Liberal political theory at its best

Justice as Fairness: A RestatementJustice as Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Justice as Fairness was released in the final years of Rawls’ life and gives an updated statement of his ideas laid out in A Theory of Justice and other writings. Though I am far from an expert in political philosophy, it seems to me that Rawls does liberal political theory about as well it can be done. Robert Nozick’s praise of Theory in Anarchy, State and Utopia seems fitting for this work as well:

“It is a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’ theory or explain why not…. Even those who remain unconvinced after wrestling with Rawls’ systematic vision will learn much from closely studying it. I do not speak only of the Millian sharpening of one’s views in combating (what one takes to be) error. 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 whole theory can be” (183).

The major weakness of Rawls’ theory (to me) is that it presupposes a liberal constitutional democracy, and builds a theory from there. But this raises the question of how it really speaks to the human experience outside of liberal democracies.

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C.S. Lewis on the purpose of collective action

From C.S. Lewis’ lecture “Membership,” as it appears in The Weight of Glory:

The secular community, since it exists for a natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind–if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else–then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. (161-162)

One of the key distinctions that Lewis makes in the lecture is that to be a member originally meant being like an organ in a body, not exactly like all of the other members. Modern mass societies and groups operate in a very different way.

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.”

Centralizing liberalism and pluralist liberalism

A friend passed on this article from Reason a few months ago, which gives a helpful review of a book on two strains within liberal political theory. Here is Roderick Long’s description of Levy’s taxonomy of liberalism:

For Jacob Levy, a political theorist at McGill University, this disagreement between Mill and Tocqueville [over whether local or national tyranny is more dangerous] is emblematic of a dispute that runs through the entire history of liberalism (using the term liberalism in the broad academic sense that includes both pro-free-market classical liberals and pro-welfare-state modern liberals). In Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, he traces two strands running through the liberal tradition, strands differentiated by their attitudes toward “intermediate groups” (that is, groups intermediate between the individual and the centralized state), a category in which Levy includes “churches and religious groups, ethnic and cultural groups, voluntary associations, universities,” and the family, but also “levels of government below the center—towns and cities, or the provinces and states of a federation.” Levy justifies including governmental and private groups in the same category on the grounds that the dispute he’s tracing tends to do so as well.

One strand within liberalism—a strand associated with, for example, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Destutt de Tracy, and Mill—sees these intermediate groups as arenas of “hierarchy and subordination,” driven by “local prejudices” and “excessive attachment to custom,” and all too often hostage to the “insular power of in-group elites,” to be contrasted with the more “publicly accountable” character of the centralized state.
The other strand—associated with Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Lord Acton, and Tocqueville—sees intermediate groups as, in themselves, a vital expression of individuals’ freedom of association, and in their consequences, a crucial site of “institutional resistance to expansions of state power” and of “alternatives to acting through the state.”

In short, the first strand, which Levy calls “rationalist,” prioritizes “the freedom of persons within groups,” while the second, dubbed “pluralist,” prioritizes “the freedom of groups from the state.”

Given its epistemological associations, the term rationalist is perhaps an unfortunate choice; “cosmopolitan” might have been better. Levy stresses that his use of “rationalist” is meant to invoke not “theories of knowledge or standards of argumentation,” but rather “processes of bureaucratic rationalization,” and in particular of state demands for “rational accounts” to justify “the practices of non-state groups”; in brief, “Weber, not Descartes.”

But Levy himself seems to bring in a broader range of connotations than this, since he associates rationalism with simple principles (Levy cites Mill’s “very simple principle” as an expression of rationalism) and legal uniformity (Tracy’s insistence that all states should have “the same civil and criminal laws,” on the grounds that “a true proposition is true everywhere,” is described as the epitome of “rationalist philosophical distrust of institutional pluralism”).

Yet neither simplicity nor legal uniformity is necessarily incompatible with favoring group autonomy in preference to central direction. Think of the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who certainly favored simple principles (the “non-aggression axiom”) and legal uniformity (the “libertarian law code”), yet who nearly always sided with intermediate groups in any conflict with the centralized state, even to the point of excessive generosity to the Confederacy. Likewise one can be in favor of, for example, uniform weights and measures without seeking to have such uniformity imposed by legislative fiat, trusting instead to consumer preferences to motivate convergence. It’s not because of governmental edict, after all, that no banks supply gigantic triangular ATM cards. Universalism at the level of principles is compatible with pluralism at the level of institutions.

Robert Nisbet’s critique of John Stuart Mill

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet argues that the modern state and modern political and economic thought have consistently assaulted smaller-scale social groups and institutions — the family, religious groups, local communities, labor associations — that can mediate between the state and the individual, often in the name of freeing the individual from the limits imposed by these groups. Yet these assaults have resulted in the increasing power of the modern state, which itself tries to fulfill the sense of belonging that these smaller associations provided.

Nisbet also writes that while modern liberal thought treats individuals as autonomous, modern liberals did not realize that much of what they took for granted about individual motivation and behavior was taught by the groups that people belonged to, rather simply existing in the individual. Here is his commentary on John Stuart Mill:

By almost all of the English liberals of the nineteenth century, freedom was conceived not merely in terms of immunities from the powers political government but, more significantly, in terms of the necessity of man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind. Freedom was held to lie in emancipation from association, not within association.

Thus in what is perhaps the noblest of individualistic testaments of freedom in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, there is the clear implication that membership in any kind of association or community represents an unfortunate limitation upon the creative powers of the individual. It is not Mill’s definition of individuality that is at fault. This is matchless. The fault lies rather in his psychological and sociological conception of the conditions necessary to the development of individuality.

Mill is generous in his praise of localism, association, and the “smaller patriotisms” when he is discussing administrative problems of centralization. But in matters pertaining to the nature of man and motivations he is too much the child of his father. For him as for the elder Mill, individuality is something derived from innate qualities alone and nourished solely by processes of separation and release. (page 211 in the 2010 ISI edition)

Crito and Rousseau

I assigned Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo for class this semester and last. In the Crito, Socrates’ friend tries to persuade him to escape from Athens before his execution, which prompts Socrates to do his usual dismantling of his interlocutor’s ideas. Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates pretends to converse with the laws of Athens. To the statement that the legal decision was unjust and therefore can be disobeyed, he has the laws reply as follows:

“And was that our agreement with you?” the law would sar, “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?” And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: “Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.” What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

I had read this before, but I don’t think that I had realized the parallel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the “general will of society” and society’s right of life and death over its members.

The quote from Crito was taken from the Internet Classics Archive given the ease of copying and pasting. I read the Crito in Five Dialogues (Hackett, 2002, trans. by Grube/Cooper).

Liberalism and its enemies

Ross Douthat pointed to a long piece by Abram Shulsky on the tendency of liberalism to provoke “counter-ideologies,” from positivism to various types of socialism to Islamism:

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

His conclusion makes sense:

So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.

The “incidental” weaknesses (the “not invented here” syndrome and the stresses of transition) can perhaps be expected to fade over time, in some places more slowly than in others, no doubt. But the inherent ones [the lack of consensus on liberalism’s tenets and its exclusion of the “seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul”] are another matter. Our only defense against them, in the long run, is the inculcation in the body politic of a sense of moderation that understands the inherent limits of politics in the search for human happiness.

Of course, this is easier said that done because it requires those involved in politics to accept limits. The more I understand about the modern state (ca. 1648-present) and modern politics, the more evident it seems to me that political figures and theorists promote the state as the universal solver of all problems that truly matter, making it difficult for modern political leaders of whatever stripe to stay out of the happiness-promotion business.