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Rawls on the foundations of the liberal state


To: Maureen O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rawls on the foundations of the liberal state
Date: 8 November 2003 11:57

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for your e-mail of 31 October, with your fourth essay for the Associate program, on the question, 'What makes a comprehensive doctrine reasonable in Rawls's opinion? Can an overlapping consensus between reasonable comprehensive doctrines be the foundation of a liberal state?'

enjoyed this essay and learned a lot from it. I can see a possible article for 'Philosophy Pathways' here, perhaps if you can find a way to say a bit more about the Zimbwabe situation.

This essay deals with a question which I find particularly gripping. You will see why if you read my articles, "The Ethics of Dialogue" and "Ethical Dialogue and the Limits of Tolerance" on the Wood Paths web site at:

Both articles originated from the Pathways Moral Philosophy program. Although I do not discuss Rawls in the program, I see Rawls as being essentially in the same predicament as Mill on liberalism, even though Rawls represents a softening of Mill's approach.

The fatal objection to Rawls, which you point out clearly, is that the core principles, the area of overlap or whatever you want to call it is *not* something which demands universal agreement. All the evidence is against it.

It follows that the focus of interest must switch to the idea which Rawls denigrates as a mere 'modus vivendi'. We do have to live together. I don't accept, however, that this solution represents mere pragmatism as opposed to reason. On the contrary, the struggle to make a life together engages all our rational and emotional faculties.

I believe there must be core, but the core is not where Rawls locates it. His famous thought experiment merely elicits the beliefs of the Western liberal and therefore lacks the authority required for a foundation for a truly multicultural approach.

In the ethics of dialogue the core is 'respect for the other', or, in terms closer to Emmanuel Levinas than to Kant, 'respect for the otherness of the other'.

Your essay is for the most part clear and well argued.

When you report Jean Hampton's discussion, I would have liked to have seen a little more about exactly how Rawls contradicts himself. You can't assume that the reader has read all the texts that you refer to (I haven't read Hampton) so you have to make the case, and not merely refer to the case having been made. In the present example, it would only take an extra sentence or two to cap the point.

Again, when you discuss the Zimbabwean constitution, I couldn't get a firm grip on what was involved or what the implications were. Perhaps a South African or Zimbabwean reader would grasp exactly what is at stake in the distinction between general law and customary law, but I am still not clear having read what you actually say. So more words needed here too.

I took Latin at school but would still appreciate a translation of 'extra ecclesiam nulla sallus' (my guess: 'nothing exists outside the church'?).

You don't say enough in reporting Cohen's argument to convince the reader who has not read Cohen. You need to say a bit more.

In the section, 'The Concept of an Overlapping Consensus', it emerges here that Rawls sees the establishment of a liberal state as the outcome of a process of 'social evolution'. You suggest that what is really at stake is indoctrination, which seems a valid point. But you don't need to say, 'it would be interesting to investigate this in more detail'. Make the case. It only requires two or three sentences to drive the point home. (I see a strong similarity with the ultimately anti-liberal position adopted by Mill in promoting the gospel of utilitarianism.)

In your 'Conclusion' a new point about Rawls emerges, concerning the 'role of the state as arbitrator'. The purpose of a conclusion is to summarize and draw threads together, not to introduce new lines of criticism, so something about this should have appeared earlier in the essay.

I notice that the word count is around the 2700 mark. The examiner will normally accept essays up to 3000 so you have some slack to work with.

If you're happy with your four essays (and my comments) then the next stage of the process is to write up the final versions for your essay portfolio which you will submit for examination (preferably as hard copy and disc versions). Or, I can look at them again if you want me to.

All the best,