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Lara Spirit: Happy anniversary, Mr Rawls

Thursday 25 February 2021

The great political philosopher’s A Theory of Justice is 50 years old – and out of fashion. We should still read it


“Well, I don’t think we know really how we become interested in something, or why”, the philosopher John Rawls told the Harvard Law Review in a rare interview in 1991, when asked how he became interested in his subject. “We can only say what happened when.” 

It’s now been 50 years since Rawls’s most famous work, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971, and 100 since he was born. His theory is often credited with reinvigorating the concept of the “social contract” – a form of mutual agreement to establish the foundations of political society – and the book marked him as perhaps the most influential American philosopher of the century. 

He asked how we best marry concepts of liberty with equality in a constitutional democracy. What principles of justice would we choose, were we able to start from scratch, to underpin our basic institutions? The ambitious egalitarian theory which he distilled – justice as fairness – would see us all hold equal basic rights (of freedom of speech, association, and so on) within an economic system to the greatest benefit of the least well-off. It’s a theory which reshaped the way in which liberalism was theorised, taught and challenged and its continued influence – especially in elite US universities – remains undisputed.

I’m deeply interested in his work, and I’m far from alone. A Theory of Justice has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Even so, comparatively few in my generation – the under-30s – will be celebrating its anniversary. Those reflections on the Rawls anniversaries that have appeared in publications such as the Financial Times and Prospect have tended to be written by older journalists and academics. How and why, when political thinkers such as Karl Marx and (especially) Michel Foucault are of obvious and enduring interest to the young, has John Rawls fallen out of intellectual fashion? 

To be fair, he’s not an exciting sell. While other political philosophers traversed more tumultuous times and wrote with far more flair (the libertarian thinker, Robert Nozick, called Rawls’s thought “serpentine”, which is how reading him often feels), he was a privileged, almost obsessively private individual who moved between elite American universities for most of his life. 

He resisted personal celebrity, avoiding interviews and largely refusing the many honours he was offered. This may be noble – but what do we, in fact, know about his character? He liked baseball, running and healthy eating. This is pretty thin pickings for a major league philosopher. I was once told by another student after a lecture that “Rousseau ATE his baby.” There’s no evidence this ever happened (he abandoned each of his five children at a Foundling’s Hospital, which might’ve been the source of confusion, though still wildly different) but Rousseau’s self-professed “erotic frenzies” are infamous and plenty of philosophers share biographies with equally arresting details (apocryphal or otherwise).

More to the point, even Rawls’s ideas never really set activist fires alight or inspired anything like a movement, in spite of the high book sales. In fact, Rawlsian liberalism was already losing the political battle during his lifetime – he died in 2002 – and has certainly been losing it ever since. As he spent the tailend of the 20th Century meticulously developing his theory (he described himself as a “monomaniac”), Anglo-American politics was becoming increasingly disassociated from the welfare liberalism he espoused.

His vision for a constitutional democracy was one which guaranteed “fair value” to our basic political liberties – no matter how great or small our wealth, we should each have the same political rights and wield the same political power. Yet, by the time of his death, this philosophy seemed to many more detached from reality than when he had started: more money than ever was finding its way into US elections, inequality was rising and the search to find any common ground, an “overlapping consensus”, between its citizens seemed more fanciful than ever.

Its relevance has been further challenged by the pandemic. Covid-19 is a truly global threat – whereas Rawls’s political community was one firmly bound by territorial borders: he insisted that it applied only at the level of the nation-state (despite efforts by others to extend his theory of justice to the supranational level). 

If his most compelling recommendations don’t apply across state lines, how useful is he in countering vaccine nationalism or as a guide to a truly global response to the pandemic? Or – to take other clear and present challenges facing the planet – as an intellectual guide to the development of a robust international climate regime, or humane and systematic refugee resettlement policies?

Rawls’s ideas have also collided with the social justice movements that have surged so impressively in recent years. The philosophy at the heart of A Theory of Justice has been criticised for making little space for historical claims – claims that are, quite rightly, central to the arguments of movements such as Black Lives Matter movement, for whom the quest for justice is unavoidably and intrinsically an engagement with the past and a systematic attempt to seek redress for the enduring pain bequeathed to the present.

His social contract depends upon a basic thought experiment in which participants – blind to their personal circumstances – are “forced to choose for everyone” the principles of justice upon which they must all live. The “veil of ignorance” is the intellectual conceit which asks you to consider: what social, legal and civil basis for society would you accept if you had no idea what your position within it was going to be?

What flows in his writing is a language of universal rights, of human beings as “free and equal”. While fervent egalitarianism of this sort is laudable enough, it risks a gravitational pull towards abstraction and away from the hard facts of lived experience. To be blunt: how can the historically-privileged truly conceive of a world outside their own social capsule? Is it actually possible for the beneficiaries of our existing social structures to think fully and deeply about the “veil of ignorance”?

In particular, Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract (1997) and Carol Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) both ask how much the values of the Enlightenment – including the universalist notions of freedom and equality upon which Rawls’s ideas depend – have done for minorities. Of what practical value, in a world already rendered so fundamentally iniquitous by past injustices, is it to think, in ideal terms, about starting from scratch?

