What Is Living and What Is Dead in John Rawls’s Theory of Justice?

What Is Living and What Is Dead in John Rawls’s Theory of Justice?

High Liberalism

John Rawls and the crisis of liberal democracy.


John Rawls is widely considered one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism are classics in political philosophy, helping resurrect the fields of applied ethics and normative theory from the near-dead and giving rise to countless commentaries, analyses, and criticisms in nearly two dozen languages. After the Cold War, Anglo-American ethics and much political theory were caught up in debates about the meaning of normative terms like “justice” and “equality.” Did they have a rational basis, or did they merely express the emotions and dispositions of their users? Advocates of socioeconomic reforms were confronted with the charge that top-down structural change would result in some form of totalitarianism, and so they had to show how redistribution could fit into a liberal model. Rawls fought on both fronts: He showed that ethical and political concepts did have rational bases, and he came to believe that liberal democracies, to achieve justice, needed to undertake major social reforms. By doing so, his work provided the most important philosophical justification for coupling liberal democracy with the welfare state, despite his later criticisms of welfare state capitalism.

Yet as we approach the centenary of Rawls’s birth, not all is well with his vision or, for that matter, with liberal democracy itself. Rawls’s “high liberalism”—a term that is also used to refer to the work of Ronald Dworkin and Jürgen Habermas—is said to be dead, slain not only by feminist and critical race theorists who have exposed how it tends to exclude women and people of color from the community of just persons but also by political realists who have a much darker view of human nature and the capacity of reason to guide our emotions.

As a result, contemporary liberal political philosophy has taken on a funereal mood. Books with titles like Why Liberalism Failed and How Democracies Die abound. Few, however, ask the other side of these questions: What in Rawls’s and the 20th century’s high liberalism was so vital to begin with? Andrius Gališanka’s new book, John Rawls: The Path to a Theory of Justice, serves as a good start in answering this question. Offering a biographical portrait of Rawls, who died in 2002, and drawing from newly accessible archived materials—including from the courses taken and taught by Rawls at Princeton, Cornell, and Oxford universities and from the Rawls archive at Harvard, which houses papers from 1942 to 2003—Gališanka tracks the development of Rawls’s philosophical work as it evolved from his early inquiries into theology and the roots of evil to his secular justification for distributive justice. He stops short of considering Rawls’s later writings, which eventually confronted the political implications of his theory more explicitly. But the book nonetheless leaves us with a compelling account of Rawls’s evolution and reminds us how philosophically rigorous the justification of Rawlsian high liberalism is.

Rawls was born in Baltimore in 1921, the second of five children, to well-to-do Protestant parents. His father was a lawyer who was an informal adviser for Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie. His mother was involved with the League of Women Voters and worked on Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential campaign. Despite his parents’ political activities, Rawls was relatively apolitical as a young man. After attending parochial school in Connecticut, he went on to Princeton, at first intending to study art and architecture before developing an interest in religion and, in particular, theological ethics. Although his Episcopalian upbringing was quite conventional, in his last years as an undergraduate, Rawls found himself gripped by a strong sense of the reality of sin, faith, and divine presence. The early 1940s, after all, were a frightening moment, and for the young Rawls these questions were not only theological but also deeply moral—a subject that he explored in his undergraduate thesis, “A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.”

Rawls’s growing religiosity and his interest in its implications for moral behavior were abruptly interrupted by the war, as he later recalled in “On My Religion,” in which he spelled out the events that led him away from his thoughts of joining the seminary and toward a career in philosophy. In one particularly striking episode, Rawls tells of his time serving on Luzon in the Philippines, when a superior officer asked “for two volunteers, one to go with the [colonel] to where he could look at the Japanese positions, the other to give blood badly needed for a wounded soldier in the small hospital nearby.” Rawls had the same blood type as the soldier; his tentmate did not and so went on the mission, only to be killed by a mortar shell. For Rawls, as Gališanka observes, this led to a dramatic change in worldview. He “could not give this death a higher purpose, and God appeared more and more withdrawn from the details of human life.” As the facts of the Holocaust emerged, Rawls’s crisis of faith only deepened: God was indeed absconditus—hidden—and would not intervene in human affairs.

