Philosophy and Civil Society
In Rawls's A Theory of Justice, the conceptual resources of modernist liberalism were stripped of their motivational power and reduced to bloodless representational devices.
Rawls's book, A Theory of Justice (TJ), was largely received as a contribution to modernist liberal political theory. Rawls was not yet a full-blown "political" liberal. He had not yet made what I have called his rhetorical turn. His ambition in that book seemed to be to arrive at a statement of the correct theory of social justice -- i.e., in his terms, the theory of social justice that could rightly claim to produce a reflective equilibrium between our moral intuitions and a set of stated principles or criteria of justice.
In this project, Rawls drew on the conceptual and stylistic resources of both Lockean and Kantian versions of modernist liberal political theory. But, in his hands, those resources were pretty much stripped of their motivational power and were reduced to rather bloodless representational devices. Consider, for example, the ideas of the natural condition and the social contract.
Modernist liberals imagined the natural condition of all human beings prior to political association to be a condition of more or less complete liberty. Persons in the state of nature were represented as subject to no cultural or legal constraints. They were represented, in effect, as embodiments of the civic ideal of free and equal individuality.
We may recognize today that free and equal individuality has much more to do with the particularistic moral ideals of liberal democracy than with anything like the natural human condition. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that, as the ideological basis for the civic moral ideal of authenticity, this modernist identification of the normative standpoint of citizenship with the natural human condition wound up providing powerful motivational resources to modernist civic culture.
Again, consider the idea of an autonomous faculty of practical reason. Kantian liberals imagined all human beings to possess such a faculty. This faculty was rational in that it prescribed universal rules for conduct. It was autonomous in that the rules it prescribed were rules originating entirely in itself, independently of any external cultural authority. Persons who lived by those rules could then claim that they lived autonomously -- that their lives were governed by rules dictated not by prince, Pope, habit or appetite, but rather by their own faculty of pure practical reason, their own innermost metaphysically real self.
Once again, we may recognize today that, in this notion of rational autonomy, Kantian liberals misread the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship as a condition of metaphysical self-determination. But here too there is little doubt that, as the ideological basis of the civic ethics of autonomy, this misreading offered powerful motivational resources to modernist civic culture.
A liberalism without passion
In TJ, Rawls went just about as far as he could to downplay the anthropological and metaphysical claims associated with the modernist liberal notions of social contract and rational autonomy. The result was the development of a version of those ideas that diminished dramatically the persuasive power of the civic moral ideals based on them, while adding little that was new to modernist liberal conceptions of citizenship.
In place of the modernist anthropological concept of the state of nature, Rawls introduced the methodological concept of an original position, a counterfactual state of affairs which required us to imagine the negotiators of the basic terms of political association carrying out their negotiations behind a "veil of ignorance," having no knowledge of their individual life circumstances in the society whose rules of association they were negotiating. The task given to these hypothetical negotiators was to arrive at an uncoerced consensus regarding the principles of justice.
Under such negotiating conditions, the reasoning of the negotiators (having nothing else to go on) would be governed supposedly only by the purely formal logic of game theory (Rawls's version in TJ of a pure or autonomous practical rationality). As a result, the rules of association or principles of justice arrived at by such negotiators would presumably embody an impartial or neutral stance toward all particularistic conceptions of the good life, favoring no particular ethnic, class, or religious cultural community at the expense of any others and insuring that the basic social, political, and economic arrangements would be fair to all.
Thus, in TJ, all the basic metaphors, images and arguments familiarly employed in modernist liberal political theory are called into play. Legitimacy is claimed for a specifically liberal criterion of moral rightness by demonstrating that such a criterion would be the outcome of a discussion among free and equal individuals governed only by the logic of a culture-neutral rationality. While Lockean liberals tended to focus on the circumstances of the discussion and Kantian liberals on the reasoning allowed, Rawls's deduction of his own favored version of liberal justice incorporated both concerns -- he makes sure that his own demonstration gives a lot of attention both to the free and equal status of discussion participants (a.k.a. natural liberty) and to their determination to let a certain kind of culture-neutral reasoning (i.e., the rules of game theory) alone decide the outcome (a.k.a. rational autonomy).
But the most striking continuity between Rawls's version of this modernist liberal style of argument and those of his precursors is also the most fundamental and important. Modernist liberal political theory was anxious to make it appear that there was nothing arbitrary or contingent about liberal democratic political norms and moral ideals. Modernist liberal theorists couldn't just come out in favor of those norms and ideals and then go on to make a case for their favorite conceptions of them.
No, they had to make it appear that the conceptions of liberal justice and civic values they offered marched irresistibly forth from the state of nature itself or from the bowels of pure reason. So, in order to make sure that their demonstrations and theories would have a happy conclusion, they built their favorite conceptions of liberal moral ideals into their accounts of the social contract and of autonomous reason. Rawls, in TJ, felt this same compulsion. In his version of the show, it seems obvious that the standpoint of the negotiators built into his description of the original position represents in part Rawls's own conception of the normative standpoint of citizenship.
