John Rawls and Liberalism’s Selective Conscience

John Rawls and Liberalism’s Selective Conscience

Selective Conscience

John Rawls’s doctrine of fairness.


In December of 1944, on the Philippine island of Leyte, the soldiers of F Company of the 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, dug in. Stationed just outside the town of Limon, they were attempting to take a strategic ridge overlooking the town. In the face of fierce Japanese resistance, it was all they could do to hold their position. A first lieutenant who was also a Lutheran pastor addressed the company and gave words of encouragement by means of a brief sermon. God guides the US Army’s bullets toward the Japanese, the lieutenant assured his fellow soldiers, while protecting us from theirs.

These words failed to lift the spirits of at least one young soldier in F Company; instead, they infuriated him. Years later, he described this incident as one of the experiences that best explained why he eventually abandoned his faith. Whatever God’s will actually was, he decided, it would have to accord with the most basic ideas of justice that we have—thereby ruling out the lieutenant’s assertion that God had selective concerns for one side in a clearly godless war. What else could the will of an all-just God be? By that same token, what else could justice be? If absolutely nothing else, any true God would have to be fair.

Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice provides a detailed account of the intellectual development of this young soldier, John Rawls, who eventually became the celebrated philosopher. The question of fairness would remain with Rawls for the rest of his life. In 1971, his 600-page magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, debuted to critical acclaim and cemented his position as one of the most famous political philosophers in the English-speaking world by insisting that justice was fairness—that the kind of objective standards for human society and individual action capable of replacing God required an ability to view the world from a distance and assess what allocations of duties and wealth were fair. In the book, Rawls argued that “basic liberties” and the equality of citizens were essential to this idea of fairness. Societies could deviate from an equal distribution of benefits and burdens only in cases governed by the “difference principle”—which includes a requirement that inequalities should provide the most benefits to the least advantaged. Otherwise, a just society would have to be governed by the fair distribution of responsibility, work, hardship, and the wealth produced by a community—a distribution whose fairness, he insisted, could be determined from behind a “veil of ignorance” that prevented a hypothetical person from knowing exactly where he or she would end up in the social hierarchy.

With its doctrine of fairness, A Theory of Justice transformed political philosophy. The English historian Peter Laslett had described the field as “dead” in 1956; with Rawls’s book that changed almost overnight. Now philosophers were arguing about the nature of Rawlsian principles and their implications—and for that matter were once again interested in matters of political and economic justice. Rawls’s terms became lingua franca: Many considered how his arguments, focused mostly on domestic or national issues of justice, might be applied to questions of international justice as well. Others sought to extend his theory’s set of political principles, while still others probed the limits of Rawls’s epistemology and the narrowness of his focus on individuals. A decade after A Theory of Justice appeared, Forrester notes, 2,512 books and articles had been published engaging with its central claims.

Rawls’s liberal theory of justice as fairness has continued to define the shape and trajectory of political philosophy and liberalism writ large to this day. In this sense, In the Shadow of Justice is aptly named. But as Forrester shows, the limits of Rawls’s theory and the political philosophy that it helped birth remain with us as well. By redirecting us from both history and sociology and premising justice on abstract game theory, Rawls’s book and its liberal vision of justice ended up promoting a political philosophy that was ill-equipped for the era of sustained academic and popular attention to historical injustice.

Rawls was born in 1921 in Baltimore, the second of five sons in an affluent Episcopalian family. He had a privileged and mostly happy childhood; the kinds of calamities and hardships suffered by many during the Depression were sharply attenuated by his family’s wealth and status in the city. After attending private schools, Rawls quickly rose through some of the most prestigious universities in the world: He received his doctorate from Princeton and studied at Oxford, after which he taught at MIT and Harvard.

Yet Forrester reminds us that not everything was as rosy as it might seem on the surface. Two of Rawls’s siblings died in childhood from diseases they had contracted from him; such tragedies likely influenced his later interest in questions of fairness and luck and how both formed the basis of a just political system. His native Baltimore was a deeply segregated city and had cultivated social norms and mores to match. (Rawls later recounted his mother’s fury when she learned that he had struck up a friendship with a Black boy and had even visited his house.) But Rawls knew from an early age that the luck of being born into an affluent white family entirely explained the difference between his opportunities and those of his Black friend. As well, Rawls’s graduate studies at Princeton were interrupted by the trauma and violence of his three years in the infantry in the Pacific theater during World War II, and his experiences with luck during the war likewise shaped his view of justice. At one point, he was passed over for a mission because he had the right blood type to donate to a wounded soldier; the man who went in his place was killed in an ambush. This was only one of the countless examples of bad luck and unfairness found in any war—but in particular in the wars that had become commonplace in the first half of the 20th century. When Rawls returned to Princeton, his wartime trauma and disillusionment led him to abandon his interest in theology and to turn instead to political philosophy in his search for a system that would ground political decision-making in an objective morality rather than in God or fealty to the state.