Rawls’s loss of faith did not set him apart from many of his peers in the harrowing years of World War II, but other aspects of his biography help explain his heightened sense of the unfairness and even cruelty of human life. While he was still a young child, two of his brothers died of diseases that were contracted through him, and this feeling of tragic loss accompanied him throughout his life. It helped spawn his interest in morality and applied ethics. In the face of the senseless contingency of human existence, the first virtue of social institutions, Rawls would insist, must be justice. Although not even a just society could prevent tragedy from befalling its members, it should at least provide people with equal respect and reciprocity in order to act as a balm on human wounds. “Proper ethics,” wrote the young Rawls, “is not the relating of a person to some objective ‘good’ for which he should strive, but is the relating of person to person and finally to God.” As God receded from Rawls’s worldview, the individual as a moral agent became prominent and would remain so for the rest of his career.

To develop a secular justification for moral action, Rawls’s philosophical work in the postwar years began to draw more and more from Kant, especially in Rawls’s 1947 essay “Remarks on Ethics,” in which he argued that “certain characteristics and properties of human nature…if present in an individual, are understood to create moral claims, or to be the ground of certain rights.” But he did not yet have an answer for what these characteristics were. He was certain that individuals were at the center of moral reasoning and that Kant’s insistence that universal moral principles alone could establish the dignity of a person was correct. But Rawls had serious misgivings about certain aspects of Kant’s approach and conclusions. Rawls criticized Kant’s two-world metaphysics—the idea that behind the world of appearances lies a supersensory realm of noumena that we can never know in themselves—and was also suspicious of his claim that the principle of universalizability (“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”) was enough to generate moral principles. So Rawls was still in search of other philosophical foundations upon which to build a nonreligious justification for moral action.

This search led Rawls to an engagement with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thought. As Gališanka’s painstaking reconstruction of this evolution demonstrates, Wittgenstein and the philosophers influenced by him, like Stephen Toulmin, proved formative in the next turn in Rawls’s thinking on ethics. He began to accept their view that the task of philosophical analysis—rather than articulating principles deduced from practical reason, as Kant would argue—was “to uncover the constitutive rules of ethical reasoning.” But exactly whose mode of ethical reasoning would be paradigmatic for such an analysis? Which communities or life-forms were to be viewed as exemplary? As Rawls sought a more contextual consideration of human practices in all their dizzying multiplicity, he became aware that Wittgenstein had opened the door too widely to relativism. To stave this off, Rawls emphasized the concept of the “reasonable person” as a paradigm for how to think about moral and political precepts. But that concept nevertheless begged the question: If justice is what reasonable people would agree to, then what constituted reasonableness? The answer would be that reasonableness consisted of such people agreeing on precisely these principles of justice.

This back-and-forth in his own mind between Kantian universalism and Wittgensteinian contextualism would shape Rawls’s thought throughout the 1950s, until he developed his method of “reflective equilibrium”—the idea that moral reasoning consisted of testing our deep intuitions about fairness, equality, and the like against a variety of moral principles, such the utilitarian one (the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”) or the Marxian one (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”). Rawls had experimented with various strategies of justification in ethics. At Princeton as a young lecturer, he was influenced by game theory, and when he joined Harvard’s faculty in the 1960s, W.V. Quine’s anti-foundationalism affected him deeply. But now he had begun to use the method of reflective equilibrium to express and examine the deep intuition that justice ought to be a kind of fairness. In his lectures on political philosophy, he observed that “what one is trying to achieve is a state of self-conscious reflective equilibrium with respect to one’s own judgments on the justice and injustice of institutions (acts, and persons).”

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls demonstrated how such reflective equilibrium could work in developing a justification for a liberal political ethic. He did so through a now-famous device: the thought experiment of “the original position,” placing an individual deliberating on moral and political questions behind a “veil of ignorance.” The experiment asks us to imagine a hypothetical situation in which “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.” Such individuals do not even know their conception of the good or their own psychological inclinations.

Although no person has ever existed under such conditions, what Rawls was asking us to imagine was quite intuitive. If justice as fairness is to be attained, no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged through the genetic accidents of one’s birth, such as inborn abilities and aptitudes (gender and sexuality can be included in this list, although they played no role in Rawls’s deliberations), or the contingency of one’s social circumstances, such as class, family fortune, and social status. People are equal and, as Rawls wrote, if “all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain.”

