The late John Rawls was, by all accounts, a remarkably modest and generous person, much beloved by his friends and students, and profoundly uninterested in the kinds of fame and celebrity perks his prominence naturally invited. But his genius, not his goodness, is what makes him important to those of us who never knew him.
Thomas Nagel calls Rawls “the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century.” Many consider him to be the most important thinker on justice, rights and equality since Kant. Indeed, his demanding 1971 masterpiece, A Theory of Justice, has sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States alone, launched an estimated 5,000 retorts and critiques, and been translated into roughly two dozen languages. Even political philosophers who disagree with its emphasis, including the liberal communitarians Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor, and the conservative Robert Nozick, do so in a Rawlsian context. Liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin admits, “My present view is opposed to his in some ways, but only from within a field defined by him.”
Isaiah Berlin often observed that beneath most great philosophical systems lie some pretty ideas. Nowhere is this truer than of Rawls. I’ll leave the summary to Alan Ryan, who memorialized Rawls in the London Independent. Rawls, Ryan wrote, “had two deep insights. The first was that utilitarianism was fundamentally flawed; utilitarianism, that is, trying to maximise the welfare of a whole society, failed to recognise what Rawls called ‘the separateness of persons.’… The second deep insight is thus that we need an account of justice as fairness. What is the crucial question that we must be able to answer if we are to say that social arrangements meet the test of fairness?… Rawls’s stroke of genius was to invent the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance,’ shrouding the folk who make this social contract so that they do not know who they will be, what abilities they will possess, what faith they will adopt, and so on. If they do not know whether they will be winners or losers, smart or dumb, Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists, they will sign up only for arrangements that protect them whatever happens.”
These two insights remain the starting point for most students of political philosophy, but they remain all but invisible in politics itself. Dworkin once told a reporter that he could think of no Supreme Court arguments relying on Rawls. His ideas are entirely invisible in the political programs of either US major political party and have been explicitly rejected by “New Labour” in Britain. The relative obscurity of his ideas in American life today–compared with, say, those of Milton Friedman or, God help us, Charles Murray–is evident in just how little notice was taken of his death in this country. The Washington Post, the political community’s hometown paper, ran a buried wire-service report. The New York Times and LA Times both ran rather perfunctory obituaries with none of the “great man” trappings that accompanied the death of Milton Berle (no disrespect to Uncle Miltie intended). While he was properly lauded by his peers in Britain and in Le Monde, ironically, if you wanted to read an American appreciation of Rawls, you had to go to National Review Online, where the conservative philosopher Richard Epstein published a provocative engagement with his work (though the Times and Boston Globe did later run thoughtful reflections on his legacy in other sections).
Part of the reason for this is that Rawls refused almost all honors offered him and explicitly abjured involvement with contemporary politics. His only known written contribution to a political debate was a 1995 Dissent article in which he criticized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Rawls was a soldier in the Pacific in August 1945.) He also participated in an antiwar conference during the Vietnam War, though he argued against the “2S” deferment, which allowed his Harvard students to avoid service by virtue of their privileged position as students “in good standing.” But that’s it.
Thomas Nagel argues that “political philosophy, when it has an impact on the world, affects the world only indirectly, through the gradual penetration, usually over generations, of questions and arguments from abstruse theoretical writings into the consciousness and the habits of thought of educated persons, and from there into political and legal argument, and eventually into the structure of alternatives among which political and practical choices are actually made.” Even so, there exists a yawning gap between Rawls’s totemic standing in the life of the mind and his near obscurity in the life of society. His basic notions are not terribly complex. And while he may have lacked the gene for self-promotion, it is not as if no one else in public life had the opportunity to explicate his ideas for a larger public.
I think the problem with Rawls is not philosophical but political. Like Peter Singer–who in his most recent work is critical of Rawls for concerning himself only with a single society and community without addressing the issue of our responsibilities to those beyond our borders–Rawls’s simple standard of justice just asks too much of us. In particular, he asks too much of those born with sufficient natural advantages–in birth, wealth and education–to participate in national political debate. The idea of the people who clean the classrooms of the 92nd Street Y preschool having the same rights and privileges as the Jack Grubmans who organize million-dollar contributions in order to get their kids into it would require so many radical changes in the structure of our society and political system that we would hardly recognize it. Indeed, a few days before Rawls died, the Wall Street Journal was advocating higher taxes–for the first time in its history, perhaps–but only for the “lucky duckies” who make only $12,000 a year. The right’s successful campaign against the so-called death tax, coupled with its assault on public education, could destroy forever the possibility of an even remotely equal-opportunity society.
That we cannot live up to the best, however, is no reason not to strive for the better. It is surely no excuse for complacency in the face of a war against children born poor.