Reconstructing Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How Rawls's move from a metaphysical to a "political" theory of justice offers a model for the postmodern reconstruction of liberal political philosophy
ESSAY 1: Post-Metaphysical Liberalism: The Case of Rawls
 

 

 

 

 

 

Rawls points the way toward the more complete transformation that liberal political philosophy must yet undergo.









 

 

 

 

 

 









In A Theory of Justice, Rawls set out to uncover the principles of justice he believed were operative in the moral intuitions of all reasonable persons.









 

 

 

 

 

 






 

 

 

 

 

 

 



In 1985, Rawls viewed his theory of justice as articulating only those principles actually operative in the intuitions of persons influenced by the public culture of modern constitutional democracies.










 

 

 

 

 

 

 






Rawls now speaks of offering not a theory of justice that claims to be true, but rather a conception of justice that claims to be reasonable.












 

 

 

 








Could we affirm a theory of justice as true even if an audience made up of the most insightful citizens of liberal democracies does not find it to be a persuasive account of the principles of justice?










 

 

 

 














This reinterpretation by Rawls of his philosophical project as a project whose goal is consensus and the adherence of a specific audience I call his rhetorical turn.

 
Moving from a metaphysical to a "political" version of liberal political theory

          It is remarkable that the American political philosopher most identified in recent years with modernist styles of liberal political theory -- John Rawls -- is also the one who has most rigorously and seriously addressed the challenge to Western political thought posed by the demise of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge. In my view, to be sure, Rawls's response to this challenge falls short. He does not take what I call his "rhetorical" and his "teleological" turns nearly far enough. Yet he certainly points us in the right directions, directions that Western political philosophy is bound to follow, to the extent that it remains true to its liberal democratic past.

          Rawls himself characterizes the "turn" in his thinking since 1980 as a move from a metaphysical to a "political" conception of liberal political theory. This turn in his thinking is incomplete and he himself (to say nothing of his more ardent students and followers) recoils from full acceptance of its implications. Nevertheless, it points the way toward the more complete transformation and reconstruction that liberal political philosophy must yet undergo. Let us briefly sketch the nature of that transformation by tracing the path that Rawls has followed over the last 35 years.

A metaphysical theory of justice

          In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice (TJ). That book presented a theory of the principles of social justice, which he called the theory of justice as fairness. Rawls began by assuming that reasonable human beings are capable of correctly evaluating the justice of particular social arrangements, even though they are often not able to provide a theoretical account of the criteria they apply in arriving at their evaluation.

          Further, Rawls believed that the intuitive judgments reasonable persons made regarding justice were frequently at odds with the judgments licensed by utilitarianism, the dominant academic theory of political morality at the time (in the 1950s and 60s). The fact that reasonable persons intuitively judged questions of social justice differently than utilitarianism mandated constituted, for Rawls, a prima facie case that utilitarianism, as a theory of social justice, was untrue.

          In TJ, Rawls set out to uncover, make explicit and refine the principles of justice that he believed were operative in the moral intuitions of all reasonable persons. A theory of justice would consist, then, at least in a statement of those principles, along with an argument in their support. A correct theory of justice would be one whose principles yielded judgments that conformed to the moral intuitions of reasonable persons.

          This test for determining the truth of a theory of justice determined the methodology that Rawls adopted in TJ. The theory would be arrived at through engaging in a process of mutual adjustment between stated principles and the intuitive judgments of reasonable persons. When a state of reflective equilibrium between moral intuitions and stated principles had been achieved, the resulting principles would be established as the content of the true or correct conception of social justice. This true conception of social justice could then be applied or appealed to in disputed questions of political morality. This is roughly how Rawls conceived of his philosophical project in 1971.

Rawls's rhetorical turn

          For present purposes, the actual principles of justice Rawls arrived at in his 1971 inquiry are less important than his conception of the theoretical enterprise itself and how that conception has changed since then. Although Rawls now rejects this interpretation, there is no doubt that most readers of TJ understood the book to present a theory of the essence of political morality. If true, the theory of justice as fairness would state the criteria by which the justice or injustice of any political regime, existing at any place and time, are to be judged.

          In other words, using Rawls's later vocabulary, most readers interpreted TJ as offering a metaphysical, rather than a political conception of justice -- i.e., a conception of justice claiming universal truth known for its own sake. Admittedly, there are many passages in the book that support this interpretation. Even now, Rawls himself has not yet completely freed himself at least of a certain style of thought that supports a metaphysical interpretation of his work. Nevertheless, the book's central argument as well as its peculiar methodology resist this metaphysical interpretation and point in the direction that Rawls has followed in his published writings since 1980.

