This interview first appeared in the September, 25, 1998 issue of Commonweal
John Rawls is widely recognized as the most important American political philosopher since the mid-century. His book A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971) redefined its discipline and, in so doing, aroused controversy on every side. Partly in response to criticism that his liberal conception of the individual all but ignored ideas of the self rooted in religious attachments, Rawls's following work and book, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993; revised, 1996), have turned to the problem of pluralism in liberal constitutional democracies. In societies like the United States (Rawls's focus), disagreement about justice goes beyond everyday opinions to basic questions—among others: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare—where conflict can become intractable and threaten social stability. Rawls means to head this threat off by rethinking the deep and basic good of liberal political institutions.
No one has ever accused Rawls of being easy to follow, and readers not versed in the ins and outs of political philosophy may find parts of the following interview opaque. Thus, something of an extended introduction is warranted. To begin with, Political Liberalism is not a handbook for the committed democratic citizen, but a work of philosophy that strives to clarify what it means to be this citizen. Like the Catholic philosopher and theologian John Courtney Murray in the 1950s and '60s, Rawls is trying to work out a "public philosophy" in whose terms we can understand ourselves as citizens and responsibly argue with one another about disputed questions of justice. As a philosopher (rather than an advocate of this or that position), Rawls's point is not to make our problems go away, but to draw out what makes liberal constitutional democracies tick and to remind us of why and how this way of living together ought to be considered a good.
Not surprisingly, Rawls's examination of democratic pluralism has proven as controversial as A Theory of Justice. Critics on Rawls's right and left charge that he concentrates so much on how we should make decisions (respectfully toward one another's freedom and dignity) that he neglects or fails to address adequately what decisions we should finally make. In short, they ask, "What's freedom for?" In 1963, at a conference on law and philosophy, a prescient John Courtney Murray identified something like this as "the problem of Mr. Rawls's problem." Rawls, Murray argued, "remove[d] from human law all manner of transcendental reference...in the name of a morality of perfect personal autonomy." In this vision of the world, religion's only place can be private; it is excluded from political decision making. Critics as different as the theologian and neoconservative Richard John Neuhaus and the liberal communitarian political theorist Michael Sandel argue that Rawls's version of liberalism in effect excludes from politics what gives many people's lives purpose and shape.
Rawls argues that, since politics has to do with the public good, political arguments should be made in terms of what he calls "public reason": that is, in terms open to all reasonable citizens. Rawls's critics counter, however, that his idea of public reason is not self-evidently neutral, and they go on to ask whose interests this kind of language really serves. In this interview, Rawls attempts to clarify the meaning of "public reason" by discussing the "Philosophers' Brief" (see, New York Review of Books, March 27, 1997) a statement he signed favoring the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. Much of the "Brief" is cast in the familiar language of rights talk. "We know that not everyone agrees with assisted suicide," Rawls told me, "but people might agree that one has the right to it, even if they're not themselves going to exercise it." Upon reading this line of reasoning, however, readers might well ask, "But what rights are right and why?" Rights-driven "procedural politics," its critics charge, never steps back to ask what a right to, say, physician-assisted suicide would mean in practice: what repercussions it would have for the poor, the elderly, the abandoned; how it would color the relationships of children and parents, doctors and patients; whether it would make people think twice about paying taxes to fund a health-care practice they oppose. According to these critics, the language of rights serves to abstract individuals and ignores the goods proper to communities.
In Rawls's defense, it must be recognized that this criticism applies, not to his own philosophical thinking, but to the "Philosophers' Brief'--which Rawls thinks was mistitled. In fact, in arguing against the "Philosophers' Brief," legal scholar Cass Sunstein has drawn on Rawls's philosophical thinking. Sunstein argues that, in the case of Roe v. Wade, "the [Supreme] Court did too much too soon, in a way that has had enduring harmful effects on American life...." According to Sunstein, the Court needs to be careful not to cut public argument about assisted suicide short. Sunstein and Rawls agree that, since public reason has to do with the public good, it is not limited to talk of rights, but extends to questions of what is right, reasonable, or good.
Ideally, according to Rawls's thinking, all citizens should have a say in political decision making, in whatever language they have to make themselves understood. This is because, for Rawls, what's reasonable always has to be worked out: its limits cannot be set in advance (though, in the United States, they're circumscribed by the Bill of Rights), but depend upon how far citizens will reason with one another. The idea of public reason, Rawls writes in Political Liberalism, is "an ideal conception of citizenship for a constitutional democratic regime" and as such "presents how things might be.... It describes what is possible and can be, yet may never be, though [it is] no less fundamental for that." It is an idea of what he now calls a "realistic utopia."
Part of what makes Rawls an important philosopher is that he listens to his critics. At the age of seventy-seven, Rawls finished revising a second edition of Political Liberalism. The problem with his earlier thinking, he has concluded, is that he excluded too much. What he's trying to do now is to show what even his critics share: a moral commitment to a common form of life.
Professor Rawls, who taught philosophy at Harvard University from 1962 to 1995, spoke with me about his recent work at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.
BERNARD G. PRUSAK: In A Theory of Justice, religion is not listed in the index. But in your recent work, Political Liberalism and "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" [see, the University of Chicago Law Review, Summer 1997], religion has become, if not the central theme, at least a major focus. You've had a turn in your interests. What's the motivation for this new focus?
JOHN RAWLS: Well, that's a good question. I think the basic explanation is that I'm concerned about the survival, historically, of constitutional democracy. I live in a country where 90 or 95 percent of the people profess to be religious, and maybe they are religious, though my experience of religion suggests that very few people are actually religious in more than a conventional sense. Still, religious faith is an important aspect of American culture and a fact of American political life. So the question is: In a constitutional democracy, how can religious and secular doctrines of all kinds get on together and cooperate in running a reasonably just and effective government? What assumptions would you have to make about religious and secular doctrines, and the political sphere, for these to work together?
PRUSAK: Your problem in your recent work, then, is different from your problem in A Theory of Justice.
RAWLS: Yes, I think it is. A Theory of Justice was a comprehensive doctrine of liberalism designed to set out a certain classical theory of justice—the theory of the social contract—so as to make it immune to various traditional objections like the conflict between individual freedom and the good of the whole. The difference is that, in Political Liberalism, the problem is how do you see religion and comprehensive secular doctrines as compatible with and supportive of the basic institutions of a constitutional regime.
PRUSAK: Keep to this new problem, to this question of how to make a liberal constitutional democracy not only receptive, but attractive to religious believers, people who wouldn't call themselves first and foremost liberals, people who live according to a comprehensive doctrine. The distinction between a comprehensive doctrine and a political conception, in your language, has been difficult for many people to understand. Could you clarify it?
RAWLS: A comprehensive doctrine, either religious or secular, aspires to cover all of life. I mean, if it's a religious doctrine, it talks about our relation to God and the universe; it has an ordering of all the virtues, not only political virtues but moral virtues as well, including the virtues of private life, and the rest. Now we may feel philosophically that it doesn't really cover everything, but it aims to cover everything, and a secular doctrine does also. But a political conception, as I use that term, has a narrower range: it just applies to the basic structure of a society, its institutions, constitutional essentials, matters of basic justice and property, and so on. It covers the right to vote, the political virtues, and the good of political life, but it doesn't intend to cover anything else. I try to show how a political conception can be seen as self-standing, as being able to fit, as a part, into many different comprehensive doctrines.
Now the good of political life is a great political good. It is not a secular good specified by a comprehensive doctrine like those of Kant or Mill. You could characterize this political good as the good of free and equal citizens recognizing the duty of civility to one another: the duty to give citizens public reasons for one's political actions.
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