U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Minimalist Offering: Check Out This Book

With this post I’m succumbing to the diseases sweeping academia this month: the mid-term blues and spring break virus. So I offer this minimalist bit of information about a new book of interest (courtesy of my PhilPapers feed, bolds mine):
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Robert S. Taylor (2011). Reconstructing Rawls: The Kantian Foundations of Justice as Fairness. Penn State University Press.

With the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, John Rawls not only rejuvenated contemporary political philosophy but also defended a Kantian form of Enlightenment liberalism called “justice as fairness.” Enlightenment liberalism stresses the development and exercise of our capacity for autonomy, while Reformation liberalism emphasizes diversity and the toleration that encourages it. These two strands of liberalism are often mutually supporting, but they conflict in a surprising number of cases, whether over the accommodation of group difference, the design of civic education, or the promotion of liberal values internationally. During the 1980’s, however, Rawls began to jettison key Kantian characteristics of his theory, a process culminating in the 1993 release of Political Liberalism and completing the transformation of justice as fairness into a Reformation liberalism. Reconstructing Rawls argues that this transformation was a tragic mistake because it jeopardized the most important features of his theory, viz. the lexical priorities of right, liberty, and fair equality of opportunity as well as the difference principle. Controversially, this book contends that Rawls’s so-called “political turn,” motivated by a newfound interest in diversity and the accommodation of difference, has been unhealthy for autonomy-based liberalism and has pushed liberalism more broadly towards cultural relativism, be it in the guise of liberal multiculturalism or critiques of cosmopolitan distributive-justice theories. The book then demonstrates that the central elements of justice as fairness can only be defended within the context of a Kantian Enlightenment liberalism and that Rawls’s hope for a more pluralistic grounding for his theory, endorsed by a wide variety of belief systems present in modern democratic societies, is illusory. Reconstructing Rawls is the first book to systematically compare Rawls’s and Kant’s theories and the first to offer an internal critique and reconstruction of justice as fairness, reconceiving it as a comprehensive, universalistic Kantian liberalism. By doing so, it gives us both the vision of a liberal world order—“a republicanism of all states, together and separately,” as Kant put it—and a mode of justification addressed to all men and women, not as members of particular nations, races, and faiths, but as human beings, as citizens of the world. In short, it reclaims Rawls for the Enlightenment.
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Color me intrigued. – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wrote the following from one in a series of posts on “utopian thought and imagination” in 2008:

    “[W]e should be grateful to Rawls’s unapologetic commitment to “ideal theory,” at least in A Theory of Justice (1971, revised ed., 1999), particularly in light of the lamentable concessions made to his communitarian critics in the John Dewey Lectures, published as Political Liberalism (1993). In the latter work, Rawls is in full philosophical retreat form the Kantian “transcendental” perspective, as “the concept of moral persons being free and equal is [now] located in the public culture of our democratic society” (T.K. Seung, Intuition and Construction: The Foundation of Normative Theory, 1993, p. 41). In brief, the cosmopolitan–or utopian–potential of Rawls’s theory of justice is short-circuited by way of avoiding both moral realism and metaphysical questions, thereby taking so-called Kantian constructivism in a conventionalist or culturally relativist direction never envisaged by Kant himself:

    “Rawls can evade the metaphysical question [regarding the truth of moral principles] only by taking the antimetaphysical and antirealistic position, that is, the concept of moral persons is not a metaphysical entity but only a product of our culture, or rather the Kantian ideals of liberty and equality have no significance outside our tradition of liberal democracy. In that case, the original position and the two principles of justice can make normative claims only for those who happen to share the same Kantian ideals. There is no reason to say that the conception of justice as fairness is objectively better than any other conception. [….] So Rawls wants to regard moral facts and moral ideals as social and cultural entities. This amounts to a surrender to normative positivism: moral norms and ideals are no more than social or cultural facts. Normative positivism inevitably leasd to moral and cultural relativism. Kant took the transcendental perspective chiefly to avoid the evils of normative positivism and moral relativism. In that regard, Rawls’s Kantian conventionalism goes against the spirit of Kant’s own philosophy.” (Seung, p. 45)

  2. [above comment continued]

    Onora O’Neill further explains the precise nature of Rawls’s difference with Kant on this score:

    “[Kant’s] vindication of practical reason is decisively different from the conceptions of reasonableness that Rawls has put forward. In the later versions of his theory of justice, Rawls depicts a conception of democratic citizenship within a bounded society as the source and context of reasoning about justice. By contrast, Kant (although he uses such terms as ‘citizenship’ and ‘public’ metaphorically) deploys a conception of practical reason which does not presuppose that those who reason about justice and politics must be linked by common citizenship in a ‘bounded society’ with a democratic constitution. Kant consequently views state boundaries and the system of states, the exclusions and inclusions which define citizenship in those states, as well as the nature of a just constitution, as problems for justice rather than as presuppositions of justice. As he sees it, basic political institutions do not confer but rather need justification: to invoke them in its absence is to appeal to spurious authorities. In rejecting not only justifications that appeal to shared norms, but those that appeal to shared citizenship, Kant embarks on a construction of justice whose broadest vision is of a cosmopolitan order within which states are to be justified. By contrast, Rawls, who views bounded societies as in part constitutive of reason, must treat international justice as an appendix to domestic justice. [….] The formula of universal law proposes as the test of ethical adequacy simply that agents adopt principles which (they take it) could be adopted by, willed by, all others. It is, as Kant puts it, a conception of the reasonable which addresses ‘the public in the strict sense, that is, the world,’ rather than the restricted public of a particular society or state. Kant’s public is not the Rawlsian public, consisting only of fellow citizens in a bounded liberal democratic society: it is unrestricted. Hence, Kant’s conception of ethical method takes a cosmopolitan rather than an implicitly statist view of the scope of ethical concern; correspondingly, he takes a more demanding view of the construction of principles in that he conceives of justification as aiming to reach all others without restriction.” (Onora O’Neill in Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, 2003, pp. 360-362)

    I’m not intending to be dismissive of works like Political Liberalism or The Law of Peoples simply because of their deliberate distance from utopian thought proper [which will be defined in another post in this series], for they help us see the imaginative, conceptual, and moral limits of one of, if not the, strongest strains of the social contract tradition of Liberalism, especially when set alongside cosmopolitan conceptions of justice […] or next to moral theories of international law […], or in contrast to socialist critiques of capitalism […], or in light of “basic income” proposals in so-called advanced capitalist societies […]. Rawls enables us to better appreciate the strengths and limits of Liberalism such that any utopian alternative will have to take on board some of that tradition’s most cherished ideals and values, even if these are now understood or interpreted in fresh or revolutionary ways (cf. Martha Nussbaum’s The Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, 2006).

    (I’ve left out all the links from the original post).

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