Thanks to Samuel and others for an excellent discussion (just below).   Though I do not wish to disappoint, I find myself unconvinced that I have gone too far in criticizing Rawls, and in fact tempted to go further.

1.  Epigones:  Of course Rawls, no more than Strauss, say, cannot be held completely responsible for his followers.  Both have projects, which implies a willingness to mobilize followers, who by definition follow and do not altogether rethink.  My critique of Strauss’s High Straussian followers is, if not well-known, at least “on the record.”  But a certain Straussian narrowing cannot really be compared with the Rawlsian attempt to settle or rather put aside the big questions once and for all.  Which brings me to . . .

2. Liquidation:  Rawls’ project is fundamentally Hobbesian, but does he even know this, or fully appreciate it?  He cannot because it seems so obvious to him that Hobbes’ dismissal of the Good is . . . right, that he has no way of appreciating Hobbes’ boldness, or therefore, his (Rawls’) own boldness – or what would be boldness if he knew what he was doing.  (Likewise for Rousseau and, most spectacularly, Kant.)  And notice that Samuel seems to disagree not only with Strauss but with the moderns he means to defend when he demotes Aristotle to just one star in a rich constellation.  All the early moderns, including, very explicitly, Martin Luther, understood perfectly well that everything depended on severing human action from the notion of the natural perfection of the human soul, a notion of which Aristotle’s classic formulation is classic . . . for good reason.  Given this, there is something to the Straussian idea that there’s only one authoritative (ancient) tradition, which includes the (modern) counter-tradition.  (I leave to another time the interlinked questions of Christianity and postmodernism.)

But it is not right to describe the Aristotelian core of the tradition as attempting to “derive the right from the good.”  To be sure, the good enjoys a certain priority in classical political philosophy, but there is also an awareness of the impossibility of simply “deriving” the right from it.  Thus Aristotle suggestively links the intrinsic rightness of action with the good of the soul and of the city, but he is very aware that no definitive “derivation” is possible.  Thus the dialectic between theory and practice remains open.  This is precisely the dialectic the moderns attempt to close, but claiming that the good can be derived from or altogether subordinated to the right.  We see this dream very much alive in Rawls, especially as he succumbs to lyricism on the last page of A THEORY OF JUSTICE: purity of heart, or the heart of the truly best life, is living from the standpoint of the absolute priority of right.  Call this modest, if you like, in the way that Calvin or Descartes were modest.  In a way, Rawls’ ambition, because it is unknown to himself, is at the same time much smaller and much bigger than those of his great predecessors.  One thing it is not, finally, is “intermediate.” This, I think, is a reason to teach about it. Rorty’s charm (considerable, perhaps, though not exactly to my taste) is that he is in some way aware of being a man of ambitions at once tiny and huge (is the ambition that there should be no significant ambitions tiny or huge?). 

3. Comprehensiveness:  If all the professional political theorists already recognize that Rawls’ apparent modest re. “comprehensive doctrines” is sham, then I’m glad (albeit a bit surprised) to learn of this.  But excuse me, would not the whole program collapse if we understood it to be fundamentally “theological?”  In any case, Samuel no doubt noticed that I’m not the one arguing for ignoring Rawls.  He gets more weeks in my Contemporary Political Theory class than any other author, even though this cramps my style on Heidegger, Strauss, etc. 

4.  Rawls’ catching the wave of academic liberalism and his providing a plug-and-play research program are two dimensions of the same phenomenon, no?

5. Here I have to disagree massively.  I think Rawls’ conceptualization of liberalism has massively penetrated beyond the academy to the legal academy and the public intellectual and legal realms generally.  Ronald Dworkin would be one early case in point (is he a has-been already?).  Rawlsianism has managed for many academics and therefore for many intellectuals and therefore for the public that listens to intellectuals to suppress the tension between classical liberalism and de facto socialism (in principle unlimited entitlements), encouraging the illusion that one can make individual liberty a  first principle and at the same time consider the demands of whatever category might consider itself “least advantaged” to be morally authoritative.   Even more conspicuously, have we not all noticed the tendency of even would-be moderates to assume that intellectuals or experts have the right to perform a gatekeeper function separating authorized “public reasons” from what regular (especially religious) people might wrongly consider a “reason.”  Thus the sovereignty of the right over the good is close to becoming an effectual truth, and I cannot believe Rawls and Rawlsianism have not played a massive role in making this move respectable and plausible, when it should be considered outrageous.

I conclude – to reconnect with our Great Books discussion below– that one cannot now be a partisan of greatness without first (or in a first moment, at least) being a partisan of the ancients against the moderns.  For Hobbes did in a way produce Rawls and Rorty, and I cannot conceive a more devastating critique.  I will continue to teach Rawls in order to teach the necessity of arriving at this conclusion.  We need now to take Aristotle seriously in order to take Hobbes seriously.  But there is no denying that this means finally to take Aristotle’s side against Hobbes (and Luther & Calvin too — I’ll throw them in for free.)

Now, once we’ve taken Aristotle’s side to open the question, we are in a position to make the Christian and postmodern move of confronting the undecidability of the ranking of the good and the right, of theory and practice, of virtue and freedom.

More on: Etcetera

Articles by Ralph Hancock

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