Follow-Up: “Can Liberalism Be Justified?” Mtg On Rawls

A nice, fairly diverse  crowd on the day our Reader article came out.  We had eighteen people, including 3-4 new or semi-new, such as Aaron, Margaret, Joan, and Ira.  We talked about the idea of the “social contract,” philosopher John Rawls’ justification for a liberal political system, and then got into why basic elements of the New Deal and Great Society are under such sustained attack.

Does anyone have anything else they’d like to add or ask?  The only thing I can think of is to emphasize Rawls’ idea that pity alone makes a poor basis for any political system (as does anger, I suppose).  I like Rawls’ social contract with its twin pillars.  First, equal opportunity for all to succeed.  Second, allowing inequalities to naturally occur as long as the rich getting richer neither (a) makes the least fortunate among us worse off,l nor (b) lets the rich take over the political system and rig the rules of the game to perpetuate their power or squelch other people’s’ rights so that principle (1) is violated. 

But, if Rawls’ is so reasonable why do so many Americans associate liberalism with “redistribution” to people who don’t deserve it?  In a way this is surprising.  Americans understand reciprocity and community very well.  We are a very generous people in terms of private charitable giving, religiosity, and other measures.  Where we, let’s say, diverge quite a bit is in who many of us include in our sense of community; who’s “us,” those who deserve government’s help in overcoming barriers to equal opportunity —  and who’s “them,” who don’t deserve it.  Maybe that’s not surprising is a country the size of a continent with thousands of different religious denominations, 50 state governments, 3,000 counties, big cities and small towns, a centuries old racial divide, etc.   Has our skyrocketing level of inequality become a cause in its own right, rather than just an effect?  Carl thought so, Jim not so much.   

Anyway, that’s why I was recommending the book, The Evolution Of God, by Robert Wright.  (Or, see reviews by NYRB or NYT)  It traces (sometimes a bit tediously) the history of the growth in humankind’s ability to expand its circles of empathy.  From clans to ethnicities to nations, and so forth.

Next week:  Sharia law and the evolution (threat?) of Arab and Muslim politicl systems.


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