          This new direction was signaled most conclusively in 1985, when Rawls published an essay entitled, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical."1 In this essay, Rawls disassociated himself decisively from earlier metaphysical interpretations of his project and offered a very different conception of it. His starting point remained the intuitive judgments of reasonable people regarding what is just and unjust. The subject matter for analysis remained the implicit principles underlying those judgments. But both starting point and subject matter were reinterpreted by Rawls in such a way as to place his entire inquiry within a radically new context and to give the results of that inquiry a radically different character and status.

          In that 1985 article (whose content was largely incorporated later into his book, Political Liberalism) Rawls defined the "reasonable people" whose intuitions provided the subject matter and standards for the method of reflective equilibrium as those persons whose self-understanding and moral standards had been shaped by the institutions and political culture of a modern constitutional democracy. The moral intuitions that serve as both data and control for his project were thus no longer to be understood simply as the moral intuitions of reasonable people in general, without regard to any particularistic or historically conditioned assumptions that may influence them.

          On the contrary, the relevant moral intuitions were identified as precisely those that had been produced by an historically specific political culture -- they were identified as the moral intuitions specifically of those persons who had been shaped by the civic culture of contemporary liberal democracies and who as a result had in some degree developed the intellectual and moral capacities proper to citizenship. Given this reinterpretation of the starting point of Rawls's project, its subject matter and goals had to be reinterpreted accordingly.

          If the relevant data are the historically conditioned intuitions of members of a specific type of political regime, then the principles underlying those intuitions are no less historically conditioned. The theory of justice as fairness therefore cannot be understood as a statement of the principles of justice as such, as a claim about the universal essence of political morality or as a revelation of the truth about an objective moral order. Rather, the theory of justice as fairness seeks to articulate only those principles and assumptions actually operative in the intuitions of persons influenced by the public culture of modern constitutional democracies.

From a "theory" of justice to . . .?

          This 1985 essay marked a decisive shift in Rawls's philosophical project. One sign of this shift is his dropping of the word "theory." Rawls today speaks of offering not a theory of justice that claims to be true, but rather a conception of justice that claims to be reasonable. Consider for a moment what might be implied (from the standpoint of modernist epistemology) by the very notion of a "theory" of justice.

          The notion of theory deriving from modernist philosophy is roughly understood to refer to a discourse that seeks to provide a uniquely satisfactory (as determined by logical considerations alone) explanation of the patterns actually observed in some field of data. The data are understood to be "givens." Their patterns are stable and they are logically independent of the theory explaining those patterns.

          On the other hand, a theory pertaining to a field of data continuously in a state of flux -- i.e., showing no stable and observable patterns -- would have nothing to explain. A theory pertaining to a field of data whose patterns can be described only through the use of the theory could not be said to be a correct account of that field. The theory would then constitute its subject matter rather than provide a true explanation of it -- the sort of relationship between theory and observation familiarly associated with the views of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

          Further, the modernist notion of theory suggests that this discourse is undertaken from a purely impartial standpoint, one that aims at "getting it right," i.e., arriving at the one true or correct understanding of its subject matter -- truth for its own sake. This notion of theory assumes that there is a "fact of the matter" and that the facts can and ought to be finally coercive with respect to both the theoretical discourse and its audience.

          The criteria for ranking rival theories in terms of the degrees to which they give a satisfactory explanation of the data must be determined by the rules of inductive and deductive logic alone. On the basis of purely logical considerations alone, then, if one particular theory, among all its competitors, offers the most satisfactory account of the facts, the theory can be affirmed as true whether any particular audience happens to affirm its truth or not.

          In Rawls's original conception of his project, the theory of justice as fairness could plausibly be interpreted as a theory in roughly this sense. The field of data consisted in the set of intuitive judgments made by reasonable people regarding disputed questions of social justice. It assumed that these data were "given" independently of any particular theory of justice and that the goal of every theory of political morality was to provide a satisfactory account of the patterns evinced in our intuitive moral judgments. But Rawls's revised conception of justice is clearly not a theory in this sense.

The cognitive status of liberal political philosophy

          Can there be a correct theory about the historically conditioned principles used by members of a specific type of historically-conditioned community to decide disputed questions of political morality? In this case, the field of data itself is clearly unstable and subject to variation. The moral intuitions of the better citizens of constitutional democracies are not fixed once and for all, but can be changed through persuasion and may even be influenced by Rawls's theoretical discourse itself or by the discussion it produces. This means that there exists no theory-independent set of intuitional patterns or regularities a correct theory could be objectively correct about.

