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.
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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