Political Liberalism Notes for November 20

Main points

Today’s class had two aims, spelled out in the handout [pdf].

  1. Identify the problem that Rawls was trying to solve in Political Liberalism.
  2. Give an overview of what he is going to say.

In the course of doing the second, I slipped in two questions about political liberalism that we should keep an eye on.

  1. What's the problem? Is it a technical, narrow one concerning the account of stability in A Theory of Justice (see p. xvi-xvii)? Or is it to show how people who believe there is a religious authority governing political affairs could accept a secular political order (see pp. xxvi-xxvii)?
  2. Does the solution match the problem? If the solution turns on showing that groups committed to liberalism can be committed to liberalism, that suggests the first problem noted above, rather than the second. But how important a problem could that have been?

What’s the problem?

Rawls claims that the account of stability in A Theory of Justice is flawed because it relies on the assumption that people would internalize the principles of justice on the basis of believing a particular comprehensive doctrine. (By “internalize”, I mean that they would follow the principles for their own sake, rather than trying to avoid doing so). That’s a problem because a free society will produce many comprehensive doctrines, not just one.

But what’s the comprehensive doctrine on which the account of stability in A Theory of Justice relies?

We went through a few candidates. As Derek pointed out, you would think that the moral arbitrariness doctrine, the one he used to answer libertarianism, would have been what he had in mind. But there’s no evidence that he questioned that.

Instead, my best guess is the same as Zach’s suggestion. It’s the idea that choosing a plan of life is more important than having any particular plan. That’s important to his account of the priority of liberty and it looks controversial. It’s also the sort of thing that someone who believes there is a plan of life to be discovered rather than chosen would have trouble with. And since Rawls is explicitly worried about revealed religion that’s the right kind of person to look at.

But I’m open to suggestions.

In any event, while stability is a concern in A Theory of Justice, the topic comes up as one argument among many in favor of Rawls’s principles as opposed to utilitarianism. It’s utilitarianism that is the main target in that book. But in this one, as we will see, utilitarianism is an ally rather than an enemy.


Following up on something that Sam had mentioned last time, I had a question about just how Rawls proposed to tackle someone who maintains that he knows the truth about morality on the basis of special revelation.

What this person believes to be true is not passed on to the parties in the original position. So why should such a person go along with what the parties come up with? To give an extreme example, suppose I believe that the church should control the state and I’m told that Rawls’s principles of justice rule that out. Why should I care? The official answer is “you had a representative in the original position and the decision of the parties is fair.” But if the representative didn’t know what I take to be the most important fact of human existence, namely, how to avoid damnation, why should I accept whatever she or he is said to have decided on my behalf?

There are two ways of answering that question.

One is to say that I’m just wrong. What I think is true isn’t. Or, more modestly, we don’t have enough evidence for believing what I think is true.

That is not Rawls’s way.

The other way is to show that I’m morally committed to excluding beliefs that others might not share. In language that we will examine next time, I accept that others might reasonably disagree with me and that I should therefore accept an original position that excludes some of my beliefs out of a desire to be reasonable to them.

I think this is Rawls’s way. It brings us to our second problem.

If political liberalism depends on my being tolerant of those who disagree with me, what problem does it solve? Is showing that tolerant people can agree to be tolerant a significant result?

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