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objectivityIn lecture VIII of Political Liberalism Rawls lays out his sketch of persons in social cooperation, the distinctive view of persons that he holds to for his theory of justice to work (being that it is this conception that justifies his focus on the basic structure).[1] This conception gives rise to the two moral powers of persons – that is, of persons politically construed. It is politically construed because the two moral powers are taken to be the necessary and sufficient conditions for equal membership in a society governed by a conception of political justice. This conception of free and equal persons, then, is the new source and new foundation for a (pluralistic) social union – one grounded not in any conception of the good but on a shared political conception of justice.[2] In essence, then, Rawls’ political conception of persons gives rise to a political conception of justice, where justice now is the de facto referee between competing and irreconcilable conceptions of the good rather than as a system of good itself. Justice, that is, is not concerned with the good but rather in keeping the peace.

Of course, as Rawls himself admits,[3] this all follows from the assumption of liberalism – that modern democratic society must resign itself to (perhaps revel in?) irreconcilable conceptions of the good. Given this resignment we are, ipso facto, committed to Rawls’ conception of political justice. This is highly intriguing – not least because it is precisely what Plato envisioned would happen, in his writing over 2300 years ago in his Republic. So, briefly, I shall like to contrast Rawls’ conception of justice with Plato’s own, focusing especially on the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity[4] and contrasting them with what may be considered the four modern alternatives. The Cardinal Virtues are wisdom (prudentia), courage (fortitudo), moderation (temperantia), and justice (iustitia). For Plato in the Republic these four virtues corresponded to the main parts of the well-ordered city (what Rawls might call a well-ordered society today). Wisdom (practical wisdom, prudence) being the function of the highest part of man – of the rational part of man – was the characteristic virtue of the rulers of the good city, the philosopher-kings. Courage is the virtue of the spirited part of man, and so the principle virtue of soldiers and those charged with the safety of the city. Moderation is that virtue that deals with the lowest parts of man, since it is those elements that require temperance, and is characteristic of those in the city engaged in the productive arts. Justice, for Plato, is the virtue of the proper ordering of the three parts of man and of the city – each part doing it’s corresponding activity as it should. When the philosopher-kings[5] rule the city, the soldiers protect and govern the city, and the productive class focuses on their respective crafts, the city is just. Justice is akin to a type of well-ordered harmony towards what is good. Injustice would be a deviation from this order.

Since injustice is the deviation from order, for Plato, democracy is precisely a bad form of government because it puts the lowest appetites in charge. Just as the appetites of the body, over which moderation has charge (e.g. impulses towards food, sex, and drink), can come to dominate a degenerate individual, so Plato thinks a democratic society is dominated (and made degenerate) by the same impulses. The social life and politics of that society become chaotic, characterized by fads, and, as philosopher Edward Feser has put it, “resistant to the idea that there might be any permanent and objective standard against which the fads and impulses might be judged.”[6] Tyranny is only worse than democracy, according to Plato, because it is the result of a particular democratic conception imposing its will upon the others.[7]

I lay out this picture because it seems rather clear that the conception of a society Plato saw with such horror is precisely that which Rawls sees with delight. What Plato would see as one of the greatest transgresses of justice Rawls sees as justice. The modern liberal society, which Rawls takes as his starting point in defining the characteristics of political persons, so as to find a basis for a political conception of justice, is a society which makes the switch from the objective to the subjective, from the cardinal virtues to an alternative list, from the way things are in reality to the way one believes or desires them to be – multiplied indefinitely many times over. The modern alternatives to the four Cardinal Virtues might be something like the following: open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness. These negate the virtues, each in their own specific ways and especially when combined.

For instance, the pseudo-virtue of open-mindedness tells one to focus inwardly – to the subjective – to a willingness to consider alternative views about objective reality. Of itself, it does not seek objective reality.[8] Wisdom, on the contrary, seeks objective truth.[9] The pseudo-virtue of empathy opposes courage in that while courageous acts are those where duty was done in spite of subjective feelings, empathy focuses on those feelings. It may even approve of action contrary to virtue but according to improper feeling. Where moderation, or temperance, dictates the restraint of appetites – even very powerful ones – tolerance indulges. Tolerance, with empathy, is the enemy of reason through the indulgence of appetites, rather than denying them. In individuals this leads to enabling behaviour, in society this leads to the praise of pluralism and the reveling in incommensurable conceptions of “the good”. Finally, justice classically understood treats equals equally where fairness treats everyone the way the one who thinks he is being treated unfairly believes they should be treated. Justice classically understood does not see it as wrong that inequality exists, since inequality can quite naturally be the result of treating equals equally. Fairness, on the contrary, sees inequality as unjust. What this difference points to, however, is a difference in reasoning: justice classically understood directs reason to conform desires to the order of things (objectivity), fairness directs self-interest (now called reason) to conform the order of things to our desires (that is, subjectivity).[10]

