Yesterday, I ended by offering a defence of Rawls (and much post-Rawlsian political theory) against the claim that it takes the politics out of political theory, by claiming that it at worst relocates the Arendtian concept of action to a non-political, public sphere, because the idea that democracy requires limits is far from as strange as some postmodernist theorists would have us believe. In particular, I pointed to a distinction between a political conception of the good and a comprehensive conception of the good utilised by Rawls, where a political conception of the good is one which accepts that people treated as free and equal will end up holding differing comprehensive conceptions of the good, and further claims that to fail to accept those differences is to fail to treat people as free and equal, thus requiring that, within limits, a political conception must be accessible, without substantial distortion, to as many comprehensive conceptions as possible.
This effectively creates something of a distinction between moral and political philosophy: the comprehensive doctrine which we affirm, and thus believe is true, is a piece of moral philosophy, because it answers the question 'how should one live?', while the political doctrine which we also affirm, but has substantially less scope than our comprehensive doctrine, is a piece of political philosophy, because it answers the question 'how should we live together?'. For Rawls, that distinction is quite sharp: it is permeable, I think, because it's hard to see where other than moral philosophy he is getting his foundational premise that we ought to be treating people as free and equal, but that's about all he lets through. What I want to write about today is a number of attacks on that sharp distinction, arguments which claim that the distinction is either non-existent, because politics absorbs much more of what Rawls thinks is moral or ethical, or that Rawls fixes it when it should be left to move, according to the content of the things on either side of the distinction. We can call these two challenges the perfectionist and the progressive challenges respectively: the perfectionist sees the task of politics as the moral perfection or at least improvement of humans, as opposed in part to the Rawlsian idea of non-coercion/dominance, and the progressive sees a dogmatism about where the distinction lies in Rawls which they think is counter to the claim about human freedom. Of course, there is a challenge - made by Nozick and other crazies - that politics absorbs much less than Rawls thinks it does, but they're mad, so I'm going to ignore them (if you want an argument, they fail to understand what non-domination/coercion might mean completely).
Now, there is a whole literature in post-Rawlsian political theory about an issue which is often referred to as perfectionism, which most notably surfaces in debates between Rawlsians and communitarians - like MacIntrye, for example - and between Rawlsians and ethical liberals - like Raz - but my perfectionism is wider in scope than this. My perfectionism includes not just these debates, but also a tangential debate, about the scope and nature of (political/social) justice, which has been going on between radical egalitarians, most notably G. A. Cohen, which collapses the parts of the distinction between individuals having and behaving according to just motivations and individuals operating in a structure which is just. In my terms, this is perfectionist because it does not see an in-principle distinction between politics and morality: if it would be unjust to aim at a particular goal in politics, there is no immediate reason to think that it would not also be unjust to aim at it one's private life.
Indeed, I think that Cohen's attacks on Rawlsian schemes of justice are in some ways the most interesting, and the most likely to be persuasive, because the reasons for which Rawlsians want to reject them are distinctly under-theorised in the discourse they are part of: the quasi-Arendtian way of putting the distinction which I canvassed yesterday, of a distinction between politics and the public and morals and the private, between a sphere securing freedom and a sphere of necessity, just isn't there in that discourse, yet I think that is what is sort of being appealed to. To see this, the substance of Cohen's disagreement with Rawlsians becomes important.
The disagreement turns on what the scope of Rawls's difference principle is. The difference principle states that, subject to the priority of maximum liberty compatible with equal liberty, with the value of the liberties held constant, for all, and fair equality of opportunity, inequalities in, roughly, income and wealth, should be arranged for the long-term benefit of the least well-off. Rawls restricts the application of this principle to, again roughly, the legal coercive structure of society, so that individual economic actors’ motivations and behaviour is not subject to it. It is thus consistent with the Rawlsian version of the principle to exploit one's market position to demand wages which do not maximise the take of the worst-off, as long as the tax structure grants the worst-off the largest take possible given the demands of those with skills in high demand. Cohen challenges this, most clearly by appealing to a quasi-historical claim about Sweden. The claim is that the Swedish with skills which were in high demand (hereafter, 'the talented', as long as that is not taken to imply any claims about desert) came to think that the demands the Swedish state made on them, on behalf of the less well-off, were excessive, and refused to produce as more unless they received a larger share of the social product: they effectively held the worst-off to ransom for more of the social product against the prospect of withdrawing some of their labour.