          Moreover, a theoretical discourse is thought to aim at truth for its own sake. It assumes that there is a fact of the matter and the goal of the discourse is to get those facts right. A theoretical discourse is thus to be distinguished from discourse seeking to persuade, discourse that aims at producing a certain rhetorical effect upon its audience. A theory can be true whether or not any particular audience has been persuaded of its truth.

          But can the conception of justice as fairness, in the light of Rawls's 1985 reinterpretation of it as a political and not a metaphysical conception, be viewed as a theory in this sense? Could we affirm its truth even if an audience made up of the most insightful citizens of constitutional democracies does not find it to be a persuasive account of the principles of justice? Would we be willing to say that the members of such an audience are mistaken about their own assumptions and intuitions, that they are victims of false consciousness?

          And what if the theory of justice as fairness not only were rejected by this audience, but also produced among its members such a negative reaction that they were led to embrace a new set of assumptions and therefore a new pattern of intuitive judgments radically incompatible with it? Would we be willing to say that this change in the patterns of intuitive judgments, because it produces patterns different from those explained by the theory, shows that the audience has "fallen away" from the correct principles and its members are in need of reformation?

          In short, can there be anything that we would call a theory (i.e., in the traditional modernist sense) about a subject matter that the theory itself can decisively influence and that must win the actual adherence of an audience in order to be considered acceptable as a product of inquiry?

Political philosophy: From timeless truth to audience consensus

          It seems obvious that, understanding the term "theory" in its modernist sense, Rawls quite properly no longer speaks of offering a theory of justice. Not only would the data -- i.e., the moral intuitions of reasonable citizens of modern constitutional democracies -- of any such "theory" be variable and historically conditioned, but the explicit goal of inquiry would be to win the acceptance of those reasonable citizens and not simply to arrive at a statement of what is the case.

          How are we to classify the status of Rawls's political conception of justice as fairness then? A practical political proposal? An attempt to influence public judgment by proposing a set of principles that reasonable persons who disagree about matters of social justice might find acceptable as a means of settling disputes? This is the interpretation of his project that Rawls embraced in his 1985 article.

Now suppose justice as fairness were to achieve its aim and a publicly acceptable political conception of justice is found. Then this conception provides a publicly recognized point of view from which all citizens can examine before one another whether or not their political and social institutions are just. . . It should be observed that, on this view, justification is not regarded simply as valid argument from listed premises, even should these premises be true. Rather, justification is addressed to others who disagree with us, and therefore it must always proceed from some consensus, that is, from premises that we and others publicly recognize as true; or better, publicly recognize as acceptable to us for the purpose of establishing a working agreement on the fundamental questions of political justice.2

Thus, in 1985, although he himself didn't describe it in these terms (and, for that matter, no doubt still wouldn't), Rawls in effect reinterpreted his philosophical project as a project belonging to the cognitive realm of rhetoric.

          Traditionally, rhetorical reason defined its cognitive realm as the realm of pistis or belief as opposed to the cognitive realm claimed by philosophy, the realm of episteme or science. Belief or pistis is the state of being persuaded. To the extent that any discourse aims at producing belief, i.e., the uncoerced adherence of its intended audience, to that extent it belongs to the cognitive domain of rhetoric.

          This is the way it seems that Rawls, since 1985, has conceived of his inquiry into the principles of justice. His aim is no longer (if it ever was) to arrive at a timelessly true statement of the universal principles of social justice, but rather to offer a statement of the principles of justice that might win the uncoerced adherence of the reasonable citizens of a modern constitutional democracy.

          The principles of justice produced by Rawls's inquiry are to be judged cognitively not by the traditional standard identified with modernist political philosophy, i.e., the standard of timeless truth, but rather by the traditional standard identified with rhetoric, i.e., the standard consisting in the successful establishment of a body of uncoerced shared belief. This reinterpretation by Rawls of his philosophical project as a project whose goal is consensus and the adherence of a specific audience, then, I call his rhetorical turn. It is this rhetorical turn that constitutes the first defining mark and guiding maxim of postmodern liberalism.

(NOTE: for additional critical remarks about Rawls's move from a metaphysical to a "political" theory of justice, see Reviews, 1a, 1b and 1c.)

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1 John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (1985).


















































2 John Rawls, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical," p. 229.

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