These are important limits, and they help to explain why my own generation is more sceptical than the last demographic cohort about the use of liberalism as an over-arching philosophy. They see an inventory of problems: the pervasive inequalities that liberal economics has nurtured; a system of globalisation, strongly defended by economic and political liberals, that nonetheless leaves millions feeling disenfranchised; fragile institutions which, in recent years, have seemed perilously  weak in the face of authoritarian threats. The list goes on. So when the Harvard assistant professor, Katrina Forrester, author of a brilliant book on Rawlsian liberalism, argues that “liberals also have to choose: to stay where they are and try to squeeze new developments into old paradigms, or to recognise these limits”, you can see why. 

All the same, and against the grain of fad: I still think that Rawls’s 600-page door-stopper has enduring merit and deserves to be widely read. Here’s why.

Take Brexit. Of the many crises of the past two decades to have perplexed liberals, this is among the greatest. I thought it was a disastrous decision. I still do. I left university to campaign for a referendum on the final deal and am well aware that this will immediately mark me out in the eyes of some readers as a sloppy centrist.

So when my university supervisor suggested A Theory of Justice to me when I returned, I mentioned I was still pretty upset and embittered. I didn’t feel much like any “overlapping consensus” could be found between factions. One side had simply won. 

For a sizable part of the campaign, the talking heads on Westminster College Green had been streamed live into my office. Day in, day out, I’d half-watched – and occasionally taken part in – debates pitting Leavers and Remainers against one another. 

Sometimes the former Tory Cabinet minister, Rory Stewart, would appear and recommend Theresa May’s deal as the middle way, but generally a pair of implacable antagonists talked across one another as if the other were not there. It got worse; security was intensified and, by the end, the small patch of grass was full of flag-bearing representatives from warring sides making so much noise that broadcasters had trouble hearing one another. I remember thinking it was a tall order, maybe an impossible one, for these camps to find any common ground in the future.

On 31 January 2020, we left the European Union and I spent that Friday night distractedly making notes on his later work, Political Liberalism. Published twenty years on from A Theory of Justice, this text asks how any constitutional democracy can remain stable over time. Rawls saw society as deeply pluralistic, embracing  unavoidably and justifiably different views on what life should be like. His answer was “public reason”, a form of dialogue through which we must articulate political disagreement using terms intelligible to all – regardless of their wider beliefs. 

This might sound excessively procedural (and, these days, the real-world influence of Rawls is most strongly felt in US jurisprudence). But it is also genuinely and inspiringly interpersonal. The responsibility to treat others with reciprocity and respect – Rawls called it “civic friendship” – is, or should be, a foundation stone of any decent society. 

Surely there’s value in asking how, and if, this can be safeguarded when we often seem unable to even define the terms we’re arguing about? And – in the light of the horrors witnessed at the US Capitol on 6 January, – isn’t this question more important than ever?

Similarly, Rawls’s concept of social welfare may not sound revolutionary, delivered as it is in calm and deliberate prose. But if you look at his preferred systems of distribution, they are as radical as anything Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren suggested in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. 

Here’s another milestone: Starbucks celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with CEO pay at a level more than 1,000 times that of its median employee. This is a social justice issue, of course, but this is precisely where Rawls’s approach remains useful. His explicit link between economic inequality and the acquisition of political power is more important than ever. 

The 2020 US election cost $14 billion, double the figure in 2016 and over four times as much as in 2000 – a year after Rawls had written that “in constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function”. 

But the most striking part of Rawls for me is his work on intergenerational justice. Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard, Michael E. Rosen, last year chaired a panel at the university on Rawls’s legacy and hailed him as “one of the first people to raise issues about justice between generations in his work”. 

Rawls asked, long before we were all confronting the implications of longevity and the shrinking opportunities facing so many young people, what we owe our descendants. An often-forgotten aspect of the veil of ignorance is that we don’t know, in this conceptual exercise, what generation we will belong to. Rawls guides us towards a “just savings” principle that will, in theory, require us to set aside enough wealth to allow future generations to live as current generations do. This was once taken for granted. In 2021, it is a much more precarious moral command, and Rawls deserves credit for grasping its vulnerability.

Age has been the most important dividing line in the past two General Elections. The legacy to which most young people now look forward is increasingly bleak: the bitter fruits of Brexit, climate catastrophe, little promise of home ownership and, for many, spiralling student debt. 

As the government ponders – apparently interminably – the future of adult social care, they would do well to pay at least as much attention to the increasingly devalued political liberties of the young. We can’t win elections even if we wanted to (Professor David Runciman has pointed out you’d need to give six-year-olds the vote to give the young a chance of winning). With the wealth gap between the old and young widening, the distributive thought at the heart of Rawls is surely worth returning to.

So happy anniversary to A Theory of Justice. Thought-provoking, brilliant, and flawed, Rawlsian liberalism isn’t the answer to all our ills. But to consign it to history would be to squander a manual for social construction that still has great value in a world of hectic change.