John Rawls, 'Political Liberalism.'

By Hittinger, Russell | The Review of Metaphysics, March 1994 | Go to article overview

John Rawls, 'Political Liberalism.'


Hittinger, Russell, The Review of Metaphysics


In a Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls deployed a social contract theory to vindicate liberal political principles of civil liberty and distributive justice without appeal to a utilitarian calculus. Rawls described his conception of political justice as "justice as fairness." Rational contractors, deliberating behind a "veil of ignorance," agree to a scheme of justice prior to knowing how the scheme materially affects their individual interests or conceptions of moral or nonmoral good(s).(1) Perhaps the most striking and certainly one of the most controversial features of Rawls's Theory was his argument that "the right" subordinates (for purposes of the political order) not only material interests in the economic sphere, but also individuals' fully considered conceptions of the moral good, human flourishing, and final ends.(2) Hence, Rawls's theory of justice was meant to be a systematic alternative both to the economic pragmatism of other modem contract theorists as well as to the classical tradition of perfectionism in political theory.

This long-awaited sequel consists of chapters based in part upon lectures and published work over the past two decades. Political Liberalism, however, is not simply a collection of essays.(3) Rawls notes that "I reached a clear understanding of political liberalism--or so I think--only in the past few years" (p. xxxi). Therefore, the book does not just retine and correct the doctrine in Theory but gives an entirely new focus to the project. He calls this new focus "political liberalism."

Rawls explains that a "serious" shortcoming of Theory was his failure to adequately distinguish between "a moral doctrine of justice general in scope" and "a strictly political conception of justice" (p. xv). If justice as fairness is based upon a general moral theory, then it would seem that citizens must endorse a comprehensive philosophical doctrine in order to reach consensus about the principles which ought to inform the institutions of the polity. He now points out that this is an impractical expectation.

The fact that a doctrine of justice contains a "thin" understanding of moral values, and the fact that it stipulates general moral reasons why perfectionist values must be excluded from the principles and institutions of the political order, does not make the doctrine less "comprehensive" (in the sense given to this term in Political Liberalism).(4) For example, in comparison to Plato or Hegel, Ronald Dworkin's work represents a relatively "thin" and certainly "antiperfectionistic" account of justice. Rawls correctly observes, however, that Dworkin treats justice according to a general theory of moral values. Accordingly the constraints placed upon "public reason" are drawn from the ethical conception of values. To this extent, Dworkin's liberalism is "comprehensive."(5) So, too, was Theory.

For two decades friends and foes of Theory read it as a more or less complete "liberal" conception of justice that could compete with other more or less complete theories of the subject. Indeed, almost immediately upon its publication there emerged a considerable body of secondary literature, purporting to detect or develop the implicit ontology and epistemology of Theory in order to make it more serviceable as a comprehensive account of justice.(6) Yet Rawls also had in mind a narrower goal for Theory, which was to show how rational agents can reach consensus about the principles of justice for the purpose of political institutions. Rawls now acknowledges that there is something "unrealistic" about the possibility of reaching a practical consensus when the comprehensive theory itself affords occasion for dispute (p. xvii).

A modern democratic society, he notes, "is chaaracterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines" (p. xvi). Since no one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally, we cannot expect unanimity.

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