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The Making of Modern Liberalism$

Alan Ryan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780691148403

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691148403.001.0001

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John Rawls

John Rawls

(p.505) 26 John Rawls
The Making of Modern Liberalism

Alan Ryan

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the impact of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice on the liberal audience that took it up. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls offers a defense of civil disobedience that would make politically motivated disobedience a much more acceptable part of our political life than either the U.S. Supreme Court or the English judiciary seems likely to contemplate. Furthermore, his views about the subservience of economic institutions to “social justice” place him firmly on one side of what is currently the most fiercely contested dividing line in politics in Britain today. The chapter also considers Rawls's use of the theory of the social contract to support his arguments; his principle of “the priority of liberty”; and his “difference principle.” It asserts that Rawls is safe from those critics who maintain that what purports to be a defense of liberalism actually collapses into a wholesale collectivism.

Keywords:   justice, John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, civil disobedience, social justice, social contract, liberty, difference principle, liberalism, collectivism

ACADEMICALLY RESPECTABLE PHILOSOPHERS are generally obscure figures. They have specialisms just as natural scientists have; they are known to their colleagues in those specialisms and to few besides—just as natural scientists are; they beaver away like their colleagues in chemistry and physics; and like everybody else, they are variably nice to their families and friends. They are almost never known outside their own subject; and they almost never go in for public pronouncements on the great issues of the day. Bertrand Russell used to do it, and was held to have ruined his reputation as a result, even though he used to go to some lengths to maintain that when he wrote on political issues it was “not as a philosopher.” “I wrote,” said Russell, “as a human being who suffered from the state of the world” (Schilpp 1943, 730). Nonetheless, the picture most people now have of the engaged philosopher owes a great deal to Russell.

This makes it all the more surprising that John Rawls’s long and intricate book should have caught the attention of so many people outside the world of professional philosophers. A Theory of Justice is 550 pages long; it is written with tremendous clarity and care, but there is nothing about it to provoke instant excitement. Its clarity puts it in a different universe from the suggestive murkiness of Foucault, Gadamer, or Habermas; there is no suggestion that enlightenment can be achieved only after a prolonged groping in the dark. But unlike Russell, say, who was his equal in clarity but who enlivened his driest work with a constant crackle of humor, Rawls writes with Puritan plainness and sobriety, and also unlike Russell, Rawls has neither been jailed for his opinions nor been accused of fomenting revolution; he has not fired off letters to presidents nor torn up his party card. His views are controversial, but he is not himself a controversialist.

Yet since A Theory of Justice appeared in 1971, it has sparked off more argument among philosophers, and has been more widely cited by sociologists, economists, judges, and politicians, than any work of philosophy in the past hundred years. Its first major review (Hampshire 1972) announced that it was the most significant work in moral and political philosophy to have appeared in a century; comparisons were made with Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics—the book that may be said to have created modern moral philosophy—and with John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and On Liberty. Commentary on Rawls quickly attained the status of a “Rawls indus (p.506) try”; but not even the most hostile critic ventured to suggest that these initial estimates of Rawls’s importance were exaggerated. As we shall see, writers such as Robert Nozick ask some very awkward questions of Rawls. Nonetheless, Nozick begins his scrutiny of Rawls’s theory with the following tribute:

A Theory of Justice is a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging, systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stuart Mill, if then. It is a fountain of lovely ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. . . It is impossible to read Rawls’ book without incorporating much, perhaps transmuted, into one’s own deepened view. And it is impossible to finish his book without a new and inspiring vision of what a moral theory may attempt to do and unite; of how beautiful a moral theory can be.

(Nozick 1974, 183)

It is true, and I will try to explain why, that Rawls’s impact has been greater in America than elsewhere; but the astonishing thing is the way in which a sober-sided Harvard professor should have caught the intellectual imagination of such a wide audience. Part of the explanation is no doubt that large numbers of readers had been waiting for the book for thirteen years—ever since Rawls had suggested in an article in the Philosophical Review (“Justice as Fairness”; Rawls 1958) that the way to develop a theory of justice was to ask ourselves what arrangements we would have agreed on if we had been devising the basic political and economic institutions of our society via a “social contract” made under conditions that guaranteed that contract’s fairness. But the impact on nonphilosophers is hardly explained by that. Let me suggest what does explain it.

A Theory of Justice is a book about rights. American liberals have long been accustomed to arguing about rights, in part because of the place that the Supreme Court has in American politics, and because of the possibility of appealing to rights enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. Battles over capital punishment, like battles over school desegregation thirty years ago, are fought out in the courts as much as in Congress, and they are fought out by asking whether, say, the right not to be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is enshrined in the Eighth Amendment, or “the right to the equal protection of the laws,” which constitutes the Fourteenth Amendment, means that capital punishment is unlawful or that all children have a right to attend the same schools.

