Political Philosophy and the Search for the Possible


Review of In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy, by Katrina Forrester

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019  


When is it appropriate for a thinker to become the subject of historical inquiry? John Rawls has not yet been dead for twenty years, but his life and sprawling corpus have recently been the focus of historians of political thought. In particular, Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice traces the development of Rawls’s path-breaking A Theory of Justice, as well as its reception, application, and long-enduring legacy. Indeed, Forrester believes that many contemporary political philosophers—such as myself—still (problematically) theorize in the shadow cast by Rawls. 

The book can roughly be split into three parts. In the first, Forrester examines the years leading up to A Theory of Justice, tracing Rawls’s intellectual origins and the major influences that led to justice as fairness. As a scholar and longtime reader of Rawls, some of this was familiar—in particular, his deep engagement with economics (chap. 1). But there was much that was unfamiliar and genuinely fascinating, including Rawls’s flirtations with a more minimalist classical liberalism, as well the major influence the Vietnam War and mass civil disobedience movement exerted on his intellectual trajectory (chap. 2-3). 

The second part of the book details the initial reception of A Theory of Justice and how it helped develop the liberal egalitarian research program that is still dominant among political philosophers to this day (chap. 4). And the third part discusses how Rawls’s theory was applied—and, where necessary, revised—to deal with contemporary problems, such as global inequality (chap. 5), the problem of future generations (chap. 6), and the rise of the “new right” in the 1980’s (chap. 7). The book then ends by looking at those who pushed back against Rawls’s theory of justice, including the likes of Judith Shklar, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Bernard Williams (chap. 8). But as Forrester notes, in pushing back so forcefully against the dominant Rawlsian paradigm, these critics “ultimately aided the remaking of political philosophy in Rawls’s shadow” (239). 

In the Shadow of Justice is a thorough and exhaustive work of scholarship, but it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. The details are rich and, for avid readers of Rawls, utterly fascinating. Yet history of political thought aims to do more than merely tell a story—it should also help us better understand and cast in new light those thinkers examined by the historian. At times it is hard to see what Forrester’s underlying thesis is, but I think this is cleared up a bit in the Epilogue. For instance, Forrester tells us that “one of the aims of the story told in this book is to show how much is lost in and obscured by Rawls’s claim of continuity over time” (271). This, I think, is quite right. Rawls’s corpus is rich and complex, and some scholars insist on strained interpretations to find consistency where there seems to be none. Forrester’s book helps us see that such attempts are indeed a fool’s errand. 

Beyond this, Forrester’s deep dive into Rawls unearths criticisms of his work. In particular, Forrester takes issue with the highly abstract nature of Rawls’s approach, as well as his focus on “ideal theory,” which (roughly) means that when theorizing about justice we assume away some of our deeper moral flaws, ignoring the historical injustices that plague nearly all societies. In an important paragraph, Forrester writes:

Many aspects of the Rawlsian vision—whether its method, its scope, or its aim—make it seem unable to deal with the current political situation, as these recent critics have suggested. Its long neglect of ‘non-ideal’ realities, interests, and ideologies has been shown to be untenable. The assumption and aim of agreement and consensus look out of touch as the persistence of division has everywhere been revealed. The philosophical tendency to create conceptual problems out of realities that do not fit a given paradigm is an unproductive one in moments of crisis, particularly if the paradigm is consensual. Ideological divisions thus become puzzles to be solved rather than assumptions to be worked with, which makes it hard to make sense of politically divisive moments—especially when the liberal reframing of individual or group intuitions as representing the values of an entire community may itself be part of the problem. Without an account of interest, collective action, control, class, crisis—and with its assumptions of potential value consensus, continued growth, and lasting stability—the Rawlsian vision looks no more capable of fully making sense of the current conjuncture than it did during the crises of the 1970s, when its proponents explored international and ecological ethics at the expense of the domestic political cases they might have confronted (277).

Now there is a lot going on in this passage, but the general gist seems to be that by abstracting away from the realities of everyday political life—which is precisely what the Rawlsian does when she employs concepts like the original position, veil of ignorance, and reasonable person—the liberal theorist is unable to say anything helpful about our current political situation. Though we can build a model of what an ideally just society looks like through fanciful thought experiments and unrealistic simplifying assumptions, such a model tells us very little about how you and I can make our current world a better place, warts and all. 

I think there is something importantly right about what Forrester is saying, but also something importantly wrong as well. Much hinges on what we take the task of political philosophy to be. On one reading—pretty standard, I think, among my peers—the goal of the political philosopher is to develop institutional or policy prescriptions that can then be implemented by government officials to create a more just society. In other words, political philosophy is meant to guide political action. This seems to be how Forrester understands the aspirations of the Rawlsian theorist. Throughout much of the text, the author notes how followers of Rawls “began to engage directly with political events,” initiating the “philosophical study of ‘public affairs’ and the ascent of ‘applied ethics’” (xiv). Indeed, the founding statement of purpose for Philosophy & Public Affairs (still a leading journal in the field) held that philosophers should “bring their distinctive methods to bear on  problems that concern everyone” in hopes of contributing to “their clarification and their resolution” (73). This general vision of what the philosopher should do is widely adopted among the discipline’s practitioners. It also seems to be how Forrester understands Rawls’s theory of justice. 

