Did Rawls Restore Political Philosophy?

David Corey’s excellent and well-balanced discussion of, and tribute to, Rawls on the anniversary of the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice [TJ] perhaps suffers only from not being tribute enough. It is not only true to say that TJ was the most important work in political philosophy in the 20th century but also that in many respects it continues to be, if only as a generator of new forms of political philosophizing. Let’s begin with why the work became so important (taking for granted the effect of Rawls’ academic pedigree and his being at Harvard). Unless one was around back then, it is easy to forget that political philosophy was dominated by two schools of thought: Marxism and utilitarianism. We use the term “political philosophy” carefully here. Political theory in political science departments may have been more diverse, but such was not the case in philosophy. Rawls’ TJ burst upon the scene as a whole new way of doing political philosophy.

Furthermore, Rawls’ conclusions were amenable to the “liberal” political orientation of the academy while at the same time not precluding concerns of “conservatives.” He was, for example, friends with James Buchanan who admired Rawls’ “social contract” approach to theory, even if their final conclusions differed. The confluence of academic standing with newness of approach both opened the floodgates to criticism that could come from a variety of perspectives as well as liberating political philosophy from the shackles of Marxism and utilitarianism. Corey is certainly correct to catalogue the criticisms of TJ, but we should recognize that Nozick was not just a critic, but an offspring of the climate created by Rawls.

The philosophical climate created by Rawls not only opened the doors to philosophers learning about such things as “public choice” theory, but through Nozick, Rawls also made libertarianism more generally visible. Today, reflection on Rawls has led to alternative schools or approaches to political philosophy, such as one finds in the now large body of criticism of “ideal theory” and the school of “public reason” often associated with Jerry Gaus. The rights approach to liberalism we ourselves would advocate may have preceded Rawls, but it came out of hiding because of Rawls and Nozick as well. Thus, whatever one thinks of Rawls’ particular doctrines and arguments, he should be celebrated for helping to create a world where differing approaches to political philosophy can flourish.

As Corey also notes, Rawls’ liberalism encourages us to reflect upon the nature of liberalism itself. Noting what one regards as flaws in Rawls does suggest to us to “build upon the ruins.” The ruins here are the desirable political conditions on the one hand (peace, order, legitimacy) and the requirements Rawls imposed upon those conditions—namely, individual freedom, formal equality, and “reasonable” pluralism—on the other. But why not leave the ruins as ruins to be visited perhaps on intellectual vacations? One could respond by saying that if one wants to be a liberal, or to theorize as one, these are the parameters in which one must work. That, of course, is certainly a way to go. It just leaves the door open to going elsewhere. We can have peace, order, and legitimacy in non-liberal regimes. Why then honor the constraining conditions Rawls thought we should impose upon that desired order?

In one respect, Rawls may have been uninterested in this last question. He may have just wanted to talk to liberals about how best to look at liberal theory, much like Nozick wanting to consider the implications of a rights-based account of libertarianism without messing with a theory of rights. However limited one might regard such a project, it certainly does have value as we have seen from the various accounts of liberalism Rawls’ work has spawned. However, the walls may have tumbled leaving these ruins for another reason—the foundations were shaky. The approach of worrying about foundations, or “comprehensive doctrine,” is something Rawls explicitly rejected.

Foundationalism here is the view that we must pay attention to non-political concerns in order to ground properly the political. Such concerns would include theories of human nature, moral theory generally, and even issues of metaphysics and epistemology. Although we have argued elsewhere that foundational concerns are often implied, even if not explicitly addressed, Rawls seems convinced that foundational issues are both unnecessary for constructing good theory and irresolvable to any useful degree. Yet if Corey is right that there are ruins, perhaps building upon them requires digging further into the foundations.

Building upon the ruins through foundations does not imply that the emerging structure must look like the old or that new rooms cannot be added.

