More on Rawls

Here are some further unsystematic thoughts noted down while reading Political Liberalism:

  1. Rawls presents himself as a theorist of democratic society. That is a misnomer. It is not the people who rule in a society in which basic issues are all resolved in advance by Rawls and other experts and the solutions enforced by coercive bureaucratic machinery in all significant social relations. There are of course democratic elements that differentiate advanced liberal society from Soviet society. Many important specifics (e.g.,the exact features of the welfare system) are determined politically, and the people could if sufficiently outraged exert a veto that would remain effective as long as the outrage lasts. Such elements are important and provide something of a reality check that helps keep the system comparatively rational. They hardly make the system a democracy though.
  2. The idea that in politics we should ultimately be able to present explanations that we believe should be acceptable to others, if the others are reasonable and well-disposed, is certainly a good one. How one carries that idea into effect depends on what he thinks reason and a good disposition include. I also like the device of a social contract entered into from behind a veil of ignorance as a way of presenting what understanding and goals should be accepted by reasonable and disinterested people. Of course, not everybody will agree with Rawls how the contractors in the original position would think about things and go about their business.
  3. Rawls bases his system on his concept of “reasonableness” as a desire to take part as an equal in a reciprocal system of mutual benefit. He doesn’t think reasonableness is required by rationality, but that it’s just something that you have or you don’t. (Lect. 1, Sec. 1.) So his system starts off with a “this is just what I happen to believe, OK?” Possibly others might add or start off with some other basic idea, a desire to take part in a system oriented toward the human good or whatever. Presumably you’d end up with a different system in that event, although Rawls thinks that if you accept reasonableness then the other things you accept won’t interfere with acceptance of his system. It’s far from clear why that should be so. To some extent his response seems to be that his version of reasonableness is something a lot of people can live with, and to the extent more people can live with it to a greater extent than other things it becomes the best hope for a stable and reasonably satisfactory social peace and so recognizably a good thing for that reason. Also, as it becomes accepted and successful people will adjust their other views to accommodate it.
  4. Rawls observes (Lect. 1, Sec.1) that his society is not a society of saints. I suppose a question though is whether it’s good to have a society that takes no public account whatever of the value of sainthood as opposed to the value of any project anyone might happen to have.
  5. The experts are really in control in Rawls’s theory. In the original position the contractors who decide the basic political principles are only allowed (Lect. 8) to choose from among well-recognized academic philosophical views (utilitarianism, perfectionism, intuititionism, and Rawls’s own view) based on “general public knowledge” (Lect. 2, Sec. 4), which inevitably would mean expert consensus. I suppose he has to do that to be able to predict how the discussion will go, but it rather takes away from the persuasiveness of his scheme if you don’t identify “expert consensus” and “the view we ought to go with if we’re being serious about serious matters.”
  6. Rawls repeatedly (e.g., Lect. 2, Sec. 3; Lect. 4, Sec. 1) speaks as if deciding basic issues based on views that go beyond pure reasonableness is the same as enforcing the views and forbidding the affirmation of other inconsistent views that go beyond pure reasonableness in an equally reasonable way. (He speaks of “comprehensive doctrines” but it’s not clear why they are more troublesome than any doctrine that goes beyond what all reasonable men agree upon.) I don’t understand that. To do things one way is not to say that those who disagree can’t affirm that another way would be better. In creating fundamental institutions it seems it will be necessary often to decide points on which reasonable men will differ, and in each case the decision will likely be more consistent with one comprehensive view than another.
  7. It’s unclear why the contractors in the original position would care whether inequalities were based on “fair equality of opportunity” or not. After all, they don’t know whether they would win a competition and might do better if everything were hereditary. Why wouldn’t the requirement that inequalities should be to the benefit of the least advantaged be enough (assuming Rawls’s view that the contractors are totally risk-averse)?
  8. It’s not clear to me why Rawls’s political liberalism is better supported by a convergence of various mutually-supporting reasons (by Newman’s “illative sense”) than Catholicism. So I don’t see why Rawls’s “fact of reasonable pluralism” isn’t as much a problem for his theory as for the Pope’s.

Sorry the foregoing is so abstract, but notes on Rawls are going to be abstract. He’s also hard to simplify in ways people won’t complain about since he spent a lifetime adding various features and distinctions to his system to deal with objections. I think it’s a patchwork that doesn’t add up but as I said it summarizes and rationalizes the considered understandings of those who officially know things so others will disagree with me and they’ll have a lot of presumptions on their side.

11 thoughts on “More on Rawls”

  1. “I also like the device of
    “I also like the device of a social contract entered into from behind a veil of ignorance as a way of presenting what understanding and goals should be accepted by reasonable and disinterested people. Of course, not everybody will agree with Rawls how the contractors in the original position would think about things and go about their business.”

    Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” has been skewered by a number of writers, so I won’t belabor the point. I will merely note that this presumes a tabula rasa, an erasure of history (or perhaps a coercive rearrangement of history in the Stalin mode), an erasure of tradition, an erasure of memory, and quite likely the fragmentation of established alliances and coalitions (like the family).

    And, in any case, what is the great value or merit of “disinterested people?” How Cartesian. Do you wish to live in a community of “disinterested people”? This is the vacuous idea that “impartial” and “disinterested” parties somehow have access to privileged truth, or “reasonable” solutions, that other more interested parties don’t. Does Rawls justify this ludicrous claim?

  2. You start the discussion where it is
    The “original position” and “veil of ignorance” are just formal analytical devices, and everything depends on how such things are applied. You could apply them for example to show the limits of formal analytical devices from a point of view that initially takes them as basic to thought. That can be useful. A Summa contra Gentiles can be a necessary exercise.

    Pascal takes that general approach in a very general setting: suppose you do make everything a matter of reason as reason had become understood by the 17th c. You see that reason can’t anwer all questions that of necessity you must answer simply because you are alive, so you have to choose the way you’re going to go beyond reason. What then is the best way beyond rational choice?

    On the specific issue: as I suggest in the entry, the contractors in the original position can’t possibly avoid a point that Rawls won’t let them consider, how schemes of values should be formed. They are choosing the institutions that will form the citizens they represent, morally and otherwise, so if they are rational and true to their constituents’ interests they can’t possibly avoid thinking about how people and their understandings of the good should be formed.

    That in turn should lead them to consider the necessary role of moral tradition, the need for particularity and authority, why in the long run in the free, diverse, etc. society Rawls is worried about you need the Pope, and so on.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

    • Reason
      When I hear talk of founding communities on “reason,” my mind involuntarily conjures images of: Robespierre and St. Just.

      “Reason” and “human reason” are notoriously slippery terms. When used in political contexts, they usually are code for: “doing it my way.”

      • Sure, but if people insist
        Sure, but if people insist on such things and think everything else is irrational it’s nice to be able to show why reasonable founders wouldn’t try to base things directly on reason but would end up relying on tradition etc.

        Actually, Rawls ends up somewhat in that position in Political Liberalism, since he says the founders have to choose their basic approach from among the traditions of political philosophy Anglo-American philosophers talk about, and he has them rely on the historical experience and traditions of actual liberal states in determining just what the list of basic rights should be.

        Rem tene, verba sequentur.

        • Reason
          You’ve probably written about this, and I’ve missed it. But I offer the following: Tradition is what is reasonable as discovered by experience; reason must therefore begin with tradition.

          A Marxist or a postmodernist would say: Tradition are the structures instituted by the powerful for their own advantage at the expense of the oppressed (the binary worldview).

  3. He looks quite a bit like
    He looks quite a bit like Yves St. Laurent, the Parisian haut couturier (another strange bird).

    Long live Flanders!

    • Were the two ever seen together?
      If not, and so far as I know there’s no record of it, you may be on to something. (In fairness though to his credentials as a “regular guy,” he was a good athlete and was offered a pro baseball contract as a young man.)

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  4. More on Rawls
    There’s more comment on Rawls, from a trad Catholic Social Reign of Christ the King point of view, here.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

    • Rawls
      I read the piece; thanks for the link.

      Of course, one need not be a Catholic to deconstruct Rawls, who is merely an apologist for secular post-war western triumphalism (and supremacy): “educated western intellectuals like me are reasonable, and all reasonable people must be like me, because, after all, I’m reasonable, and given that we’re all reasonable people, we must all agree that we all have a right to define ourselves and the good, because, being reasonable people, our self-definitions will be reasonable, because we’re all agreed that we are all reasonable people.” Translation: “We’re not Nazis, and never could be.”

      Rawls’ definition of “reasonableness” is transparently self-referential and tautological.

      Unlike Nietzche, he seriously underestimates Christianity, and its claim that the self is not self-derived (in Christianity, the self is grounded in the power that established it, that is, God, a relationship that can never be escaped nor avoided); rather he merely asserts the self is self-derived, and that all “reasonable” people must agree with him; and furthermore, that these self-derived selves are all, by definition “reasonable.” Why are they reasonable? Because they agree their selves are self-derived!

      A tedious circular argument.

      Rawls is tedious (and triumphalist) beyond description.

  5. Fantastic Rawlism
    Fantastic is the idea that politics presents explanations we believe should be acceptable to others and, therefore, is not good at all. Should? Where is the logical analysis behind should? Ridiculous. Politics is the relationship between men. Men are neither reasonable nor well disposed consistently. If we were, we would be living in the Garden of Eden. Religion is the study of man’s relationship to God, who keeps us reasonable at times. Constructing a way of life without God is bound to fail.

Comments are closed.