Anthony Pym


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Justice as Fairness. A Restatement. By John Rawls, edited by Erin Kelly. (Cambridge Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2001) xviii + 214 pp. $17.95 paper; $45.00 cloth.


John Rawls, political philosopher and American moral conscience, died on November 24th 2002. I write in the week following that death, as a minor and distanced act of homage.

Based on lectures given at Harvard in the 1980s, Justice as Fairness was reworked as a "restatement" of Rawls' main political theory. As such, it constantly refers back to Rawls' major book A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, offering numerous clarifications, additions, modifications, and occasional corrections. Edited and re-edited by various hands over a number of years, finally produced despite the author's declining health, the result must now stand as a definitive statement, a life's work.

Yet much of the prose has to be cleared away if one is to get at that thought. In aiming for maximum clarity, the theorist has sacrificed the virtues of rhetoric. True, Rawls has his moments of laconic elegance, such as when opera singers are allowed to earn a lot of money "because they work hard and bring joy". However, the philosopher's social pessimism is more often a background rage against the frivolity of easy text consumption. Readers without a knowledge of the previous work will thus be somewhat put off by the cross-references involved; readers with a knowledge of the major book will still possibly be lost by more than one of the labyrinthine arguments; specialists in the field may be occasionally enthralled, but they might also have heard it before, in the specialized publications or in oral debate. In all, this "restatement" magnifies a conviction that the theory is right and worth suffering for, and consequently does little to spare the reader's suffering. The book invites consultation rather than reading, thanks in part to a model subject index.

Rawls' politics is based on an ethics of how value is to be distributed among social actors. It works on the classical cooperation model but builds in an imperative to privilege the least advantaged. It contains great thought in a great neo-classical tradition, including use of geometric analogies (as in Aristotle).

Read from a more generalist perspective (I am looking for an ethics of intercultural relations), Rawls leaves at least two related strategies that repay attention. The first might be called a "wilful regionalism". Rawls' theory is presented as a political ethics only, not as a general morality. It is a technical ethics, designed to solve a technical problem, to be evaluated among technicians. This may indeed be the logical cause of the stylistic problems and the theory's lack of social effect. Yet it also seems a laudable modesty, worth adapting in many other fields increasingly succumbing to facile theorization. The appeal to technicians allows other modes of discourse (elections, marketing, religion) to spare with the general; it requires only a narrow band of readers.

The second great idea is related but more commonly noted: Rawls recognized profound pluralism in society, yet claimed there is or can be an "overlapping consensus" whereby social groups agree on certain common principles. Political ethics should then refine and elaborate those principles. This makes his politics very American, even in its critique of the United States; it implies a humanist rationalism that is increasingly hard to defend in an age of sociological relativism. And yet, as conflictive pluralism becomes the political reality of virtually all post-industrial societies, this mode of thought surely concerns more than American idealists. Many more of us can join in the search for overlapping consensus, learning to think through the consequences of the model, sacrificing an ounce of relativism for the ethical imperatives of overlap.

As we do so, hopefully some of Rawls' arguments will stand firm, thanks to the same wilful regionalism that requires only overlaps, without moving any masses. If only the ideas were actually in power, in some technical intersection somewhere, and not entirely locked up in academic argument.

        © Anthony Pym 2002

© Anthony Pym 2014
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