The other bit of building Corey asks of us is to embrace cooperation as a basic tenet of liberalism. Corey claims that Rawls wants this and suggests that a better way to get there is to limit the scope of the coercive state, rather than expand it. We would certainly agree. Unless we wish to conflate cooperation and conformity, however, cooperation has to be about something. One candidate is self-interest as we might find it exhibited in markets. Yet markets may need a structure within which the cooperation to be found there can occur. In and of itself, self-interest may not be consistent enough to ground a stable political order. If we continue to follow Corey on the need for cooperation, another candidate for grounding cooperation is sharing a common acceptance of certain principles. Principles have foundations, and to ignore or remove those foundations reduces principles to opinions, and thus of little structural value. We do not mean to suggest that other factors, such as tradition, culture, social institutions, and the like should be ignored when thinking about cooperation. However, such factors contributing to cooperation are best secured by adherence to relevant principles. In this regard we get back to the need for foundations, and hence foundationalism.

Building upon the ruins through foundations does not imply that the emerging structure must look like the old or that new rooms cannot be added. The intellectual pluralism generated by the TJ has been all to the good. A lot of useful and interesting theory and approaches to social science have been the result. In the end, though, the “pluribus” requires an “unum,” suggesting we need to repair to deeper foundations than simply the political.

In this regard, and especially at this time, it is vital to note that many of the philosophical fashions that led Rawls to reject more comprehensive philosophical theorizing are no longer as dominant as they once were. The logical positivist understanding of ethics, metaphysics, theology, and science, which was virtually dead at the time of TJ’s publication but still cast its anti-metaphysical shadow upon philosophy, is now dead and gone. More importantly, Rawls’ claim that one can abandon or evade metaphysics in developing a political philosophy has been subjected by Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre to withering criticism. In ethics, while there are still those who defend versions of ethical noncognitivism and appeal to the so-called naturalistic fallacy, they no longer monopolize ethics. There is further nothing in the current philosophical scene that requires confining ethics to moral constructivism and avoiding moral realism. Indeed, there are powerful advocates of moral realism through the traditions of natural moral law and virtue ethics—to mention just a few: Julia Annas, Paul Bloomfield, Talbot Brewer, Philippa Foot, Anthony Lisska, and Henry B. Veatch. And though these approaches to ethics have a long intellectual history, which should really be seen as something positive, they also show great vitality and relevance today.

More widely considered, there are certainly versions of so-called Postmodern thought afoot, which range from crude versions of relativism to highly sophisticated forms of neo-Kantian and neo-pragmatic epistemic constructivism, but again they do not dominate. There are powerful arguments in defense of both metaphysical realism and what might be loosely called “Aristotelian essentialism.” Further, there is a profound recognition that our thinking about metaphysics, epistemology, and in fact the sciences, has to transcend many of the of metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that characterized so much of Modern philosophical thought. In other words, there is a growing realization that there needs to be a truly post Modern approach to our comprehensive thinking. We are speaking very broadly here, but just to illustrate briefly the sort of thing we see happening: For example, a truly post Modern approach can find common ground between such apparently diverse thinkers as Wittgenstein and Aquinas—through a rejection of certain Cartesian epistemological starting points (we discuss this in chapter 7 of The Realist Turn). The movement away from the metaphysical and epistemological strictures of Modern philosophy is well on its way.

Our point here is simply that the philosophical scene is not as bleak and monolithic as it is often said to be. We would insist that instead of wringing our hands about not having solved many of the great philosophical issues and therefore “concluding” that we cannot find answers, as is the case with those opposed to forays into comprehensive doctrines, or instead of assuming that we are awash in an ideological sea that is an acid that will destroy any claim to know the world, that we simply take on the task of developing accounts of human nature and human good that can support an ethics and political philosophy. The hope here is that such an endeavor might provide a basis for both moral and political liberty. This task in itself will not provide philosophical unity, but if we come to see it as our task, that might just suffice.