Yet as one begins to ask what kinds of principles of justice such individuals would choose when in this original position, things become murkier. By excluding knowledge of the historical properties of the society one lives in, its stage of economic development, and its social stratification, Rawls’s theory quickly becomes more difficult to parse. How could individuals situated behind so thick a veil of ignorance choose such complicated and historically informed principles as the two principles of justice eventually laid out by Rawls—that, first, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all,” and that, second, “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged…and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” Both of these principles were clearly shaped by history and culture; they not only evince a deep commitment to human equality—a legacy of the Enlightenment—but also suggest that social and economic inequalities are not inherited via some immutable destiny but can be changed through public activity and governmental policy.

The question becomes “How could one not know the salient facts of one’s history and society—such as whether it was a feudal or a free-market society—but know enough to agree to such principles?” Likewise, was inequality to be measured in narrow economistic terms in the light of income or GDP? Or was some other index needed, such as the development of capabilities, as Amartya Sen would argue? What about sources of inequality that had their origins in status-specific concepts such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural belonging?

Rawls did not restrict inequality to income and material goods. But as Iris Young noted in Justice and the Politics of Difference, an early feminist critique of his work, the kind of disrespect and marginalization suffered by some groups cannot be articulated in terms of Rawlsian theory because the differences that would make a difference were ignored. Rawlsian equality of people amounted to sameness, to a homogenization of otherness rather than its recognition.

A similar assessment was developed by critical race theorists like Charles Mills. “Rawls himself had virtually nothing useful to say about race in any of the two thousand pages of his five books,” Mills asserted, “and he doesn’t even mention colonialism and imperialism.” For Mills, white racial privilege cannot be reduced to racism; it is not merely the product of an individual’s psychological attitude, and therefore justice could not be formulated from this vantage point, either. Despite denouncing the inequalities that resulted from racial privilege, Rawls’s theory could not offer, as Mills and others showed, a way out from white domination because its “ideal theory” did not deal with the sociohistorical specificity of colonialism, imperialism, and racial domination. Rawls’s famous thought experiment was, in this view, so removed from material reality that it simply expunged historical institutions, without which racism could not be explained.

It is disappointing that Gališanka ends his reconstruction of Rawls’s evolution just as Rawls became increasingly more explicit about the political dimensions of his theory. In Political Liberalism, Rawls clarified that his theory of justice was not formulated “sub specie aeternitatis” (as he argued in A Theory of Justice) but was developed to address the quandaries created by liberal societies deeply riven by enduring moral, religious, and political disagreements. It was not people behind a “veil of ignorance” who would choose the two principles of justice but citizens in liberal democratic societies both respectful of one another and interested in cooperating over time in building a just society. Gališanka could have discussed this stage in Rawls’s evolution, since it demonstrates quite fittingly the strong hold that Wittgensteinian contextualism still had on him. The two principles of justice were those that “we” in liberal democratic societies, and not Kantian noumenal selves, would choose after engaging in a reflective deliberation about justice as fairness.

But even as Rawls’s thinking took a more historical turn, it was not in response to feminists’ or critical race theorists’ evaluations of his work, and neither analysis was properly engaged with or satisfyingly answered in Political Liberalism. With the possible exception of Susan Moller Okin’s promptings to include the family in the basic structures of society to which the two principles of justice needed to be applied, Rawls largely ignored these other criticisms.

More than two decades after A Theory of Justice, Rawls still asked, “How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” The differences among citizens that continued to preoccupy him were worldview differences pertaining to religion, science, and conceptions of the good but not the experiential differences of race, gender, sexuality, and culture.

Rawls’s continuing emphasis on reasonability and stability generated a third set of criticisms besides those of feminists and critical race theorists: What was “political” about a theory that seemed to exclude from consideration political parties, associations, and movements while bestowing on the US Supreme Court the ultimate say in the exercise of public reason? Where was the agonism and passion of partisan politics, its hue and cry? Giving voice to many of these dissatisfactions, William Galston concluded in his critique of Rawls that his high liberalism reduced political philosophy to a subfield of moral theory. Both institutional realists like Jeremy Waldron and human-nature pessimists like John Gray clamored to orient political theorizing away from normative theory toward a more robust engagement with institutions and human history.

