In a 2016 article on “Philosophy and Ideology,” Amia Srinivasan illuminates the peril of analytic philosophy displacing a politics from the standpoint of the oppressed. “After all,” she wrote, “it would be convenient for us as professional philosophers not only if our somewhat peculiar skills turned out to be essential for the pursuit of justice, but also if it turned out that the use of those skills could render political revolution, especially violent revolution, unnecessary. For, if the revolution did come, surely many of us would have much to lose.” Srinivasan became Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the start of this year. If ever an appointment could signal a yearning to revitalise analytic political philosophy at one of its epicentres, this was it. Srinivasan’s scepticism of the social power of her discipline to end oppression is, paradoxically, what marks out the transformative potential of her work. In this, she is part of a venerable contemporary tradition that, in diverse ways, combines analytic insight with emancipatory fire and includes luminaries like Iris Marion Young, Charles Mills, Sally Haslanger, and Nancy Fraser.
Looming much larger in the seminars of elite American and British universities is the legacy of John Rawls, the great liberal philosopher of the twentieth century. It is this “success” story Katrina Forrester tells in her magisterial history of postwar liberal political philosophy. Srinivasan’s appointment was announced in late July last year, around the time Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice was coming off Princeton’s presses. In it, she deftly recounts how a certain set of methods, assumptions, and ideas favoured by Rawls took hold in the institutional strongholds of analytic political philosophy. An intellectual historian trained at Cambridge and now teaching at Harvard, Forrester is a scholarly marvel in her combination of a writer’s eloquence, a historian’s eye for revelatory detail, and an activist’s commitment to social liberation. While that commitment is mostly implicit, I think the trifecta makes In the Shadow of Justice a formidable intervention in the trajectory of contemporary political thought. Just as Rawls benefited from delaying the publication of A Theory of Justice until 1971 in the wake of the turbulence of the 1960s and shattered confidence in post-war liberal theories, Forrester’s book is fortuitously timed from the perspective of today’s intellectual currents. From Patrick Deneen’s Catholic communitarianism in Why Liberalism Failed to a range of leftist intellectuals highlighting failures to tackle inequality and the ecological crisis, Forrester’s history of Anglophone political philosophy can be read as part of a larger story that draws threads between contemporary liberalism and social despair. Forrester’s specific subject is a set of ideas clustered around the doctrine of “liberal egalitarianism”, and especially its emphasis on progressive distribution and the guardrails for producing consensus in pluralist societies. She masterfully shows how the ideological roots of liberal egalitarianism, its conceptual mapping of the world, and its premise of social life resting “on the possibility of consensus and ethical agreement,” supplied the dominant intellectual infrastructure of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy on political institutions and public policy. In his late work, Rawls would take a “political” turn away from “comprehensive” liberalism and instead develop a “political” liberalism attuned to the so-called “fact of reasonable disagreement”. But these nuances aren’t enough to dislodge Forrester’s critique of the liberal tradition’s tendency to domesticate genuine and deep political contestation.
Like many of his contemporaries, Rawls was more concerned about protecting individual liberties than the state’s capacity to promote human freedom.
Like many of his contemporaries, Rawls was more concerned about protecting individual liberties than the state’s capacity to promote human freedom. Rawls’ thinking may have been shaped by his experience as an American soldier in the Philippine trenches of World War Two or by his visit to a devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Without relying on biography, though, Forrester shows how Rawls internalised key assumptions about the social world even as he sought to ground moral claims in universal truths abstracted from passions, interests, or ideology. The abstract philosophy Rawls prized most – what he called “ideal theory” – put distance between the work of political philosophy and the real world of politics. Most famously, Rawls sought to show how an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance” could produce principles for governing a just society, including social arrangements that ensure equal basic liberties, equal opportunity, and the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.
As the core ideas of Rawls’ theory became the starting point for liberal philosophers, Forrester shows how the contextual origins of his arguments fell out of view. Even prominent alternatives to liberalism worked in terrain Rawls had deliberately downplayed or abandoned. The absorptive capacity of the Rawlsian paradigm meant it could take on new subjects like racial injustice, even as it limited the possibility of making arguments about justice from the perspective of history, agency, institutional innovation, or the social transformation of prevailing norms. Even when analytic philosophers deviated from core tenets of liberal egalitarianism, as with aspects of intergenerational justice, “they helped shore up something more fundamental: a view of philosophy, underpinned by a commitment to a general, impartial morality, which abstracted from political problems in order to solve them.” Similarly, when it came to global justice, Forrester tells a story of depoliticisation as liberal philosophers emphasised individual duties and obligations in rich countries while giving less room to global political economy and the power dimensions of anticolonial demands. Liberal philosophers would in general come to seek “refuge” in Rawlsian abstractions. By 1985, even Rawls was doubting the direction of a field he had done so much to influence. “I am at the moment persuaded,” Rawls laments in correspondence with the legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart cited by Forrester, “that the aims and methods of much current political philosophy are misconceived.”
