Rawls on Liberty Notes for November 8

Main points

A number of Rawls’s arguments concerning liberty appear to depend on contentious assumptions about the status of our values. Specifically, Rawls tends to see them as the products of human choices. But not everyone sees things this way.

I might think that my vocation is given by God; it’s not a matter of my choice. Or I might think that the rules of justice are given by God; they are not the product of self-legislation by free and rational human beings.

Does wealth increase the value of liberty?

This comes up in two ways.

First, it is relevant to Rawls’s distinction between the general and special conceptions of justice, where the special conception does not allow liberty to be sacrificed for the sake of material gain and the general conception does. Rawls says that the parties in the original position would insist on the special conception once their society had reached a particular level of wealth. That level is reached when individuals’ “basic wants” (p. 543) have been fulfilled and social conditions allow for “the effective establishment of these rights” (p. 152). In other words, the bar appears to be pretty low.

(Incidentally, for a fascinating discussion of the underlying idea with a real political leader, see Fareed Zakaria’s interview with Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore).

Second, it is relevant to Rawls’s distinction between the extent of liberty and the worth of liberty. The poor have equally extensive liberties as the rich, even if they are worth less to them.

We raised more questions than we answered. That’s good. Anyone who has only answers isn’t thinking very much, pretty much like someone who has only questions. Anyway, you’ll be glad to hear that we’ll get some answers in the next week.

For example, Valerie pointed out that wealthy societies put a higher value on environmental protection than poor ones do. That suggests that wealth corresponds with lower value for liberty, since environmental protection usually involves limiting the liberty to use environmental resources.

Whether that conflicts with Rawls’s point or not depends on whether he was talking about liberty in general or a list of specific liberties. Hart will lay out passages that seem to take both positions. Hart believed that the second of these was Rawls’s true position, but that there were problems with either one. It’s relevant to Valerie’s question because if the liberty to use environmental resources is not on Rawls’s list of liberties, then he could accept her point without conceding his own.

I also think that Robin was right to remind us that there’s a difference between wanting more (or less) liberty for yourself and wanting more (or less) liberty in your society as a whole. That’s another point that Hart will develop.

So what?

Suppose Rawls’s arguments do rest on contentious premises. That doesn’t make them wrong: people believe lots of false things, so the truth is often contentious. Nor does it mean that they’re inappropriate for the task at hand. It all depends on what he was trying to do.

For instance, suppose the project of A Theory of Justice was to come up with an alternative to utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism has impressive theoretical strengths: it gives a systematic account of the jumbled set of moral beliefs that inform our political opinions. But it has some flaws. In particular, it frequently runs afoul of beliefs about justice. Since that is so, it would be desirable to have a theory of justice that displayed utilitarianism’s theoretical strengths but also took justice more seriously.

If that’s what A Theory of Justice is, then it seems to me that the contentious assertions I pointed out don’t matter a lot. Those tempted by utilitarianism are unlikely to have the beliefs I described earlier.

(This doesn’t mean that utilitarians wouldn’t have other grounds for disagreeing with Rawls’s theory of the good, just that they wouldn’t be bothered by the ones I mentioned).

As a matter of fact, I think that giving a theoretically rigorous alternative to utilitarianism is the aim of A Theory of Justice. So I have a lot of sympathy for Rawls here. I know that the book has the heft of a comprehensive account of liberalism that was designed to repel all possible adversaries. But I don’t think that’s what he was trying to do. It’s very much focused on utilitarianism.

One thing that’s fascinating about Rawls is how the project changed between the two books. Political Liberalism introduces quite a lot of additional machinery to go on top of the old theory. But it’s really about a different set of problems.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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