A Theory of Justice sets out to discover what rights we have against one another; it sets out to find these rights from first principles—rights against our government, such as the right to a fair trial or the right not to be forced to fight in an unjust war; civil and political rights, such as the right to vote and the right to choose our own occupation; and economic rights, such as the right to protection against poverty and exploitation. What is distinctive about it, and what accounts for its wide influence, is that in doing so, it defends what one might for shorthand call “American welfare-state liberalism”—the view that governments must open up to their citizens the widest (p.507) possible range of civil rights and economic opportunities. It argues that any government that fails to conduct itself on democratic lines, fails to open up economic opportunities, or promote the welfare of its least advantaged subjects, violates their moral rights and has no claims to their allegiance. The boldness of these claims is obvious. Welfare-state liberalism turns out—if A Theory of Justice is right—to be a great deal more than merely the political platform of the New Deal Democratic Party, and something quite other than a political program that happens to appeal to the so-called New Deal coalition of Jewish liberals, labor leaders, and black civil rights activists. It turns out to be a form of politics that is uniquely just and uniquely rational. The plainness of Rawls’s prose perhaps makes it harder to see just how ambitious a project he was embarked on, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was that which accounts for its impact on the liberal audience that took it up. And the ambition has touched at least two noteworthy subsequent attempts to provide a grounding for modern liberalism (Dworkin 1978; Ackerman 1980).

The intellectual support for liberalism was all the more welcome because welfare-state liberals are an intellectually hard-pressed group. They are traditionally abused from the left by socialists who think they hardly begin to understand the real problems of a capitalist society, and hemmed in on two sides by different sorts of conservative. In the American setting, it has been the conservatives who have been the more vociferous—no doubt another reason for Rawls’s appeal to American liberals, who must often have felt that the conservatives had always seemed to have the best of the arguments about rights.

On the one side, paternalist conservatives have always argued that if a government is—as they agree it is—obliged to look after the needy and entitled to use tax revenues to do so, it is entitled to set the terms on which it does so. A paternalist government should decide what books we may read and what religious views we may profess, and should extend its interest in our welfare to our moral welfare as much as our physical well-being. The argument is spelled out by George F. Will in Statecraft as Soulcraft (1984) in avowed opposition to Rawlsian liberalism and to the more familiar American conservatism that owes more to Herbert Spencer than to Edmund Burke. Will stands on the Burkean claim that society is a contract for more than material purposes: “It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection” (Burke 1961, 110).

If the liberals try to argue that although the government has every right to spend its tax revenues on the hard-up, it has no right to police our libraries and our bedrooms, they find themselves facing conservatives of a different sort, who argue that the only defense against interfering governments is complete laissez-faire. I cannot here settle the vexed question whether such enthusiasts for laissez-faire are best described as conservative; F. A. von Hayek has often denied that he is a conservative and has said that he is a liberal pur sang (“pure-blood”); and some English conservatives would repudiate (p.508) Hayek’s “free-market liberalism” precisely because they agree that conservatism is about tradition and paternalism, not about individual liberty and free choice. But here the speech of the vulgar must be our guide; the defenders of laissez-faire are frequently, and reasonably, regarded as conservative because they treat the growth of the welfare state and government regulation of the economy as a series of more or less disastrous moves away from an earlier and more golden age of minimal government. If some defenders of universal laissez-faire would be better described as “anarcho- capitalists” than as conservatives, the public perception of them is sound enough, since they stand up for the capitalist economy to which conservatives are committed and regard governments that tax their subjects in order to pay for a welfare state as engaged in a form of official robbery.

Theorists of this persuasion stake everything on liberty and understand individuals as essentially the proprietors of themselves and their abilities, free to dispose of their “property in their own persons” (Locke 1967, 305) as they see fit. The resulting social theory is agreeably simple and uniquely calculated to keep government at arm’s length in all spheres of life. Everyone must fend for himself with whatever property in his own talents he has been given by nature and whatever other property he can lawfully acquire; no doubt the rich ought to be charitable to the poor, but governments must not try to run a welfare state, for just as censorship violates a man’s right to put what he likes into his own mind, so a welfare state violates a man’s right to do as he likes with his own property. Small wonder that liberals often look wishy-washy and insecure, faced with the certainties of energetic paternalists on the one hand and the cool clarity of the descendants of Herbert Spencer on the other. A Theory of Justice promises relief by showing the liberal’s position to be the consistent outcome of an argument from more or less uncontroversial premises. If its arguments are sound, liberalism is not a patched-up compromise between conservatism and socialism, but a distinctive creed with solid foundations.

