Since a new survey of political theorists has confirmed the towering, unrivaled reputation of John Rawls, allow me to state briefly why this thralldom is a disaster for political philosophy. Prof. Lawler is of course right that Rawls is boring, but he’s getting bigger rather than going away, and so we must try to do something about it. And, in fact, if you manage to sift through the smokescreen of technicalities you can find a radical and ambitious project (even if it’s not clear that Rawls knows how much he is claiming).
Throughout his career Rawls is very consistent on a kind of absolute separation between the public (Justice, political morality) and the private (“comprehensive views,” whether religious or philosophical). Another way of saying this is that he affirms the absolute priority of the Right to the Good: it must be possible to frame an ethical theory for the public/political realm in complete abstraction from any conception of a good human life. This is Rawls’ central assertion, and one that must be fundamentally contested. (To be sure, a rough and ready separation between private and public spheres, for example religion and politics, characterizes any liberal sensibility. But discerning observers, such as Tocqueville, have always understood that such a practical liberal separation itself draws upon ethical and religious resources that cannot be spun out of any pure theory of Rights. Rawls in effect disdains traditional liberalism’s practical accommodations as mere unprincipled “modus Vivendi.”) For in attempting to emancipate the question of rights from the question of the good, Rawls in effect dismisses the central questions of the tradition of political philosophy (human nature, the authority of reason vs. that of revelation, the best life and the best city, etc.).
Of course Rawls wants it to appear that he is just setting those questions aside to the “private” realm, where individuals can them take them just as seriously as they may be inclined. But this is just a pose, and Rawls doesn’t always sustain it very well. He is too smart and, finally, too realistic to ignore the full practical implications of his project. Particularly in his late didactic synthesis Justice as Fairness, the quintessential spokesman for academic left-liberalism lets down his guard a bit and reveals the effectual truth of his project more candidly than in his other works. For what his project for separating political morality (his Justice as Fairness) from traditional religious or philosophic morality implies is the eventual supremacy of his Justice as the consensual moral ground, thus the rendering at best “optional” or contingent of all “private” moral/religious standpoints.
This is why the retreat of the later Rawls from “comprehensive liberalism” is not really a retreat at all. He says moral liberalism is not required as a comprehensive view – but then political liberalism (not as modus Vivendi but as moral teaching) trumps all comprehensive views, which are now considered strictly malleable, optional. Rawls is quite candid (in the midst of quasi-technical discussions buried in the interior of chapters) in acknowledging that politics is sovereign and must finally exercise a decisive authority over the moral education of humanity. His liberalism is unmistakably a reconstructivist liberalism, one that embraces the task of the moral re-education of humanity. Political values “govern the basic framework of society and the very groundwork of our existence,” he writes.
Political liberalism is described, with apparent modesty, as a mere “module” that can be appended to any number of “personal” comprehensive views. But only the module is mandatory, authoritative – all the comprehensive views of which it is a module are strictly optional; Rawls “respects” them by respecting our capacity to change them – and he says this in so many words: to respect us as moral persons is to respect our capacity to change our fundamental moral or religious beliefs so as to align them with Justice as Fairness. Thus all earlier “comprehensive” views, whether religious or philosophical, become optional “modules” which Rawls asks us to adapt to the only absolute ethical teaching, that is, Rawls’ own liberalism. The requirements of political “fairness” are sovereign over all moral or religious concerns. In the end, Rawls’ project is perfectly Hobbesian in its essential meaning, but more stealthy – and of course without the appeal to “nature,” except, to be sure, the nature of left-liberal professors.
Rawls knows very well that the public and the private cannot be contained in distinct spheres, as many might wish. He knows they interact with each other, and he is quite candid about the direction in which the influence must go. In discussing the question of stability, he thus makes no bones about the fact that “psychological” tendencies incongruent with his liberal society must in the long run be suppressed and the human personality shaped so as to fit permanently with his liberal project.
Thus he leaves it “to individual citizens as part of their liberty of conscience” to settle how they think the great values of the political domain are related to the other values they accept. If they manage to find away to accommodate their non-political values, that’s fine. Freedom of conscience is the freedom to “adjust” one’s “comprehensive doctrine” – in fact, finally, the freedom to be a Rawlsian, one way or another.
Thus, as Allan Bloom argued with such force many years ago (“John Rawls vs. the Tradition of Political Philosophy”), Rawls does not address but effectively liquidates the whole tradition of political philosophy. To excise the question of the good from the question of the right (or of rights) at the outset is radically to truncate political philosophy – in fact to cut off a little contemporary branch and to call it the whole tree. If the problem of what constitutes a good life is banished, then there is no authority but “society” – not actual society, with all its diverse opinions about the good, but the mystical ideal of society uncontaminated by unauthorized “comprehensive views” or “special psychologies,” but the “rational” society represented, of course, by its liberal academic priesthood.