In 1989, Thomas Pogge published a book called Realizing Rawls. The Journal of Philosophy asked me to review it, which I did enthusiastically. Pogge's goal in the book was to expand Rawls's theory to international relations, but along the way he argued that Rawls had backed away from the quite revolutionary implications of the so-called Difference Principle. Pogge, by the way, had written his doctoral dissertation at Harvard under Rawls's direction. Although the review was published, and hence is not one of my "unpublished writings," I included here because it produced a rather odd exchange of letters between myself and Rawls. I will reproduce here the review first, and then the letters
REALIZING RAWLS. Thomas W. Pogge. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. 296 p. Cloth $36.95, paper $12.95.
In the introduction to this important new book, Thomas W. Pogge characterizes the writings of John Rawls since the publication of A Theory of Justice as exhibiting a trend "toward abstraction, vagueness, and conservatism." He explains this tendency as being "due, in large part, to the widespread criticism of [Rawls's] work, which, in this decade at least, has been predominantly conservative" (4). Pogge's tone, throughout the entire work, is so respectful of Rawls, so sober and responsible, that I am not entirely sure he recognizes what a devastating condemnation of Rawls these observations contain.
The effect of Rawls's concessions, Pogge decides, has been to move "the debate in exactly the wrong direction" (4). Accordingly, he takes it as his central task to follow out the radical implications of Rawls's theory, and to exhibit their "progressive power" (9). His program, as I understand it, has three parts, corresponding quite closely to the three parts of his book: first, a response to Rawls's two most powerful and widely heeded critics, Robert Nozick and Michael Sandel, neither of whom, Pogge thinks, has laid a glove on Rawls; second, a close examination of the core of Rawls's theory in the light of all of his writings since A Theory of Justice, in an attempt to show that Rawls's shifts of doctrine and emphasis, all of which have been conservative, establishmentarian, celebratory retrenchments, are philosophically unwarranted and incompatible with the deeper intuitions of Rawls's own theory; and, finally, a true radicalization of the Rawlsian theory of justice by extending it, in ways that Rawls himself resists, to the global sphere, where, Pogge argues persuasively, application of the two principles of justice on any plausible interpretation would have throughgoingly revolutionary consequences.
In short, Pogge offers himself up as a Left Rawlsian, staking out a relationship to Rawls very much akin to the stance adopted by Marx to that other manic system builder, Hegel.
Pogge succeeds completely in this enterprise, in my judgment, partly, of course, because he is an acute, intelligent, knowledgeable philosopher (some years ago, I came into possession, privately, of elaborate study notes on Kant's Rechtslehre prepared by Pogge for people teaching Contemporary Civilization at Columbia-they were the best thing I have ever read on that subject), but partly also because the thesis he is defending is true-indeed, I would suggest, manifestly true. If one attempts to apply the difference principle seriously, for example, one immediately recognizes that it cries out for reductions in the gap between high- and low-wage jobs so dramatic and far-reaching as to constitute a social revolution.
One of the abiding oddities of Rawls's career has been the flagrant contradiction between the radical leveling implied by his doctrine itself and the apparent absence in Rawls, either as a philosopher or as a citizen, of any reforming impulse. If the advantaged position of those at the top of the income pyramid is really to be justified solely by its tendency to improve the lot of those at the bottom, then on any half-way plausible construal of the facts of economics, psychology, and sociology, some hair-raising redistribution, through either taxation or a national wages policy, is absolutely inevitable. Nozick was quite correct to respond to this challenge by claiming that the riches of the rich are theirs by an absolute, uninfringeable right. Any defense less extreme would not stand a chance against the difference principle.
