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Justice As Fairness: A Restatement:
Edited by Erin Kelly


by John Rawls
214 pages,
ISBN: 0674005112


Post Your Opinion
Rawls' Road to Political Liberalism
by Rory A. A. Hinton

For the past thirty years political theorists have been preoccupied in large part with trying to answer the following question: How is it possible for a stable and just society of free and equal citizens to exist when these citizens are profoundly divided by reasonable, though incompatible, religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines? Anyone familiar with this question will know that it finds its contemporary genesis in a book that single-handedly breathed life into a subject that Peter Laslett once famously declared in 1950 as essentially dead. The subject is political philosophy. The book is A Theory of Justice. The author is John Rawls.

Despite the length and complexity of Theory (it is close to 600 pages in its first edition) its objective is simple and straightforward: to promote the notion of a well-ordered society characterized by a sense of justice that Rawls calls justice as fairness. The fairness consists of the kind of political conditions under which citizens would agree on the most reasonable principles of justice. The more fair these conditions are, the more just a society will be. Rawls illustrates his thinking by asking the reader to conceive of a group of citizens in what he refers to as the original position: various individuals, made temporarily ignorant of their socio-economic status, their religious and ethnic origins, and their gender, have to decide upon rules to govern their society. Given this temporary 'veil of ignorance', Rawls argues that the people would agree upon the following principles of justice: First, that every person would be entitled to basic rights and basic liberties (the liberty principle); and second that inequalities in personal wealth would be permitted only if such inequalities are to the advantage of the least well off (the equality principle). Such principles provide the basis for the kind of democratic constitutional liberalism that Rawls thinks is the best form of politics for contemporary Western society.

Theory is now an extensively analyzed text. The presuppositions, methodologies, and conclusions that Rawls adopts, uses, and reaches in this text are well known and well criticized. Through a series of articles and books since the publication of Theory in 1971 Rawls has tried to respond to these arguments. One of the most serious criticisms addresses his conception of a well-ordered society. The major feature of Rawls' well-ordered society is that every citizen would endorse the notion of justice as fairness as a comprehensive philosophical doctrine (liberalism). Rawls presupposes in Theory that everyone in the original position would not only maintain liberal values, but would also promote any principles of justice that would reflect these values. The problem here is that a modern democratic society is not only characterized by a plurality of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines, but also by a plurality of incompatible yet reasonable doctrines. To the extent that Rawls' well-ordered society is based upon the philosophy of liberalism, it would be inconsistent of Rawls to expect every citizen to accept his notions of the principles of justice. It would be inconsistent because these principles are precluded from becoming the generalized norm for political association right from the start. Any single comprehensive doctrine cannot be generally endorsed by everyone under a democratic form of human association. Plurality of ideas and beliefs will always be a democratic fact of life.

With the publication of Political Liberalism in 1993, Rawls directly confronts this problem by making a crucial distinction between philosophical and political liberalism. Justice as fairness is now best understood as a distinctively political concept. Such a concept is warranted, if at all, by public political values and not by non-public beliefs and ideas. Political liberalism rightly acknowledges the existence of such beliefs, but it does so by demonstrating how a political conception of justice can become part of what Rawls calls an overlapping consensus between different-minded citizens. This political consensus is the best we can hope for in a modern democratic society. It is an instance of the best kind of pragmatic compromise between citizens holding incompatible views who still desire to live together in relative harmony.

In Rawls' latest book Justice As Fairness: A Restatement the notion of justice as fairness is presented as still the most reasonable form of political liberalism by restating and recasting the basic arguments for the two principles of justice. The book has two aims: Firstly, to rectify the more serious flaws in Theory; and secondly to create a unified conception of justice by combining all of his writings on political theory from 1971 up to the present. This unified conception has the function of ensuring that the justice we are dealing with as citizens and as political theorists is public and political, not private and philosophical.

Is it possible to sustain the distinction between philosophical and political liberalism? And if so, is the kind of well-ordered society that Rawls recommends attainable? In order to answer these questions it is helpful to consider the historic example of how Enlightenment social theory produced its own compromise with religion. When Thomas Jefferson declared that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god" he made it clear that politics can (and should) be separated from religious beliefs. The kind of liberalism associated with the Enlightenment began with the Reformation and the subsequent controversies it produced over religious toleration. It eventually became necessary to end the religious wars that resulted from the social consequences of Protestantism. Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration in many ways set the precedent for future political compromise. Locke's take on toleration made it possible for citizens and social theorists to remain justifiably indifferent about religious differences. In other words, the Enlightenment compromise basically privatized such issues. What a religious believer loses, therefore, in public political utility she gains in private religious liberty. She has the right and the freedom to theorize about whether Christ is present in the Eucharist if she desires, so long as her theorizing does not influence the rights and freedoms of Buddhists or Jews who could care less about the details of Christian theology. As long as religious believers do not become fanatics they can theologize as much as they want. The fanaticism of the present-day Taliban in enforcing public religious conformity in Afghanistan is a real-time example of why privatization of religious beliefs is a prerequisite for liberal democracy.

My thinking here is that what Jefferson and Locke did for theology Rawls does for philosophy. He merely carries the privatization one step further. This is not to say that Rawls' political liberalism is an instance of Enlightenment liberalism (it is not). Rawls makes it possible maintain the political fruit of the Enlightenment compromise without maintaining its philosophical baggage. He demonstrates that it is unnecessary to provide a philosophical foundation for politics in the same way that Enlightenment social theory made it possible to maintain that theology is publicly useless when it comes to politics. In fact what made it possible for Locke and Jefferson to privatize theology was a practical necessity. The intolerance that produced the post-Refomation wars of religion had to stop. It had proved too costly. Similarly, it is possible for Rawls to sustain the distinction between philosophical and political liberalism because it is publicly necessary to do so. This may be the only way to answer adequately the question that was posed at the beginning of this review.

But does Rawls offer 'true' insight into this problem? Irrespective of what we may mean when we say a theory is 'true', we always use this word when we think that our various beliefs and theories require some kind of justification. But this requirement always raises the following question: "Justified by whom and for what end?" It always raises the "spectre" of pragmatism.

Some critics might object to this pragmatic line of inquiry by claiming that political theories are useful because they are true: they describe the true nature of our political world. However, this kind of claim leads to a dead end. Following Rawls' lead in his stress on pragmatic compromise it is important to point out that we have no criteria for ascertaining whether we have accurately described "the true nature of the political world" apart from the actual real-time success in predicting and controlling our public lives. The proliferation of incompatible philosophical doctrines indicates as much. Whose philosophy? Which criteria? Therefore, to say that a political theory is 'true' is just to say that it is successful in just this pragmatically compromising sense.

Once we see that political ideas are deemed successful only when they help us achieve our practical public goals, then we can see that other forms of thought (religious, philosophical, and moral) can and should be considered equally successful if they too help us achieve our different private goals. The pragmatic character of political liberalism not only sustains the public/private distinction, it also contributes towards its usefulness (truth). Whether Rawls' version of political liberalism continues to be true is for future political inquiry to decide. As long as the conditions for this political inquiry remain as just as humanly possible, then Rawls' work will continue to be given the fair hearing it rightly deserves. At last count Theory alone has sold over 250,000 copies world-wide and has been translated into more than 20 languages. The statistics speak for themselves.

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