The final theory of liberalism I will critique is John Rawls’ theory of justice. His book, A Theory of Justice, is the last of the major attempts to produce a systematic liberal system of ethics. From first principles, Rawls attempts to create a theory that reconciles liberty with equality and demonstrates that the modern-liberal democratic welfare state is the supreme manifestation of universal justice available to us.
Generally speaking, the issues with Rawls’ theory stem from all the unjustified assumptions and unquestioned liberal presuppositions in which he grounds his theory. For example, throughout his discussion he’s working from the premise that it is generally agreed-upon that an egalitarian society is best. I, for one, do not agree with this proposition, and universal equality is not a self-evident proposition.
Where do we see equality in nature? The child is not equal to the adult, nor the weak to the strong, nor the wise to the foolish. What do we mean by equality? That everyone is by nature born equal? They’re not. We are all born with different capacities: even schoolchildren know this. In gym class, some are tall and naturally athletic, and some are small and awkward. Some children are naturally gifted with intellect and don’t have to put in much effort to do well in their studies, while some children have great difficulty learning and have to consistently expend a great deal of effort to have moderate success. These inequalities exist from the moment we are born and persist throughout our lives. As my critique of equality was already discussed in part one of this series, I will refer the reader back to that for a more thorough explanation of the issues with liberal egalitarianism.
Rawls attempts to justify liberalism by arguing through a method he calls the “veil of ignorance”. In trying to devise an ideal ethical system, Rawls realized that we are all biased because of who we are. Whether it be religion, upbringing, or wealth, we have many interests and beliefs that are related to our personal identity. Therefore, the only objective way to rationally decide how to organize our society is to imagine ourselves separate from any part of our identity that might make us biased. He calls this imagined state the “original position”. In the original position all people exist as something analogous to disembodied spirits floating in space. In this state, you don’t know anything about your race, sex, nationality, social class, etc. It is from this position, the veil of ignorance, from which we must discuss, and then choose, how we will organize society.
The perceptive reader will have noticed some immediate problems with this argument. Firstly, it's not actually possible to separate yourself from all the traits that are part of your identity. Your body, race, gender, etc., are all inseparable from who you are and the way you think. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to true conclusions, but it does mean that any argument that starts with you being an individualistic ghost in space is bound to fail. Moreover, why should morality be up to a vote? This is not how ethical questions are solved. Every great religion and political ideology was first only revealed or created by one man, or a very small group of men, before being preached to the masses.
Every great ethical idea has had to take its place in history by entering into a mortal struggle with other ethical ideas and ultimately overcoming them. In fact, it is essentially a law of history that the greatest questions throughout the ages were at first only grasped by a very small group of men. The more complex and radical a question, the fewer the number of people that will initially understand it. It is often the case that the men who lead the great revolutions of their age are rejected by their own societies.
Jesus makes this point in scripture: “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4). We might remember many of the great scientists and philosophers with awe, but this is only because we ourselves are the product of their ultimate victory. Had their ideas ultimately failed to bring the masses of the people to their side we would remember them alongside all of history’s other losers. We must be very clear that what Rawls is proposing has no basis in any historical reality.
In any case, Rawls argues that from behind the veil of ignorance, without knowing what our social position would be, we would all choose to support a liberal-democratic welfare state. The idea is that if you didn’t know whether you would be rich or poor you’d want a system where poor people have opportunities and are taken care of. You’d want the most equality and freedom possible while not unfairly targeting privileged people so that no matter who you end up being, your life prospects would be pretty decent.
The crux of the issue with the veil of ignorance is that Rawls is assuming the validity of what he wants to prove. For example, Rawls believes we’d all choose a system where we’d all have the opportunity to reach high positions in government and business. This system would be as democratic and liberal as possible. But how do we know that’s what people would actually pick? Certainly, we know this is what John Rawls would pick, but John Rawls is also a well-off Harvard professor, a member of the liberal elite by anyone’s definition.
Imagine a scenario where someone offered the assembled people a system where a small group of elites got to have all the power in society, but in return they sent everyone a monthly cheque and took care of all the complicated problems of running a government and economy for them. Not all of us are as ambitious as Rawls, and it seems fairly easy to see how many people would take the deal. The steady progression of welfare policy over past decades, leading to the concept of universal basic income entering the greater consciousness, is evidence that many are content with such an arrangement.
If you end up being in the elite, then you’re set in any case. And if you’re poor and uneducated would you really choose a bunch of abstract rights over real money every month? It is nice in theory to have the right to create your own multinational corporation or become president of the country, but realistically speaking, that is not going to happen for the vast majority of people. It is much safer to opt for the cheque.
I don’t even need to argue from the abstract original position to show this. Throughout history, most societies have chosen economic and physical security over liberalism. Consider the wide support the current chinese government receives from chinese people. Nearly every society in history (including our own) has been ruled by an elite class that is clearly distinguished from the common people; this seems to be the social structure towards which people gravitate. Maybe not everyone would give up some equality and liberty for economic benefit, but a substantial amount would.
But what is perhaps a bigger issue for Rawls’ argument is that he assumes that everyone thinks in liberal terms. If I were, for example, an ancient Christian, my first priority would be to establish a Christian society. In fact, ancient Christians went to great lengths to achieve this, including giving up their own lives. Now, if you are willing to get burned alive or torn apart by dogs for something, I think it is safe to say it is central to your beliefs. If these Christians thought the way Rawls says all people do, then surely it would have been more convenient to simply obey the law. Economically speaking, the Roman empire was very wealthy and there were many opportunities for advancement by learning a trade or joining the army. Moreover, these Christians weren’t fighting to make Rome more liberal or egalitarian: they were fighting for Christ.
Of course it's not just Christians who display this behaviour; basically every successful ideology and religion has relied at some point on the fanatical dedication of its members. Nationalism in Europe is another good example. We ought to remember that World War I was sustained as a result of nationalist identity. Were all the millions of men who went to die in the trenches fighting for liberal abstractions? Remember that even the liberal-democratic nations of France and the United-Kingdom had huge colonial empires. Indeed many men went to war specifically to help their nation conquer other nations. If we put these men in the original position and asked them what they thought the ideal society would look like, it would be fair to surmise that their answer would lean much more heavily towards nationalistic fervor than liberal egalitarianism.
"there’s no such thing as neutrality when it comes to your basic belief and worldview."
Now Rawls would say that in the original position we have to imagine ourselves without any beliefs that would make us biased. But how exactly do we decide what the best way of organizing society is without knowing what our values are? Rawls’ answer is that we pick the system with the most equality and freedom. But to value equality and freedom over, say, hierarchy and stability, displays bias. So, if you’re a Christian, nationalist, socialist, buddhist, or anything else except for a liberal, you have to suspend your beliefs because they are biased. But if you believe in liberty and equality then you are good, because those beliefs are universal and objective. How do we know they are universal and objective? Because everyone in the original positions would choose them… The problem with Rawls’ argument is quite stark.
Again, with Rawls we find ourselves returning to the recurring theme in our discussion of liberalism: there’s no such thing as neutrality when it comes to your basic belief and worldview. And yet, every liberal argument keeps coming back to this pretended neutrality as a way to prove the truth of liberalism. The fact is, liberalism, with its ideas about liberty and equality and rights, is an arbitrary system. Some parts of it are good, and some parts of it are bad, but liberal philosophy has failed to provide a justification for the liberal system. Liberals want us to accept all the assumptions we need to prove their case and move on. Unfortunately for them, a sober examination of the logic underpinning liberalism finds it to be more circuitous than it is sound.
The final section of this series will propose what the right-wing understanding of rights must be.