If one understands political philosophy as an enterprise whose goal is to guide political action, then I think Forrester is absolutely correct that the abstractions and idealizations need to go. This is something contemporary political philosophers have been recognizing as of late in the so-called ideal vs. non-ideal theory debate. The literature is rife with discussions of the general theory of the second best, our epistemic limitations when it comes to theorizing about ideals, problems of transition and reform, and much more.[1] If political philosophy purports to tell people like you and me what to do to make our world a better place, then its basic assumptions must actually reflect people like you and me. 

But not all political philosophy need be understood as intending to guide our action in this very direct sense. Importantly, I do not think Rawls understood his project like this, though his acolytes seemed to have, as Forrester demonstrates in detail. Instead, Rawls understood the goals of political philosophy very differently, and how he understood the nature of his project may render some of Forrester’s criticisms inert. To this end, it is worth exploring this in more detail. 

In the introduction to the paperback version of Political Liberalism, Rawls concludes by discussing what the overarching point or goal of his project is. He writes:

Philosophy may study political questions at many different levels of generality and abstractness, all valuable and significant. It may ask why it is wrong to attack civilians in war either from the air by ordinary bombs or atomic weapons. More generally, it may ask about just forms of constitutional arrangements and which kinds of questions properly belong to constitutional politics. More generally still, it may ask whether a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible and what makes it so. I don’t say that the more general questions are the most philosophical, nor that they are more important. All these questions and their answers, so far as we can find them, bear on one another and work together to add to the knowledge of philosophy.[2] 

Though he clearly thinks that all sorts of philosophical questions and projects have value, it is the latter inquiry—political philosophy at its most general and abstract—that Rawls takes as his focus in Political Liberalism. In particular, the guiding question is whether a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible, and what makes it so.

Notice how political philosophy in its most general and abstract form seems to be quite different from the underlying account of political philosophy that Forrester presumes, where the goal of the philosopher of public affairs is to offer concrete advice to remedy pressing problems such as global inequality or overpopulation. Instead, the task is to construct a sort of possibility proof of the kind mathematicians or theoretical economists might pursue. Just as a mathematician tries to show that a certain mathematical object with interesting properties exists, or a theoretical economist might try to show that there exists a certain kind of equilibrium solution for a particular class of games, Rawls is trying to show that a certain kind of society—a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy—can, in fact, exist. As Burton Dreben, one of Rawls’s friends and a great interpreter of his work describes the project: “What Rawls has primarily been doing for the last twenty years is engage in a certain kind of very complex conceptual analysis, namely, he has been investigating the question, Is the notion of a constitutional liberal democracy internally consistent or coherent? Is it conceptually and logically possible to have as an ideal—it’s not even a question of how to bring it about.”[3]

There are other interpreters of Rawls who understand the project in this way. In his erudite and deeply insightful Why Political Liberalism?, Paul Weithman offers a reading of Rawls’s work “as a brilliant and subtle exercise in naturalistic theodicy.”[4] Initially introduced by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a theodicy tries to show that the traditional understanding of God—omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc.—is consistent with the fact that evil exists in the world. In other words, a theodicy is a possibility proof. If successful, a theodicy shows that it is possible for God and evil (at least as we encounter and understand it) to coexist. In constructing a “naturalistic theodicy” Rawls is not pursuing this exact project (showing that God and evil can coexist) but one that is similar in structure: is it possible in a world of reasonable yet nonetheless insurmountable and irreconcilable disagreement for a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy to exist? A Theory of Justice and the subsequent Political Liberalism try to show that this is in fact so. 

Philosophers who construct possibility proofs require different methods and assumptions than those methods and assumptions employed by philosophers of public affairs. In particular, abstractions are required to make the proof general—and thus of more interest—rather than overly specific. Consider an example. An economist can develop a new equilibrium solution concept, and then show that this equilibrium exists for a particular game. More interesting, though, is to show that this solution concept exists for an entire class of games. Indeed, the most celebrated results in economic theory are of this kind—for instance, when John Nash shows that a very broad class of games all have an equilibrium solution, or when Kenneth Arrow shows that there exists no system of voting satisfying very benign and desirable properties. 

To continue the analogy, Rawls could try to show that, for example, it is possible for Sweden, given its particular history and circumstances, to have a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy. The more interesting question, though, is whether it is possible generally speaking for a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy to exist, regardless of the particularities of a county’s circumstances and history. But proving the general claim requires we abstract away from current political realities, contra Forrester. 