With the rise of neoliberalism from the 1970s and the triumph of rights-based individualism, ideas of the public interest and common good came under increasing pressure. With striking untimeliness, Rawls’ theory of justice, Forrester argues, “hailed from a bygone era, the last gasp of a dying welfarist ideology.” Rawls offered a theory that evaded the new ideological landscape. For many readers, it served as a philosophical gloss on Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s economic program, holding assumptions about the inherent adequacy of American democracy. Forrester lays bare how incongruences between the world and decades of philosophical innovation left the latter feeble to shape the public sphere in favour of the new market order’s victims. On civil disobedience, she shows how Rawls put America’s racial divide outside the scope of his political philosophy in part because his assumptions about progress framed the civil rights movement as making “a nearly just America more so.” It was reduced to being given “a chance to be included in a game that was nearly fair,” not overturning anything fundamental in America’s social fabric or constitutional order, even when lived injustices may have demanded it.
By revealing its intellectual origins and trajectory, Forrester shows why Rawls’ liberal vision turned out to be inadequate to support his egalitarian ideals. The worry has long been there, as her perceptive telling of the unfolding dialogue following the publication of A Theory of Justice demonstrates. Brian Barry, for instance, would write in his 1973 book-length response that “surely not since Locke’s theory of property have such potentially radical premises been used as the foundation of something so little disturbing to the status quo!” But Forrester’s history is not a takedown in any conventional sense. She respects the egalitarian ambition of the Rawlsian paradigm while acknowledging its institutional timidity and ideological blind spots.
Having relied on optimistic assumptions about continued economic growth, Rawls himself would later become disillusioned with capitalist ideology that promoted such growth “with no end in sight” and would lead to a society “awash in a meaningless consumerism”. Though Rawls would eventually promote a vision of “property-owning democracy” with more radical demands than a capitalist welfare state could deliver, Forrester shows that his vision of politics was never suited to significant reform. Moreover, Rawls followed the UK’s Labour revisionists who, she says, “focused on the size of income to be distributed, not its sources.” While this had implications for the appetite among liberals for state interventionism, I think it also downplayed potential for transformations of the market itself. Rawls held fast to a belief in markets while arguing that his theory could accommodate either a property-owning democracy or liberal socialism. His emphasis, however, turned much of market life and wealth creation into a black box for mainstream political philosophy. For many, the distributive focus of the welfare state seemed enough to build an egalitarian society. Forrester’s account of how egalitarian philosophers succumbed to elements of libertarian thought in their rearguard defence of equality, especially its individualising tendencies, is incisive. However, Forrester also discusses thinkers who contemplated alternative market-based regimes, in particular David Miller’s “market socialism” and a young Joshua Cohen’s case for connecting deliberative democracy to political economy. Cohen attacked the premise of “a highly unified conception of property” and the focus of philosophers on “different ways of shifting the bundle around.” He wanted ownership to be “unbundled”; collective ownership was not the path to democratising the economy. Moral inquiry today might ask what reforms of finance, trade, education, and firms would look like in a society committed to realising equality in the sense of enabling each person to have equal access to the resources, capabilities, and respect needed to find their place in the world and, beyond that, to develop their capacity to transform it for the better. As economists like Mariana Mazzucato and Dani Rodrik show, some of the most important questions for the future of political economy are not about the ratio of state to market activity but what kind of market and what kind of state, and how a more dynamic relationship between them can create collective prosperity. This is borne out in Mazzucato’s call for “mission-orientated” policy to respond to societal challenges and co-create public value, and in Rodrik’s call (with Charles Sabel) for a “good jobs” economy. Philosophers could do worse than to follow their lead in using the best disciplinary tools available to challenge orthodoxies which inhibit problem-solving, whether in the realm of public policy or wider social failure, and structural transformation itself. The ethos would be an experimental one, advancing justice without being wedded to particular formulas. To this end, contemporary political philosophy could recover and radicalise the spirit of John Dewey and the American pragmatists.