A Theory of Justice asks us to engage in a thought experiment. Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves trying to arrange social and economic institutions in the company of others whose consent we have to obtain—in short, he asks us to imagine that we are drawing up a social contract. But there is one crucial feature of this situation: we are to imagine that we know nothing about our tastes, talents, and interests and do not know what social and economic position we shall occupy, nor in what society we shall live. This feature is what Rawls calls “the veil of ignorance” (Rawls 1971, 136–42); the thought is that an acceptable theory of justice ought to tell us what rights we possess by telling us what rules we would have drawn up to govern the way we cooperate with one another if only we had known none of those things that usually get in the way of complete impartiality.

In setting up his theory in this way, Rawls has “returned to Grand Theory” thrice over. Against those philosophers, dominant in the 1950s and 1960s, who restricted philosophy to the analysis of concepts, Rawls has set (p.509) philosophy back on the path followed by his predecessors like John Stuart Mill. A Theory of Justice stands up for controversial political positions. Rawls’s views are not extravagant or extreme, but they are certainly controversial. For instance, he holds that elected officials are under an altogether stricter obligation to obey the laws and uphold the constitution under which they were elected than the rest of us are (Rawls 1971, 112, 344)—a view that President Nixon flouted in practice, and, more interestingly, that his defenders objected to as a matter of theory. Rawls offers a defense of civil disobedience that would make politically motivated disobedience a much more acceptable part of our political life than either the U.S. Supreme Court or the English judiciary seems likely to contemplate (363–68). And his views about the subservience of economic institutions to “social justice” place him firmly on one side of what is currently the most fiercely contested dividing line in politics in Britain today.

A Theory of Justice has also returned to grand theory in setting itself the task of providing a systematic and comprehensive theory of justice, starting from minimal first principles and ramifying out into principles to cover every case. This goes directly against the most common tendency in recent moral and political philosophy, which has generally argued that there is little room to systematize our ideas about social and political values and that all we can do is to “trade off” one social value against another in an intuitive way (Barry 1965, 3–8). Rawls has tried to produce a theory of justice that will rank the components of justice in a determinate and rationally supported way. The similarity between Rawls’s work and that of Kant extends not merely to the way they both espouse a “hypothetical” social contract theory (cf. Rawls 1971, 12, and Reiss 1972, 73–87), but also to the almost “architectural” quality of the resulting theory, with its hierarchical structure of the principles of practical reason, first principles of right, and their personal and institutional implications all neatly labeled and rationalized (Rawls 1971, 109).

Rawls’s third return to grand theory is perhaps his most surprising one: the intellectual apparatus that Rawls has called upon to sustain all this is the theory of the social contract. To go back to contractual ways of thinking is, in the most literal sense, a return, for while the social contract provided the theoretical framework in which Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant all wrote in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is usually supposed that the theory was dismantled by Hume—and the wreckage was buried by Bentham in the early nineteenth century (Hume 1963; Bentham 1949). It is a mark of the distinction of Rawls’s work that none of his critics is prepared to stand up and say that A Theory of Justice is simply archaic. They are unanimous in accepting that Rawls has at least uncovered something that the crude dismissals of Bentham and his fellow utilitarians hid from sight.

The reason behind Rawls’s appeal to contractual ways of thinking is his perception of the central weakness of the commonest—that is, broadly utilitarian—ways of thinking about social welfare. Many people think at first (p.510) sight that it is obvious that the only way to run a society is to maximize the welfare of its inhabitants. Rawls points out that this is at odds with our views about justice. There will be many occasions when we could increase the total welfare of society if we were willing to sacrifice one person for the benefit of all the rest—but most of us would think the sacrifice of an innocent simply unjust. The fundamental principle to which Rawls is committed is that nobody is merely a means to the ends of society at large; to put it differently, he insists on the separateness of persons, on the fact that we are not simply units of account in working out the total welfare. It is this separateness to which contractual ways of thinking do justice and other ways of thinking do not (Rawls 1971, 27).

