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Review: John Rawls, Political Liberalism

What this book offers: intriguing thoughts on living in a society characterized by deep disagreements
What not to expect: enjoyment; actionable takeaways

The only way you could have made this more boring would have been to interleave it with a phone book. And at least then there might’ve been a few funny ads to liven things up.

Rawls’ style is to break down his worldview into a highly hierarchical outline and translate that unceremoniously into paragraph form. So you’re constantly reading about stuff like the “three ways in which the social aspect of human relationships is reflected in the content of the [two] principles of justice,” or the “four main kinds of variations in citizens’ capacities,” or the “five essential elements of a conception of objectivity” (admittedly, I was pretty excited about that one). The degree of organization is admirable, but I would’ve liked more time spent upfront explaining why we should care; why his framework is a good way to view the world. The book feels heavy on exposition and comparatively light on argumentation.

But it’s given me some concepts and ways of thinking that I really appreciate.

One is the notion of reflective equilibrium. When you’re confronted with a question - let’s say, is it OK to steal to feed my baby? - do you try to answer it on the basis of fundamental abstract principles, like always obey Scripture or promote the greatest good for the greatest number? Or do you see what your intuition tells you about the specific case, and then judge the abstract principle on whether it agrees (hmm, if my holy book says it’s better to let my kid starve, maybe I should overlook its advice in this case… or at least reevaluate how I’m interpreting it)?

To some extent we do both, and that’s a good thing. If our beliefs about concrete situations don’t seem to be compatible with our more general beliefs, that’s a warning sign that some of our beliefs are mistaken. But the correct change might be in one of multiple places. Maybe one of the more general beliefs is wrong, or maybe we need to bite the bullet and ignore our intuition about the concrete case (ideally, then, we’d have an explanation for why we have an incorrect intuition about that case), or maybe they actually are compatible and we just haven’t identified how to reconcile them yet.

Updating our beliefs at all levels of abstraction is a never-ending process. When you encounter a compelling argument against a particular belief you hold, but changing it would be incompatible with some of your other beliefs, you have to consider whether you may be wrong about those others, even if they are what you consider more fundamental beliefs. You need to check whether the reasons for believing them are strong enough to outweigh the new argument you’ve come across, or whether there’s a different set of beliefs you could hold that makes better sense of all the available evidence and arguments. Rawls refers to this as a process of seeking “reflective equilibrium,” a state where you hold a coherent set of beliefs that account for your firmest convictions at all levels.

I think discussions of some controversial issues would go a bit more smoothly if more people saw things this way. I’ve had too many conversations where we’re trying to discuss something like should the state allow same-sex marriage or should we have single-payer healthcare, and one participant won’t allow the conversation to proceed unless we can all come to agreement on what is the metaphysical basis of right and wrong and where does the government’s right to tax originate. But such foundational questions are extremely difficult to resolve, in part because one of the ways we judge foundational beliefs is whether their implications seem plausible. So it’s important to be able to discuss more down-to-earth issues individually and directly; doing so may eventually lead us to revise our opinions about more foundational issues.

Or it may not. Another Rawlsian assumption that I’d love to see more widely accepted throughout our society is what he calls “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” This means simply that reasonable people will hold conflicting worldviews. You cannot expect that everyone will reach the same conclusion as you on important questions, and you should not assume that disagreement stems from stupidity or evil. Rawls has a nice partial list of explanations for why serious disagreements persist among reasonable people:

a. The evidence—empirical and scientific—bearing on the case is conflicting and complex, and thus hard to assess and evaluate.

b. Even where we agree fully about the kinds of considerations that are relevant, we may disagree about their weight, and so arrive at different judgments.

c. To some extent all our concepts, and not only moral and political concepts, are vague and subject to hard cases; and this indeterminacy means that we must rely on judgment and interpretation (and on judgments about interpretations) within some range (not sharply specifiable) where reasonable persons may differ.

d. To some extent (how great we cannot tell) the way we assess evidence and weigh moral and political values is shaped by our total experience, our whole course of life up to now; and our total experiences must always differ. …

e. Often there are different kinds of normative considerations of different force on both sides of an issue and it is difficult to make an overall assessment.


Given this reality of widespread, unresolvable, deep disagreement, how exactly are we supposed to have a society? That’s basically the question Political Liberalism is trying to address. Rawls thinks it’s possible to formulate a set of political principles that all reasonable worldviews (“comprehensive doctrines” in his terminology) could endorse, forming what he calls an “overlapping consensus”. Government officials are then expected to justify their actions and legislation purely in terms of those broadly-acceptable principles, relying only on so-called “public reason” instead of appealing directly to their own religious/philosophical doctrines.

That sounds a bit like just try to find some common ground everyone can agree to, which wouldn’t exactly be earth-shattering advice, but the very disciplined and principled way Rawls approaches it is instructive. The reason he has to construct so many lists and categorizations - of, e.g., the powers that a person must have in order to function as a free and equal citizen in society - is so that he can then use them to constrain what kinds of arguments should be considered valid in public reasoning. This leads to interesting discussions of, for example, the freedom of political speech. In his view it’s not enough to show that a particular restriction on this freedom would have some kind of net benefit for society, since reasonable people may disagree on how to evaluate that supposed benefit. Rather, any restrictions must be justified on the grounds that they are necessary to create the conditions that enable people to exercise the powers of a citizen, which (if his theory succeeds) are grounds all reasonable people should recognize.

Proverbially, “a good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied”… I think Rawls demonstrates how you might go about building more stable, satisfying compromises, with their own internal logic that people can come to support enthusiastically (just as, for example, most Americans enthusiastically support the freedom of speech enshrined in our bill of rights, even if such freedom is at best tolerated by their own religion). To what extent we could apply his way of thinking immediately to public life is not clear.

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