Ralph presents his case against Rawls below. Although I agree with much of it, I think he goes too far. Here are a few rather disordered suggestions intended less to vindicate Rawls than to complicate the picture:
1. We need to distinguish between Rawls an sich (as it were) and what Ralph describes as academic “thralldom” to Rawls. On any open-minded reading, both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism are major intellectual achievements, which should be treated with respect. Problem is, that respect is too often transformed into uncritical reverence. I don’t blame Rawls for this more than I blame Strauss, Voegelin, or other thinkers who have inspired somewhat cultish devotion. Few teachers are well-served by their disciples.
2. It is simply not true that Rawls “liquidates the whole tradition of political philosophy”. That’s because, pace Bloom, the tradition is not univocal concerning the questions to be answered and the right way of trying to answer them. In fact, as Ralph observes, Rawls’ project is related to Hobbes’. According to Rawls himself, it’s even more directly influenced by Bodin and the French politiques. That’s without mentioning the well-known features that Rawls’ thought shares with Rousseau’s and Kant’s. One thing that unites these philosophers is their hostility to Aristotle, and Aristotelian attempts to derive the Right from the Good (their relation to Plato is more complicated). And, with all due respect to Strauss and the Straussians, Aristotle is not definitive of the single authoritative tradition of political philosophy–he’s one star in a much richer constellation of authors and ideas.
3. But what about the substance of Rawls’ doctrine? Here, the criticism that “political liberalism” is much more comprehensive than its supposed is absolutely correct–although, frankly, that’s not very controversial in academic political philosophy. And not only comprehensive. As Thad points it out, it’s also essentially theological–or at least rooted in a specifically protestant conception of religion. This part is more controversial.
Which is why I’ve been looking into this issue recently. Although I’m still working through the texts (including the recently published statements on religion), I’m pretty confident that Rawl’s wasn’t trying to deceive anybody, but systematically underestimated the separability of liberal moral and political concepts from their theological background. That’s a philosophical and historical error that should be criticized, in classrooms and in print. It’s not an excuse for ignoring Rawls.
4. Nevertheless, it’s true that a highly scholastic, historically- and religiously-unreflective brand of Rawlsianism has become popular in many departments of philosophy and political science (although not nearly so popular as it was ten years ago). Why did that happened? Some assume it’s because Rawls justifies the default left-liberalism of most academics. That may be true in some cases. But an even more powerful reason is that Rawls provides a plug-and-play research program, which is just what graduate students and struggling young professors need to publish early and often. It is far easier to master the technical apparatus of TJ than to learn something about, say, Bodin.
5. But has any of this had the slightest practical impact? I must say that I rather doubt it, as Raymond Geuss has argued extensively from the left. What distinctively Rawlsian principles has anyone heard invoked in a politically or juridically relevant way? In fact, does Rawls really say anything that couldn’t be described as Locke outside the Locke-box?