Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

In or out? on Benevolent Absolutisms in "The Law of Peoples"

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

In or out? on Benevolent Absolutisms in "The Law of Peoples"

Article excerpt

BENEVOLENT ABSOLUTISMS occupy a rather unclear position in Rawls's The Law of Peoples. On the one hand, these states, because they are not well ordered, do not belong to the Society of Peoples, which consists of those societies that are both law abiding and well ordered. On the other hand, unlike other societies that are either not well ordered or not law abiding (or both), benevolent absolutisms are not to be assisted or sanctioned into becoming well ordered. Given Rawls's aim of expanding the Society of Peoples for the benefit of lasting peace and stability, this situation seems wanting. In light of this, I argue that The Law of Peoples should be altered in order to clarify the theoretical status of benevolent absolutisms, and I discuss alternative ways of doing so. First, I consider including these states into the Society of Peoples. This solution is problematic in part because it would implausibly strain the notion of liberal tolerance. Second, I consider merging the two criteria for membership in the Society of Peoples--well-orderedness and adherence to the Law of Peoples--by making the latter a part of the former. As it turns out, this does not solve many problems, and I therefore suggest the further move of including a crucial aspect of the well-orderedness criterion into the very conception of human rights contained in the Law of Peoples. This, I argue, does clarify the position of benevolent absolutisms. These states no longer meet one of two criteria for inclusion into the Society of Peoples. They now fail the only criterion there is. Further, making this aspect of well-orderedness a part of the conception of human rights opens the possibility of subjecting benevolent absolutisms to sanctions. The reason is that, on Rawls's view, respecting human rights excludes the imposition of justified sanctions.

1. INTRODUCTION

A central theme in the later writings of John Rawls is how individuals and groups with incompatible worldviews can live together in peace and stability. The question is crucial in both the domestic and international realms. In Political Liberalism, Rawls presents a notion of legitimacy that aims to facilitate stable and peaceful cooperation between adherents to a range of different and incompatible comprehensive doctrines. He claims that, in liberal constitutional democracies marked by reasonable pluralism, it would be unreasonable for citizens to insist that the basic structure of society should be organized in light of their own particular doctrine. Rather, all citizens should accept some ground rules for the organization of the political sphere that all reasonable persons, regardless of their comprehensive doctrines, can endorse. (1)

In The Law of Peoples, Rawls extends some of his core ideas on reasonably just constitutional democracies to the international sphere. (2) More precisely, he formulates the principles that ought to guide liberal peoples' foreign policy. (3) Just as members of comprehensive doctrines within a domestic society should accept political liberalism, so should peoples accept an ideal international law--the Law of Peoples--that is to regulate international cooperation and interaction. This is a contested claim from a liberal point of view, since adherence to the Law of Peoples does not require internally liberal institutions.

For theoretical purposes, Rawls proposes a (non-exhaustive) ideal-typical categorization of societies. The first type consists of reasonable liberal peoples, which are stable democracies organized in light of a liberal political conception of justice, of the kind outlined in Political Liberalism. The second type is decent peoples. These could take various forms, but Rawls mainly discusses a type that is hierarchically organized according to a religious doctrine. The third type is so-called burdened societies, "whose historical, social, and economic circumstances make their achieving a well-ordered regime, whether liberal or decent, difficult if not impossible. …

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