Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Theory vs. Philosophy (or, Regarding Rawls)

More on the Rawlsian front: Andrew Sabl summarizes an article of his which challenges Cohen's critique of Rawls on Micah Schwartzman's blog; Jacob T. Levy and Matthew Ygelsias both chime in. Two points, one on Andrew's criticism of Cohen's criticism; the other one what Levy calls the matter of the "Harvard-Oxford-Ethics philosophers."

1) Andrew argues that the problem with Cohen's egalitarian challenge to Rawls is that it ultimately aims not at liberality or individuality, but at fraternity and community. Of course, anyone whose read Marx knows just how close certain strands of Marxist and neo-Marxist thought are to any number of contemporary (or even traditional) communitarian philosophies; and as far as Andrew is concerned, the problem with Cohen's attack on Rawlsian egalitarianism is exactly the degree to which he is determined to borrow principles from those philosophies, and make them part of the "liberal" camp. He writes: "Certain rationalist liberals and those who seek to build bridges with fact do aspire to these ideals of mutual justification, fraternity, and rational consistency as the basis for social unity. They do indeed play down, or abandon altogether, individuality as liberalism's animating idea. And they do indeed try (a la Dewey) to make liberalism consistent with an extremely demanding form of social solidarity. These kinds of liberalism may indeed be inconsistent of hypocritical. And these kinds of liberals may indeed have dug their own graves--with Cohen as gravedigger. But the rest of us liberals may safely whistle past them." This, of course, would seem to place those who try to unite liberal practices with communitarian principles in a bad light. Since that describes me to a certain extent, I feel obliged to respond. Please note, as Andrew rightly does, what kind of community Cohen values: "not a concrete social or political community, real or aspirational, but a rationalist, 'justificatory community' where people seek to 'make policy together.'" Now I'm not certain if the kind of deliberative democratic community which Andrew alludes to here (such as was discussed in Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent, especially the later chapters), where people "make policy together," is really always best termed a "rationalist, justificatory community." I hope not, as I would like to think deliberation can properly be pursued in democratic communities which are not grounded in rational justification. Neo-Marxian (actually, I think, in a weird sort of way, Kantian) communities of that sort depend upon the belief that the cosmopolitan, egalitarian principles of justice which Cohen embraces, properly applied, will result in communal identification and solidarity, which he holds to be the highest sort of freedom or agency. Communitarians may agree with that final claim, but don't see such fraternity as properly characterizing social arrangements which are actually just rational projections; rather, they see fraternity as a function of historic, organic embeddedness. What Andrew is criticizing Cohen for, then, should be limited to the use to which Cohen wants to put liberalism (i.e., to the achievement of communal justice), not the simple fact that he wants liberal societies to affirm (some kind of) communitarian good(s). (Though actually, Andrew seems a rigorous enough classical liberal to want to reject all communitarianism. But that may be a mis-reading on my part, and in any case, would involve an different argument than the one he gives.)

2) Very briefly, Jacob comments that this dispute "sounds like the sort of argument that reminds us of the difference between political theorists [such as himself]...and political philosophers." In other words, the philosophers who spend their time trying to come up with a meta-ethical theory of liberalism are driven, like Cohen is, to pick apart the failure of Rawlsian or other kinds of liberalism to rationally accomplish their own presumed egalitarian aims, while political theorists shake their heads ruefully. Matthew wonders if this means theorists just want to emphasize that such perfectionist philosophies are unrealistic (which he correctly notes doesn't amount to a moral argument against it), or if Andrew (and Jacob, and presumably other "theorists") just don't like perfectionist arguments period (to which he rightly responds, exactly what is the problem with arguing about how one ought to live one's life?). My response: I'm with Matthew in the sense that I'm a philosopher, and find myself drawn to the hard moral and ethical arguments; but I'm also with Jacob in that I find the sort of perfectionist moral imperatives which motivate Cohen to be flawed. The reason I can say this, of course, is that not all political philosophy is "Harvard-Oxford-Ethics" philosophy, with it's analytical Kantian-Marxist axis. Fundamentally, I'm not a theorist, though I can do theory; but since my political philosophy is more historical and hermeneutical ("Continental," as they say), as well as religious, I can escape what Andrew accuses Cohen of. Lucky me!