The names of the Rawls

My very last post (I hope) on Rawls’s A Theory of Justice as seen by H.L.A. Hart. (A specialised subject, but a surprisingly interesting one. Well, I was surprised – this is the seventh post in what was originally going to be a series of one.)

Learning about Rawls via Hart, I find myself fascinated by Rawls’s ideas but very much out of sympathy with them – as Hart was himself, although I don’t think my reservations are quite the same as his. In this post I want to look at some of the labels which – it occurred to me as I read Hart’s review – can be applied to Rawls, or to aspects of what Rawls does. It’s all going to be a bit “blind men and the elephant”, but hopefully it will indicate the shape of something coherent.

Rawls, bourgeois liberal
One of the more obvious ways to pigeonhole Rawls would be to situate his liberalism within his time and place: don’t say ‘liberal’, say ‘bourgeois liberal’. This would seem straightforwardly appropriate while also suggesting the location of some hard limits to his thought (even if they were limits that Rawls managed to avoid running up against). Speaking as a Marxist, I’ve got some sympathy for this approach, but I’m not sure how much about Rawls it would really tell us. Although treating money as a simple fact of life is a dreadful faux pas for anyone who took the first chapter of Capital seriously, that of itself probably isn’t enough to earn Rawls the B-word. Again, Rawls alludes to personal property ownership as a basic liberty, but it’s clear that this doesn’t include the ownership of the means of production, and debatable whether it includes land. While Rawls clearly wasn’t a Marxist – and, just as clearly, was a liberal – it doesn’t seem particularly helpful or enlightening to label him a bourgeois liberal.

Rawls, right-Libertarian
Can we follow Rawls’s liberalism in another direction? There’s certainly something striking about his seeming incuriosity about harm and protection from harm. One might expect the need to protect individuals from avoidable harm to be acknowledged as a goal of any society; liberties, in this perspective, are rights held by individuals in those situations where the pursuit of safety through prohibition produces greater harms. Instead, Rawls seems to take liberties as primary and define harms largely in terms of encroachments on them. This line of thinking seems, at least, consonant with the outlook of those who view government interventions as illegitimate, however protectively they might be intended – and view the harms independent citizens do to one another in robust caveat emptor terms (or even robuster vae victis terms). That said, Rawls’s world is clearly not one in which the weak go to the wall, let alone one in which this outcome is celebrated; moreover, his relative lack of interest in private property as a basic right is even less characteristic of right-Libertarianism than of bourgeois liberalism.

Rawls, conservativeright-Hegelian
As I noted several posts ago, there’s something oddly cautious about some of Rawls’s formulations – it’s a conservative utopianism, or (perhaps) a Hegelian sublation of contemporary liberalism, with an emphasis on the preservation rather than the suppression (see digressive footnotes). Thus, when he writes that “rights to the unimpeded access to public places and to the free use of social resources to express our political views … when granted to all, [would be] so unworkable and socially divisive that they would actually greatly reduce the effective scope of freedom of speech”, I feel he’s taken rather more of the limitations of our real world with him than somebody starting from scratch really needs to. (If every public space were Hyde Park Corner, would that ‘actually’ reduce effective freedom of speech? Necessarily?) Of course, those adjectives do a lot of the work – “unimpeded access to public places”, “free use of social resources” – but then, don’t they always? There’s a sense, in other words, in which Rawls’s maximalism is complicit with a kind of conservatism – as if to say, “ideally, public transport would take everyone to wherever they want to go, door to door, in the shortest possible time and free of charge… but since that’s not possible, how much should a bus pass cost?”

Rawls, quietist
I wonder, too, about the particular human fundamentals on which Rawls rests his model – the two ‘moral powers’, the powers to co-operate reasonably and deliberate rationally. I wonder about this choice of starting-point because of the consequences it seems logically to have. As we have seen, Hart puzzled over the possibility of conflicting valuations of different liberties – the liberty to roam versus the liberty to enjoy private property in land; the liberty to play loud music versus the liberty to enjoy peace and quiet – and queried whether Rawls’s scheme could address this. Rawls’s development of the metric of ‘significance’ with regard to particular liberties, together with the device of the veil of ignorance, seems to cover it. Parties in the original position would not know whether they were landowners or not, or for that matter whether they enjoyed loud music or not, but would know that the interests of each were best served by a balance of liberties which would promote the moral development of all. The interests of both the landowner and the trespasser, and the preferences for both loud music and a quiet life, would necessarily be taken into account. But this is quietist on quite a deep level: the ideal outcome seems to be, not merely a system without injustice, but one without conflict. The point is not that conflicts of interest and diverging preferences would be taken into account, but that they would always already have been taken into account. I find it hard to reconcile this line of thinking with Rawls’s evident assumption that political processes would operate in his imagined society; I’m not sure what point politics would have. This is not, in other words, the work of someone who believes that human history has always been and always will be driven by scarcities and conflicts of interest.

Rawls, utopian
Or perhaps – and in a way this is the most troubling charge of all – Rawls did believe that human history had been driven by conflict, but saw it (in Stephen Dedalus’s formulation) as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. But in that case we’re basically just worldbuilding, and for me that’s not terribly interesting (cf. comments on Hart on Nozick; see also footnote on Marx).

Rawls, Pragmatist
Perhaps the simplest explanation – and one which corresponds reasonably well to the overall shape of the elephant – is the one I alluded to in an earlier post. Whether Rawls would have called himself a Pragmatist I don’t know, but I wonder if he believed, like Dewey, in working with the materials to hand: starting with what we think we know, what we think matters and what we think works well, discarding anything that can’t be justified from (what we think of as) first principles, and then working outwards and upwards. In which case, the charge of worldbuilding is both accurate and irrelevant: Rawls was building an ideal world, but he was building an ideal world based on some very basic and widely shared fundamentals. It’s an ideal world, but it’s our ideal world – isn’t it? And if not, why not?

Digressive footnotes

On Hegelian sublation (nothing to do with Rawls, but who knows when I’ll mention sublation again?): the sublation (Aufhebung) of the concept is a dialectical process encompassing preservation and suppression. Not ‘realisation’. You see this phrase ‘realisation and suppression’ a lot in Situationist-influenced writing; I’m not sure how it got started or by whom (Vaneigem?) but it ain’t Hegel. I’m guessing somebody once described the higher-order supersession of the concept – which is the end-result of the Aufhebung – as its realisation, somebody else misread that and we were off.

On Marx: it’s interesting that Marx is often criticised as a utopian, not so much because he designed ideal worlds as because he refused to do so, beyond that famous aside about rearing cattle after lunch or whatever it was. Starting from a blank slate is bad enough – insisting on leaving the slate blank is even worse, somehow. And yet, if you look at the Communist Manifesto, at least the initial shape of the future society is right there, in only too much detail. It’s some sort of tribute to the power and groundedness of Marx’s thought that Marxists are still denounced as impractical dreamers – or, at worst, loaded with the actual crimes and errors of other Marxists – rather than being accused of wanting to organise labour brigades and socialise the institution of marriage.


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