what was Rawls doing?

John Rawls was the most influential recent academic political philosopher in the English-speaking world, or at least the most influential academic who defended liberal views. If you take him at face value, he is a very abstract kind of thinker. In fact, he says in section 3 of A Theory of Justice:

    My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original social contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.

In a famous methodological move, he defines the “original position” as one in which persons are ignorant of all morally irrelevant facts so that each cannot “tailor principles to the circumstances of [his or her] own case.” By making us ignorant of most empirical facts about ourselves, Rawls makes his theory seem more abstract than even Kant’s.

As Rawls works out the actual framework of justice, it turns out that the government should do certain things and not others. Parties to the original contract would want there to be “roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should be not be affected by their social class.” To achieve this outcome, the government should fund education and channel educational resources to the least advantaged. I presume it should also regulate employment contracts to prevent discrimination, thus enacting the principle of “careers open to talents.” But the government should not be in charge of child-rearing, even though families affect people’s capacities and motivations. (“Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances.”) The state should compensate people from unhappy families, but should not take over the family’s traditional function.

Why not? One answer might be that Rawls was insufficiently radical and consistent. He arbitrarily excluded the family from his program of reform because of prejudice. I have a different view than this–more favorable to Rawls’ conclusions but less supportive of his methods.

I don’t believe that his reasoning was nearly as abstract as he claimed. Instead, I think he was a reader of newspapers and an observer of life in America, ca. 1945-1975. He observed that the actual government did a pretty good job of providing universal education but could still improve the equality of educational opportunity. The government policed employment contracts increasingly well to prevent racial and gender discrimination, albeit with room for improvement. But the government didn’t do child-rearing well. (The foster care system was only an emergency response that, in any case, relied on private volunteers.) Rawls derived from the immediate past and present some principles for further reform.

That interpretation makes Rawls a good thinker, sensible and helpful, but not quite the kind of thinker he believed himself to be. In my view, he was less like Kant (elucidating the universal Kingdom of Ends from the perspective of pure reason) and more like Franklin Roosevelt, defending the course of the New Deal and Great Society in relatively general and idealistic terms. Or he was like John Dewey, critically observing reality from an immanent perspective. The reason this distinction matters is methodological. As we go forward from Rawls, I think we need more social experimentation and reflection on it, not better abstract reasoning about the social contract.

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