Hegel, Rawls and Mill: On the Grounds of a Modern Liberalism

There can be no liberal modernity without social justice, which is why nothing can surpass the social demo­c­ratic idea, which has been margin­al­ized in the current SPD. Anyone, who is looking for the foun­da­tions of modern liber­alism and hence a social liber­alism, will inevitably find the work of the philoso­pher John Rawls.

In his prolific academic career, John Rawls (1921–2002) put forth a compre­hen­sive theory of social justice, a theory of political liber­alism that is not condensed along posses­sive indi­vid­u­alist lines, a supremely modern theory of inter­na­tional law and a history of moral philos­ophy. His major work, A Theory of Justice, published in English in 1971 and before too long in German as well (1975), is based on a critique of util­i­tar­i­anism and what initially appears to be an aston­ishing basic idea. Contra­dicting all those who believe that moral and just action consists in striving to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and thus can, at least for a time, neglect the welfare and rights of minori­ties, Rawls showed that policies based on this belief cannot lead to just outcomes worthy of that desig­na­tion. The only just social order is one arrived at under fair condi­tions, i.e., under condi­tions accept­able to all of those who might be affected. Since such condi­tions can never exist in real life, philos­ophy finds itself faced with the task of construing a fictive “original position”, an existence under the “veil of ignorance”, where people have life plans and intu­itions about justice but are ignorant of their place in society: their age, their sex, income level and assets, their rung on the social ladder. Under these condi­tions, reason­able people who are as inter­ested in their own interests as they are in the welfare of their fellow human beings would choose a basic order that rests on two prin­ci­ples of justice:

First: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compat­ible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: Social and economic inequal­i­ties are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reason­ably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.
(p. 60)

Rawls went on to concre­tise the second principle by stating that that social and economic inequal­i­ties should always also be arranged in such a way that they always provide the best possible prospects to the least advan­taged members of society. Accord­ingly, any distri­b­u­tion policy that cannot be guar­an­teed to improve the situation of the poorest of the poor is unac­cept­able. It must be said that, to ground these osten­sibly simple prin­ci­ples, Rawls made astute use of cutting edge tools from math­e­mat­ical game and decision theory, thus effec­tively disqual­i­fying them as a topic of dinner-table conversation.

Nonethe­less, Rawls is never abstract. A Theory of Justice has sections on forms and the legit­i­macy of civil disobe­di­ence, as well as thoughts about respect and shame, and also on the unity of the self. For the current debate, not least with respect to ecolog­ical topics and the issue of debt limits, Rawls’s thoughts on inter­gen­er­a­tional justice ought to be of partic­u­larly piquant relevance: he addresses this issue under the heading the “just savings principle” and places it under the primacy of the prin­ci­ples of justice; thus, political recog­ni­tion of this principle leads to measures intended to raise the standard of life of the least advan­taged in subse­quent generations.

With this, talk of inter­gen­er­a­tional justice, a concept more often invoked than under­stood, gains a precise meaning: when arguing for the interests of future gener­a­tions, one can only address the general foun­da­tions of their coex­is­tence, such as the envi­ron­ment and education. It does not contra­dict the principle of justice at all to burden high private income that can be expected in the future by way of loans today and channel it to public benefit purposes.

Admit­tedly, very early on, Rawls theory of social justice was erro­neously under­stood as a compre­hen­sive, i.e. no longer debatable, theory of liberal democracy, a misun­der­standing that he corrects in unam­biguous terms in writings on political liber­alism published in the early 1990s. There, he says that political liber­alism worthy of the name is possible when the citizens of demo­c­ratic states, holding a plurality of reason­able doctrines of political liberty and equality, agree to accept the histor­i­cally solid­i­fied consensus on univer­salist legal and consti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples, giving up any univer­salist claims to ultimate truth.

None of this can be said to apply to the case of the emerging global political community, with its indi­vidual states under nonde­mo­c­ratic rule. Rawls’s studies on the “law of peoples” therefore distin­guish between an ideal theory and a nonideal, realistic theory of inter­na­tional law, which contains criteria for the assess­ment of unde­mo­c­ratic states and the possible legit­i­macy of wars, under which consid­er­a­tion of human rights, partic­u­larly those of the citizens on unde­mo­c­ratic states, is assigned partic­ular significance.

Philos­ophy – so Hegel famously wrote – “is its own time compre­hended in thoughts” (p. 21 in H.B. Nisbet’s trans­la­tion). Unlike many analytic philoso­phers, Rawls’s stance towards Hegel was not one of rejection:

A Theory of Justice”, he writes in his Lectures on the History of Moral Philos­ophy, “follows Hegel in this respect when it takes the basic structure of society as the first subject of justice. People start as rooted in society and the first prin­ci­ples of justice they select are to apply to the basic structure. The concepts of person and society fit together; each requires the other and neither stands alone” (p. 366).

Finally, let us not forget John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), who won recog­ni­tion as a theorist in the field of democracy and pluralism. It is still far too little known that Mill – though only the briefest reference to this can be made here – was, strictly speaking, a feminist and a socialist, despite his reluc­tance to be described as such. After all, looking back over his life in the seventh chapter of his Auto­bi­og­raphy (a German trans­la­tion of which is also available), Mill wrote:

Our ideal of ultimate improve­ment went far beyond Democracy, and would class us decidedly under the general desig­na­tion of Social­ists. While we repu­di­ated with the greatest energy that tyranny of society over the indi­vidual which most Social­istic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the indus­trious; when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impar­tially to all; when the division of the produce of labour, instead of depending, as in so great a degree it now does, on the accident of birth, will be made by concert, on an acknowl­edged principle of justice; and when it will no longer either be, or be thought to be, impos­sible for human beings to exert them­selves stren­u­ously in procuring benefits which are not to be exclu­sively their own, but to be shared with the society they belong to.


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