John Rawls is widely recognized as the most important American political philosopher since the mid-century. His book A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971) redefined its discipline and, in so doing, aroused controversy on every side. Partly in response to criticism that his liberal conception of the individual all but ignored ideas of the self rooted in religious attachments, Rawls's following work and book, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993; revised, 1996), have turned to the problem of pluralism in liberal constitutional democracies. In societies like the United States (Rawls's focus), disagreement about justice goes beyond everyday opinions to basic questions - among others: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare - where conflict can become intractable and threaten social stability. Rawls means to head this threat off by rethinking the deep and basic good of liberal political institutions.
No one has ever accused Rawls of being easy to follow, and readers not versed in the ins and outs of political philosophy may find parts of the following interview opaque. Thus, something of an extended introduction is warranted. To begin with, Political Liberalism is not a handbook for the committed democratic citizen, but a work of philosophy that strives to clarify what it means to be this citizen. Like the Catholic philosopher and theologian John Courtney Murray in the 1950s and '60s, Rawls is trying to work out a "public philosophy" in whose terms we can understand ourselves as citizens and responsibly argue with one another about disputed questions of justice. As a philosopher (rather than an advocate of this or that position), Rawls's point is not to make our problems go away, but to draw out what makes liberal constitutional democracies tick and to remind us of why and how this way of living together ought to be considered a good.
Not surprisingly, Rawls's examination of democratic pluralism has proven as controversial as A Theory of Justice. Critics on Rawls's right and left charge that he concentrates so much on how we should make decisions (respectfully toward one another's freedom and dignity) that he neglects or fails to address adequately what decisions we should finally make. In short, they ask, "What's freedom for?" In 1963, at a conference on law and philosophy, a prescient John Courtney Murray identified something like this as "the problem of Mr. Rawls's problem." Rawls, Murray argued, "remove[d] from human law all manner of transcendental reference...in the name of a morality of perfect personal autonomy." In this vision of the world, religion's only place can be private; it is excluded from political decision making. Critics as different as the theologian and neoconservative Richard John Neuhaus and the liberal communitarian political theorist Michael Sandel argue that Rawls's version of liberalism in effect excludes from politics what gives many people's lives purpose and shape.
Rawls argues that, since politics has to do with the public good, political arguments should be made in terms of what he calls "public reason": that is, in terms open to all reasonable citizens. Rawls's critics counter, however, that his idea of public reason is not self-evidently neutral, and they go on to ask whose interests this kind of language really serves. In this interview, Rawls attempts to clarify the meaning of "public reason" by discussing the "Philosophers' Brief" (see, New York Review of Books, March 27, 1997) a statement he signed favoring the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. Much of the "Brief" is cast in the familiar language of rights talk. "We know that not everyone agrees with assisted suicide," Rawls told me, "but people might agree that one has the right to it, even if they're not themselves going to exercise it." Upon reading this line of reasoning, however, readers might well ask, "But what rights are right and why?" …