Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Rawls’s philosophical laboratory

The leading and most influential theorist of philosophical liberalism in the 20th century was John Rawls (1921–2002). Rawls’s famous phrase, ‘justice is the first virtue of social institutions’ has had significant resonance in recalibrating liberal values. In other liberal variants that first virtue might be liberty, or privacy, or well-being, or progress, or individuality. For Rawls the essence of liberalism lies in two components, the one libertarian and the other egalitarian. The libertarian component aspires to make individuals more capable of making choices about their lives that are not only free, but reflective and sensible. That component is the autonomy conception of liberty mentioned in . The egalitarian component is Rawls’s most creative contribution to liberal theory. It insists on satisfying basic conditions for social justice; that is to say, endowing individuals with the requisite resources without which they will not have the effective possibility of pursuing autonomous ends and living a good life of their choosing. That entails not only ensuring the equal liberty of all members of a society, but a redistribution of goods designed to benefit the least advantaged, who have prior claim on wealth and services before others can benefit from them. To the extent that individual circumstances are the consequence of brute luck, the argument goes, the less fortunate should be compensated in a just society. That luck might be genetic, or reflect the fertility of a geographical region, or relate to the means possessed by the family into which one is born. However, the ‘least advantaged’ remains an elusive category as a policy guide as it is consummately difficult to identify an individual who would occupy that hapless position simultaneously on the different scales of wealth, health, intelligence, and good looks, to mention some of the more prominent criteria that determine human life-chances. Because we may be advantaged on one scale and deprived on another, this requires a comparison that can never be conclusive.

It is no accident that in his version of liberalism Rawls makes a move from justice to fairness. Replacing the grandiloquent connotations of justice for a society as a whole, Rawls approaches justice more modestly as building up from a personal, small-scale reflection on how any individual would want to be treated fairly and applying that reflection to all. He employs a thought-experiment that relies on methodological individualism, that is to say, on positing the individual alone as the unit of analysis, abstracted from his or her social environment. In what Rawls terms the ‘original position’, each individual is placed under a veil of ignorance about most of their characteristics, about their position in society, about the groups to which they belong, and about their life-chances. However, even under that veil individuals are still endowed with two features: they are rational and they are risk-averse. In addition, individuals possess two pre-social moral powers: a sense of justice and a conception of the good. Equipped with those attributes they are expected to determine what each of them would want both for themselves and for others. For Rawls, that is the optimal approach to exploring what a fair political system should look like.

The second moral power involves the capacity of individuals to form, revise, and pursue a conception of one’s rational advantage or good, though it bypasses the fact that alternative liberal viewpoints increasingly accept that people are also motivated by emotional and irrational factors. As will be illustrated in , emotion is part and parcel of thought and conduct, even within the liberal family. Philosophical liberals are keen to see individuals working intellectually, and especially morally, at full strength. They pay little heed to the human frailty that welfare state liberals incorporated into their thinking or to the passions that motivate people, passions that sometimes reinforce but at other times undercut their moral sensibilities. Arguably, few individuals are inclined to shoulder the burden of repeatedly re-assessing their life plans, a point brilliantly made in 1907 by Herbert Asquith, about to become the British Liberal prime minister, who had attended T.H. Green’s lectures but reacted sceptically to that philosopher’s message by commenting: ‘I believe in the right of every man face to face with the State to make the best of himself and subject to the limitation that he does not become a nuisance or a danger to the community to make less than the best of himself.’ For Rawls, nonetheless, the impact of the two moral powers under the veil of ignorance is to create a fair order of free and equal persons acting as fully cooperating members of a society. The endemic presence of conflict and dissent is minimized because rational collaboration is elevated to the default position of social life—it is the norm of human conduct.

The egalitarian component of liberalism—rarely, and if so implicitly, at the core of the older liberal layers—has been moved to centre-stage in many recent philosophical arguments because a liberal society is now held to be one that guarantees each and every member generous access to important social goods. That liberal egalitarianism usually falls short of the radical equalization of socialist schemes. It rests content with ensuring minima for a humane life, and with reducing the gap between the fortunate and the disadvantaged through a mix of public and private redistributive measures—the state, employers’ codes of conduct, and voluntary associations such as charities. But it is prepared to permit discrepancies in wealth that will nonetheless influence life-chances. Undoubtedly, there is plausibility in the Rawlsian precepts as a characterization of liberalism’s actual and historical preconditions and ends, given the many possible meanings of liberty, equality, and justice in the liberal family. But this, more than most other liberal schemes, is primarily a stipulative vision (or what Rawls occasionally termed a ‘realistic utopia’) of the arrangements that any fair and decent society should seek to implement. Notably current philosophers, unlike many of their political theory counterparts, are prone to referring to liberalism in the singular, not the plural. They see no need for argument about its interpretation and priorities. It is conceived of as the distillation of the agreed normative requirements of a free and well-ordered community, and one that will ensure its long-term stability.

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