam, Wicca or atheism and a system that takes the kind of religion classroom prayer used to stand for as the official ideal while tolerating disbelief or practice of other religions in nonpublic settings. Still, the institutionalization and public support of one understanding of the good that is in fact contentious seems antiliberal, at least if the opposing understandings also seem reasonable and are not simply pathologies to be done away with.
  10. One place these issues come up is that each participant in Rawls’s hypothetical social contract (which establishes the basic institutions of his ideal society) is supposed to try to advance as much as possible whatever unknown-though-determinate scheme of preferences the person he represents has actually adopted. That’s true even though Rawls recognizes that (1) schemes of preferences change, so the constituent’s interests aren’t identical with realization of any particular scheme of preferences, (2) the constituent has a higher-order interest in developing his scheme of preferences, and (3) the structure of society, which the representatives are determining, will profoundly affect everybody’s scheme of preferences. The last point is enough by itself to show that the role of the representatives can’t possibly be looking out after the actual preferences of their constituents—which is what Rawls requires them to do.
  11. With that in mind, it seems the original-position contractors would be concerned less with advancing already-determined schemes of preferences, which in any event will be transformed by what they’re doing, than with encouraging and then advancing schemes that in some sense (which they would have to discuss) constitute good schemes of preferences. They’d say to themselves “We’re establishing the conditions that will form our constituents’ preferences, that will make our constituents what they are. What should those be? Do we really want to institutionalize getting one’s way equally as the highest public standard, with the pervasive effects on culture and attitudes Rawls agrees that will have?” Rawls doesn’t let the contractors even touch on that topic. That seems against reason, and to my mind suggests that in some important way Rawls has made willfulness king.
  12. At some points (e.g., Lect. 2 Sec. 5) Rawls says that what the representatives try to promote not just particular determinate preferences but also higher-order moral concerns. It’s not clear how that is consistent with other things he says, or why those concerns go just so high and no higher. He also says (Lect. 5, Sec. 5) that “it is futile … to ascertain for political purposes how deep and pervasive [the effects of basic structures on the prevalence of particular doctrines] are,” but he also claims—this is one of his selling points—that the existence of his regime will induce doctrines to make themselves more consistent with it, and that it’s OK for the state to propagandize its political values. How could the original position contractors do their job without considering such things?


“That seems against reason, and to my mind suggests that in some important way Rawls has made willfulness king.” (—from the essay)

Has made willfulness king and also elevated a kind of suffocating totalitarianism to a place of authority, legitimacy, and honor in society:

”[…T]he institutionalization and public support of one understanding of the good that is in fact contentious seems antiliberal, at least if the opposing understandings also seem reasonable and are not simply pathologies to be done away with.”

What are we left with? A system of materialistic willfulness ultimately satisfying only to those with hearts of stone among other, related defects, imposed with a mailed fist to the forcible exclusion of competing views including the view that there are such things as free will and ultimate meaning—yes, something very close to:

“an inhuman and oppressive socialist hellhole.”

Long live Flanders!


Rawls advocates a vast universal system of what MacIntyre calls “Weberian bureaucratic rationalism,” which, MacIntyre claims, is grounded in transparent fictions of “expertise” and “rationalism.” These fictions lead to, on the one hand, an arbitrary exercise of power by anonymous bureaucrats, and on the other alienation and cynicism by those subject to the bureaucratic power, who alternately mock it and detest it. The only “freedoms” either permitted or allowed within this system are “private,” such as the “freedom” to view pornography, or the “freedom” to choose a Ford over a Chevrolet, or the “freedom” to call oneself a Wiccan, a Buddhist, or a Rawlsian. Freedom is thus connected to the most trivial affairs of life, and is emasculated both as an experience and as a concept.

