I have learned something about philosophy these days from this series of exchanges on Rawls, something, I confess, that has surprised me. I grew up in a simpler time, when philosophers advanced theories about this or that and then presented arguments in defense of those theories. We all tried, of course, to make our arguments as powerful as possible, and the great philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant, Leibniz, Hume and the rest -- even claimed that their arguments were definitive, necessary, irrefutable. They weren't always right, of course; indeed, if the truth be told, they very rarely were. But they tried. That was the point of the exercise, or so I learned when I was young. Hence, when I read Rawls' work, first as a journal article and much later as a book, I understood it to be an imaginative, original, even daring attempt to prove a certain thesis, namely that what Rawls called The Two Principles were indeed the principles that rationally self-interested individuals would coordinate on under the bargaining conditions he specified. This fact, assuming that he could actually prove it to be a fact , would , he thought, thereby be a good reason to consider those principles as the principles of social justice. Rawls, I was quite confident, was not simply taking the opportunity to tell the world how he felt about things, nor was he, despite all the chatter about "reflective equilibrium,' merely presenting us with what an earlier era called the consensus gentium, or "agreement of the people."
But it is clear from the comments that no one sees things this way anymore. Instead, when a major work purporting to be philosophy comes along, everyone apparently treats it either as a Rorschach ink blot calling for subjective responses or as a grab bag of taglines that can be attached to whatever one is thinking about.
I don't know what to do. I do not want to be a bore, like the old uncle at a family party who keeps telling anyone he can collar that it was different in the old days. But I really am too old to change, and besides, if I had known this was what philosophy was going to turn into, I might have chosen a more honest profession, like bank robbing.
Look, folks, I will say it one more time: John Rawls presented an argument for a claim, the claim that a pair of principles are The principles of distributive justice. His argument consisted of showing, or trying to show, that the principles would be chosen by persons in certain rather special and constrained circumstances. He thought that if he could indeed show that persons so circumstanced would choose those principles, that would constitute a powerful reason for accepting those principles as the principles that ought to regulate the basic economic and political structure of society. IF THAT IS NOT WHAT HE IS DOING, THEN HE IS NOT DOING PHILOSOPHY AS I UNDERSTAND IT.