Pogge cloaks extremely powerful moral condemnations of Rawls's substantive judgments in language so hedged and cautious that the true power of his claims is liable to go unnoticed. Two examples will illustrate this point. First, while discussing Nozick's criticism of Rawls, Pogge writes, in a characteristically cautious fashion: "It is hardly obvious that the basic institutions we participate in are just or nearly just. In any case, a somewhat unobvious but massive threat to the moral quality of our lives is the danger that we will have lived as advantaged participants in unjust institutions, collaborating in their perpetuation and benefiting from their injustice" (36). He then adds, in a footnote: "This sentence, I realize, goes against everyone's favorite moral conviction, namely, that there is nothing seriously wrong, morally speaking, with the lives we lead." A good deal later on, in a section devoted to a devastating critique of Rawls's post- Theory of Justice tendency to elevate considerations of formal political rights above substantive matters of economic equality, Pogge observes:
It is not credible that in the United States today the lowest prospects for developing and exercising the two moral powers would be raised more by overturning the "profoundly dismaying" [Rawls's words] precedent of Buckley v. Valeo (in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional various congressional limits on election expenditures) than by improvements in the diet, shelter, or education of the poorest citizens (134).
Indeed! Pogge goes on to observe, again in a footnote, that "[r]emoving a restriction on religious freedom… will not improve the situation of those whose prospects for developing and exercising their two moral powers are blocked by severe poverty. Its removal would nevertheless, on Rawls' account, have priority over relieving their poverty."
I must confess that in the past I considered the lexical priority of the equal-liberty principle over the difference principle to be more a consequence of internal systemic needs and constraints than a genuine reflection of Rawls's moral sensibility. It seemed to me too harsh to impute to him, as principled reflective moral sentiments, such appalling views as those exampled by Pogge in the passages just quoted. But by a meticulous examination of the many essays, speeches, and other writings that Rawls has produced since the appearance of A Theory of Justice, Pogge demonstrates incontrovertibly, in my judgment, that Rawls really does believe what his elevation of the first principle over the second implies.
Pogge's strategy, in the first part of his book, is to protect A Theory of Justice by imputing to Rawls the most coherent, intelligent, and internally defensible version of it that he can, and then to show that the criticisms of Nozick and Sandel simply miss the mark. Pogge's discussion is far too detailed to discuss in a brief review. Its core, as I understand him, is a distinction which is simple enough to be summarized, and about which he seems to me to be quite correct. Briefly, Pogge argues that the principles of justice have as their referent the institutional structure of society, not the pattern of particular outcomes resulting from that structure. In this way, we might say, Rawls's view is big league rather than farm league. In farm league (at least as I recall its local version from the days when my sons were little), even after absolutely fair rules had been adopted and enforced, if the outcome was wildly one-sided, the adults who were running things would adjust matters so as to soothe the feelings of the kids unlucky enough to be on the losing side. But in the big leagues, so long as the rules are fair, and are impartially applied, it is just tough luck if the Yankees dominate the American League, or the Reds the National League, for a decade at a time.
To be sure, adjustments in the rules may be adopted to compensate for a certain pattern of distribution of talents-the designated hitter rule, for example, has the effect of adjusting for the fact that pitchers tend to be lousy hitters. And if-to change the example-an African basketball league were to be organized in which teams of Watutsi played against teams of Pygmies, it might be necessary to invent an adjustable backboard that could lower or raise the hoop depending on which team was driving for it. But once such systemic adjustments had been carried out, no player would have a claim of justice against the game on the grounds that he, for example, al- though a Pygmy, found it easier to sink the ball in an elevated than in a lowered hoop.
All of this is perfectly correct, and Pogge manages to defend Rawls quite successfully against Nozick and Sandel, thereby preserving Rawls, undamaged, for use against himself!
