One of the most frustrating things about being a modern leftist political theorist is dealing with the legacy of John Rawls.
[[Hobby horse alert! Sorry! Hear those chairs scraping the floor? I’ll just wait while 95% of my readership heads back to Facebook.]]
Ok. For those of you still here—let’s get to it. Rawls is an enormous figure in twentieth century political thought. He’s best known for his enormously influential A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls helped move political theory out of the thoroughgoing irrelevance of analytic philosophy’s dusty corridors. That’s definitely a praiseworthy achievement. On the other hand, his project hamstrings left-wing rhetoric in really damning ways. Let me explain why this is so.
Here’s the basic argument (amended for the better in Political Liberalism, but let’s keep things simple for now): Rawls suggests that we can think best about the broad contours of our political system by means of an abstracted thought experiment—the so-called “veil of ignorance.”
To step behind the “veil,” you just need to imagine that you don’t know your political, economic, or social status. Imagine that you were ignorant of whether you were rich, poor, strong, weak, healthy, disabled, etc. What sorts of political rules would you support before rolling the genetic dice? Fate’s dice? Etc.
Start here, Rawls argued, and most of us would admit that we’d set up political rules along the lines of the modern welfare state. Humans are risk-averse. Since we might end up as at the bottom of society, we’d set up institutions to provide support for the poor, weak, and disabled.
This is pretty recognizably the Golden Rule in secular, philosophical form. It’s an admirable position—everyone but Ayn Rand’s acolytes admits that. It might even be (“big-T”) True, so far as ivory tower philosophers are concerned. How should individuals treat others? They should treat them as they would themselves. When we’re thinking about rules, we should take our particular self-interest(s) out of the equation.
The big (#$%@ing) problem is that Rawls’ thought experiment is rhetorically nonsensical. The Golden Rule works much better as ethical philosophy than democratic discourse.
I only recently noticed the extent of Rawls’ popular influence. A few years ago I saw protestors holding signs that read, “Stop Thinking Like Americans!” It stopped me in my tracks. How could I—or any other member of the United States—go about doing that? Who—or what—should I “think like?” What would it be like to be an American strenuously trying to think as a non-American? Is that even possible? Is it desirable? These questions are only partly facetious. These protestors are hardly alone. Many leftists would happily move beyond messy American “parochialism” without a second thought. Even if they don’t consciously refer to Rawls’ work, they’re swimming within his work’s current.
In some sense, this is the cost of doing business on the left. To be a leftist is to be concerned with the plight of the marginalized. Progressives and leftists have done much to respond to injustices within the messy American tradition. The last century is—in at least one version—the story of the American Left’s gradual success overcoming conservative attempts to exclude women, African-Americans, homosexuals, Muslims, and others from equal political treatment. Aren’t leftists always pushing citizens to consider that their own narrow perspective isn’t the only one? Don’t they define themselves against solipsism? (Something like this—“Leftists are compassionate dreamers”—underlies Michael Kazin’s excellent work on the history of the American Left.)
In a word: yes. But this doesn’t mean that self-alienation is the only route to building fellow citizens’ empathy. There are other, more persuasive ways to make the left-wing case. Take these three examples.
First of all, leftists once argued for just treatment of others on grounds of human proximity. Along these lines, we learn to care about the plight of others because we live among them. Starving children and unemployed veterans are here in our communities. Their suffering is not abstract, nor is it simply possible. It is immediately before our eyes. Rick Perry—though he later apologized for his momentary compassion—made very much this argument in a recent GOP debate. To ignore preventable suffering on the part of your fellow humans is to have no heart. Leftists have been making this case for decades. But this is still very touchy-feely, so…
Second, humans don’t just live near each other—they depend upon each other. There are good economic reasons behind leftist policies. We know that democratic communities rely upon social mobility and any number of other forms of economic justice. We know that democracies work better when they treat the underserved with dignity. The community suffers when we exclude the desperate and ignore organized cruelty. It turns out that sustained injustice is both a destabilizing political force and an expensive economic luxury to maintain. In short, healthy communities don’t just feel better—they work better too.
Finally, leftists can make the case for justice and empathy in specific American cultural terms. They can call Americans to their historical ethical commitments—the “better angels of their nature.” Our tradition contains ample materials for leftists to draw upon. Whether we’re relying upon the Declaration of Independence’s egalitarian promise or Christian social justice, Americans have the ethical ammunition to make their community more fair. For example, it’s shameful that we tolerate (and even encourage) enormous inequalities in public education—in light of our supposed commitment to equality of opportunity. Or, alternatively, the United States has a long history of extending public tolerance to women, non-white citizens, and immigrants. We should hasten to the next step and end institutional prejudice against homosexuality.
We don’t need to imagine away American society or history to make compelling political arguments. Quite the opposite. We lose as much as we gain when we alienate ourselves from our community’s political tradition. Progressives have long argued that this tradition isn’t fundamentally flawed—it just needs occasional rehabilitation. We don’t need to start over, ignorant of who we are and how we fit in the world. Our community—messy, parochial, particular as it is—can provide us with more than enough on its own.
We’ve heard this on occasion in recent years—“That particular injustice shouldn’t happen in the United States of America.” Why not make this case more frequently?