By abstracting from the world and real agents, ideal theory doesn’t aim to tell us much about actually addressing power imbalances, legacies of oppression, social struggle, or the entanglement of interests with moral norms.
Since he was concerned with ideal theory, Rawls said little about transitions towards greater justice in the real world. As one of his famous students, Thomas Pogge, explains, “when assessing alternative public criteria of justice, Rawls is asking not how well each would guide and organize people as they are now, shaped by existing social institutions. Rather, engaging in ideal theory, he is asking how well each candidate criterion would guide and organize human beings as they would come to be if they grew up in a society governed by this criterion.” By abstracting from the world and real agents, ideal theory doesn’t aim to tell us much about actually addressing power imbalances, legacies of oppression, social struggle, or the entanglement of interests with moral norms.
Even within Rawls’ just society, agents must come to internalise a commitment to its principles. This society should, as he put it, “generate its own support,” enabling people “to acquire the corresponding sense of justice and develop a desire to act in accordance with its principles.” Rawls left hanging, however, the important question of how to generate support for social processes that can bring about more just institutions or to protect them from predation once established. In reality, both questions point to dynamic processes of social and political transformation. It’s unclear whether a liberal theory of justice can cope with such dynamism. As Forrester explains, the sense of justice which provided a mechanism for incremental change also pushed against it because in Rawls’ account individuals have natural duties to “uphold institutions and protect stability.”
An alternative theory, I suggest, would need to be sensitive to how ordinary people, in diverse ways, and coming from different positions in a given social order, can deploy their knowledge and influence to generate new norms of justice. Such processes may unleash popular beliefs which are widely held but previously kept from the public sphere, or generate new beliefs, preferences, and conceptions of self-interest. Historically, such transformations show that normative beliefs are subject to social forces which are not easily controlled even by the agents involved, though their direction can be promoted. These are the sorts of dynamics we see today in growing calls for climate justice in which converging sources of moral pressure, including bottom-up activism, might lead to a social tipping point for structural reform of the economy.
Given its historical focus, In the Shadow of Justice doesn’t supply explicit normative arguments for why the absorptive capacity of Rawlsian liberalism is as problematic as Forrester suggests. One may ask: is not refining theories in response to criticisms a part of making progress? In this light, it may be useful to consider more carefully those theorists who have mounted deep critiques of the Rawlsian paradigm. In 1988, for instance, Carole Pateman took aim at sex injustice embedded in the liberal social contract tradition Rawls revived. Two years later, Iris Marion Young produced her momentous critique of the “distributive paradigm” and its evasion of group-based oppressions in Justice and the Politics of Difference. Charles Mills has consistently exposed the neglect of racial oppression in mainstream liberal philosophy and the failure of ideal theory to confront the origins of today’s injustices. Forrester’s account sticks mostly to the liberal egalitarians. In a sparkling closing chapter, however, she explicates the views of philosophers such as Bernard Williams, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Rorty who – in different ways – were sceptical of the application of what Stuart Hampshire called “algorithmic rationality” to political questions of justice. She also discusses the political theorist Judith Shklar and her alternative (“barebones”) liberalism, as well as communitarians such as Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Forrester doesn’t pursue a wider critical story, however, not to relegate its value, I suspect, but to retain the focus on her subject within the constraints of a coherent volume. Yet, it is ironic that by giving Rawls and the Rawlsians such unfettered primacy, Forrester risks reinforcing their centrality to contemporary thought.