Your paragraph 7 is central. The identification and pursuit of goods, both public and private, is central to freedom, but Rawls places severe conceptual constraints on this project. Because Rawls’ conception of freedom is so truncated, and his view is typical of liberalism, we can see an entire society that confuses freedom with money (or consumer choice), with little or no awareness of freedom as personal decision to choose goods that make one’s life a meaningful narrative, and with virtually no conceptual tools or models to identify what might be “meaningful” for a human being. The inevitable upshot is the dilution of Christianity on the liberal model into a pablum of acceptable attitudes (“kindness,” “tolerance”) skating on the surface of an impersonal, detached bureaucratic society, and also a proliferation of sui generis “spiritualities” pursued by those who “lack meaning or purpose” in their lives.

A recent best-seller on the self-help model is entitled “The Purpose Driven Life,” as if the notion that a life may have a purpose, and that purpose need not necessarily accord with the accepted liberal notions of the good, is a novel insight. This same phenomenon attended Scott Peck’s “A Road Less Travelled.”

MD that was an excellent comment! Thanks for it! (I especially liked the part about Christianity.)

Long live Flanders!


Rawls of course would say that people can pursue whatever freakin’ purposes they want, that’s the whole point of his system, as long as they consent to the overall structure of cooperation designed to facilitate individual pursuit of purposes generally.

A problem with the response, of course, is that making money, individual rights, equality, etc. the only publicly-recognized and authoritative goods has consequences. If the whole social order is based on special recognition of those goods as uniquely important then that recognition will work itself into every aspect of life. Rawls seems to realize this.

Beyond that, making the “bases of self-respect” one of the officially-compulsory supergoods, as Rawls does, is going to have the effect of forcing people who believe that way of life A is more worthy of respect than way of life B to keep their views under their hats. Such views will be the target of pro-tolerance propaganda, which Rawls says is perfectly acceptable. So the only goals that won’t be more-or-less suppressed will be (i) hobbies and personal indulgences, and (ii) promotion of the Rawlsian state and its values.

Again, the whole justification of the scheme is that everybody reasonable will agree with it.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

“Rawls of course would say that people can pursue whatever freakin’ purposes they want, that’s the whole point of his system, as long as they consent to the overall structure of cooperation designed to facilitate individual pursuit of purposes generally.”

The “as long as” is a gigantic exception to the general principle that people can pursue whatever purposes they want.

With that exception in place, people for the most part cannot pursue whatever purposes they want, especially in community. The only purpose of community, within this system, is to create a nihilistic vacuum (enforced by the state) in which each individual can “pursue their purposes,” whatever those purposes might be, and the community is wholly powerless to distinguish between purposes that promote and strengthen the community and those that degrade and destabilize the community. Such a community is not only nihilistic at its core, it has no available means to perpetuate or protect itself.

Just an addendum to my previous post about the idealized Rawlsian community, which has no available means to protect itself from the various “purposes” of its members.

What kind of community would this be, and what would it look like?

After some time, after traditional customs and habits had degraded or disappeared, one would expect some or all of the following in our idealized “City of Rawls:”

1. more police, more jails, more prisons
2. the emergence of “law and order” political candidates
3. “gated” communities, complete with walls and private security guards
4. “exclusive” neighborhoods, burdened with restrictive convenants
5. more guns in private households
6. a boom in the private security and surveillance business
7. more written contracts, more lawyers, and more litigation
8. disorder in the public schools (“maybe we should medicate those kids, and call the misbehavior a ‘medical condition’; yea, cool idea”)
9. widespread incivility and rudeness
10. indifference to neighbors and fellow citizens, balanced by intermittent hysterical calls for “compassion” and, by extension, more taxes
11. Short-term and unstable relationships
12. a utilitarian view of family
13. an extensive investigative “background” industry
14. an accumulation of vast amounts of recorded “data” about each member of the community

Perhaps you can think of other predictable outcomes for our fine “City of Rawls.” Maybe you live in it, or want to escape from it. But, in any case, it can’t be anything other than what it is, given its ideology.

