Rawls argues that as the two principles of justice represent the "overlapping consensus," or common denominator, of various different religious and cultural values, they can be shared by all people in society. If people can share the two principles of justice as societal goals, it is possible to tolerate the conflicts of incompatible opinions that exist in society, including conflicts of religious and cultural beliefs (an attitude which Rawls calls "moderate pluralism") and become reconciled with their presence. Therefore, people should endeavor to share the two principles of justice, which enable them to reconcile the diverse values of the various individuals that make up society.
The above is an overview of the Rawlsian political philosophy. Below, I will identify the flaws of liberal political philosophy through critical examination of the Rawlsian political philosophy. Those flaws are related to the point that Rawlsian philosophy does not proactively endorse the goals of the lives of individuals.
As the Rawlsian philosophy is a form of liberalism that aims for co-existence of people with diverse opinions, it does not touch on individuals' determination of value. That is natural in light of the goals of political philosophy that Rawls himself set. However, under other schools of philosophy and religion, the goals of society and individuals are explained as comprehensive and consistent doctrines. To explain the differences between such doctrines and his own thoughts, Rawls introduced two different concepts—"comprehensive doctrine" and "political conception."
A comprehensive doctrine is a theory or ideology that explains the society-wide goals—which Rawls refers to as "justice"—and individuals' life goals—which Rawls refers to as "virtue"—in a comprehensive and consistent manner, of which existing religions are examples. A political conception represents what is common (the overlapping consensus or common denominator) among many, different comprehensive doctrines—that is, a set of rules that people with different perspectives can all accept as valid. A political conception in itself is not something that can explain justice and virtue in a consistent manner.
Rawls stresses that his idea is a political conception, not a comprehensive doctrine. Rawls' position is that people are justified in believing any type of comprehensive doctrine as long as they accept his conception (the two principles of justice) with respect to societal justice. For individuals, virtue–—life goals—are determined by the comprehensive doctrines in which they believe, so as long as the doctrines are consistent with Rawls' two principles of justice, the differences between individuals can be tolerated. In that sense, Rawls' justice is determined independently from the virtue of people.
However, it is not that the virtue of people and comprehensive doctrines in which they believe must be consistent with the two principles of justice. First, a system of justice that is neutral to the values of individuals is determined within society. Thereafter, individuals choose their own virtue from among the options offered by comprehensive doctrines that are consistent with the system of justice. In that sense, Rawls' idea maintains that justice precedes virtue which is the core of Rawls' idea.
Rawls' theory of justice as explained above may be criticized from the following two positions.
- Critique 1: A critique from the position that societal justice should be based on the virtues of individuals.
- Critique 2: A critique from the position that virtue of individuals should also be based on societal justice.
Regarding Critique 1, communitarians, such as Michal Sandel, raised arguments against Rawls' position, triggering a fierce controversy known as the liberal-communitarian debate. Sandel argued that the assumption that justice precedes virtue is invalid. He contended that a system of justice that is neutral to the values of individuals cannot exist in the first place. If people in the original position are to agree on a value-neutral system of justice as an embodiment of Rawls' two principles of justice, they must have unencumbered selves that are liberated from all of their communal interdependence— encumbrances due to their innate circumstances, such as blood and locational ties—. However, Sandel argues, humans cannot have unencumbered selves. Humans are encumbered by the circumstances into which they are born before their self is developed. As their self is developed under the encumbrances of those circumstances, their judgement concerning justice depends on their personal values— an individual's virtue—. Rawls maintains that the two principles of justice can be defined as the overlapping consensus of the diverse values of individuals, but, according to Sandel, an overlapping consensus like that cannot exist.
As an example, Sandel cited the conflict faced by General Robert E. Lee, a leader of the Confederate Army of the Southern States during the Civil War (Sandel, 2010 and 2011). Before that war, Lee opposed the Southern States' secession from the United States, but as war became imminent, he concluded that he owed his loyalty to his home state of Virginia, one of the seceding states, over his obligation to the United States, and led the Confederate Army in the war. This episode is an example of the existence of political obligations that cannot be swayed by the free will of individuals, contrary to the assumptions of the Rawlsian political philosophy. Sandel also contends that in the debate over the right to receive an abortion, the value-neutral standard of justice assumed by Rawls is not applicable. The determination of whether or not abortion is acceptable depends on whether or not to regard a fetus as a human. If a fetus is to be regarded as a human, abortion amounts to a murder, and therefore, those who regard a fetus as a human oppose abortion. This means that abortion is accepted (only) by those who do not regard a fetus as a human.
In this case, a typical argument made by people upholding Rawlsian ideas is that the government should not intervene in determinations related to abortion given that whether or not to regard a fetus as a legal human being is a matter of the values of individuals. However, this argument implicitly admits to the possibility that a fetus may not be a human being. From the viewpoint of those who believe that a fetus is, the argument flatly denies their values. If government is to refrain from intervening in matters of the values of individuals, the non-intervention is not a neutral act, but an act that denies the values of those who believe that a fetus is a human. With respect to the right to receive an abortion, a value-neutral position of justice cannot exist.
