John Rawls is many progressives' pet philosopher. I've previously blogged about Rawls' most famous work, the 1971 essay A Theory of Justice. In Political Liberalism, Rawls attempted to refine his approach to include evangelical conservatives, a constituency largely unnoticed until the mid-1970s. David Peddle saw the book as Rawls':
attempt to draw citizens of diverse religious, moral and philosophical beliefs, what he calls comprehensive doctrines, into a consensus on a political conception of the basic constitution of liberal democracy and its principles of justice. What is challenging in the Rawlsian view is that it sees this consensus as itself resolutely non-comprehensive, comprised of publicly acceptable secular ideas. After its own lights the Rawlsian position tries to draw together the secular and the non-secular and to demonstrate the inclusive nature of the modern democratic state.Worthy goals, to be sure. Proponents claim they represent "neutral," and thus universal, principles.
Professor Nussbaum agrees, arguing (in effect) that ethics are ethical only when not founded on ethics:
Rawls now urges that we must not attempt to ground political principles in any doctrines, whether metaphysical or epistemological or religious, that are controversial among the religious and secular views of life that reasonable citizens hold. So, for example, we would be ill advised to base our political principles on the idea of the immortal soul, or the idea of "self-evident" truth, since many citizens do not accept such ideas. We can, however, Rawls thinks, argue for political principles in a thinner way, using ethical notions that are not inseparable from controversial religious doctrines.Wait a minute--I saw you palm that card. The joker is the word "reasonable;" Nussbaum, like Rawls, attempts to elevate modern liberalism through a constrained concept of tolerance. Each exclude from public debate competing comprehensive doctrines deemed "unreasonable".
Political principles, so understood, will not be separate from the rest of what religious and secular citizens believe. Instead, they will constitute a realm of overlap among all the "comprehensive doctrines" in the envisaged society — at least all those that are "reasonable," by which Rawls means willing to respect the equal dignity of all citizens. Each religious or secular doctrine will accept the political principles, and the independent moral arguments that ground them, as one part or "module" in their overall view of life, though most at this point will connect them to deeper metaphysical ideas and arguments. At the same time, citizens will also endorse the political conception as the basis for a mutually respectful and reciprocal life with one another. Thus the public realm is a realm in which we join hands and talk a common language. A key part of what we say in that language is that we agree to allow one another plenty of space to pursue the rest of what our sense of life's meaning requires of us.
The best-known example is Rawls' analysis of abortion:
He considers the ideal case of a well-ordered society in which a mature adult woman requests an abortion. He asserts that any reasonable balance of the political values of: “the due respect for human life, the ordered reproduction of political society over time, including the family, in some form, and finally the equality of women as equal citizens” requires that the woman has “a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester”. However, here Rawls merely asserts the overriding political value of the equality of women, at least for the first trimester, and fails to show how this assertion might be convincing to proponents of the pro-life position.In other words, abortion rights are reasonable principles, while abortion restrictions are castigated as "legislating morality". Having pocketed Roe v. Wade, Nussbaum's moved on to liberate legislation from "disgust" (fear of gays is her primary example).
I support Liberalism (in the capital "L" Classic Liberalism sense), including legal protection of personal privacy. But, contrary to Nussbaum's recent piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that's no reason to ignore the conduct, or lament the loss, of Eliot Spitzer. Nor does tolerance or libertarian morality necessarily demand legalization of same-sex marriage. Draining morality out of policy is impossible because the effort is itself the selection of a particular system of morals.
Pretending otherwise is as foolish as squaring the circle. As Norm Geras recognizes, the Rawls/Nussbaum approach is itself a value judgment, not some indifferent, and therefore universal, philosophy:
[I]f we understand 'the equal dignity of all citizens' in a way compatible with what political liberalism is thought to entail, that is not a framework neutral as between the various metaphysical and social doctrines, religious and secular, that rub shoulders in the public domain.. . . Liberalism is better as a political framework, not because it is neutral (as between competing outlooks), but because it is better. It needs to be argued and fought for on that basis.Taking Geras a step further, I support process Liberalism: the rule of law aspires to create a neutral procedure through which the public can express its choices largely (though not entirely) without regard to the electorate's morals or motivations. Most current liberals hate that.
I call myself a neo-con. But if reverence for neutral process is Liberal, so be it.