Moreover, the assumptions one uses in a possibility proof critically depend on what one tries to show is possible. Rawls’s project is not to show that a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible for a society populated by knaves. Rather, he wants to show that such a political order is consistent with human nature when at its best. Pursuing this proof allows Rawls to abstract away from some of our more unfortunate characteristics, so long as they are not constitutive parts of the human condition. Yet at the same time, this project does not allow him to idealize away all our blemishes, for some of our faults are indeed a part of the human condition. We thus “specify the most reasonable conception of the person that the general facts about human nature and society seem to allow.”[5] Since the assumptions that are included in the theory critically depend on the nature of the possibility proof one attempts to construct, and since Rawls is not trying to show that a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible for persons as they currently are, his theory need not account for every aspect of our current realities, contra Forrester. 

Why, though, engage in the exercise of showing that a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible? Of what practical relevance is this project? Perhaps there is none. Maybe it is purely an intellectual and academic enterprise. I do not think this is Rawls’s view. In the part of Political Liberalism that I quoted at length above, Rawls approvingly cites a review article of Michal Walzer’s from The New York Review of Books. In that article Walzer examined Benjamin Barber’s The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times, which criticized political philosophers (Rawls included) for focusing too much on abstract theorizing and not enough on actual politics—much as Forrester does in the Epilogue to In the Shadow of Justice

In responding to Barber, Walzer highlights two ways of understanding the function of political philosophy. On the first account—what he calls the “strong version” of political philosophy’s function—the idea is that “philosophical discoveries and constructions ought to determine what actually happens in political life.”[6] Here, political philosophers and their theories “determine what political scientists call the ‘outputs’ of the system: policies, laws, budgets, judicial decisions, and so on.”[7] Note how this understanding of political philosophy’s function seems similar to what I think Forrester presupposes in her criticism of Rawls. On this conception, the philosopher of public affairs uses her theory to determine what actually happens in political life, for the goal is to implement institutional and policy changes so that we may create a more just world. And if this is the case, of course there are problems with abstracting away from political realities. 

Notably, though, Walzer rejects this understanding of the function of political philosophy and, in citing Walzer’s article approvingly, Rawls presumably rejects this understanding as well. In contrast to the strong version of political philosophy’s function, Walzer (and thus, we can infer, Rawls) endorses a “weak version” of these goals. Here, the “aim is not to control political ‘outputs’ but to shape political ‘inputs.’ What is at issue now is not laws or budgets or judicial decisions but reasons, arguments, conceptions of interest and value.”[8] In other words, the political philosopher is not trying to change the polity by changing its laws; she is rather trying to change the polity by influencing its people. Over time, citizens will be influenced by the arguments of political philosophers, and this will have a down-the-road and very distant impact on the kinds of policies and laws that are eventually implemented. This understanding of political philosophy is playing the long game, not the short one. 

The importance of this down-the-road influence is why Rawls is interested in the question of whether a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible. For the answer to this question, whether positive or negative, “affects our background thoughts and attitudes about the world as a whole. And it affects these thoughts and attitudes before we come to actual politics, and limits or inspires how we take part in it.”[9] That is, belief in what is possible or impossible affects our thoughts and attitudes, which then affects how we engage in politics and thus political outcomes. To offer a sobering example of how this chain of consequences works:

Debates about general philosophical questions cannot be the daily stuff of politics, but that does not make these questions without significance, since what we think their answers are will shape the underlying attitudes of the public culture and the conduct of politics. If we take for granted as common knowledge that a just and stable democratic society is impossible, then the quality and tone of those attitudes will reflect that knowledge. A cause of the fall of Weimar’s constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work. They no longer believed a decent liberal parliamentary regime was possible. Its time had past. The regime fell first to a series of authoritarian cabinet governments from 1930 to 1932. When these were increasingly weakened by their lack of popular support, President Hindenburg was finally persuaded to turn to Hitler, who had such support and whom conservatives thought they could control.[10] 

I find this passage stunningly beautiful as well as profound in ways that are not easy to articulate. Not believing that a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible can have important and indeed tragic consequences. Without belief in this possibility, the attitudes of those involved in politics changes, sometimes leading to horrific results. But presumably the opposite holds as well. If we believe that a just and well-ordered constitutional democracy is possible then this too will influence our attitudes and thus how we conduct ourselves in daily politics, to much different (and better) results. 

This, then, is why we should care about political philosophy done in the abstract and idealized way that Forrester denounces. At a time when our constitutional democracy slides further and further into crisis, we need hope that our future need not be so bleak. 


[1] For two recent and important contributions to this literature, see Gerald Gaus, The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) and David Estlund, Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). 

[2] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005): lix.

[3] Burton Dreben, “On Rawls and Political Liberalism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, edited by Samuel Freeman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 322. Emphasis mine. 

[4] Paul Weithman, Why Political Liberalism? On John Rawls’s Political Turn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010): 8.

[5] Rawls, Political Liberalism, 87.

[6] Michael Walzer, “Flight from Philosophy,” The New York Review of Books 36, no. 1 (February 2, 1989).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rawls, Political Liberalism, lix.

[10] Id., lx. Emphasis mine.


Posted on 15 January 2020

BRIAN KOGELMANN is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is also a Faculty Affiliate at the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets and an Affiliated Fellow at the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.