It is this emphasis on the need to secure each individual against any temptation to sacrifice him or her for the general good that explains the place of two distinctive features of Rawls’s theory. The first of these is how he makes the rules governing the distribution of our fundamental freedoms take absolute priority over all other social rules; this, the principle of “the priority of liberty” (Rawls 1971, 244ff.), causes all sorts of difficulties for Rawls, but it faithfully reflects one of the theory’s crucial motivating ideas: that a theory of justice is in part a theory about the absolute impermissibility of coercing people in various ways. The second feature, that for which Rawls is best known, is his attempt to exploit the so-called maximin principle, familiar from game theory, in explaining what “fair shares” from the results of any cooperative enterprise must look like. It is a well-known theorem in game theory that when playing against an opponent in conditions of uncertainty, the best strategy to adopt is that of ensuring that the worst outcome of the game is as good as possible. We should play in such a way as to minimize our maximum losses or to maximize our minimum gains, whence the abbreviated tags of maximin or minimax. It is a disputed question whether this analysis does apply in the context of Rawls’s own analysis of justice. Behind the veil of ignorance, when we are trying to draw up terms for a social contract, we are not really playing against anyone. The justification of maximin is that our opponents are trying to ensure that we end up with the worst outcome; it is this that makes it rational to ensure that their success is as painless to us as possible. We shall shortly see what this implies for Rawls’s theory; but here we should notice how well Rawls’s defense of his maximin conception follows from the thought that a theory of justice has a substantial defensive component. If questions of justice arise in the context of cooperative enterprises, as Rawls says, they also arise only against a background in which it is likely that those with whom we cooperate are unwilling to let us have more than they have to to secure our cooperation. It is a theory of justice for people in competitive conditions.

A person who is fearful that others may wish to sacrifice him for their benefit and who is asked to construct a set of rules for governing their conduct will look most attentively at what happens to the worst-off person in the society whose rules he is thinking of. It is this that makes the most attractive principle for distributing the fruits of economic and social cooperation (p.511) something like the following: distribute the benefits of cooperation in such a way that the worst-off person does as well as possible. If nothing is gained from an unequal distribution, things should be equally distributed; but if an unequal distribution would make things better for the worst-off person—perhaps by creating incentives that make everyone much more prosperous—then an unequal distribution is better than an equal one, and among all the possible unequal distributions, the best is that which makes the worst-off person as well off as possible. (The intuitive thought is simple enough: If I do not expect to become a doctor, or if there is no way of telling whether I shall become one or not, there is no reason for me to vote for an economic system in which doctors get high salaries, unless I think that this will improve medical services and benefit nondoctors. But if I do expect this to improve medical services and so to benefit me, even if I turn out not to be a doctor, it would be silly to vote against high salaries for doctors simply because I knew I might not turn out to be one.)

This principle is what Rawls calls the “difference principle.” It is clear how it resembles the principle of “maximin”—the principle of maximizing the benefits to you of the least favorable outcome of a competitive game. Nonetheless, it is not obvious that this is what rational contractors would choose in a condition of ignorance. It is vital to Rawls’s own formulation of his theory that they should choose his maximin conception; and, equally, his utilitarian critics have perceived that it is a point in favor of utilitarianism if the theory of rational choice leads to it even in Rawls’s own schema. It is at any rate hard to see why Rawls’s contracting parties should be so adamantly opposed to thinking about anyone but the worst-off person. Since nobody has any reason to suppose that he or she is going to be the worst-off person, it is irrationally cautious to choose rules that are exclusively determined by the aim of making the worst-off person as well-off as possible. If we turn out not to be the worst-off person, we may have made unreasonably large sacrifices of our welfare for the sake of the worst off. On the face of it, the principles that ignorance would dictate would have a strong utilitarian component—that is, if we were rational, self-interested, willing to keep our promises, but otherwise uninterested in other people’s welfare (the conditions Rawls lays down) and ignorant of our future talents and place in society, we would vote for rules that would make the average person as well-off as possible. We might be a shade more cautious and vote for rules that had an “insurance” component and made sure the worst-off person did not do too badly. But we would have no reason to vote to make the worst-off person as well off as possible if this threatened to take a large slice out of the welfare of the average person. To argue for maximin, Rawls either needs some independent reason for supposing that extreme caution is part of rationality—which means going well beyond anything obtainable from game theory—or needs to appeal more directly to our moral intuitions.

It seems to me—though not, it must be admitted, to most of his critics—that Rawls does the latter; in effect, he appeals to what one might call the psychology of the moral outlook to suggest that nobody who cared much (p.512) for justice would be able to look the worst-off person in the eye and say that the society he lived in was just, if all he could point to was the fact that the average standard of well-being was high. There is more than a hint of Rousseau rather than Kant in this, and it is a far cry from the view defended by Nozick that all I need ever say to the worst-off person is that I used only what I had a title to and therefore never violated his rights (Nozick 1974, 225–26).

