Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Rawls, Kant and Teaching Political Philosophy

Lawrence Solum, Micah Schwartzman, Matt Yglesias and Chris Bertram have all been talking about John Rawls's difference principle and various critiques of it, in particular G.A. Cohen's. I'm not a "Rawls anorak" as Chris put it (to be honest, I have no idea what that means--isn't an anorak a kind of coat?--but I assume from the context he means "people who care passionately about getting Rawls right," which I know I'm not), but the exchange is an interesting one, and deserves to be read through entirely. I've always been impressed by the level of attachment some people have to Rawls--and therefore, I assume, to the principles of liberal egalitarianism which his arguments did so much to both clarify and (indirectly) critique. I'm attracted to those principles as well, though in a derivative way; to me, Rawls is most important as a reader of Kant, and as presenter of an analytic, liberal egalitarian interpretation of Kantianism. (Perhaps this is simply the difference between someone explicitly trained in political theory and someone like myself who was educated primarily in the history of political philosophy.) Rawls ideas work within the same world which Kant presented, a world in which the "fact of reason" is, in itself, as Rawls put it in his essay "Themes in Kant's Moral Philosophy" (included in this collection, my absolute favorite out of so many anthologies on Kant), "the glorious disclosure of our autonomy." This is a powerful, enchanting idea, arguably the highpoint of liberal universalism in the history of Western philosophy. But it is hard to communicate to students; or, at least, I've found it difficult. This exchange over Rawls began with Chris's comment about giving his "annual lecture" on Rawls's difference principle; interestingly, on that same day I gave my "annual lecture" on Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, as my introduction to Kant's social contract thinking. One of my better students in that class, as I was wrapping up, commented that she just didn't believe it; any sort of universalism struck her as obviously implausible. I basically agree with her, but it bothered me that superficial criticisms of the Enlightenment (the popularization of which, I free admit, communitarians like myself are at least partly responsible for) have been so internalized by so many that the power of Kant's transcendental argument, made on behalf of realizing the sort of autonomy which Rousseau argued for while not abandoning the larger Newtonian Enlightenment vision of a rational world which Hume's skepticism had dealt (in Kant's view) a death blow to, can be so completely missed. So many of my students, when pressed, fall back on the usual universalist tropes about "dignity" and "rights," but find Kant's attempt to provide a ground for such a total confusion. Hence the usefulness of Rawls, who I don't usually teach in my political theory classes (political ideologies is a different class) but whose concepts and arguments I borrow liberally from (pun intended). Thought experiments like those which put forward the difference principle often provide, in my experience, wonderful entrances into discussions about the abstract demands of (and, therefore, the nature of) obligation and duty, which in turn help clarify the importance of Kant for political theory. Perhaps, in a way, I'm only repeating what Jacob Levy said months ago after Rawls's death: that "Rawls created a common disciplinary discourse within which arguments could be had." For better or worse (I often think for worse, but then, I would, wouldn't I?), the analytical mode of Rawls's philosophical arguments has a profound appeal. That is, it wasn't just some bizarre Anglo-American conspiracy which forced liberalism and utilitarianism to wed themselves together for much of the 19th and 20th centuries; there was also the simple fact that philosophical arguments about political things which were amenable to the language and methods of analytic thinking (which utilitarianism certainly was, and still is) could really get through to a lot of people, and hence liberal theorists made use the philosophies most comprehendable to them. And that level of comprehension available through analytic thought remains high--or at least it does, from what I can tell, for most American undergraduates. Hence, if I want to introduce them to something transcendental, something critical (and thus something which may eventually move them into an ability to appreciate political ideas which question the whole ontology behind the traditional social contract)--in other words, if I want to introduce them to Kant--then I need to use Rawls, who found a way (sometimes, one suspects, even against his better judgment) to suggest these deep ideas from within a language that really doesn't usually bring them up. And that, for me at least, is at least as valuable a contribution to political theory as anything which may perhaps provide us with an occasion to debate the particular circumstances of social equality.