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. Theory, he admits, did not reckon adequately with the fact of reasonable pluralism--including a pluralism of doctrines which express or support political liberalism.
Political Liberalism does not abandon the main question of Theory: What are the fair terms of social cooperation between citizens who are free and equal? Nor does it depart from the earlier work's principles. The rational contractors continue, in the new account, to affirm two principles of justice: (1) that each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme for all; (2) that social and economic inequalities must accord with conditions of fair equality of opportunity with respect to offices and positions, and must be to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society (pp.5-6). These principles are entitled to govern the distribution of political benefits and burdens. No basic liberty can be restricted or denied solely because of our estimation of the public utilities, or because of our understanding of perfectionist values (p. 292). All of this is left intact (p. 7).
What changes is the background of the question, which is at once historical and political. "How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime? What is the structure and content of a political conception that can gain the support of such an overlapping consensus?" (p. xvii). The ideas discussed in Theory -- for instance, the priority of the right over the good, and the primary goods protected and distributed by the principles of justice--must become "political ideas" (p. 203).
They become "political ideas" insofar as the original position is now modeled on the shared fund of implicitly recognized ideas and principles of a democratic polity.(7) The original position is still hypothetical and ahistorical, but it is reworked in Political Liberalism to raise to the surface those principles implicit to a polity such as our own. Nowhere is the new emphasis on political rather than moral theory more apparent than in Rawls's treatment of the primary goods, namely, that minimal list of goods considered by the rational contractors in the original position. In Theory, the primary goods--rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, and self-respect--were those things needed by any agent, because they are the elements of any rational plan of life.(8) Rawls now says that the primary goods should not be viewed as all-purpose features of life plans, because this conception is insufficiently political. It is a philosophical conception of what human flourishing requires in terms of its minimal essentials. Critics have …
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Publication information: Article title: John Rawls, 'Political Liberalism.'. Contributors: Hittinger, Russell - Author. Journal title: The Review of Metaphysics. Volume: 47. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 1994. Page number: 585+. © 2009 Philosophy Education Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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