But this principle is, for Rawls, subordinate to another and more important one. This is the principle that all members of society are to have the greatest freedom consistent with a like freedom for all. Here, there is no question of distributing benefits unequally. It is a matter of giving everyone a number of absolute immunities against the tyranny or coercion of others and a number of positive political rights in addition. The right to a fair trial, to freedom of speech, to freedom of occupation, and to vote all belong in this category of rights to the most extensive liberty consistent with a like liberty for all (Rawls 1971, 60). This principle takes what Rawls calls “lexical” priority over the difference principle; that is, before we may think about economic matters, we must first attend to these civil liberties (61). Even if we could make the worst-off person better off by curtailing civil liberties— by abolishing elections for the sake of economic stability, say—we must not do so, for doing so would violate the personal integrity that it is the whole point of this theory to respect.

This is a good point at which to see how Rawls’s account of our civil liberties extends into a defense of civil disobedience as a proper element in the political process, for this is the aspect of his theory that seized the attention of many Americans in the bitterest years of the Vietnam War. Rawls gives an account of how justice requires governments to be democratically elected and to govern with due respect for the convictions of the minority; law has no claim on us at all unless it is made by due process. But even if a government is properly constituted and generally governs according to both the letter and the spirit of the law, any political system will have lapses from grace. This poses the problem of how we are to behave if a government violates our considered convictions about what constitutes tolerable policy or legislation. Even under a just constitution, citizens who are concerned about the justice of the government they live under will think that their ultimate duty is to preserve the rule of justice and that this takes priority over the obligation to obey any particular law or command. There cannot be any duty merely to obey every rule or every order handed down by their government. Citizens who are sincerely convinced that some act of government violates justice in a serious way certainly may and sometimes must disobey the law as a way of calling attention to the violation and asking for reconsideration.

To do this they must act nonviolently, and they must be ready to submit to whatever legal penalties there are for breaking the laws they break. It is important to see that it can be only in some political systems that civil disobedience (p.513) is possible—that is, only in some societies will there be a consensus on what governments ought and ought not to do, and only in some societies will there be such a universal anxiety that people should be able to obey the law in good conscience that what the disobedient are doing will make the right sense to their opponents. Only where the rest of us are desperate not to trample on the consciences of others will civil disobedience make much sense. Gandhi, for instance, thought that no matter what the appearances, the British really shared his followers’ sense of justice and could be civilly disobeyed. Rawls never quite says whether America is the scrupulous sort of place he has in mind or whether it had ceased to be so during the Vietnam War. But at a time when the government seemed to be fighting an open war against the Vietcong and a covert one against its own young people, Rawls’s reminder of the creative place of dissent in our politics and his insistence that the good citizen owes disobedience as well as obedience to his government was both a noble and a healing gesture.

Not only do questions of civil liberties take priority over questions of welfare, but they also play their part in dictating how the difference principle is to be implemented. So it is not surprising to find Rawls insisting that when we implement the difference principle in economic matters we must make sure that all positions are open to everyone on the basis of equal opportunity (Rawls 1971, 61). That is, the civil liberties that take priority over everything else represent the idea that each person has a basic moral equality with everyone else—the positive face of the proposition that no one is to be merely a means to the ends of others—and since that is so, the only fair terms on which access to positions of advantage can be distributed are those that permit equality of opportunity.

What is surprising in Rawls’s theory is not so much what it asserts as what it denies. The main thing it denies is that we should try to distribute income and wealth according to desert. Most people would think that desert is the central notion in justice; Rawls sweeps it aside. People’s successes and failures spring from characters and talents they have done nothing to deserve (Rawls 1971, 103–4). They are certainly entitled to whatever income they earn by doing the jobs to which they have been appointed; but this entitlement rests only on our having observed the rules of appointment and performance, not on desert—much as I am entitled to occupy the house I have bought in a fair market, regardless of whether I deserve it. It is only the system of rules under which I gain my entitlements that is subject to further question—the question whether they work for the greatest benefit of the worst off.