In part two, as I have indicated, Pogge shows by a detailed examination both of A Theory of Justice and subsequent writings that Rawls has systematically, progressively, and entirely implausibly moved from his original concentration on the difference principle to an almost complete emphasis on the equal-liberty principle (even elevating the equal opportunity half of the difference principle over the strictly redistributive half). The effect has been to drain the theory almost entirely of its critical power. In his most recent writings, Pogge shows, Rawls has become virtually a flack for the American way of life. Gone is that generous commitment to remedying the structural economic inequities visited upon the underclass, which attracted so many readers to the earliest versions of the theory. (By the bye, Pogge adopts the familiar bibliographical convention of referring to Rawls's various writings by their initials. "Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory" becomes KCMT. This produces a splendidly, but probably unintentionally funny footnote, in which Pogge quotes the following passage from Rawls, a propos the Pecksniffian concern that lazy types might choose not to work and then claim, on the basis of the Difference Principle, a redistributive share of the products of others' labor: "those who surf all day off Malibu must find a way to support themselves and would not be entitled to public funds." This Rawlsian version of the problem of welfare mothers driving Cadillacs is identified as having, as its source, PRIG 257n! which, it turns out, is a citation of a 1988 essay entitled "The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good.")
The shortest, but clearly, Pogge thinks, most original part of the book is the third, in which his progressive, strongly redistributive reading of the two principles is extended to the global sphere. I will not summarize Pogge's views here-they are not difficult to imagine - but I would like to say something about the inner logical tension in Rawls's theory between the parochial, social contractarian reading of it as applying only within the borders of a nation-state, and the internationalist reading that Pogge advocates.
Rawls's original idea, more than thirty years ago when he published "Justice as Fairness," was to construe the social contract on the model of a bargaining game, in the game-theoretic sense. It was thus formally built into the model of analysis that there were a multipli facity of parties engaged knowingly in interactions with one another. No sense at all could be given to the idea of a unanimous agreement on mutually advantageous principles without that supposition. In this way, Rawls successfully modeled the situation of a society of citizens deliberating, in an inward looking fashion, about the principles that would henceforward regulate their centripetal relations, so to speak. When he switched to the "veil of ignorance" version of his model, however, in response to certain internal logical failings of the original argument, Rawls effectively (and, I would judge, unwittingly) forfeited the notion of a bargaining game. Instead, he transformed his theory into a quasi-formal analysis of a problem in individual rational choice. Once this change had been made, Rawls no longer had any plausible ground for restricting his principles to the regulation of the internal institutional arrangements of an on-going society. In effect. the veil of ignorance accomplishes the sort of secular universalization that occurred when the Stoics extended Greek moral and political principles to the world stage of the Roman empire.
The merit in Pogge's discussion lies not merely in his exploration of what the Rawlsian principles of justice would look like on a world scale, but in his meticulous demonstration that Rawls himself really has no justification for resisting that transformation of his theory. Realizing Rawls establishes Thomas Pogge as an important new voice in the political philosophical dialogue. I strongly recommend it to the readers of this JOURNAL.
ROBERT PAUL WOLFF
University of Massachusetts/ Amherst
After I published the review, I received the following letter from Rawls.
Department of philosophy Cambridge MA 02138
Dear Bob: January 30, 1991
When I first saw your review of Pogge’s book in the Journal of Philosophy this past December I thought I would not write to you about it. In the meantime, however, several people have urged me to do so and I have decided to take their advice.
I want to make only two points. The first is that I have not changed in the least my support of the difference principle and still hold to it, as I have for the past 30 years or so since I became convinced that it is the soundest principal to regulate social and economic inequalities in the basic structure of a democratic society. The second point is I believe that there are strong reasons for thinking that this principle, while appropriate within democratic societies, is not in general appropriate between societies in a world society of societies. These two points are points about what I believe; I am not suggesting that you should accept my reasons for holding them.