Against this, Rawlsians have, it seems to me, remarkably little consistent defence. Rawls initially appeals to the deep and pervasive effects of the legal coercive structure of a society as justifying the restriction of the difference principle to that structure, but Cohen's example clearly disarms this claim: the worst-off in Sweden were made substantially worse off by the refusal by the talented to work at the then current rates. Clearly, the individual motivations of all the members of a collectivity can make a difference to the prospects of members of that collectivity, so Cohen's claim that if the difference principle is a principle of justice, then we should act with at least some regard to it even within a legal coercive structure which respects it, stands.
Another defence has been made, most notably by Andrew Williams, on grounds of the impossibility of knowing whether individuals were acting with some regard to the principle in their choices of occupation, rates of pay, and hours worked. Williams, however, struggles both to show that such a publicity requirement is a genuine requirement of justice - the most plausible reason it might be is to prevent us being suckered by others who aren't behaving justly, and yet justice seems to require us to be suckers sometimes, as with cases of hiring practices in racist societies - and that we wouldn't be able to tell, in any sense which mattered, whether people were making the sacrifices required by having some concern for the worst-off in their quasi-private economic decisions - for example, we seem to be able to tell whether, on a camping trip where burdens and goods are divided according to the principle 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs', burdens and goods are being divided properly despite the principle's ineliminable vagueness.
So Rawls and Rawlsians are vulnerable to this perfectionist challenge from Cohen - and a whole set of other perfectionist challenges - and I think we can see why if we look at what I called the progressive challenge. To understand the progressive challenge, we need to understand, I think - and this might be contentious - the Rawlsian method of deriving what Rawls calls principles of justice. The progressive, recall, argues that Rawls's boundaries between the political and the moral are too firm, too fixed, and need to be more open to shifting, according to the content of the political and the moral, that we should not close the door to change about what constitutes the political and the moral (which is why I have called them the progressive). Rawls's theory as a whole works by asking what principles of social regulation we would come to in a notably artificial decision procedure, called the Original Position. The point of the Original Position, I think - and this is where the contention comes in, perhaps - is to model the interaction of free and equal persons coming to rules of social regulation which all can accept, which are justified to all (this is why the debate with Cohen is also a debate about the nature of justice: Rawlsians take some such decision procedure to decide what justice is - something which plausibly publicity flows from, as surely a mark of rules which are acceptable to all is that they could be made public - whereas Cohen disagrees, for sophisticated reasons I will take up tomorrow).
Now, if we are modelling the interaction of citizens conceived of as free and equal, and whatever rules can be justified to all are the rules which we should be living under, then, since part of seeing citizens as free and equal is taking their differences seriously, when what divides them changes, the rules which can be justified to all may well change too. Indeed, Rawls's attempts to preserve a sphere of quasi-Arendtian action somewhere other than politics in some sense, perhaps only make sense on the assumption that people will change their minds, that the bounds of the political will be forced to shift as the content of the moral does, for it would be certainly be distinctly odd not to expect the content of the moral to shift, yet that would seem to shift the content of the moral ideas of freedom and equality which Rawls must be basing his idea of the political on. Further, clearly, in such a discussion, moral reasons are going to be adduced in favour of political positions, as it's not clear what else could justify such positions, even if they are moral reasons which are accessible to more than one moral conception, and there is not obviously any way in principle of deciding beforehand which reasons are going to justify which positions.
These two claims seem to threaten the starkness of the boundary Rawls draws between the political and the moral, because they show the impossibility of drawing such a distinction in any thorough-going, timeless manner. However, they also threaten perfectionist claims, in one sense at least, because whilst they make the boundary between the political and the moral much more permeable, that can work both ways: moral claims which once had political force could lose that force, and quite properly lose it, just as they can gain it. We could come to think differently about the matter, and that would, under certain conditions, simply be the end of it: as free and equal, we would have decided, and anything else would be domination. This calls into question ideas of Truth (that capital 't' is deliberate) in political philosophy, and in particular the relationship of principles and facts, by making rightness in political philosophy more or less just procedural, rather than substantive, questions which I will take up tomorrow.