Thus, the negotiators of the terms of political association are described by Rawls as operating behind a veil of ignorance. This means that, in the discussion of those terms, particularistic cultural perspectives, personal interests and commitments, individual circumstances, and other such appeals must be ruled out. But why not just say so directly? Why bother with the tedious "device of representation" known as the original position? Why not just say that citizens in the full cultural sense are those persons who have gained the capacity to externalize their primary moral identities, to unplug their primary moral vocabularies, to step behind the "veil of ignorance" when appropriate, and to treat fellow citizens fairly as free and equal individuals?
Again, instead of "constructing" the difference principle from an assumption-loaded account of the original position, why didn't Rawls just make a compelling case for his view that citizens who are winners in the existential lottery should care about and help those less fortunate? Why couldn't Rawls just come out and say, as Rorty does, something like "liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst sort of thing we do."
The answer to these questions is that, for whatever reason, Rawls in TJ somehow still felt the need characteristic of most modernist liberal political philosophers to portray liberal political morality as if it were not a matter of particularistic belief and practice, but rather a set of claims whose truth or validity could be demonstrated. But in order to increase his chances of producing a successful demonstration, Rawls felt that he had to jettison the more controversial aspects of modernist liberal political theory -- its tendency to claim anthropological and metaphysical priority for liberal moral ideals.
Unfortunately, it was just this aspect of modernist liberalism that provided liberal doctrine with its motivational clout and rhetorical fireworks. In stripping liberal doctrine of its metaphysical pretensions while retaining its literary form, Rawls came up with the worst of both worlds. A citizen will look in vain in the pages of TJ for even a sign of a vision of human life that might have the power actually to move him or her to embrace liberal moral ideals more gratefully and enthusiastically.
The version of liberal doctrine he produced in TJ was a rhetorically impoverished one. It was a liberalism without passion, an arid procedural liberalism that expressed, if anything, the gray bureaucratic spirit of the culturally-neutralist liberal welfare state. In short, Rawls in TJ initiated a form of liberal political philosophy that has undoubtedly done more to worsen than to resolve the motivational crisis of contemporary civic culture.
Rethinking the doctrine of the priority of the right over the good
When we get to Political Liberalism (PL), however, things are beginning to be quite different. The first step away from the attenuated modernist liberalism of TJ was Rawls's more or less determined embrace of an explicitly political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine. This move settles once and for all the question about the source and status of liberal moral and political values. It decisively rules out any sort of universalist and essentialist interpretation of the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship. It thereby should eliminate the need or compulsion to justify liberal principles by showing that they can be deduced from the universal natural human condition or from the principles of pure practical reason.
For Rawls in PL, liberal doctrine is affirmed as a partial political and not a comprehensive metaphysical doctrine. The source of liberal democratic moral ideals is to be found in the public culture of modern constitutional democracies. These ideals just happen to have won many adherents in certain North Atlantic political communities. They are contingent products of history. Their status is defined accordingly. Liberal democratic moral ideals will continue to have adherents as long as those adherents continue to be persuaded of the desirability of liberal democracy as a form of political association and as a way of life. If the moral ideals of particularistic ethnic, class, and religious communities are arbitrary and accidental historical artifacts, then liberal democratic moral ideals are no less so.
More or less implied, then, in Rawls's reinterpretation of liberal doctrine as political and not metaphysical doctrine is this denial of the modernist assumption that liberal democratic moral ideals, to be justifiable, must be somehow written into the very fabric of things. But this denial, of course, constitutes only the first step toward a renewal of liberal belief. The next step is perhaps the more interesting and difficult one.
Rawls, in his writing published since 1980, takes this next step also -- or at least points in its general direction. Modernist liberal political theory characteristically distinguished between civic moral ideals and communitarian moral ideals so as to identify civic moral ideals with the humanly universal and the essential and communitarian moral ideals with the humanly particular and the accidental. Linked to these contrasts, however, was another one.
Civic moral ideals were viewed as embodying a certain formal conception of moral rightness that carried a special kind of moral obligation. The modernist civic ideals of authenticity and autonomy, for example, required conduct to assume a certain form rather than to have a specific content. They mandated a way to be rather than a what to be, leaving to individual desire to determine the what -- i.e., the particular conception of the good to pursue.
Communitarian moral ideals, on the other hand, were matters of desire, inspired by and grounded in totalizing conceptions of the good. The cultivation and direction of desire were the work of families and of particularistic cultural traditions. Modernist civic moral ideals, however, were to find their work elsewhere. Their job was to establish and support obligatory constraints on desire, obligatory constraints on the pursuit of happiness, that were in accord with liberal principles of justice.
This sort of contrast and division of labor between civic and communitarian moral ideals make sense as long as it is believed that civic moral ideals have a metaphysical origin and therefore don't really need to be attractive objects of desire. But once we have abandoned the notion that principles drawn from some imagined natural condition of liberty or faculty of autonomous reason dictate liberal constraints on the pursuit of happiness, then the contrast and division of labor mentioned above ceases to make sense.
