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Rawls The Communitarian

People seem to be all worked up about the recent revelation that John Rawls' undergraduate thesis argued for a basically communitarian position. Rawls is the founder of modern Political Liberalism, a school of political philosophy whose core idea is that justice is about being neutral between ideas of the good life. The first and biggest criticism of Political Liberalism came from the Communitarians, who argue that communities should endorse and promote a shared conception of the good life.

The interesting thing to me is that Rawls has always struck me as having a fairly communitarian theory, even though he makes a point of framing it in Liberal terms.

Feminists (notably Susan Okin) quickly recognized that Rawls maintains a communitarian conception of the private family sphere, presuming it to be harmonious and holding a shared conception of the good. And he is quick to resort to communitarian solutions when he encounters a problem. For example, in order to produce the kind of intergenerational savings principle that he wants, he adds the ad hoc condition that the parties in the original position are not individuals but rather heads of lineages who therefore care about their descendants (an idea that's certainly not neutral between the childfree and grandkids-having conceptions of the good life).

Rawls's theory can be reconstructed in order to eliminate his communitarian baggage with respect to the family and intergenerational concern. But his communitarian instincts are woven deeper into his theory.

Despite his rhetoric about neutrality and the priority of the Right over the Good, Rawls is not in fact completely neutral between ideas of the good. He bases his philosophy on a "thin theory of the good," specifying certain "primary goods" like freedom and respect that are necessary to most comprehensive conceptions of the good. His theory is then neutral only between "thick" conceptions of the good that are consistent with his "thin" conception. Rawls is probably right that some conception of the good is a necessary starting point for a political theory -- but that's a communitarian idea, not a purely liberal one. There is much room for debate over how thick or thin that starting-point theory of the good should or must be (since thinness is a matter of degree), but that debate gets obscured when liberals insist that the thin theory of the good isn't really a theory of the good in the relevant sense.

What's more, Rawls's theory is motivated by an overarching meta-value of having a well-ordered society. Rawls presumes everyone would want a well-ordered society, and that they'd make significant sacrifices of their other values (such as saving infidels' souls) to achieve it. The quest for order as something intrinsically valuable (not just useful for ensuring the achievement of other values) is a basically communitarian idea.

The meta-value of a well-ordered society motivates Rawls's concept of an overlapping consensus. He rejects agonism (in which differing views are engaged in unresolved tension or struggle) or a modus vivendi (in which differing views agree to compromise on a political plan) in favor of an overlapping consensus, in which different views of the good all endorse the same political setup as being right and fully consistent with their own premises. Rawls's acceptance of consensus as an ideal is a clearly communitarian position (compare it to the surprisingly liberal conception of a leftist like Chantal Mouffe, who sings the praises of agonism). What's more, the possibility of an overlapping consensus is far narrower than Rawls presumes. That is, the range of comprehensive theories of the good that could fully endorse Rawls's political position (and hence be endorsed by him as "reasonable" and worth being neutral between) is rather small.

Finally, at times Rawls admits that his theory is applicable only to modern "Western" cultures -- a strange admission for a theory whose ostensible neutrality between conceptions of the good life ought to make it universalizable. This mission does, however, help to constrain the number of conceptions of the good life that he has to try to be neutral between, allowing his communitarian groundwork to fade into the background as unobjectionable within this one cultural context. (Though the facts of colonialism and immigration make one wonder just where a society made up solely of "Westerners" is to be found.) And here the meta-value of a well-ordered society pops back up again. In The Law of Peoples -- Rawls's proposal for an international political regime -- he states that nations based on other cultures need not be Liberal in the sense of adhering to his full political program. All he demands of other nations -- even authoritarian ones -- is that they be "well-ordered."

My point is not that Rawls is a full-fledged communitarian, but rather that he seems to have a significant communitarian basis in his theory.


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