The Deflationary Rawls

— It's a piece of received wisdom the John Rawls saved substantive political philosophy from the all-dissolving acid of positivism. However, I'm beginning to believe that Rawls is closer in sensibility to the positivists, who banished metaphysics from ethics and reduced all normative language to emotive exhortation, than most commentators have seen. I see Rawls as a sort of post-positivist, not unlike his colleague Quine, combined with a bit of late Wittgensteinian sensibility acquired from his teacher Norman Malcolm.
Rawls normative metaphysics is very sparse indeed. He does not believe in moral properties, or any capacity to track objective moral truth. Rawls begins instead with moral conceptions, systems of beliefs about value, personhood, and social order. And Rawls is not concerned with the veracity of the elements of moral conceptions. He is simply concerned to tease out the structure of various moral conceptions–that's the work of “moral theory” as opposed to a comprehensive moral philosophy–and to analyze various formal properties of moral conceptions once their implicit logic is refined through a process of reflective equilabration. (The most he ever commits to by way of objective moral truth is that if it happened to turn out that all of our moral conceptions had a common core at the ideal limit of wide reflective equilibrium (which we will never achieve), then it may make sense to treat the common core as objective moral truth.) The point of a moral theory is, in the first instance, to characterize the moral sensibility of agents within a particular society. Here is a Wittgensteinian point. People are already acting within systems of norms, we already have a form of moral life, and that shapes our actions and determines macro-level patterns of activity. There is no point arguing whether our moral conception is true is a correspondence sense. Suppose we find out that it is not. What does this change? Social life will not therefore grind to a halt. We will simply go on as before.
The best we can do is to figure out what “going on as before” really means–to attempt to refine the logic implicit in our forms of life to create an ideal of social order that will seem authoritative to us by our own lights. Our de facto, pre-reflective patterns of activity may contain pragmatically inconsistent elements that will ultimately undermine the stability of the very ideals to which we already subscribe, and so it is worthwhile to regiment and refine our conceptions. But we cannot go too far afield. Moral conceptions, such as utilitarianism, that are too remote from our habituated moral sensibilities will not sustain our allegiance and compliance (we DO NOT think of ourselves as containers of utility; we DO care about the distribution of goods), will thus prove unstable, and are, therefore, usuitable as ideals with which to regulate social reform.
So, despite all the praise heaped upon Rawls for bringing back substantive moral and political theory, his own theory is amazingly deflationary–so much so that it is very hard to find the substance. Insofar as Rawls work is really substantive, all the substance comes from his clearly deeply felt commitment to Kantian ideals of the person. But this is precisely what Rawls had to jettison in his later phase, when he sees that all this substance is in principle inconsisent with his deflationary theory of justification based in the stability of refined moral conceptions. Once Rawls sees his way to the fact of pluralism in moral conceptions, he is faced with the problem of establishing compliance, and thus stability, given heterogeneity in moral conceptions. Thus only the normative substance that all reasonable overall conceptions could independently endorse is allowed to remain. This overlap in conceptions provides the substance of a fairly neutral “political” liberalism.
This suggests to me a project like that of the later “minimalist” Chomsky. What is the minimal set of substantive principles necessary to produce willing compliance and thus stability (for the right reasons) in a pluralistic society? Next question: Is Rawls characterization of political liberalism bigger or smaller than the minimal set?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center