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Rawls' distinction between political and comprehensive liberalism


To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rawls' distinction between political and comprehensive liberalism
Date: 30th March 2011 14:08

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 20 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Explain Rawls's distinction between political and comprehensive liberalism. Are these genuinely distinct positions?'

The issue which you discuss is very much at the centre of contemporary political debate. You agree with Rawls's admission, in 'Political Liberalism', that when viewed as a 'comprehensive' doctrine, his theory of justice is potentially oppressive of those who do not agree with its fundamental ethical and metaphysical assumptions, such as that 'autonomy and self-realisation are the ideals of human perfection.'

This doesn't seem to be a criticism that Rawls even considered when he wrote Theory of Justice. Others have pressed this point, and he has responded by pulling in his horns. By making a less ambitious claim -- that what he is seeking to explicate and defend is 'political' liberalism not 'comprehensive' liberalism -- Rawls hopes to save his overall project, and defend his work from the charge of irrelevance. That seems a reasonable thing to do.

However, it is a fair question to ask: would Rawls have written 'Theory of Justice' in the way that he did, had he considered this criticism and how one might respond to it? Does it have the same interest now, or are the arguments he puts forward there less gripping now that we see them in their true colours?

As you argue in your essay, the case can be made that 'what must give content to public reason and what the citizens must endorse for stability is not a particular political liberal conception, such as Justice as fairness, but the three criteria of liberalism with which all liberal political conceptions must comply.' But then you immediately go on to say that, 'Rawls's account can easily be modified to reflect this without sacrifice of anything important.' Well, yes, but this surely reduces seriously the interest of Rawls's original project. In 'Theory of Justice' he was laying foundations.

It's helpful to look at another case, where the criticism that Rawls is responding to is fully merited. I'm thinking of J.S. Mill's account of his 'simple' principle of liberty in 'On Liberty'. There is a book by Maurice Cowling 'Mill and Liberalism' which brilliantly exposes what I would describe as the fascist tendencies of Mill's 'religion of liberty' whose 'high priests' were to be the utilitarian philosophers.

The problem with classic liberalism lies in its conception of how debates in the moral and political arena are to be conducted, the basis on which beliefs are to be judged. Every view, including the doctrines and dogmas of religion, must 'justify' itself in the arena of rational debate. That's the whole purpose of Mill's principle of the 'freedom of thought and discussion'. Moral 'intuition' is no argument (cf. the opening section of 'Utilitarianism').

For example, you can't just say, 'I just know that abortion is wrong', you have to say why it is wrong. But on Mill's view, the only thing one can appeal to is what is perceptible, measurable, calculable -- the consequences for human 'happiness'. Those are the ground rules for the debate.

It is not open to Mill to make an analogous move (horn retraction) that Rawls does in 'Political Liberalism'. He has nailed his colours to the mast. There is nothing that the classic liberal can recognize as having any value, that does not promote human happiness or minimize human suffering. To be 'reasonable' is to recognize this, and anything else is unreasonable.

But this raises the question how Rawls is able to avoid the trap that Mill falls into. What is it to be 'reasonable' in a pluralistic society where, say, a devout Catholic can engage in political discussion with an ideological (comprehensive) Liberal? And what about those who refuse to engage in such discussions (fundamentalist Muslims, say)?

This is where we really need some substantial notion of what it is to 'reason' or 'argue' or 'discuss' within such a broad framework. Hence, my interest in the idea of an 'ethics of dialogue'. I would argue that there is something of great value which we can bring in to this debate from the dialogical tradition, from such thinkers as Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Crucial to this conception is the idea of the distance between self and other, the parties in the dialogue, which we are not trying to erase or overcome but on the contrary preserve and respect.

Politics is about reaching agreement on things that need to be done that effect all those in society, regardless of their beliefs and ideals, and it must be possible to engage in debate without getting stuck in ideological tramlines. As you note, there will still be disagreements arising from different moral/ religious views, but these are not insuperable barriers to ethical dialogue. On the contrary, they are proof if its robustness.

All the best,