Now, I think this is an interesting case study – between Rawls and Plato – because the conception of the political person that underlies Rawls’ conception of political justice, and that of political justice itself, squares with open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness. What is also interesting is that these square with Rawls’ use of ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’, where the reasonable moral power of persons is their capacity for a sense of right and justice (read tolerance and fairness) and the rational moral power of persons is their capacity for a conception of the good (read empathy and open-mindedness, because this conception is inherently subjective rather than objective). But, if this is the case, then the well-ordered (reasonable and rational) person, according to Rawls, is inherently subjective in their moral personality, and the society and scheme of social justice built off of the recognition of these persons is also, inherently, subjective in its social moral personality. Here then is the strange twist: the well-ordered Rawlsian person and society is precisely one ordered to increasing subjectivity, not objectivity, and hence to dis-order. The well-ordered person seeking the Cardinal Virtues, and that society also, is one directed inherently towards objectivity and, hence, order. Of course, this need not be Plato’s society at all; that was merely an example. But it is a fitting example of two very different conceptions of justice and the person – and of the powers of moral personality. Rawls takes for granted, as his starting point, what most others in the history of philosophy have seen not as the ideal state of persons (i.e. virtue) but as the opposite – namely, subjective disorder.[11] And from that foundation he builds a conception of political justice, which is, again, not at all ordered to objectivity. Indeed, Rawls must (reminiscent of good Kantian method) deny objectivity to make room for liberalism. This is why his theory of justice is one that merely tries to keep the peace – granted, by inculcating open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness – rather than be concerned with the good. The latter requires a system that can permit objectivity, and Rawls cannot allow that.[12]


[1] Political Liberalism, 301-302.

[2] Ibid, 304.

[3] Ibid, 303.

[4] Which, strictly speaking, are still the four Cardinal Virtues and held by many to be so, down through the millennia and today.

[5] Who are those motivated by a rational, disinterested pursuit of the good of the city. Contrast this understanding of rationality with that developed by Hume, accepted by Kant, and retained in Rawls.

[7] Notice that Rawls is fearful of allowing justice to be based off of an objective standard of the good, because he is fearful of the coercive power of the state that would then be used to enforce that conception of the good. This is not the same fear as Plato’s, however, as Plato feared the degenerate system that tyranny would impose and not, strictly speaking, the idea that there might be one overarching conception of the good held to be the basis of the system of justice.

[8] I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who once said, and I paraphrase, “An open mind is like an open mouth – put something into it.”

[9] Something that, it should be noted, Rawls does not think is needed for a conception and system of justice.

[10] I am not, for one moment, saying that open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness are bad things. They are, indeed, very good – but only instrumentally so, in that they can aide in acquiring the cardinal virtues – both individually and socially.

[11] And he does this precisely because he inherits it from Kant, who inherited it from Hume, who inherited it from Ockham, who denied the classic understanding of the powers of reason and the ordering of the powers of will and intellect.

[12] One take home point from this discussion, then, is that if one does not agree that persons and society should be inherently subjective, barring access to objectivity by means of the very structure of the theory, then one should favour a theory that is geared towards objectivity. Indeed, if one cares about rationality at all one should want to be geared towards objectivity. Rawls cannot allow this because a theory internally geared towards objectivity will be one geared, well enough, towards the Cardinal Virtues and not towards tolerance and justice as fairness. That sort of society is not one that resigns itself to, nor revels in, indefinitely many irreconcilable competing conceptions of the good that must all – as long as they are reasonable! – adhere to an overarching independent political conception of justice. The very admittance of the need for an overarching political conception of justice is an admittance of this central point: that Rawls has given up on objectivity. If one is unconcerned with the way things are – intrinsically, metaphysically – then one will probably not be concerned with this. It is telling that the Line from Hume to Kant to Rawls is precisely that philosophical tradition that does not care very much for metaphysics. The rest of us, however, do care and it is for that reason that we care about objectivity.

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