How John Rawls's political philosophy is sort of like The Secret

by by Brian Judge

When Liberal political philosopher John Rawls descended from Mount Sinai bearing A Theory of Justice in one arm and Political Liberalism in another, the heavens sang. It was sometime in the fall of 1971, and after many years of wandering in the wilderness, mankind finally had the Law. And, lo, it was good:

Thou shalt have no other political philosophers before me.
Thou shalt not be intolerant.
Thou shalt have no other feelings towards your fellow man other than tolerance.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s successes, for all are equal before the Liberal State.
Thou shalt recognize the intrinsic dignity and worth of every person on the grounds that their rationality enables them to identify a system of ends that thou shalt neither judge nor impede.
Thou shalt not make any normative judgments in any public discourse, lest you offend the sensibilities of one of your equally constituted peers.
Thou shalt arrange all inequalities such that they are of the greatest advantage to the least well-off members of society.
Thou shalt insist that all persons are free and equal.
Thou shalt insist on an array of intrinsic rights that all free and equal persons possess.
Thou shalt affirm the doctrine of justice as fairness.

Seeing as how John Rawls has yet to be played by Charlton Heston, there is reason to doubt at least a bit of his Liberal Pentateuch. I want to consider whether or not it is actually true that each member of society “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” If not, how does this affect our conception of tolerance and intolerance?

If each person does possess an inviolability founded on justice, it is not something that anyone has ever found especially helpful. The Liberal conception of justice has yet to intercede on behalf of someone whose inviolability is about to be violated. This suggests that the schema of Liberal justice and rights exists insofar as it is respected. Arguing for a certain conception of justice or personhood on the grounds that it enables a kind of social arrangement we find agreeable is one thing. Merely stating fantastical antecedent conceptions of justice and personhood is quite another.

In reference to a recent incident in which someone’s inviolability was violated, the editorial board of the Brown Daily Herald wrote on October 5th, “Intolerance and bigotry at schools can never be tolerated, and we hope educators and school administrators across the country redouble efforts to create safe environments for students.” This sentence, like each of Rawls’s commandments, is an assertion and not an argument. If the mere assertion that something cannot be tolerated is enough to convince you, great. But if you are an intolerant bigot, assertions to equal dignity, rights, justice, and the like made by Liberal political philosophers aren’t likely to convince you of the error of your ways. When I was shoved into lockers in middle school, my insistence on reciprocity and equal rights for the weakly constituted didn’t get me very far. Making fun of my assailant’s girth did, however. There needs to be power behind assertions, whether that is the wrath of the Almighty, the force of logical reasoning, or the threat of public humiliation. Merely stating that something is the case is worthless. You have to be able to make it the case. Begging for tolerance doesn’t get you very far.

One of Rawls’s merry men writes, “equal rights for the ill-constituted is not a piece of gross vulgarity. It is a powerful vision of social justice.” Blessed are the meek, indeed. Why? Because they say so. It is interesting that the “because I said so” method of argumentation ultimately rests on an appeal to power. In other words, the claim here is that this particular arbitrary claim is true because it claims to be powerful. I appreciate the can-do attitude, but its selfless magnanimity is hamstrung by the fact that it is completely and utterly meaningless. I can also anoint myself grand dictator of the Universe on the grounds that it is a powerful vision of social justice with similar results.

If I disagree with the claim that equal rights for the ill-constituted expresses a powerful vision of social justice or that we all possess inviolability founded on justice—which are two sides of the same coin—I am labeled an intolerant bigot. For the sake of argument, let’s assume I am in fact an intolerant bigot. Do I really care if you try to make me feel guilty by labeling me an intolerant bigot? Not unless I am trying to get a job teaching college somewhere. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, sticks and stones can break my bones, et cetera.

What does this mean practically? In political discourse, if I want to criticize, belittle, demean, problematize, ignore, or otherwise be intolerant of you, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. In other words, if you want to convince me of something, trying to make me feel guilty by calling me intolerant isn’t a viable option. Think about the number of times you hear the word “wrong” and “right” used in political discourse: it is wrong that corporations are laying off workers / a well-paying job is a right, it is wrong that so many people in the world have no access to an education / an education is a right, it is wrong for gay people to be married / marriage is a right, and so on. Mere insistence doesn’t do anything.

For example, saying that a well-paying job is a right is code for “I want everyone to have a well-paying job.” It would be great if there were some kind of omnipotent force that could enact our collective vision for social justice. Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t respond to moral imperatives in such a way. If all you do is insist that a well-paying job is a right, and I am in a position to do something about the dearth of well-paying jobs, on the Rawlsian Liberal schema I am free to ignore you, just as you are free to express your moral indignation.

The function that tolerance plays in Rawls’s thought is to fill the gap between the ideal world and the real world. There are all sorts of people and causes that ought to be given more consideration, despite other people’s preferences to the contrary. That’s all well and good, but when some aspect of my ideal world is missing, I would want to subscribe to a political philosophy with a more robust and useful solution than bemoaning intolerance and unfairness.

Brian Judge B’11 is tilting at windmills.