Again, Rawls’s account of justice has no room for the thought that even if we do not deserve our talents, we still have a right to what we can get from exercising them simply because they are ours. As he puts it, from the standpoint of justice, our talents form part of a common social pool; it is the task of the theory of justice to discover what rights each of us should have over the results of using those talents. To put it another way, Rawls treats property (p.514) rights as entirely a matter of convention; neither “our” abilities nor what we can get for their exercise “belongs” to us by natural right. About all kinds of property right we must ask: what conventional rights would the theory of justice require us to create? Rawls’s theory does not merely support the thought that those who are asked to contribute by way of taxation to the operations of the welfare state have no right to complain about the use of “their” income; it supports the more radical thought that it is not in any deep sense “their” income at all. Many people do not much like the idea that we have no such basic ownership of any of our talents, and Robert Nozick for one has made a great deal of play with the grimmer implications of a wholesale denial of such a proprietorship (Nozick 1974, 206–7). For instance, it is as much an arbitrary matter that an intelligent, energetic, and good-looking woman has those agreeable qualities as that Henry Ford II happens to be born the son of Henry Ford; but do we suppose that the intelligent, agreeable, and good-looking woman is either to be deprived of her advantages or else forced to use them in such a way as to benefit the worst off—say, by marrying a man who is (again through no fault of his own) boring, lethargic, and ugly and therefore much in need of a boost to his level of well-being? Indeed, Nozick asks, where does this leave Rawls’s insistence on our not being mere means to the ends of others? What is left of me if all my qualities and aptitudes are simply part of the social pool?

Rawls has many resources for disarming his critics. To Nozick, he can properly reply that external property belongs in a morally less serious category than do our own abilities, and these in a less serious category again than do our personal affections. Moreover, the transfer of external property, particularly in the form of money, from one person to another can generally be relied on to do some good. To have someone married to you by force destroys just about all the value of the marriage relationship. To account for such obvious points, there is no need to resort to the thought that we have proprietorial relationships to our personal qualities, talents, and the like.

On more straightforward economic issues, Rawls is equally well placed to fight off critics who claim that he licenses something like the continuous interference of a socialist command economy. Although he often claims that justice is consistent with an economy run on welfare-state capitalist lines or on welfare-state socialist lines—since property rights are not part of our basic rights, there is no overriding argument in favor of the private ownership of things like construction companies, railways, or department stores—the theory of justice rules out most of socialism as currently practiced. We cannot have direction of labor except in a military emergency. Since Rawls claims that we can restrict freedom for the sake of freedom but not for the sake of prosperity, the priority of liberty straightforwardly rules out a command economy. Since the same principle dictates that we must give people open access to occupations, most directive planning is ruled out too. Market socialism is consistent with Rawls’s theory, but it is a socialism that no socialist country practices and that no country with a capitalist “social mar (p.515) ket” economy seems tempted to try (cf. Ryan 1984). Moreover, even if the private ownership of businesses is not demanded by Rawls’s theory, the private ownership and unconstrained multiplication of consumption goods plainly are, since only thus can people have secure freedom of choice of lifestyle. This, too, is at odds with the practice of most socialist regimes.

It is no part of my argument that Rawls is safe from his critics just because he is not a committed socialist. What the previous paragraph does show, however, is that Rawls is safe from those critics who maintain that what purports to be a defense of liberalism actually collapses into a wholesale collectivism; and it is part of my argument that it is a virtue of Rawls’s theory that it leaves open the question whether socialist economic arrangements are consistent with a proper concern for justice and liberty.

This, of course, is not what his critics on the left believe. They do not form a monolithic group, so I cannot pretend to sum a general view. But there are what one might call two representative objections to the theory. The first is the objection that it leaves out too much of the real force of egalitarianism. In Rawls’s view, there is no limit to the degree of inequality in society that is “just”; so long as inequalities are necessary to make the worst off as well off as possible—or, rather, better off than the worst off would be in any other system we might reach—their extent is neither here nor there. No one brought up on writers like R. H. Tawney (1932) would accept that. Genuine egalitarians want to close the gap between the best off and the worst off even if in worldly terms the worst off do somewhat less well than they otherwise might as a result. It is not clear to me how hard this criticism bites on Rawls’s theory of justice. It must do so to some degree, since Rawls’s theory explains the place of equality in economic life as a feature of the self-interest of the worst off and cannot therefore treat equality as a moral and political value with a life of its own. But it may not bite hard, since by the time Rawls himself has argued for the virtues of a society in which envy can have no place, he has begun to sound a good deal more like Tawney himself (Rawls 1971, 536ff.).

Rawls’s Marxist critics, on the other hand, have less difficulty in establishing their distance from him. Marxism takes almost the polar opposite of stances at all levels. Methodologically, Marxism is hostile to “rational man” theories and hostile to “state of nature” theories; against Rawls, all Marxists argue that he performs the characteristic sleight of hand of apologists for capitalism by building in to human nature the features of competitors in the capitalist marketplace. Thus, it is not a truth about human nature that we need to be offered incentives to develop our talents, but a truth only about men in competitive conditions who will give nobody anything for nothing (Lang 1979, 123ff.; Macpherson 1973, 87ff.). But only by building in such false assumptions can Rawls motivate his theory. The retort, of course, is that the record of Marxist attempts to run society on other assumptions about human nature has been so depressing that it seems safer to believe that human nature is more or less as Rawls’s theory supposes it to be, and (p.516) that the picture of men building a decent society on the basis of mutual advantage before they go on to create relationships of a more fraternal and altruistic kind is politically prudent as well as morally compelling.