Rawls’s highly abstract and intricate philosophical system was not a flight from the real world’s effects on him, Forrester argues, but rather a direct response to the harrowing experiences, personal and political, that had shaped much of the first three decades of his life. Rawls was trying to find something to stand in place of the God that had abandoned him and his enemies alike on the battlefield as well as the two siblings who had died when he was growing up—but it also had to be something that did not involve simply trusting in the state. Neither the God he had lost faith in nor the military he had served in could be fair, Rawls contended—but perhaps, if we relied on the kinds of rules that could emerge from rational decision-making processes, society could be.

Forrester’s book next turns to the real-world politics of the 1950s and ’60s, which made Rawls’s pursuit of a tidy, fairness-preserving system of justice so difficult. The postwar years were an era of social upheaval, defined by the struggles against Jim Crow at home and the Vietnam War abroad, and to develop his system in these uncertain years, Rawls began to publish a series of essays reckoning with the times that would eventually become A Theory of Justice.

Rawls advanced his view of justice as fairness in these years, but with certain qualifications. A fair and just society, he argued, would be one with a “basic structure” of democracy: The society’s major institutions would endow everyone with a fundamental set of political liberties and divide the benefits and burdens of social cooperation in a broadly egalitarian way. Social inequalities could be tolerated only if they met two conditions: They needed to be attached to offices open to all under the conditions of fair and equal opportunity, and they needed to work to the greatest benefit of the society’s least advantaged members.

Rawls’s view of justice as fairness would apply in a society free of racial segregation. But since he was convinced that Jim Crow was so clearly unjust, he addressed it only indirectly: The philosophical questions he regarded as worth asking were exclusively “implementation” ones about how to dismantle it. At the same time, for Rawls, the questions concerning Vietnam and the draft in particular were harder to engage. In one sense, being conscripted into the military was a matter of luck, as some young men received draft cards and others did not. But college men, predominantly from privileged class and racial backgrounds, were able to escape military service when other men could not: 2-S deferments exempted some university students from conscription. If distributive justice was at the center of Rawls’s overall theory of justice, then he had to reckon with how the deferments that many of his students received gave them an unfair advantage at the expense of others—and this meant not only pondering his political arguments in the abstract but also in terms of the institution where he actually worked. To remedy this situation, Rawls helped organize Harvard’s faculty to oppose the deferments.

The civil disobedience tactics that various youth movements used to challenge the war posed another problem for Rawls’s theory of justice. His own and his contemporaries’ commitment to liberalism and its attendant values, such as stability and the rule of law, needed to reckon with the fact that civil disobedience was a response to an unjust war that the country’s citizens had every right to protest and oppose. Could breaking the law be justified, Rawls wondered, if the law itself was conceptualized as a fair agreement—the outcome of a process of rational deliberation among the people subject to it? How could political philosophers account for the kind of moral exception being claimed by those breaking from this overall “cooperative” scheme to conduct sit-ins or burn their draft cards?

Rawls finally published his answer at the end of the 1960s. Civil disobedience could be justified as an occasional escape hatch, he maintained in a 1969 essay, when the majority overreached and placed too heavy a burden on others. But individual conscience could not reign supreme: Even if would-be protesters had a serious moral objection to some decisions of the majority, this was not enough to justify breaking the law, as it would result in an “unstable” scheme of society. In coming to this view, Rawls made a telling shift from his earlier “fair play” view of social cooperation, in which obligations were voluntarily acquired, to a stronger one that regarded stability as a “natural duty” binding all citizens within a society. Thus, civil disobedience could be tolerated, but only within strict limits. Such protest had to be aimed at changing a society’s laws, and its participants had to accept punishment and arrest without resistance.

