Saturday, June 16, 2007

Political Liberalism

A week ago a philosopher named Richard Rorty passed away. I had never heard of Rorty, but his passing prompted a round of discussion between New Republic writer Damon Linker and Atlantic bloggers Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, and Andrew Sullivan. Certainly any discussion that involves 3 of the Atlantic's 5 bloggers is likely to catch my attention, but particularly one that involves John Rawls's concept of political liberalism as heavily as this one did. Hank and I had some discussion of Rawls here last winter, but we focused on his two principles of justice rather than the general concept of political liberalism. I thought this might be a good chance to discuss it a bit. I find it to be highly relevent in contemporary politics. Whether or not Sullivan would admit to being a Rawlsian (probably not), there is a strong strain of Rawlsian political liberalism in comments like this one:
Count me convinced of the case for forgoing moral certainty in politics in favor of a shallower, skeptical formalism of live-and-let-live.

The genius of America, it seems to me, is its capacity to include people of radically different worldviews within a loose, flexible and constantly adjusting constitutional system. Given the huge differences between, say, a born-again evangelical in Georgia and a pot-smoking post-boomer in Seattle, no single cultural strait-jacket can ever hold America together. That's why we mercifully don't have such a strait-jacket, despite the excesses of the cultural left and right. We have a constitution that allows us to live together and even learn from each other in a morass of competing life-choices.
And when Barack Obama made his highly regarded speech on politics and religion last summer (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5) he went directly to Rawls's playbook for this:
This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

Rawls first gained notoriety from his book A Theory of Justice. In it Rawls attempted to develop a comprehensive political philosophy. He developed from first principles a full system of political justice and fairness resulting in a well-ordered society. But this required Rawls to make many philosophical commitments along the way. In defending A Theory of Justice from its critics (and there were many) over the next decade or so Rawls came to the conclusion that it was unrealistic to believe that any such comprehensive theory would capture the public imagination such that everyone would adopt it. This was particularly so when he considered that his theory was in competition with other comprehensive theories, namely religions, to which people tend to be quite attached. People had too many existing philosophical commitments.

So Rawls decided that a comprehensive approach to political philosophy wasn't particularly fruitful. What was needed was a way to reconcile the many existing and competing comprehensive theories already present in our society into a workable political theory. This motivated his second major book: Political Liberalism. The goal was no longer to try to establish his theory of justice as being true, but rather to make it a focal point of social agreement among a pluralistic mish-mash of comprehensive philosophies.

Rawls presents a long and fairly complicated theory in Political Liberalism and I won't attempt to sum it all up here. But there are two points I'd like to pull out:

First, Rawls sets a baseline for the participation of any comprehensive philosophy in a pluralistic democracy. Rawls requires that all must be reasonable. He defines reasonable to mean that they a) be willing to abide by rules of fair cooperation as long as others do the same, and b) that they accept Rawls's concept of "the burdens of judgment". The burdens of judgment reflect the fact that on deep philosophical questions (the focus of comprehensive doctrines) our evidence is complex and conflicting, weighting is difficult, many concepts are vague, there is much reliance on life experience and competing normative considerations. So we should expect different conclusions about what makes life good even from perfectly rational and reasonable people. Any comprehensive philosophy that cannot accept this uncertainty, that insists that only its conclusions can be true, is one that cannot peacefully exist in a pluralistic democracy. This is what Sullivan is talking about in the excerpt above (and in much of his book from what I gather). It's a simple concept, but one that went out of fashion with the rise of the religious political right, and is only now making a comeback.

The next point relates to part (a) above. As one of the rules of fair cooperation that Rawls suggests any comprehensive philosophy compatible with pluralistic democracy needs to accept, Rawls proposes public reason. Public reason is a way of talking about political issues in a language that everyone can understand. Obama's excerpt above pulls directly from Rawls's thoughts on public reason. Political actions must be taken for reasons that everyone (regardless of respective comprehensive beliefs) can see as legitimate, even if not everyone agrees on them. Actions motivated purely by artifacts of one comprehensive doctrine will not be seen as legitimate by supporters of other comprehensive doctrines. So, as Obama says, if you want to take such ideas into the public sphere they need to be reseated in principles more broadly accessible to everyone; simply citing chapter and verse of the Bible isn't good enough. Rawls argues that any argument that assumes that the listener shares the same comprehensive doctrine as the speaker (or should convert to the same doctrine) fails to respect the burdens of judgment and is an argument inappropriate for public politics in a pluralistic democracy.

Next time I hope to discuss the bloggers' discussion of Rawls and Rorty...

No comments: