Going off the Rawls

By Gordon, David | The American Conservative, July 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

Going off the Rawls


Gordon, David, The American Conservative


Libertarians have adopted the Left's favorite modern philosopher, but that doesn't make him right.

WRITING IN THE Times Literary Supplement, the British philosopher Jonathan Wolff recently observed that while there might be a dispute about the second most important political philosopher of the 20th century, there could be no dispute about the most important: John Rawls. His student Samuel Freeman says that Rawls's work will be recognized "for centuries to come."

The basis of this acclaim is readily apparent. Rawls provided a comprehensive philosophical system that justified the main preoccupations of the centerleft, which dominates academic life, and put classical liberals and conservatives at a disadvantage. Indeed, Rawls's doctrine of "public reason" would prevent conservatives from bringing many of their most distinctive concerns into public discourse at all. Nevertheless, since his death in 2002, a few libertarians have sought to appropriate Rawls for their own purposes.

Rawls's stellar reputation stems mainly from one book. When he published .A Theory of Justice in 1971, he awoke, like Byron, to find himself famous. Before that, Rawls was well known in philosophy departments as one of the brightest people working in ethics, but he had written only a few articles. People in the field knew he had been composing a major treatise, and when it finally appeared, most reviewers were ecstatic. Stuart Hampshire, writing in the New York Review of Books, called the book the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of World War II.

Rawls was born into a well-connected family; his father was one of the most prominent attorneys in Baltimore. He attended Princeton University, fought in the Pacific during World War II, and thereafter led the life of a quiet academic. For most of his career he taught at Harvard, where generations of graduate students regarded him with affection. He was modest and considerate of students. In one famous anecdote, he worried that the sun might be shining in the eyes of a student he was examining and asked whether he would like another seat. He prepared his lectures carefully, though according to one of his students Rawls was the most boring speaker he had ever heard.

To understand Rawls's theory, one first needs to grasp what he was reacting against. The dominant approach in preRawls political philosophy was utilitarianism: how can we maximize the satisfaction of people's preferences? At first sight, utilitarianism seems plausible-what else should we do but try to achieve the most satisfaction possible for everyone?-but the theory has some odd consequences. Why, for example, is rape wrong? A utilitarian would have to answer that the pain to the victim outweighs the pleasure to the rapist. Surely, though, this is not why rape is wrong; the pleasure the rapist gets shouldn't be counted at all, and the whole thing sounds ridiculous. (By the way, Judge Richard Posner, who might be called Jeremy Bentham redivivus, accepts just this view of rape in bis Sex and Reason.)

As Rawls pointed out, there is a more general problem that throws utilitarianism into question. Some people's interests, or even lives, can be sacrificed if doing so will maximize total satisfaction. Suppose executing the Danish cartoonists will appease a Muslim mob, and that doing so increases total satisfaction. A utilitarian would have to endorse the execution. As Rawls says, "there is a sense in which classical utilitarianism fails to take seriously the distinction between persons."

This verdict was in one respect surprising. Utilitarianism in its origins was strongly connected with classical liberalism, a view that stresses individual freedom. Two of the greatest utilitarians, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, were classical liberals, though not of the strictest observance. As the examples discussed above illustrate, though, utilitarianism can have anti-individualist implications. …

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