Rawls’s evolving views on obligation and civil disobedience, Forrester notes, helped shape A Theory of Justice. In general, Rawls believed that the aim of political philosophy was to find a reliable method built on noncoercive procedures to justify ethical beliefs and judgments—and that included acting according to one’s political duty (such as military service) and also according to one’s moral conscience (such as opposing an unjust war). Rather than try to generate freestanding moral principles to guide human conduct, Rawls argued, or uncover hidden truths that were separate from life as it was actually lived, philosophers needed to study the ethical principles already implicit in people’s intuitions and actions and then develop a system through which these could be judged and assessed.

Mining the nascent field of game theory, Rawls contended that this system could be built on the rational procedures that follow from someone acting in their economic and material interests. To decipher a moral approach to real-world problems required a system that could, in effect, step outside the real world—one that was bound not by history or sociology but by human rationality alone. Rawls described a hypothetical procedure, conducted from behind a “veil of ignorance” about one’s status in society, for deciding on its basic rules. Heads of households, he argued, should be placed in an “original position” that allowed them general facts about psychology and economic life but denied them information about the past history of their society as well as where they would themselves end up in the society they were designing. This disinterested position, Rawls argued, would allow these heads of households to formulate rules that would benefit people in a range of social positions, since they would have no clue which one they might fall into, and these rules would then form the basis for a fair and “well-ordered society.”

Of the many things that Rawls proposed in his 600-page opus, the original position is among the most hotly debated and sharply criticized. It is indeed a move that prominently displays many of the shortcomings of his approach to philosophy. Populating the original position with heads of households involved a seemingly uncritical nod toward patriarchal social relations, and the related organization of family life drew serious and sustained criticism from feminist political philosophers like Susan Muller Okin and Iris Marion Young. Philosophers attentive to race and colonialism, like Charles Mills, likewise criticized the original position’s abstraction from the history of society, which Mills argued would serve to obscure issues like racism and other forms of injustice that a theory of justice ought to respond to directly.

While many of these criticisms have teeth, they also demonstrate the profound success of Rawls’s thought. The Harvard philosopher Tommie Shelby noted as much in his high-profile debate with Mills: While the latter offered strident objections to Rawls’s racial amnesia, he stopped short of providing alternative principles or procedures or suggesting that the liberalism undergirding so much of Rawls’s thought should be fully abandoned. And while Mills would later offer his own principles of “corrective justice,” they were explicitly presented as additions and revisions to Rawls’s set. Whether this effort succeeds or not, it was literally proposed on Rawls’s terms.

If anything, Mills was ahead of many of Rawls’s critics in having a comprehensive and positive position on what constitutes a just society. While there were examples of alternative systems of distributive justice—especially from the so-called communitarians—most of the writing on the subject was dedicated to critiquing Rawls’s system and offering suggestions on what to avoid when theorizing on such questions in the future, whether the objection was to the patterns of abstraction (heads of households instead of past injustice), or to abstracting too much or too freely (e.g., criticisms of “ideal theory” and of systematic moral philosophy), or even to the purported objectivity or universalism undergirding the abstractions in the first place. But proffered alternatives to the Rawlsian approach were few and far between, and their authors often found it difficult to match the scale and systematic nature of A Theory of Justice, tending instead to offer ad hoc, incomplete, and overly specific moral systems instead of all-encompassing ones.

Forrester tracks in exacting detail the responses that Rawls’s elaborate system of thought prompted. But if there’s a criticism to be made about her book, it is that this meticulous tracking of key figures and concepts risks overwhelming readers with unnecessary detail. At times, Forrester seems to take the challenges posed by the historical moment more seriously than the subjects of her investigations did. As a result, the abundance of detail about how Rawls and his contemporaries did change their political commitments in response to their times can risk obscuring the fact that they mostly did not. Indeed, they were often selective about which of the many philosophical questions posed by their tumultuous times they deigned to answer, and it is this selective conscience that is the most assailable aspect of Rawls’s legacy. He may have been speaking on laudable principle when he insisted that Jim Crow was obviously unjust, but in the same breath he also excluded it from philosophical discussion.

Rawls’s leadership in the faculty opposition to 2-S deferments marked another principled stand against the consequences disproportionately suffered by others because of race, class, or perceived mental ability. But even here, selective conscience ruled the day. The decades of the Cold War were punctuated by intense levels of violence. The Vietnam War killed 2 million Vietnamese civilians, injured over 5 million more, and displaced some 11 million people. This violence included known massacres like the infamous My Lai incident and untold numbers of unknown ones; as recently as 2001, the results of internal war-crimes investigations lay rotting and forgotten in a nondescript case of records in the National Archives. And yet the body count for this war piled up largely outside the United States—and thus mostly outside the sphere of “domestic justice” that Rawls was willing to consider at the time. The barbarity and injustice of the war itself went neglected in his discussions of military conscription and its opponents.

