A life spent seeking justice

Collected Papers
December 10, 1999

Much of human life is hard to bear. It consists of suffering, and suffering that in itself does not appear in any way personally deserved. Particularly hard to bear is suffering that we feel we have done nothing to deserve and that comes our way through the deliberate actions of other human beings. The deliberate infliction of undeserved suffering is one of the paradigm cases of injustice. Suffering is, of course, far from being the sole coinage of justice; but it remains perhaps the clearest, the most urgent and the most evocative medium in which we can assess the justice or otherwise of human arrangements. No human society (not even the Aztec) was deliberately organised for the purpose of inflicting undeserved suffering. But every human society does inflict a great deal of undeserved suffering, and capitalist societies as conspicuously as any. Much else might have to be true of it for a human society to be just; but one thing that plausibly must be true of it is that, other considerations being anywhere near equal,it should minimise undeserved suffering.

To look at a human society in this way is to view it as an intentional construction: something generated by the conscious thought processes, the choices and the causally effective actions of at least some of its denizens. This is never a comprehensive and realistic picture of what a human society is; but it is an increasingly compelling and imaginative perspective on human societies today (one shared by bureaucratic planners, political entrepreneurs, reformist intellectuals and would-be spiritual leaders, sometimes even, fugitively, by individual citizens in the privacy of the polling booth). Directly encountered, every human society has always been largely a structure of fatality; but the political impetus of ever more social and political units over the past few centuries has been to struggle with increasing energy and determination to transform fatality into choice: to recompose their flagrantly unjust pasts into discernibly juster futures.

How well or badly this process has gone (how modern politics has turned out) is extremely hard to judge; and views about it are probably more determined by temperament and the contingencies of date and place than by objective cognitive constraints. But what is clear, across temperaments and in the face of any plausible candidates for cognitive constraints, is that the issues of how unjust our societies really are, and how just they could readily be made, are constitutive of modern politics, and even today still lie very close to its centre.

John Rawls is the modern philosopher who has done most to force the recognition of this centrality on the attention not merely of other professional philosophers, but of very much wider educated populations that increasingly extend far beyond the boundaries of the anglophone cultural world, the western European political diaspora or even the practical politics of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. In doing so, he has, among other things, rescued an endangered academic practice, the serious and disciplined study

of the great issues of public values by

professional philosophers, from imminent extinction and given a remarkable exemplary display of how to devote an entire intellectual life to the patient, frank and indefatigable study of a single great intellectual problem.

His Collected Papers , naturally, covers the whole of that life, from two decades before he published his masterpiece, A Theory of Justice , in 1971 to more than 25 years later. It begins with an article about the nature of ethical adjudication, drawn from his Princeton PhD and published in the leading American philosophical journal of the decade. It ends, for the moment, very close to half a century later, with a most illuminating interview with an American Catholic journal of opinion in 1998. All of it is concerned in one way or another with the relations between justice, reason and a good political community. But it is an important question for his readers, as well (presumably) as for Rawls himself, how far the assembled papers do address, from their many different angles, a single intellectual problem, and how far their sequence over time reflects a steady slippage of attention from one great question to another very different question: essentially from the philosophical issue of what it is for a human society to be just to the more crudely political issue of the terms on which a society with very different and sometimes mutually inimical cultures can nevertheless conduct a healthy, shared and mutually acceptable political life.

His conception of what it is for a society to be just is unflinchingly liberal: that it fully reflect the goal of giving to each of its denizens an equal opportunity to choose for themselves and live out as they please the lives that its productive and cultural resources in principle make available to them, and do so irrespective of who they are, where within the society they happen to be born, or what their tastes and ethical susceptibilities prove to be. Many before and since the publication of A Theory of Justice have disputed vigorously that this is at all what it is for a human society to be just. But it is a compelling interpretation of what liberals must believe it to be; and Rawls has explored with unique assiduity and steadiness of purpose how best to capture what would have to be true for it to be actualised. On this at least it is hard to believe that any reader of this book could conclude that he has seriously changed his mind or come to feel any more tepidly. What certainly is true, however,is that in the period since 1971 he has come to take much more seriously a second and very different topic, and that increasing preoccupation with the latter has shifted the emphasis of some of his earlier analysis of the first. This was already apparent some time before the publication of Political Liberalism (1993). Why have his preoccupations shifted in this way?

