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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