Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Rawls and the Philosophical Imagination

When Theory of Justice was published, Hare reviewed the book for Phil Quarterly. Hare writes, 
“Since the theoretical structure is tailored at every point to fit Rawls’ intuitions, it is hardly surprising that its normative consequences fit them too – if they did not, he would alter the theory ... and the fact that Rawls is a fairly typical man of his times and society, and will therefore have many adherents, does not make this a good way of doing philosophy (147).”
 As it turns out, Hare was right about Rawls's having many adherents going forward. Susan McWilliams Barndt recently reviewed Katrina Forrester's new book about how Rawls influenced the discipline. Barndt writes, 
"Katrina Forrester’s excellent recent book, In the Shadow of Justice, tells the story of how this came to be: how Rawls’s highly intricate and deceptively simple brand of abstract liberal egalitarianism—first articulated in his A Theory of Justice in 1971—came to take over academic philosophy, particularly via “a small group of influential, affluent, white, mostly male analytical political philosophers who worked at a handful of elite institutions in the United States and Britain” in the late twentieth century. 
Around that time I entered graduate school at one of those institutions and, like most Americans, had never heard of John Rawls. Within days of my arrival, I learned that I must never forget him: that Rawls would be the nucleus of my graduate education, around which we were all to revolve. As I recall, the syllabus for our course in “Liberalism and Its Critics” devoted fully half of our class sessions to Rawls—and most of the other half to his late-twentieth-century interlocutors. On that liberal campus, Rawls was liberalism."
Forrester's book suggests that Rawls's influence is waning as the discipline evolves. But part of the reason Rawlsianism has been so persistent is that Rawls provides a technical vocabulary for talking about justice-- "basic structure," "moral powers," "reasonable" etc. that still dominates discussions of justice even when the views people are defending are totally separate from Rawls's views. Rawls changed the terms of political philosophy.

You might think it's a good thing for political philosophers to have a shared technical language for talking about justice. But as Hare suggests, Rawlsian language is set up in a way that favors a broadly Rawlsian framework. For example, the terms reflect the assumption that political philosophy is somehow apart from ethics so we need a new language for talking about it. The terms implicitly assume that there should be a state and that the state can be distinguished from culture/religion. The framework lends itself to analysis at an intermediate level of idealization between policy analysis and utopian theory.  

These choices about how to frame and describe questions in political philosophy are not neutral. So the fact that Rawlsianism has set the standard terms for debates about distributive justice gives means that these debates are structured in a way that favors the substantive views that Rawls supported. 

The dominance of Rawlsianism in political philosophy limits our philosophical imagination when we talk about justice. If Forrester is right and Rawlsianism is losing its influence, well, I can't wait to see what comes next.