Rawls is far from being a confessional writer (especially for an American): self-effacing to a degree, and perhaps for a political philosopher even a shade unworldly. But it seems reasonably clear that the main cause of this shift in attention has been the experience of massive political defeat for the sorts of programmes suggested by his earlier work.

The political implications of liberalism are strongly redistributive: not strongly enough for some tastes, but definitely far too strongly for those of the American electorate as have voted ever since its publication. Internationally, the decades since 1971 have seen an awesome increase in the relative power of the United States over any other political or economic entity. But domestically things have gone very differently; and the sense of political frustration, cultural fission and erosion and mutual impatience mark a sharp decline in collective amour propre and security from the domestic agenda of Lyndon Johnson's presidency.

Justice as fairness, the comprehensive liberal doctrine espoused and explored in A Theory of Justice , presents a vision of justice that all the members of a well-ordered society could reasonably affirm together.

America today is plainly not well ordered by this criterion. The fact of reasonable pluralism alone (the key assumption of Political Liberalism ), as Rawls himself notes in his striking penultimate essay "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited", presumes any such society to be simply impossible.

Reasonable pluralism recognises the co-existence of a plethora of mutually incompatible comprehensive doctrines on how to live. But it does not simply capitulate to the often blatantly unreasonable pluralism of the US as this actually exists and simply abandons the idea of public reason altogether, settling instead for whatever risk-minimising modus operandi it manages to secure. Instead, it focuses ever more determinedly on the idea of public reason as the appropriate standard for a constitutional democratic regime, based fundamentally on the principle of reciprocity, and envisaged ultimately as a tissue of strictly civic friendship.

This is a relatively antique and markedly unhistrionic conception. It is hard to see it carrying the imaginative force to steady, illuminate or edify the raffish and confused demos of America as the Clinton presidency draws towards its close, let alone to discipline it at all firmly in practice. But it is a powerful conception as well as a deeply

honourable one. In comparison with justice as fairness, it takes politics altogether more seriously, not simply as an endlessly potent range of more or less inane obstructions to implementing the conclusions of philosophy, a domain of arbitrary evil or cauldron of meaningless suffering, but as a distinct challenge to clear ethical understanding.

Unreason, as Rawls well knows, we have ever with us. No human population will ever be simply ruled by reason alone, still less by public reason. A reasonable pluralism is the best that any modern polity can sanely hope for. Any modern polity that elects to refuse its citizens that opportunity will, in doing so, be choosing to let unreason rip. On the evidence of the past 25 years, and by no means solely in North America, it seems clear that the citizenry of modern democratic polities will not decide to affirm together justice as fairness in the core distributive politics of their regime, whether because of more or less superstitious or confused beliefs about economic causality or because of congenital meanness. (And if it is clear that most of them will not in practice choose to affirm it, in what sense is it still relevantly true for any of them that it is one that they could choose to affirm together?) For the present, therefore (economic beliefs may change; perhaps even meanness might eventually moderate), it is politically more urgent to judge whether or not the idea of public reason set out in

Political Liberalism is one that democratic citizens in many different polities might still be induced to espouse, defend and implement together. I have always thought of Rawls as a philosopher with something important to say to politics but a rather limited sense of what politics in fact consists in (apart from anything else, the seldom wholly inadvertent infliction of a huge weight of undeserved suffering). Nothing in this book refutes that judgement. By the end of it, however, the judgement itself has become a lot more discomfiting.

If he proves as ingenuously optimistic in the hopes with which he concludes as he perhaps was in some of those from which he started out, most of us sooner or later are going to have pretty radical grounds for political dismay. And will he prove so? You should judge that for yourselves.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Collected Papers

Author - John Rawls
Editor - Samuel Freeman
ISBN - 0 674 13739 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - 0 674 13739 6
Pages - 622

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