While reading a piece by Eric Voegelin, I ran across this passage which reminded me of Rawls and your comments about him. Is it not true that Rawls is a “social contract” theorist? If he is, did he consider in his opus the concerns voiced by Voegelin? Do you think Voegelin’s observations are relevant or irrelevant to Rawls’ theory?

“A further instance of sophistic dreaming, given by Plato himself, is
the conception of order in terms of agreement or contract. Here again
the reality of common order that constitutes fellowship among men is
denied. The sophist is unable to [7] see that agreement, contract or
promise concerning anything concretely is impossible, unless the meaning
of agreement is understood. The common bond between men must exist in
reality, and be experienced as existing, in order to make mutual declara-
tions concerning future conduct intelligible as agreements with binding
force. The binding force of specific agreement derives from the onto-
logically pre-existence common bond; one cannot derive the common bond
from agreement. From his analysis, Plato draw the conclusion that a
“theory” which lets order originate in agreement, is not a “theory”
since it misses the essence of the bond of order; it is a doxa, an
opinion. It is the typical doxa of the immanentist intellectual who,
since he has no experience of the transcendental sources of order, must
let the phenomenon of order originate in actions of individuals who want
to avoid the disadvantages of disorder.

I consider the Platonic analysis and conclusion valid, and shall
therefore draw the following further conclusions: There is not such
thing as a contract-theory of government. What goes under the name is
a sophistic doxa concerning the origin and meaning of order. There is,
furthermore, no history of a contract-theory, ranging from the sophists
of antiquity to the modern intellectuals. There only recurs in our
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a situation of civilizational crisis
which produces phenomena comparable to those of the Greek fifth and
fourth centuries. The culture of common humanity breaks down; and the
order of the community is torn by formidable wars of the sleepwalkers who
want to substitute their private dream [8] worlds for the common public
world. In this Hobbesian war of all against all, when the common source
of substantive order in transcendent reality is lost, a sort of negative
order must be established as a mutual agreement to hold one’s peace under
governmental sanction. When the _summum bonum_ is denied its ordering
function in the soul of men and of society, when its very existence is
denied—as it was denied by Hobbes —, then the _summum malum_, the
fear of physical death[,] becomes the force that imposes peace. We can
generalize the insight gained by Plato in his situation and say: that
the appearance of the contract-doxa is the symptom of civilizational

Rawls is a social contract theorist of a sort. He doesn’t trace the origins of government to a contract but uses an idealized contract as a standard for determining the justice of basic social institutions considered collectively. If something is the sort of thing to which everyone would agree under certain idealized conditions, it’s just, and otherwise it’s unjust.

His substitute for the order that must precede contract seems to be his notion of “reasonableness,” the disposition to cooperate with others for common goals on the understanding that persons and goals are to be treated equally. So he views his “just” order as something “reasonable” people would agree to, and that’s good enough for him.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

1. Maybe it’s just the way you phrase it, but it seems hopelessly circular to me. “Reasonable people are just, and justice is what reasonable people want, and all reasonable people agree on what justice is, because, after all, they are just.”

2. If that is what Rawls thinks is the foundation of community—a disposition to reasonableness or to cooperate, etc.—then I think Voegelin has him in his sights. In Voegelin’s view, Rawls has simply factored out a large section of reality, which is the common bond among men within a community, a bond which may be formalized or which may issue in “dispositions,” but is something more than a feeling or an attitude or a political apparatus (it’s “transcendental” in Voegelin’s terminology). As I understand Voegelin, until this transcendental something is present, politics in a real sense can’t even begin.

Further, as I understand Voegelin, it is only in civilizational crisis that communities resort to contract theories to explain their arrangements and make doctrinal appeals for “equality.” Of course, Voegelin went further and said that contract theories weren’t really theories at all (because they neglect so much of relevant reality); they’re just opinion.

Happy families and winning football teams don’t worry too much about either “equality” or “agreements;” they just go about the business of doing what they love. That is how Augustine defined a community: loves held in common.

I think Rawls’s thought is nonsensical, of course, and doesn’t work at all.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.