U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Charles Mills on Rawlsian “Ideal Theory” and Race

One of the many blogs that I try to keep up with but will often forget to read is The Stone. One of the Opinionator blogs at the New York Times, The Stone is “a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.” On the off chance that you don’t already know about it, I highly recommend it to readers of this blog; if you like what we do, you’ll probably be interested in what gets posted there.

This morning, a number of Facebook friends of mine, including Annette Gordon Reed and John Protevi, linked to a fascinating interview, published on The Stone, that George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, conducted with Charles Mills, the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University. The second in a series of interviews with philosophers on the issue of race, Yancy’s interview with Mills deals substantially with the history of political philosophy and raises questions that are of potentially great interest to U.S. intellectual historians.

The interview is both rich and fairly short, so I won’t try summarizing the whole thing. Readers should check it out for themselves. But I did want to quote at length one point Mills makes about political philosophy in general, and Rawlsian liberalism in particular, which I found especially interesting and significant:

You have a historically white discipline — in the United States, about 97 percent white demographically (and it’s worse in Europe), with no or hardly any people of color to raise awkward questions; you have a disciplinary bent towards abstraction, which in conjunction with the unrepresentative demographic base facilitates idealizing abstractions that abstract away from racial and other subordinations (this is Onora O’Neill’s insight from many years ago); you have a Western social justice tradition that for more than 90 percent of its history has excluded the majority of the population from equal consideration (see my former colleague Samuel Fleischacker’s “A Short History of Distributive Justice,” which demonstrates how recent the concept actually is); and of course you have norms of professional socialization that school the aspirant philosopher in what is supposed to be the appropriate way of approaching political philosophy, which over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly shaped by Rawlsian “ideal theory,” the theory of a perfectly just society.

Rawls himself said in the opening pages of “A Theory of Justice” that we had to start with ideal theory because it was necessary for properly doing the really important thing: non-ideal theory, including the “pressing and urgent matter” of remedying injustice. But what was originally supposed to have been merely a tool has become an end in itself; the presumed antechamber to the real hall of debate is now its main site. Effectively, then, within the geography of the normative, ideal theory functions as a form of white flight. You don’t want to deal with the problems of race and the legacy of white supremacy, so, metaphorically, within the discourse of justice, you retreat from any spaces worryingly close to the inner cities and move instead to the safe and comfortable white spaces, the gated moral communities, of the segregated suburbs, from which they become normatively invisible.

While Rawls’s place in the history of political philosophy has been much written about, we intellectual historians are still in the early days of developing a really rich understanding of the place of Rawls, and formal, liberal political philosophy, in the broader sphere of American thought and culture in the 1970s and beyond. The questions Mills raises point us in an important direction. As he suggests in the quoted passage, the issue is not so much that Rawls himself ignored race as it is the ways in which Rawlsian “ideal theory” has reinforced a kind of blindness about race that, Mills argues, has pervaded mainstream academic political philosophy since World War II.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m glad this is here. This captures so many difficulties that plague “ideal” political philosophy in the Rawlsian register. In an effort to figure out what Rawls had to say about the civil rights movement, I sent some emails around to some of his former students to see if he commented much on what was going on around him at the time. My sense is that he didn’t comment on it much because he saw ideal political philosophy as a moral obligation. Basically, we don’t enact the principles reached from out of the original position, because doing so imposes a specific political process, when we should think about about doing political philosophy as a moral act in itself. Extending beyond that a bit, the upshot appears to be that doing political philosophy makes us better human beings. I did find some attention to issues of civil disobedience (CD) in Rawls’ course lectures in his papers at Harvard, but race as a category of analysis was pretty much absent. There are bibliographies in his notes, for example, of literature on CD, but nothing in particular about race as a specific problem. I was curious about just the question here: how can theorists of social justice seem to miss this? In an email back to me, Thomas Nagel offered this article which could be interesting to think about some (not sure if this is mentioned in the broader piece):
    Thomas Nagel, ‘John Rawls and affirmative action’, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 39, April 2003, 82″ 4.

    • we don’t enact the principles reached from out of the original position, because doing so imposes a specific political process, when we should think about about doing political philosophy as a moral act in itself. Extending beyond that a bit, the upshot appears to be that doing political philosophy makes us better human beings.

      I’m no Rawls expert, but in nothing I have read by Rawls can I recall him saying anything remotely like “doing political philosophy makes us better human beings.” It doesn’t strike me as something he would say; he might say, I suppose, that moral reflection could make us better human beings, but not “doing political philosophy.”

      Maybe Brad Baranowski could weigh in here. I’d be interested in his thoughts on this (or in the thoughts of anyone else who is better versed/more steeped in Rawls’ corpus than I am).

      • p.s. the first part of the above passage, about not “enacting” the principles of justice, I think is also, well, wrong. It’s not a good characterization of the distinction betw. ideal and non-ideal theory, IMO.

      • Fair enough on the moral reflection issue, or at least my lack of precision on a post written up rather quickly, mostly for the purposes of sharing the Nagel article. I was thinking of this interview:


        Also some of Rawls notes for his classes during the 1960s, which I transcribed and would be happy to share with anyone who wants them. He discusses these questions there and I suppose my quick summary caricatured a far more nuanced position.

        By “enact” I meant that I’ve never read him as saying that the veil of ignorance should be institutionalized as a legislative process, that sort of thing. Philosophy works to clarify ideas, etc.

  2. I’m totally with Ben on this being a conversation and Stone post worthy of our attention—for all the reasons Ben mentions, and one more. I was intrigued to learn that Mills is the author of the phrase “epistemology of ignorance.” I was also pleased to hear how much attention ignorance is getting in philosophical circles. I know it’s received attention here, under the auspices of anti-intellectualism (courtesy of me)—though with different names here than those mentioned in The Stone post by Mills. – TL

  3. Tim, when I read the linked piece I thought immediately of your post on anti-intellectualism.

    I thought it was interesting that Mills suggested a re-examination of Kant. A key claim of Peter Park’s book (which I will eventually write a post on) is that Kantians re-shaped the historiography of philosophy along racist lines. (And he argues that this is not an anachronistic identification of a “later” scientific racism in an earlier time, but is indeed that same kind of racism avant la lettre.)

    And thanks to Ben for this link. It was a fascinating read.

    Speaking of Rawlsian liberalism, here is another must-read (a link I also came across courtesy of Ben): Philosophy Grad Student Target of Political Smear Campaign. A very distressing story indeed.

  4. This is a fascinating conversation we’re having. I haven’t had a chance to check out the interview, but I’m glad Ben posted a link to it.

  5. @ Peter Kuryla:
    I misunderstood your use of “enact” — I see what you meant now. Also, thanks for the link to the interview.

    For those interested, there’s a discussion of the issues raised in the original post here at the site Daily Nous, though I haven’t had a chance to read the comment thread there closely. Will link it below.

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