My last two posts have explained what I take to be Rawls’s philosophical project and the main errors in that project. Now I can state in a relatively straightforward fashion why I think libertarians should take Rawls seriously. I’ve explained why in earlier posts, but I weave them together here.
(1) Historical Accomplishments – libertarians should appreciate Rawls’s great historical accomplishments. He played a major role in reviving political philosophy as a legitimate discipline in the 1960s and 1970s. Second, he saw the need for a systematic alternative to utilitarian politics. Finally, Rawls convinced a great many academics that Marxism was wrong to assert that social order was inevitably a story of conflict until the completion of revolution. One of Rawls’s great insights was that society is a cooperative venture for mutual gain.
(2) Consequence-Sensitive Deontology – I have repeatedly stressed in my posts the importance of developing a non-utilitarian approach to justice that is nonetheless sensitive to consequences. Rawls helped contemporary moral philosophers see the need for such a theory.
(3) Contractualism – contractualism is an attractive moral and political theory. And it provides an attractive foundation for liberalism based on the recognition that the norms of political life should be acceptable to all. Rawls was one of the first proponents of the view.
(4) Institutionalism – Rawls saw that institutional conflicts raise a unique problem above and beyond questions of individual conduct. While Rawls used this point to motivate applying principles of justice primarily to society’s basic structure, allowing him to develop an account of social justice, libertarians also appreciate that moral and economic problems arise at higher levels of social organization. What libertarians can learn from Rawls is that one of these problems is a problem of justice, or so I (controversially) argued here.
(5) Reasonable Pluralism – Rawls recognized that the free exercise of practical reason leads to systematic disagreement about matters of ultimate importance and that political theory must begin by recognizing this social predicament. Many libertarian theories fail to recognize this critical fact (I have called these mistaken views Enlightenment libertarianisms).
(6) Public Justification – Respect for persons requires that all instances of coercion be subject to public justification. Rawls brought this idea into clearer focus than anyone in history up to that point. He also made possible Jerry Gaus’s classical liberal account of public reason in The Order of Public Reason, which one prominent review described as “the most complete and rigorous defense of classical liberalism” to date (Kindle version now only $16.50!).
(7) Liberal Neutrality – Rawlsian political liberalism provides an attractive account of liberal neutrality. Libertarians have always stressed the importance of a non-perfectionist politics (even if they buy into a perfectionist political theory): it is not the business of the state to promote a particular conception of the good. Rawls provides us with a method of justifying such restraints on state power.
(8) Respect for Religion – Rawls’s last work “The Ideal of Public Reason Revisited” (pdf here) reveals his most mature thoughts on the place of religion in liberal institutions. His view is far more tolerant and thoughtful than views of religion held by many libertarians, who cannot see religious belief and practice as a rational phenomenon. I think Rawls’s view can be marshaled to defend religious liberty, or so I argued here. I argue the same in more detail in my forthcoming book.
(9) Liberalism – Rawls defended liberalism against all comers. He placed an enormous amount of weight on the importance of liberal liberties, arguing that they could not be sacrificed for any reason save to protect some from the others. Even if this is too strong, libertarians should be able to appreciate Rawls’s emphasis.
(10) Neo-Rawlsian Libertarianism – Rawls’s work made possible classical liberal interpretations of his theory, some of which are philosophically persuasive. I have outlined my own preferred version here. John Tomasi has the most well-known account.
It won’t do to simply ignore or trash Rawls. Libertarians have a lot to learn from him.