Having completed more than two hours of discussion of Michael Oakeshott's splendid essays, "Rationalism in Politics" and "Rational Conduct," I turn this afternoon in my UNC graduate Public Policy seminar to the famous theories of John Rawls. Even though I have written a book on those theories [UNDERSTANDING RAWLS], I yesterday quickly re-read the seventy-five pages I have assigned to the doctoral students in Public Policy who are taking the seminar. As I skimmed the familiar pages, I was reminded of a curious characteristic of Rawls' prose, one that struck me very powerfully when I read A THEORY OF JUSTICE shortly after it appeared in 1977. I actually included a brief discussion of this curiosity in the original manuscript of my book, but my then wife Cynthia Griffin Wolff and my good friend Robert J. Ackerman persuaded me to remove the offending passage. Now, more than thirty years have passed, Jack Rawls has gone on to his reward, and I think it is not entirely insensitive of me to offer my observation, for whatever interest it may hold.
As most of you will be aware, Rawls first sketched the theory that would later become the subject of his book in an essay entitled "Justice as Fairness." In that essay, he offered two principles of justice, the first an equal liberty principle and the second a principle of distributive justice usually referred to as "the difference principle." Rawls claimed, in the essay, that individuals exhibiting what Hume had described as the circumstances under which the idea of justice arises and committed to a bargaining procedure designed to arrive at unanimously agreed upon principles for regulating their social interactions and institutions, would necessarily [as a Theorem of Bargaining Theory] coordinate on those two principles. In point of fact, this claim was wrong, a fact that I demonstrated in an essay published in THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY. In a second essay, entitled "Distributive Justice", Rawls, who appears to have recognized the invalidity of the theorem quite independently of my criticisms, introduced the famous device of the "veil of ignorance" and revised the two principles, this time rewriting the difference principle so that, for the first time, it made reference to the "least advantaged."
There is nothing surprising or noteworthy about the fact that Rawls' revised his principles. He tried a first formulation, discovered that it would not fly, and dramatically altered his theory so that he might plausibly claim to be offering a Theorem in Bargaining Theory. But in A THEORY OF JUSTICE, Rawls does something that I find genuinely weird. He puts forward the first formulation of his two principles, correctly observes that it cannot be the solution to the bargaining game he has imagined, and then asks the question, "What other interpretation of these two principles might we find that is more plausible and defensible?"
Now, this question simply makes no sense. Why on earth suppose that the words must be preserved, but that they need a new interpretation inasmuch as the interpretation readers might be led to put on them -- the interpretation Rawls himself placed on them in his first article -- cannot be defended? Let me put it this way: With respect to what other text do readers and interpreters regularly engage in this sort of inquiry? The answer leaps immediately to mind -- Divinely Revealed Texts.
When devout readers of the Bible find a text that rational persons simply cannot take literally, they have one of two possible responses. Since the text is the Revealed Word of God, they can either deny reason and accept the words as written -- which is to say, they can become Fundamentalists, Inerrantists. Or they can employ the techniques of textual interpretation originally devised for such occasions and find an interpretation that allows faith to lie down with reason.
What I find so strange about Rawls' mode of discourse is that he appears to view the two principles as revealed texts that cannot be altered -- as though they were of divine origin -- but also cannot be assigned what seems to be their most obvious meaning. Since Rawls is a rationalist, not a fundamentalist, he opts in Chapter Two of A THEORY OF JUSTICE for what can only be described as scriptural interpretation, coming up eventually with the final, mature version of the two principles. [These too are, as it turns out, not a plausible solution to his bargaining game, but that is neither here nor there.]
Well, I must gather up my things and go off to class. I just thought some of you might find this interesting.