The distinction between civic and communitarian moral ideals as a distinction between matters of formal obligation and substantive desire collapses. Liberal moral ideals too must be thought of as substantive shapers of desire, as final goods defining not only the how but also the what of life. In short, the rhetorical turn, the turn from metaphysical to political liberalism, implies a second reorientation of liberal political thought.
This second reorientation involves a fundamental rethinking of the liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good. The liberal principle of right must be redefined in substantive, particularistic, and teleological terms. The liberal doctrine of the priority of the right over the good must be recast as a doctrine of the priority, under certain circumstances, of a special object of desire -- i.e., the civic good -- over other objects of desire -- i.e., the goods proper to communitarian life ideals. The rhetorical turn in postmodern liberal political thought thus calls forth what I want to call a teleological turn.
The teleological turn in post-metaphysical liberalism
This teleological turn is first announced in Rawls's Dewey Lectures1 in 1980. In those lectures, Rawls introduced a conception of moral personhood according to which moral personhood is defined by the possession of two moral powers along with two highest-order interests in the full development and exercise of those powers. The two moral powers defining moral personhood, according to Rawls, are: (1) a capacity for an effective sense of justice and (2) a capacity "to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of the good."2
Further, these moral powers carry two highest-order interests in their full development and exercise. For Rawls, to call these interests "highest-order" interests is to say that they "are supremely regulative as well as effective. This implies that, whenever circumstances are relevant to their fulfillment, these interests govern deliberation and conduct."3
The significance of this conception of the powers and interests proper to moral personhood for present purposes becomes evident above all when the passage is taken in conjunction with the thesis presented in his 1985 essay, "Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical."4 As long as we understand the conception of moral personhood in the passage above as a political and not as a metaphysical conception, we will read it properly.
To say that it is a political conception is to say that, in putting it forward, its author seeks to win the acceptance of his audience -- i.e., his fellow citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies -- regarding the issue at hand. The issue at hand is the question of how the normative standpoint of liberal democratic citizenship can be most profitably understood.
In his Kantian constructivist mode, Rawls's conception of moral personhood plays a role in his design of the original position. But the standpoint of the hypothetical negotiators of the original position actually amounts to a heuristic definition and representation of the idealized standpoint that citizens are required to adopt as they participate in civic discourse and public life. In his conception of moral personhood, therefore, Rawls is in fact offering us his conception of the normative standpoint of citizenship.
Rawls is telling us that, in his view, citizenship in the full cultural sense requires the development of two new moral powers and two new highest-order interests. As elements of a political conception, these powers and interests are not to be taken as part of human nature or as universally present as faculties in all human beings. They are powers and interests that, if they are to exist at all, they must be culturally produced in persons in order to enable those persons to be full participants in a liberal democratic political community.
Given this interpretation of how Rawls's conception of moral personhood is to be taken, what is novel and important is the content of the conception itself. According to this conception, citizens in the full cultural sense must develop and exercise (1) a capacity for an effective sense of justice, and (2) a capacity to form, revise and pursue rationally a particular conception of the good.
Further, they must possess an interest in developing and exercising these powers that, in relevant contexts, overrides all other interests. To say that the development and exercise of these powers are highest-order interests is to say that they are experienced as goods and that, in some contexts, they are experienced as final goods whose attainment takes precedence over all goals. It is to say, in short, that the development and exercise of these powers are objects of desire.
Here we have the basic ingredients of what I have called the teleological turn in postmodern liberal political philosophy. In Rawls's conception of moral personhood, i.e., in his post-1980 conception of the normative standpoint of citizenship, citizenship is regarded as an end, as a matter of desire and not merely a matter of following rules and meeting formal obligations. Liberal morality mandates a specific substantive content of life and not merely a form. The ideal liberal democratic community, i.e., one whose citizens all have achieved full cultural citizenship, is itself a particularistic cultural community, one united by virtue of a shared pursuit of a contingent and particularistic conception of the good.
The next question then naturally would be: What is the nature of this civic good? If a civic community is a community united to pursue a particularistic conception of the good, what is the relationship between this conception of the civic good and the various happiness ideals and ways of life pursued by the particularistic cultural communities that constitute the encompassing civic community?
On these and many related questions, Rawls himself offers little help. Yet it is Rawls, perhaps despite himself, who has opened the perspectives that allow these questions to be asked. If it is true that today, in the aftermath of the wreck of the Enlightenment and the demise of modernist liberalism, we face a motivational crisis in the sphere of civic culture, resources for the resolution of this crisis may be discovered somewhere in the new perspectives that Rawls has opened.
Our contemporary task is not just to invent new ways of understanding the ideal of liberal democratic citizenship, but, more importantly, to invent new ways of motivating citizens to realize it in their own lives. The teleological turn speaks to this second, and perhaps most difficult part of our task. It turns us in the direction of new issues and questions, new ways of thinking about liberal political morality. It invites us to begin to think of liberal democratic citizenship as about something more than formal rights and duties. It invites us to begin to think of citizenship in terms of desire and aspiration as well. It seems to me that only this kind of thinking can effectively speak to the contemporary moral crisis of liberal democracy.
1 Published in John Rawls, "Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory: The Dewey Lectures, 1980," Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980)
Page last edited: 01/28/02
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