Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition

Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition

Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition

Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition

Synopsis

Often considered the greatest American political philosopher of the twentieth century, and the most important liberal theorist since John Stuart Mill, John Rawls enjoys a practically sacrosanct status among scholars of political theory, law, and ethics. In Illiberal Justice, David Schaefer offers the most thorough challenge to Rawls's doctrine yet published, demonstrating how his teachings deviate from the core tradition of constitutional liberalism as exemplified by leading American statesmen from the founders through Lincoln and beyond. Illiberal Justice is the first comprehensive overview of all of Rawls's writings, emphasizing the continuity in his thought and intention to a greater extent than other scholars have done. Schaefer offers a fundamental critique of both Rawls's conception of political philosophy and the policy judgments he derives from his "principles of justice." Schaefer argues that Rawls's failure to ground his teaching about justice in a serious analysis of human nature or an empirical grasp of political life is symptomatic of a larger crisis within contemporary liberal political and jurisprudential theorizing. Although Rawls is commonly viewed as a welfare-state liberal, Schaefer stresses that his writings actually embody a radical transformation of liberalism in the direction of libertarianism that deviates sharply from the American liberal tradition. Citing empirical evidence of the persistence of political and economic opportunity in America, Schaefer challenges Rawls's allegations that our polity suffers from grave injustices. He points out the strikingly apocalyptic tone of Rawls's last writings, in which Rawls even questions whether human existence is worthwhile if his principles are not actualized. Illiberal Justice is not only a critique of Rawls's political program and philosophic methodology, it is also a defense of the American constitutional order against Rawls's dogmatic theorizing, which Schaefer argues has exercised an increasing, and detrimental, effect on our jurisprudence. By combining a thorough critical exegesis of Rawls's texts with a broad engagement with the tradition of political philosophy and American political thought, Schaefer makes an important contribution to both our understanding of Rawls and the enterprise of political philosophy.

Excerpt

Besides having taught political philosophy at colleges in Massachusetts for the better part of our careers (and both having studied with Norman Malcolm), John Rawls and I had at least one other thing in common. Each of us published a book during the 1970s that he almost immediately wanted to revise. In Rawls's case, the book was A Theory of Justice (1971), which won instant acclaim as one of the twentieth century's preeminent works of political theory. Even though Theory was the product of roughly two decades of work, much of it previously published in scholarly journals, it was in circulation for only a couple of years before Rawls began responding to critics by modifying some details in his doctrine as well as his mode of presenting it. (The most important revisions were included in his 1993 book Political Liberalism and a volume based on his class lectures from the 1980s, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, published in 2001.)

As for me, the book I soon wished I had written differently was Justice or Tyranny? A Critique of John Rawls's "A Theory of Justice," which appeared in 1979. Like Rawls's first book, my much shorter tome was the offshoot of several previously published articles. But, as I realized in retrospect, its tone was sometimes inappropriate for making my points effectively.

In subsequent decades I have had the opportunity to set forth more moderately phrased, and therefore I hope more persuasive, assessments of Rawls's writings in other articles and reviews. But more than a year before Rawls's death in November 2002, I decided that the time had come to offer the comprehensive treatment of Rawls's oeuvre that is contained in the present volume. Besides issuing Rawls's last treatise, The Law of Peoples . . .

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