An evaluation of John Rawls’ political philosophy

Writing in The American Conservative in 2008, David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute gave what I thought was a helpful overview of Rawls’ strengths and weaknesses. A couple of snippets:

Biography affecting philosophy:

As Thomas Pogge has noted in his recent biography John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, Rawls was especially sensitive to issues of luck because of a sad occurrence in his own life. Two of his brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. Pogge calls the loss of the brothers the “most important events in Jack’s childhood.” In 1928, the 7-year-old Rawls contracted diphtheria. His brother Bobby, younger by 20 months, visited him in his room and was fatally infected. The next winter, Rawls contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died.

Something that I’ve wondered about when reading A Theory of Justice:

There are other aspects to Rawls’s thought, however, that should give libertarians, and certainly conservatives, pause. Rawls never abandoned the principal tenets of his theory of justice, but in his 1993 work Political Liberalism, he changed course in one respect. He began emphasizing that in modern constitutional democracies like the United States, disagreements over fundamental values and issues such as abortion can threaten the stability of society. Given the degrees of disharmony, what are we to do?

His answer recalls the original position of TJ. Individuals should, once more, put aside their own conceptions of the good. But this time, in deliberating on these divisive issues, people must rely only on “public reason.” This consists of principles that everyone, regardless of his conception of the good, will have cause to accept. By an odd coincidence, if public reason is used properly, we will arrive at exactly the same principles as those set forward in TJ. It is difficult not to wonder whether Rawls’s enterprise is merely an attempt to find arguments in support of the political opinions of professors of his social class.

An example will show how public reason works. If your religion forbids abortion, you cannot appeal to this fact in political discussions, since religious views do not form part of public reason. Later, Rawls modified this rigid view. His final position was that you could mention your private views as long as you also had an argument from public reason to support your stand. Rawls’s introduction to the 2005 paperback edition of Political Liberalism states, “Certainly Catholics may, in line with public reason, continue to argue against the right of abortion. That the Church’s nonpublic reason requires its members to follow its doctrine is perfectly consistent with their following public reason.”

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3 comments

    • Yes, it’s one of those stories that’s really hard to contemplate.

      Have you read any Rawls? Now that I am reading Justice as Fairness and have read your explanation of why you do not have an apologetics site, I was wondering if there’s an overlap between his idea of public reason and your focus on what is shared and public in our culture.

      • Only snippets — it’s a big hole in my education; there are many such holes in my education. There might be an overlap, but, if you’ve read my posts and understood them, and also read Rawls, you’ll know about any overlap better than I know.

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