Political Liberalism

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Political Liberalism is a 1993 book by John Rawls, an update to his earlier A Theory of Justice (1971), in which he attempts to show that his theory of justice is not a "comprehensive conception of the good", but is instead compatible with a liberal conception of the role of justice:

Expanded Edition (2005)[edit]

Introduction (1992)[edit]

  • The dualism in political liberalism between the point of view of the political conception and the many points of view of comprehensive doctrines is not a dualism originating in philosophy. Rather, it originates in the special nature of democratic political culture as marked by reasonable pluralism. This special nature accounts, I believe, at least in good part, for the different problems of political philosophy in the modern as compared with the ancient world. To explain this I state a conjecture—I shouldn’t say it is more than that—about the historical contexts that accounts for characteristic problems of the ancients and the moderns respectively.

Introduction to Paperbook Edition (1995)[edit]

  • Philosophy may study political questions at many different levels of generality and abstractness, all valuable and significant. It may ask why it is wrong to attack civilians in war either from the air by ordinary bombs or by atomic weapons. More generally, it may ask about just forms of constitutional arrangements and which kinds of questions properly belong to constitutional politics. More generally still, it may ask whether a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible and what makes it so. I don’t say that the more general questions are the more philosophical, nor that they are more important. All these questions and their answers, so far as we can find them, bear on one another and work together to add to the knowledge of philosophy.

Lecture I. Fundamental Ideas[edit]

  • The two principles of justice (noted above) are as follows:
    a. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
    b. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
  • The public political culture may be of two minds at a very deep level. Indeed, this must be so with such an enduring controversy as that concerning the most appropriate understanding of liberty and equality. This suggests that if we are to succeed in finding a basis for public agreement, we must find a way of organizing familiar ideas and principles into a conception of political justice that expresses those ideas and principles in a somewhat different way than before. Justice as fairness tries to do this by using a fundamental organizing idea within which all ideas and principles can be systematically connected and related. This organizing idea is that of society as a fair system of social cooperation between free and equal persons viewed as fully cooperating members of society over a complete life.

Quotes about Political Liberalism[edit]

  • How persuasive is this change of mind? It is not hard to resist it. Contrary to his hopes, Rawls's new construction is more fragile than the old. A Theory of Justice presupposed a historical time and a national space, but abstracted from them to generate ostensibly timeless principles. Political Liberalism introduces history and sociology directly into its justificatory structure, but in a way that exposes rather than heals the original contradiction. For the whole book depends on the thesis that a plurality of incompatible—but reasonable—comprehensive doctrines is a permanent feature of modern societies. But Rawls offers no evidence for this claim, which he seems to think so obvious as to require none. He simply alludes to the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notes the growth of toleration that followed them, and then concludes that nevertheless ‘the fact of religious division remains’. Given the relentless advance of secularization in all European societies, the fate of supernatural beliefs today tells, of course, against rather than for Rawls's assumption. Perhaps American anachronism here has misled him.
  • Political Liberalism, as most of its reviewers have found, is a disappointing book. Its formal organization is poor, still bearing too many traces of the discrete lectures out of which it has been assembled, with a high rate of repetition and lack of independent direction. It belongs with that peculiar sub-set of books in which an author sets out to correct or defend a celebrated earlier work, and succeeds only in producing an arid shadow of it – Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge or Alasdair MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality? are companion cases that come to mind. The experience of reading it is one of regret. The imperfect dignity of A Theory of Justice remains. [...] The contradiction between the postulates of consensus, to which Rawls continually subscribes, and the realities of dissensus, to which his best impulses belong, is incurable. [...] If the modern state is as described, deep in its democratic convictions and traditions, how could there possibly be a deadlock over the realization of freedom and equality for its citizens? The two halves of the statement fall apart. If he had pursued the logic of the second, rather than the will-o'-the-wisp of the first, becoming less congenial to the state and more attentive to the impasse, Rawls would have written a better book. The needed sequel to his major work had another title – A Theory of Injustice.

External links[edit]

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