John Rawls’ Struggle against Political Time

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with Poussin picture, not just the link!

Image above is Nicholas Poussin’s painting The Dance to the Music of Time (1640)

Rawls picks up on the contractual tradition in political theory. The contractual tradition works on the assumption that the political institutions can be traced back to a beginning point which is also the point of legitimacy. We should be able to trace back a series of links from current institutions to some origin, and if the series breaks down we do not have legitimacy. There are complications we could introduce, but this is not the place, we can reasonably assert that a large part of what Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau said is in line with that.

We get acknowledgements from them that the contract is a hypothetical idealised event, but the idea of legitimation through tracing back to the origin is always preserved, in a double move where the rupture with a pre-existing natural order has to be justified. With Kant, we get an apparently more purely abstract hypothetical approach, but in Kant we also get a David Hume-Adam Smith type explanation of the emergence of improving laws, institutions, morality and economic welfare over history.

Rawls claims to progresses in contract theory, by using a Kantian approach by insisting on a very pure abstactionism. Rawls’ version of the original contract in the original position is presented as a purely abstract hypothetical situation in which all aspects can be justified without regard to the fictional situation of the original position, so the original position has a purely heuristic purposes, as an instrument for intellectual clarification. However, we have a backward step in relation to Hume and Smith, who are often invoked by Rawls.

It is important to note how often Rawls refers to Hume and Smith when we consider that it is very normal to contrast Rawls’ as a modern ‘statist’ or ‘progressivist’ Liberal with ‘Classical’ Liberalism in Smith and Hume. That raises issues of how we should interpret ‘Classical’ Liberalism in relation to ‘Libertarianism’, in Nozick and others, and Egalitarian Liberalism (as Rawls approach is often know). I’m disposed to think both are inadequate, but I will address that on another occasion. What I will point out here is that Rawls does not deal with the historical aspect of Smith and Hume, and the way Kant takes it up.

His references to Smith and Hume are all to an impartial or invisible spectator in their moral theory, that is the observer who brings universality into a theory which has strongly subjective tendencies. For Hume and Smith, morality progresses over time, along with other fundamental of civilised and growing existence.

On the post of July 19th, I addressed the way that time enters into the original position, when Rawls justifies the difference principle (inequality is only justified where it benefits the poorest) with reference to forms of rationality which rely on learning from repeated situations. This is a very abstracted kind of time.

Concrete historical time enables us to learn as a society according to Hume and Smith, which partly explains why they do not refer to contract theory. Rawls takes them out of time, referring their moral theory to his system based on atemproal contract, which leaves no room for developing principles through historical experience.

If we take Hume and Smith in the whole, surely we will need to incorporate some kind of historical time for a long term feed back and learning mechanism in the best rules for society. Maybe there are problems with that, maybe their theory involves a tyranny of the past over the future, but then we would still need a theory incorporating historical time in order to think about how the present liberates itself.

Rawls could say that his theory is a completely heuristic and be used in historical learning process, but why leave out that process? If we leave it out, we are back with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the primacy of the original contract which both begins and transcends historical time.

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