Morally (if one can use that term of a Marxist view), Marxism and Rawls’s theory are equally at odds. There is no room in Rawls’s theory for such a notion as “alienation”—the idea that men have created a world that now oppresses them as an alien power demands a theory of history and a philosophy of human nature quite at odds with the world of prudent calculators in a timeless bargaining situation. There is room in Rawls’s theory for the other concept on which Marx’s condemnation of capitalism rests, the concept of exploitation, but Rawls would not analyze exploitation in the same way, and the result would be very different from Marx’s own concept of exploitation. Rawls would think of exploitation as a matter of well-placed bargainers driving iniquitous bargains with poorly placed bargainers, while Marx tried to show that exploitation occurred not in exchange, but in production. Again, the morality appealed to by Rawls is individualistic and supposes that the significant actors on the moral stage are individuals who mind about the conscientiousness of their actions; Marxists look rather to classes and consider the extent to which their actions promote their interests and the purposes of history, and place more store by solidarity than by justice. To say whether Rawls has adequate defenses against all this is quite impossible. It is even truer here than it usually is that the issues at stake go so deep that they involve the adoption or rejection of something like an entire weltanschauung rather than a particular theory. What one can say is that insofar as Rawls claims that the ultimate test of his theory lies in its appeal to the reflective intuitions about justice that he takes all his readers to share, the conviction of highly intelligent and open-minded Marxists that they share no such thing is at any rate disturbing.

Even if one is neither a conservative nor a Marxist, one may have doubts about the solidity of the theory. One important doubt is about the priority of liberty over other values, and about the doctrine associated with it, namely, that liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty. In a general way, it is easy to see Rawls’s point—liberals would hardly be liberals if they were willing to sell their freedom for a 2 percent rise in gross national product. On the other hand, liberals would hardly be liberals if they thought that a commitment to democracy entailed that we should institute majority rule tomorrow afternoon in a society where we knew for certain that the first thing the majority would do would be to pass anti-Semitic legislation and the second thing would be to pass a law restricting voting rights (Rawls 1971, 228ff.).

But Rawls goes further than that, and in doing so surely makes a mistake. The thought that liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty hardly survives reflection on the criminal law: it is not for the sake of the liberty of my fellows that my freedom to hit them on the head is curtailed—it is for their safety—and it is not for the sake of their liberty that my freedom (p.517) to steal their goods is curtailed either (Hart 1975). Conversely, Rawls himself agrees that there will be conditions when the absolute priority of liberty makes no sense; if people are so hard up that they cannot use their freedom, then we may curtail liberty for the sake of making their freedom more valuable to them by increasing their prosperity. At this point, one may feel that the theory is beginning to lose its simplicity and elegance and that we are slipping back toward the view that all we can do is trade off various values against each other—Rawls, like a good liberal, is insisting that we exact a high price for losses of liberty, but not doing anything more distinctive than that.

In short, Rawls’s theory offers a large and tempting target to critics. People who dislike the methodology complain that we cannot find out what our rights and duties are by asking what they would have been if they had been created by contract. Critics on the left complain that the attempt to make civil rights sacrosanct in a way that economic welfare is not ignores all those countries where survival, let alone comfort, demands tough, illiberal governments that can force birth control, efficient irrigation, sensible farming methods, and the other requisites of development upon a backward population. Critics on the right who care less for the Third World than for the rights of Westchester County either conspire with the Left to argue that the various emergency clauses that Rawls allows to override the absolute priority of liberty can be invoked so often that they let governments do anything they like, or else throw up their hands in horror and refuse to believe that Rawls is so wicked as to think that we do not deserve our riches and do not really own our own abilities.

But reading Rawls is a particularly salutary experience for British readers. British politics is unaccustomed to a strenuous insistence on people’s rights—our liberalism does not rest on the thought that people have absolute freedom of religious profession, free speech, and the like, but on the thought that it does more harm than good to push dissenters around; and our welfare arrangements rest on a vague feeling that we ought to be nice to those worse off than us. To come across a writer arguing for 500 pages that even if it did do some good, we must not push dissenters around and that regardless of our feelings about them, the hard-up have a right to be as well off as possible is a useful shock to our insular and excessively casual modes of thought.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

Before the publication of A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls had written several articles that were much discussed; in addition to “Justice as Fairness” (1958), there was “The Sense of Justice” (1963a), “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice” (1963b), and “Distributive Justice” (1967); since the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls has contributed to a (p.518) symposium on the book in the Journal of Philosophy (1972) and has expanded some of its arguments in “Fairness to Goodness” (1975) and in his Dewey Lecture, “Kantian Constructionism in Moral Theory” (1980). His reply to Hart’s doubts about the “priority of liberty” comes in “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority” (1982).