What then should be recovered from liberal political philosophy? Can it contribute to the conceptual, ideological, and institutional innovations needed to meet mounting, interlocking challenges of gross inequality, ecological crisis, eroding social capital, and declining trust in political institutions? Forrester recommends philosophers look to “social theory, history, and political struggle as much as to law and economics”, to reject the illusory denial of conflicting interests and ideologies, and to connect “universalist, maximalist principles to psychologically realistic accounts of what people are like,” which I take to include giving public emotions, not just rational arguments, their due. While acutely aware of its limits, Forrester suggests recovering elements of post-war liberalism, noting “liberal egalitarianism is an unparalleled resource for schemes to organize and justify property distribution and limit inequality.” What emerges from her historical narrative is not a condemnation but a call to reconstruct political philosophy so it can account for real-world transformations, power, and legacies of injustice. Forrester’s constructive approach seems apt. Consider how Iris Marion Young, late in her life, reconstructed Rawls’ idea of the “basic structure” to furnish her model of structural injustice. A key idea is that a putatively just society, liberal or otherwise, can fail to recognise injustices arising from the cumulative effects of normalised activities of individuals and institutions. Young adopted the Rawlsian distinction between interpersonal ethics and the level of social structure, with its implication that moral duties between these two levels don’t necessarily correlate. But for Young, social structures were not a discrete part of society. Instead, “they involve, or become visible in, a certain way of looking at the whole society, one that sees patterns in relations among people and the positions they occupy relative to one another.” Young did not adopt Rawls’ vision of society consisting of a scheme of cooperation among free and equal citizens. Hers was rooted in the reality of social and political struggle, not in the abstraction of games. Young thus asked what role individuals have to change their world. Along the way, she showed that we can use parts of Rawls’ theoretical apparatus without accepting all its premises. Perhaps the most vital task is to remake liberalism so that a pluralist society can thrive – even with divergent conceptions of the good life – while it also rebuilds the capacity of individuals to channel their efforts to serve the common good and to discover individual fulfilment in that endeavour. To this end, philosophers should bring under moral scrutiny aspects of ways of life which have escaped sufficient attention, whether it be domination in workplaces, self-seeking economic practices, the erosion of dialogic capability, the decline of community life, or the staggering crisis of despair documented by economists like Anne Case and Angus Deaton. None of these can, or should be, addressed in narrow materialist terms. They require a capacity to identify moral failures in social structures, reveal the potential of political and moral imagination, and offer constructive visions of the good, not just the right. In other words, political philosophy may need to direct its attention to those aspects of life which have been neglected by contemporary liberalism and displaced by unrestricted commodification and marketisation. In particular, liberals who have insisted on an overlapping consensus in politics should abandon any false pretence that the market is a value neutral institution. There are exciting green shoots in the field, some of which Forrester mentions in her footnotes, especially if we relax the boundary between political theory and political philosophy. Bernardo Zacka, a theorist at MIT, has compellingly focused attention on the moral agency of bureaucrats inside the welfare state, while Chicago-based Chiara Cordelli is making a case for how a hollowed-out, privatised state threatens political legitimacy. Also at Chicago, Adom Getachew has broken new ground with her postcolonial account of global justice. Philosophers like Martin O’Neill and Lisa Herzog are chipping away at normative foundations for modern finance, helping it become a servant rather than master of human interests.
More fundamentally, some theorists are taking aim at contemporary liberalism’s vision of government or society without jettisoning a commitment to protections from an overweening state. One potential direction comes out of recent work that uses dialectical approaches, such as Lea Ypi’s theory of “avant-garde” political agency which shows how practical reason and processes of moral justification can lead to radical ends, or the critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi’s account of social learning emerging from the critique of failing forms of life. A young scholar at Oxford, Collis Tahzib, is developing the normative foundations of a state that promotes civic ideals of human flourishing. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” Antonio Gramsci bemoans in his Prison Notebooks, before going on “in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Forrester might, I think, both invite and reject Gramsci’s pessimism at the same time. She recovers enough to show that liberal egalitarianism can contribute to the emergence of a new emancipatory politics, if only it can shed its dogmas and ask questions it has hitherto ignored. By denaturalising the liberal canon, her project is hugely generative for contemporary political philosophy. Perhaps it can help the field develop a synthesis between the protection of rights and liberalism’s deeper ambitions to create moral beings who are committed to their social circumstance yet able to transcend its limitations. The historian Samuel Moyn is right to say “the best imaginable versions of liberalism have not failed because they have never been tried.” Genuine alternatives to the status quo exist. The task of citizens and philosophers alike is to make them salient and to breathe life into them. As the grip of the prevailing liberal imagination loosens its hold, Forrester’s book might point to something profound about our moment: if it can be seized with moral imagination and practical hope that grows through solidaristic action, it may be pregnant with possibilities for a more just future, one that Rawls did not envision but would have embraced.
Vafa Ghazavi is a DPhil candidate and John Monash Scholar at Balliol College and Lecturer in Politics at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. His research interests include theories of justice, moral agency, the nature of moral progress, foreign policy, and the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence.
From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 2 ('Questioning Power').