The above is the communitarians' critique of the liberals' argument that justice precedes virtue— justice can exist in a value-neutral state—. The Communitarians' argument can be summed up as the following: virtue precedes justice —a system of justice can exist only on the basis of the values of individuals—. That is the position of Critique 1.I would like to present an argument from the position of Critique 2—that virtue cannot precede justice. The main point of our argument is that the values of individuals can exist only if they are endorsed by the societal system of justice.
In the past, when local communities had a much stronger impact on people's values, perhaps the order of things was that first, the values of individuals were developed under the communal encumbrances (as argued by communitarians), followed by the establishment of a society-wide system of justice. However, since the 20th century, communities have collapsed, which means that the basis for the development of the values of individuals has fallen apart. In this situation, modern people have lost community support and solidarity and become isolated individuals.
How do modern people see themselves? As will be mentioned later, Hannah Arendt asserts that modern people's fundamental experience is one of verlassenheit or abandonment (Arendt, 2017 edition). In the modern era, when traditional religions and communities have lost the capacity to support individuals, people feel abandoned, useless in society, and redundant. To escape their isolation, modern people sometimes try to find their own raison d'etre in the false infallibility of a totalitarian ideology. Even if the goals—virtues—set by the ideology mean their own or other people's death, they readily accept the goals. The emergence of the pathological phenomenon that was the totalitarianism of the 20th century is evidence of the fact that virtues of individuals needs to be based on and endorsed by a societal system of justice.
In the modern era, when the situation of justice being preceded by community-based individual values and virtues no longer exists, the communitarians' philosophy (the position of Critique 1) aims to restore that situation. In contrast, our argument (the position of Critique 2) is that going forward, political philosophy must accept the loss of that situation as a precondition and realize the ideal of a societal system of justice providing the basis of individual virtue.
Liberal political philosophy as represented by Rawls' thought is not performing the role of providing a rationale for understanding the virtues of individuals. From Rawls' point of view, political philosophy is not supposed to perform such a role in the first place, nor did he recognize the need for political philosophy to provide a rationale for the conception of the virtues of individuals. If I am to offer a wild guess on why Rawls did not recognize that need, he probably believed in liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine (comprehensive liberalism).
As I already mentioned, Rawls distinguished between political conception and comprehensive doctrine. "Political liberalism" defines a societal system of justice as an embodiment of the two principles of justice, but it stops short of asserting that the system provides a rationale for the virtues of individuals. On the other hand, "comprehensive liberalism" believes that realizing liberty is of utmost value not only for society but also for all individuals—belief that liberty is the basis for the virtues of individuals—.
In the world of Rawlsian political philosophy—that is, a society in which there is an agreement on the two principles of justice as the common denominator of the people's diverse values—the societal system of justice does not proactively endorse individuals' respective life goals. It is only that the life goals chosen by individuals based on their personal feelings and personal convictions are not denied as long as they are consistent with the system of justice. Individuals pursuing a certain goal are beset by doubt over contingency—doubt as to whether or not they might be better off pursuing other goals—and cannot have conviction about the righteousness of their pursuit—that this is the end that they themselves must pursue. They cannot feel that they are needed (for pursuing that end) by society. This is the feeling of being abandoned that was pointed out by Arendt. In a liberal society as conceived of by Rawls, it is difficult for people to overcome the feeling of being abandoned.
In the Rawlsian world, the only people who can have a conviction about the pursuit of the goals that they have chosen and who can feel that their existence is positively endorsed by the societal system of justice are believers in comprehensive liberalism, who believe that there is absolute value in realizing liberty. They find value not in the goals of life that they have chosen to pursue but in the act of freely choosing their own life goals. For them, it does not even matter if the conception of virtue that they choose is arbitrary or accidental. The act of choosing is in itself meaningful as a practice with intrinsic value. For believers of comprehensive liberalism, the "practice of liberty," which is their true goals of life, is actively endorsed by the societal system of justice, and therefore, they have the conviction that their practice of liberty is needed by society. Virtue for believers of comprehensive liberalism as individuals—the practice of liberty—is positively endorsed by the Rawlsian world's "system of justice."
Put the other way around, from the point of view of people other than believers of comprehensive liberalism, their life goals are not meaningful to the societal system of justice in the Rawlsian world. As a result, those people are beset by the feeling that their life is merely a contingent or arbitrary existence and that they are not needed by society.
If we assume that the role of comprehensive political philosophy is to deny the meaninglessness of individuals' lives and give them the strength to affirm their lives as something meaningful, the modern prototype is the philosophy of history advocated by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel's philosophy argued that ideals concerning human society— the progress of reason—give meaning to an individual's life, thereby developing a form of anthropocentrism.