The critical literature is enormous; there is a ten-page bibliography of articles from the period 1971–76 (Fullinwider 1977). Happily, fourteen of the most interesting of them are reprinted in the anthology by Daniels (1975). There are book-length studies of Rawls by Barry (1973) and Wolff (1977). But the impact of Rawls is visible in most recent work in political theory, for instance, in that by Miller (1976), Dworkin (1978,) Fried (1978), and Walzer (1983). The study by Nozick (1974) remains the best route into the strengths and weaknesses of Rawls’s work as well as an outstandingly interesting book in its own right.

Much of the work on Rawls has been concerned with the coherence and validity of the attempt to derive rights from a contractual framework, and has been highly critical. Scanlon (1982) attempts to rescue the insights of contractualism; a balanced essay by Hart (1979) is in the same vein. Lastly, it should be noted that Parfit (1984) defends utilitarianism by conceding Rawls’s claim that the separateness of persons would be an argument against utilitarianism and then proceeding to argue that persons are not, in a deep sense, separate after all.


Bibliography references:

Ackerman, B. 1980. Social Justice in the Liberal State. New Haven, Conn.

Barry, B. 1965. Political Argument. London.

———. 1973. The Liberal Theory of Justice. Oxford.

Bentham, J. 1949. “Principles of Morals and Legislation” and “A Fragment on Government.” Edited by W. Harrison. Oxford.

Burke. E. 1961. Reflections on the Revolution in France. New York.

Daniels, N. 1975. Reading Rawls. Oxford.

Dworkin. R. 1978. “Liberalism.” In Public and Private Morality, edited by S. Hampshire. Cambridge.

Fried, C. 1978. Right and Wrong. Cambridge, Mass.

Fullinwider, R. K. 1977. “A Chronological Bibliography of Works on John Rawls.” Political Theory 5:561–70.

Hampshire, S. 1972. “A New Philosophy of the Just Society.” New York Review of Books, Feb. 24, 1972, 38–39.

Hart, H.L.A. 1975. “Rawls on Liberty and Its Priority.” In Reading Rawls: Critical Studies of “A Theory of Justice,” edited by N. Daniels, 230–52. Oxford.

———. 1979. “Between Utility and Rights.” Columbia Law Review 79:828–46.

Hume, D. 1963. “Of the Original Contract.” In Essays, 452–73. Oxford.

Lang, W. 1979. “Marxism, Liberalism, and Justice.” In Justice, edited by E. Kamenka and A. Erh-Soon-Tay, 116–48. London.

(p.519) ]Locke. J. 1967. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by P. Laslett. Cambridge.

Macpherson, C. B. 1973. Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval. Oxford.

Miller, D. 1976. Social Justice. Oxford.

Nozick. R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York.

Parfit, D. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford.

Rawls, J. 1958. “Justice as Fairness.” Philosophical Review 67:164–94.

———. 1963a. “The Sense of Justice.” Philosophical Review 72:281–304.

———. 1963b. “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice.” In Nomos 6: Justice, edited by C. J. Friedrich and J. W. Chapman. New York.

———. 1967. “Distributive Justice.” In Philosophy, Politics, and Society, 3rd series, edited by P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman. Oxford.

———. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.

———. 1975. “Fairness to Goodness.” Philosophical Review 84:536–64.

———. 1980. “Kantian Constructionism in Moral Theory.” Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 9: 515–72.

———. 1982. “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority.” In The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 3, edited by S. McMurrin. Cambridge.

Reiss. H., ed. 1972. Kant’s Political Writings. Cambridge.

Ryan, A. 1984. “Socialism and Freedom.” In New Fabian Essays on Socialism, edited by B. Pimlott, 101–16. London.

Scanlon, T. M. 1982. “Contractualism and Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism and Beyond, edited by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams. Cambridge.

Schilpp, F. 1943. The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell. New York.

Tawney, R. H. 1932. Equality. London.

Walzer, M. 1983. Spheres of Justice. New York.

Will, G. 1984. Statecraft as Soulcraft. New York.

Wolff. R. P. 1977. Understanding Rawls: A Critique and Reconstruction of “A Theory of Justice.” Princeton, N.J. (p.520)