Reading Rawls after Murray II

The points I want to make in regard to Rawls has to do with his deliberately sparse philosophical anthropology.  However much his theory would put the ‘right before the good’, Rawls needs to assume certain things about human beings in order to make sense define the central characteristics of the political enterprise–we need to know what it is about us that tends us toward the kinds of communities that require the organization and exercise of political authority.  The answer we get does a lot, I think, to shape some of the key contours of the resulting theory.  In particular, there is connection I think between the philosophical anthropology Rawls start with and reach of the political in political liberalism.  Religion works as an illustration, as we get one conception of the political relevance of religion if we start from strongly theistic assumptions about humans, and quite a different if we assume, like Rawls, that the centrality of religion in our lives is a function of our considered and revisable comprehensive doctrines rather than our basic nature as humans, and so highly variable.

So, in particular, I’m inclined to argue that Rawls’ minimalist and sketchy philosophical anthropology is arguably way too minimal and sketchy to do the necessary work.  Rawls identifies a handful of psychological traits (such as reasonableness and the capacity to develop a sense of fairness) and political virtues (such as tolerance) and an equally modest set of basic goods that are presupposed by liberalism.  I think there are reasons to suppose this is insufficient for principled and plausible distinctions between the public and private, or between political questions from moral questions.  One place where this has been pretty visible is in the difficulty the Rawlsian picture has with gender and related issues.  Lacking a robust picture of human being that says something substantive about the centrality of sex and gender in human affairs, the nature of marriage and child rearing and so on, the Rawlsian approach has vacillated between an overly privatized view of such matter and one that would tolerate implausibly intrusive  state involvement.

That this is so is attested to by the work of Martha Nussbaum, who has faulted Rawls on both the general point and on the issue of the family.  Nonetheless, her own way of fleshing out Rawls’ list of basic goods to include her (and Sen’s) capabilities still leaves us without much in the way of a philosophical anthropology that can explain why her capabilities are true goods as opposed to things people just happen to like when they can get them.  Instead she banks on their “intuitiveness” and cross cultural appeal.  Just why we should trust those intuitions or give moral weight to a (mostly stipulated) cross cultural consensus remains inexplicable in the face of her metaphysical reticence.

Lastly, that these are not merely academic concerns is attested to by the habit of unresolved–and on the Rawlsian picture collectively unresolvable–moral disagreements becoming political.  As MacIntyre predicted, it seems that the lack of a suitably robust moral language doesn’t lead to the privatization of moral disagreements; rather it leads to attempts to marshall the power of the state to impose resolutions, a tendency that increasingly corrupts the democratic process.

As I said, this is not to endorse Murray’s picture.  Rather, it’s to suggest something more in the direction of Murray may be necessary.


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