So too did the violent footprint of the American empire as a whole. Vietnam, after all, was but one theater in a hot war waged by the United States and its allies for control of the global economic and political system. In Indonesia, for instance, nearly 1 million civilians were murdered by a US-backed anti-communist dictatorship. Indonesia was simply one of 22 third world countries in which the United States facilitated mass murder between the end of World War II and the 1990s—at which point, Forrester observes, international politics finally attracted Rawls’s consideration. Throughout the period of the Vietnam War, liberation movements confronted US-supported apartheid regimes in wars of national liberation: in Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and South Africa. What differentiated Vietnam from these struggles? I can hazard a guess: their lack of major deployments of US troops, and thus a link for a domestically focused philosopher like Rawls to consider.

To his credit, Rawls was a vocal and public opponent of the Vietnam War from the beginning. But amid all the global carnage, it was the draft deferments that he chose to organize against. The primacy of domestic justice and the “natural duty” of social stability directed his political action toward fighting the unjust distribution of draft cards in the United States rather than the unjust distribution of napalm and Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. One would be on principled grounds to insist, contra Rawls’s own theory and pattern of political action, that addressing the latter injustice ought to have far outweighed addressing the former. Such an approach might acknowledge—as a younger and perhaps wiser Rawls had clearly been willing to do—that neither God nor justice should care whether you were American or Vietnamese.

Rawls’s selective concentration on the homeland has parallels in the basic tenets of his political theory. He developed what has been called a “two-tiered” approach: Domestic politics constituted one tier and international politics the other, with the former taking precedence. Meanwhile, waves of national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia upended the map of the world. Through it all, the Cold War stamped the “domestic” politics of these new nations and the old ones alike with the indelible mark of geopolitical maneuvering. Rawls’s theory gave so much primacy to domestic justice that Forrester describes him as having set aside the “international realm” altogether until the 1990s.

Despite Rawls’s relative inattention to supposedly secondary global matters, prominent philosophers in the 1970s began to bring his insights to bear on the international realm. The fit was odd and unwieldy: Rawls’s theory makes the basic structure the target of domestic justice, which he takes to be the institutions that primarily distribute the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.

Under the highly theoretical conditions of A Theory of Justice (including a society that is “closed” to external intervention), the basic structure can reasonably be assumed to refer to a given country. But in the context of an international system, the central Rawlsian assumption of a closed society does not apply. The United Nations debated a New International Economic Order—one predicated on economic sovereignty for every country—under pressure from many of its new member-states. The most dynamic political movements of the time were attempting to literally remake the world, and Rawls and his colleagues were content merely to add the occasional epicycle to their existing theories of ideally just practice.

None of this is to say that they were politically unserious or responding cynically to the events of their day. In Rawls’s case especially, the point is exactly the opposite: At the end of the day, he was genuinely committed to the project of liberal philosophy as he understood it. As such, he was also committed to the fundamental intellectual tenets that sustained it: trust in liberal political principles and in the basic common-sense arguments of the state system that had spread them (even though he was less interested in the historical particulars of how that spreading was done).

As a serious and committed liberal, Rawls did not position his theory as a response to the many radical tendencies of his day, because he was convinced that his position, like liberalism itself, already represented an adequate response. These challenges were, in the main, the same radical challenges that liberalism has faced since its inception. That inception did not take place in a hypothetical “state of nature” but rather in a real era of slave states and imperial conquest on a planetary scale, and it was these forces that spread its putatively universalist tenets around the world as it developed ever more incisive criticisms of injustice and inequality. That liberal vision had long been wedded to theories of property and popular sovereignty formed in response far more to imagined histories of political and economic inheritance than to the actual history that explained the distributions of income, rights, and privileges that liberalism and liberals promised to equitably manage. By every indication, Rawls really meant what he said about equality, fairness, and justice in his personal and intellectual life, though he came to a partial and selective understanding of what those things required of him and the structures around him.

Of course, things could be worse. Many of liberalism’s cousins to its political right could not manage to sustain even a pretense of interest in equality and justice for all. Perhaps this lack of even a pretense is what irked the young Rawls as he listened to that first lieutenant insist that God was on their side—and their side alone—in their deadly struggle with the Japanese. What’s so godly, after all, about a selective conscience?

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