What, then, is still alive in the Rawlsian program after all this? Are we simply sifting the ruins of this once-grand theoretical architecture of justice? While many of these criticisms are incontrovertible and I was among the early critics of Rawls to take issue with the coherence of his “original position” argument and his neglect of feminist moral theory, I have never accepted that these analyses should amount to a rejection of normative theorizing in the Kantian tradition, by which I mean a philosophical commitment to moral and legal universalism that upholds the equality and dignity of every human person and that views human social arrangements as premised on the principles of justice and solidarity and changeable through contestation and cooperation. Such egalitarianism considers each and every one of us as concrete and vulnerable beings, embodied and embedded in particular historical and cultural contexts. Kant and Rawls are right that it is a measure of our human dignity that we can reach beyond our own specific interests and formulate moral principles that we believe can be shared by all. No matter how fallible our logic might be, we can and ought to think about the principles of a just world that we would like to build and share with others.

Kant and Rawls are also right that in considering human equality, we must necessarily set aside certain of our differences. We are one another’s equals because of our vulnerability as human animals as well as our dignity as rational beings. If we do not consider ourselves equals, our differences become sources of indifference or disrespect. Feminists and critical race theorists have been, at times, too quick to reject these normative aspirations to equality and dignity. The trouble is not with these ideals themselves but with their implicit prejudices about those humans who are worthy of equality and dignity. We can always ask “Whose equality?” and “Whose dignity?” These ideals are always subject to struggle, interpretation, and resignification among human groups. But without upholding some rational ideals for evaluating such struggles, we are entirely at the mercy of the forces of history. As Hegel once noted caustically, “World history is the court of the judgment of the world.” This is not the position of the oppressed and the excluded, who always fight in the name of unrealized ideals.

If liberal democracies are in decline today, it is not because high liberalism has converted political theory into abstract moral philosophy. It is because the institutions of liberal democracy are not showing themselves to be strong enough to withstand the destructive effects of financial globalization, increasing inequality, climate change, and the crises of political representation. Citizens’ and residents’ equality—and here I include the undocumented—​has been undermined by the privatization and monetization of ever-​increasing domains of life, from health care to education, from transportation to housing. No one gives a damn about “the worst off,” although Rawls insisted we all should in agreeing to his second principle of justice. Rather, as the once economically secure industrial workers have seen their livelihoods and communities destroyed by outsourcing, capital flight, and global competition, “There but for the grace of God go I” has become the refrain. The immigrant and the asylum seeker have become symbolic bearers of the ravages of global capitalism, and it has proved all too easy to mobilize populist xenophobia against them.

Indeed, liberal democracies may not survive this storm and may be transformed into the kind of authoritarian and technocratic meritocracy with which David Runciman’s brilliant (if a bit too cheery) book How Democracy Ends concludes. And if the project of liberal democracy ends, it will be because we have failed to achieve equality and dignity amid the economic and political systems now whirling around us, awash in money, commodities, and consumerism.

In her new book, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy, Katrina Forrester identifies the big questions:

But if modern political philosophy is bound up with modern liberalism, and liberalism is failing, it may well be time to ask whether these apparently timeless ideas outlived their usefulness. Rawls’s ideas were developed during a very distinctive period of U.S. history, and his theory bears an intimate connection to postwar liberal democracy. Is liberal political philosophy complicit in its failures? Is political philosophy, like liberalism itself, in crisis, and in need of reinvention? And if so, what does its future look like?

I am not convinced that we need to reject all of Rawls’s ideas in order to deal with our present crises. And I resist the thought that we should read Rawls in the near future only the way we read many earlier classics of political thought—that is, as a vague historical recollection of the kinds of beings we once aspired to be and the political communities we hoped to create but failed. But I agree that political philosophy today needs the kind of bold questioning that Forrester demands. In particular, in a globalized world a reconsideration of the framework of justice beyond the nation-state is necessary. This shift need not lead us to reject Rawlsian ideas of justice and equality altogether; rather, as Gališanka’s book well demonstrates and as feminist and postcolonial theorists have shown, we need to hold on to the tension between universalism and contextualism in formulating our own questions for our own times.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that John Rawls attended a parochial school in Connecticut, not Baltimore.

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