As for the first point, the reasons you cite from Pogge’s book to suggest that I no longer affirm the different principle are, I think, not good reasons and show nothing. The citation about the surfer off Malibu is in a discussion considering what kinds of things can be primary goods. I was suggesting that in addition to the standard primary goods – basic rights and liberties, opportunities, wealth and income and the social bases of self-respect – one could (not that one should include leisure time and other things as well. The surfer was given as an example. I was assuming, as I have always done, a society in which the norm is that people are willing to work and to do their share and that there is no shortage of work in jobs for people to do. Given these assumptions, I think the example is entirely reasonable and not in the least in conflict with the different principle. Some assume, like Philippe von Parjis in a talk here last spring, that jobs are scarce and rationed, especially highly paid ones, that those holding these highly paid jobs might be willing to subsidize the surfer off Malibu to reduce competition. This is an altogether different case and my example does not apply to it. My discussion make certain background assumptions and these cannot be lost sight of.
The other example you cite from Pogge is that in supporting the public funding of political campaigns I appear to neglect needs of the poor in an apparent abandonment of the difference principle. I do not understand this objection. If we look at our country today we find three grave defaults (which together will eventually do us in): one is the control of the military and of corporate interests over foreign policy; another is the control of the wealthier classes over public discussion and the content of public debate, so that the interests of the poor classes are really considered at all, except in so far as their plight makes the wealthier uncomfortable; and finally, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and income and with it the opportunities of the lower classes. You are aware of these things as well as if not better than I am. They only need mention. These three points are related in obvious ways, which I need not detail to you. My belief in favoring the public funding of campaigns in “Basic Liberties and Their Priority” (1982) was simply that if we cannot get public funding for them, then there is little chance of our seriously addressing the needs and opportunities of the poor and lower classes as the difference principle requires.
The second point about the application of the difference principle to the law of nations, that is, to the relations between societies in a society of societies is more complicated. I do not attempt a statement in this letter itself and I have enclosed instead a brief statement of the law of nations and why the difference principle seems not to belong to it. This statement was revised (in November and early December) from a statement I used at a NYU seminar this past fall.
In writing you this letter including the statement of the law of peoples, I stress again that I am not suggesting in the least that you should find my reasons and arguments plausible, much less convincing. The question only concerns my beliefs and whether I have reasons to hold them that seem plausible to me. Since we have seen each other on past occasions I felt I could write to you about this.
PS: I have a MS of about 175 pages that includes three parts which discuss the meaning and application of the difference principle and a reformulation of the argument for it from the original position. I assume you are not interested in this but if you are I would be glad to send it to you.
I found the letter to be rather odd, I must confess, especially the opening paragraph. I wrote back in what I think I can confidently describe as a rather snarky manner. As I recall (I do not have a copy of the letter), I said something roughly like this:
‘Dear Jack, thank you for your letter. You are of course the world’s leading expert on what you believe so if you tell me that you have not changed your mind about the difference principle, that settles the matter so far as I am concerned. If you would like, I would be happy to write something to the Journal of Philosophy to the effect that you have not changed your position. But I was just reviewing Tom Pogge’s book and reporting what he says about your views. Tom is, I believe, spending a sabbatical year in Cambridge. Why don’t you talk to him?”
In response I got the following handwritten note:
“Feb 14, 1991
I greatly appreciate your letter. I owe you a reply on two matters. One is that there is no reason at all for you to send the correction to the J Phil. That is not called for and was not in the least my intention in writing you. I view our correspondences between the two of us, like any other correspondence. I would, then, not want you to do that, though I am indeed grateful that you should express your willingness to do so.
The other matter is that you are correct in saying that I should talk to Pogge about these things. I plan to leave you a letter in his box tomorrow – he is a visiting scholar here this year – though he is writing on his own and I really see him. Our differing views about justice between societies we often discussed when he was writing his thesis here. Beyond the indications in your review, I am uncertain why he thinks I have abandoned the difference principle, as I have not yet read carefully at all the second of the three parts of his book. We will talk, I hope, about that. You are right to tell me to do this.
I hope the scholarship fund goes well. And certainly I will give you greetings to Parsons.
P. S. There is no need at all to acknowledge this letter."
I will leave it to you, my readers, to parse this exchange.