This Week’s Mtg: Justice As Fairness – Rawl’s Defense Of Liberalism

We’ve talked about conservatism before and socialism last week.  What about liberalism?  It’s easy to think of liberalism as just the mushy middle ground between the other two.  But, it isn’t.  We may not agree with the reasoning, but Liberalism stands on its own philosophically.  It has its own justification based on both moral and practical grounds.  With the recent conservative challenge to the core ideals and programs of the welfare state, I suggested we explore one of the most interesting defenses of liberalism, that of the philosopher John Rawls.

Rawls was an American political philosopher who died at age 81 in 2002.  Thus, his career spanned the heyday of Great Society liberalism, the conservative counterrevolution, and the recent growth in economic and political inequality.  I’ll go over his views briefly on Thursday, and then we can talk.  But, basically Rawls was concerned with how the United States could have a morally decent and stable political system when so many of its citizens disagreed about morality and basic political principles.  It was 1971 when he first came up with this, after a decade of burning cities, riots, and political chaos.  So, he asked, what combination of (1) liberty and (2) equality would be both (a) legitimate and (b) stable in a country of Southern white conservatives, rioting students, working class ethnics, African-Americans, Mormons, Catholics, etc.?

Rawl’s answer: A democratic political system with equal opportunity and a level of social and economic inequality that he thought people would be more likely (than under socialism or laissez-faire) to perceive as just and fair.  He said the best way to do this is to have a political system that does two things:

  1. Guarantees basic rights that apply equally in practice to all citizens.  These rights include Bill Of Rights rights but also equal opportunity to acquire the tools (like education, health care, non-discrimination in employment) needed for each person to realize their inborn potential.

Why?  Even though Americans disagree on so much, we still share a common morality, from which we can derive a set of basic rights.  More controversial — especially today — under the second principle, a just society:

2.  Allows inequalities of wealth and privilege only to the extent they make the least
well-off citizens better off.   I’ll explain this “difference principle” and its
implications better on Thursday.

To me, the really interesting part here is how Rawls comes to these conclusion.  I’ll explain this, too.  In short, he asks people to empathize, something we could use more of today, IMO.  He imagines what kind of political system Americans would create and agree to support if they had to create it under a “veil of ignorance.”  Rawls asks how unequal a society would people desire if they did not already know how privileged they were in it; i.e. if they thought maybe they would end up on society’s bottom rung.   What would you do?  Would you value freedom and equality the same way you do now?


[UPDATE:]  Two discussion questions to ponder.  I’ll ask them after I’m done with the intro:

For conservatives:  The public likes big, middle class social programs like Social Security and Medicare, but dislikes programs for the poor.  Is that fair?  Isn’t “freedom” dependent on equal opportunity?  Who can provide it if not government through programs justified via a social contract?

For liberals:  What if the American people, acting together through the democratic process, don’t want an expanded social welfare state — or even the one we’ve got?  What then would justify its continuance?


One response

  1. Good to see that big government isn’t seen as “the answer” (as if there’s one correct answer). One of the great underreported facts is the large percentage of Democrats who have aligned with various tea parties (NOT Tea Parties™).

    Also, like a lot of terms, “liberal” has been so twisted over the millennia that its meaning is vague beyond belief. It reminds me of how professional sophists (attorneys) have injected their legalese into our political dialogue, moving further and further away from common language. Have a gander at the word “person” in a legal dictionary for example. It’s high time to revive the original 13th amendment IMHO…

    Our country was founded by “liberals”. In Roman civilization, “liberals” were free men who were allowed to read books (hence the shared root “liber” with “library”, “livre” in French means “book”, etc.). For an excellent dissertation on the history, roots, usages, and meanings of the word, I highly recommend Episodes 16 and 18 of the PeaceRevolution podcasts:

    In fact, I highly recommend the whole PeaceRevolution website and their colleagues at Tragedy and Hope (named after the famous banned book by Georgetown University Professor Carrol Quigley, mentor to Bill Clinton):

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