I was reminded of that recently while rereading John Rawls, as part of my work on the revisions for the 4th edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker. Rawls's Theory of Justice is the most influential work of political philosophy in the 20th century; and it has been particularly influential as the major philosophical statement of left liberalism. Rawls himself acknowledged this (in 1987) when he spoke about where his conception of "justice as fairness" might be placed on the political spectrum. "In the United States this conception has been referred to as liberal, sometimes as left-liberal; in England it has been seen as social democratic, and in some ways as Labour. . . . But these descriptions are for others to make" (Collected Papers, 416). Since Rawls identified his conception of justice as a "realistic utopia," his left-liberal political philosophy is a good expression of the utopian Left.
In his defense, the Rawlsians might stress that his utopia is a realistic utopia. It is a utopia because it has never been achieved, and Rawls admited that it might not ever be achieved. But still it is possible, if we believe, as Rawls did, that human beings have a moral nature that makes justice possible.
Rawls thought that all of "the great evils of human history--unjust war and oppression, religious persecution and the denial of liberty of conscience, starvation and poverty, not to mention genocide and mass murder--follow from political injustice." Consequently, if human beings were to follow the principles of political justice as taught by Rawls, "these evils will eventually disappear" (The Law of Peoples, 6-7).
One can see here the moral passion that moved Rawls throughout his life. That moral passion is first expressed in his undergraduate honors thesis at Princeton that he submitted in December of 1942, which was a theological study of the "origin of evil" as the egoistic denial of community--"A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community." He claimed that only human beings and God can experience themselves as persons--rather than objects or things--and persons fulfill themselves in community with other persons. Justice arises in the full community of persons, while evil arises as individuals or groups fight to dominate others and thus destroy community. He had intended to attend Princeton's Divinity School and become an Episcopalian minister. But his war experiences as a US soldier in the Pacific, in 1943-1945, forced him to change his mind. He saw bloody fighting in the Philippines and elsewhere, and he served in Japan after the surrender, where he saw the devastation from the fire-bombing of Japan and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He was also deeply disturbed during movie nights for the soldiers when he saw newsreel films about the allied soldiers entering the death camps of the Holocaust in Europe.
Later in life, in "On My Religion" (1990), Rawls explained why he had given up most of his orthodox Christian beliefs by June of 1945:
"How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler? When Lincoln interprets the Civil War as God's punishment for the sin of slavery, deserved equally by North and South, God is seen as acting justly. But the Holocaust can't be interpreted in that way, and all attempts to do so that I have read of are hideous and evil. To interpret history as expressing God's will, God's will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be?"Throughout his career, Rawls struggled over the question of evil and strived to show that human beings were capable of justice. He had to assume that "human beings must have a moral nature," which makes it possible to achieve justice (Theory of Justice, 494-95, 580). But he worried about this. "If a reasonably just society that subordinates power to its aims is not possible and people are largely amoral, if not incurably cynical and self-centered, one might ask with Kant whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth?" (Political Liberalism, lx; The Law of Peoples, 128).
So to make human life on earth worth living, we must embrace the correct standard of a reasonably just society. For Rawls, this required a realistically utopian conception of justice. Although it's utopian, Rawls thought his liberal conception of justice was realistic insofar as it satisfied two conditions. "The first is that it must rely on the actual laws of nature and achieve the kind of stability those laws allow, that is, stability for the right reasons. It takes people as they are (by the laws of nature), and constitutional and civil laws as they might be." The second condition is that "its first principles and precepts be workable and applicable to ongoing political and social arrangements" (The Law of Peoples, 12-13).
The problem, however, is that Rawls actually embraced two contradictory conceptions of liberal justice, and while one is realistic in conforming to the limits of human nature, the other is not. Both of these conceptions can be found in Plato's Republic.
Rawls himself recognized this problem in Political Liberalism. In most of A Theory of Justice, he had argued for a liberal theory of justice that left people free to disagree about their comprehensive conceptions of the good life, as long as these conceptions did not interfere with the equal liberty of others to live by their comprehensive conceptions of the good. But in Part Three ("Ends") of the book, he had implied that liberal justice required a comprehensive liberal conception of the good to shape a single liberal way of life for all members of the society. In Political Liberalism, he rejected this latter position as "comprehensive liberalism" in favor of a "political liberalism" that was consistent with the "fact of a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines" in a modern democratic society. The comprehensive liberalism of Part Three of A Theory of Justice was unrealistically utopian in denying this fact of reasonable pluralism (Political Liberalism, xv-xx). It was also illiberal, because any attempt to enforce a continuing shared understanding of one comprehensive doctrine in a society would require the oppressive use of state power (37). And yet, oddly enough, even in Political Liberalism, Rawls fell into the same contradiction that he had identified in A Theory of Justice, because he could not give up his utopian vision of comprehensive liberalism in a society united as one cohesive community with one shared understanding of the good.
In Part Three of A Theory of Justice, Rawls has a section on "The Idea of Social Union." Here he explains how "the congruence of the right and the good depends in large part upon whether a well-ordered society achieves the good of community" (520). Achieving this good of community requires more than what Rawls calls "private society," which corresponds to what Plato (Republic 369-372) identifies as a society based on the division of labor in the "city of pigs," or what Hegel identified as "civil society" (521). In such a society, there are many different types of social union--families, friendships, and larger associations. But the full good of community requires "a social union of social unions" based on a "shared final end." "When this end is achieved, all find satisfaction in the very same thing; and this fact together with the complementarity of the good of individuals affirms the tie of community" (526). He stresses this point by repeating it: "when everyone acts justly, all find satisfaction in the very same thing" (527).
This restates the utopian claim of Plato's Socrates that in the perfectly just city, the city will be most like a single human being, with a "community of pleasure and pain," and most people will say "my own" and "not my own" about the same thing and in the same way (Republic, 462c-d). In this communized conception of humanity, the individual has no identity outside of the social whole to which he belongs. Because of such communal unity of interests and a single shared conception of the good, the truly just city will be free from all factional conflict (Republic, 464c-65b). (Of course, the Straussians would tell us that this is all a joke!)
The flaw in such a conception is that it is contrary to the human nature of individual diversity and self-love. As naturally social animals, we do indeed find our fulfillment in social groups--in families, friendships, and social associations of various kinds. But there can never be an absolute social unity in which "all find satisfaction in the very same thing."
Plato recognizes this when he considers the alternatives to his best city and identifies democracy as the "fairest of the regimes," because it secures the freedom that makes it open to all kinds of regimes, all kinds of human life, including the philosophic life. Because of this freedom, "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 557a-562c). Some readers of Plato (like Will Altman, for example) have seen this as Plato's argument for liberal democracy.
Rawls seems to agree with this when he argues in Political Liberalism that political liberalism is superior to comprehensive liberalism, because political liberalism secures the freedom for the expression of all reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines about the good life. This openness is limited, however, to the "reasonable" conceptions of the good--that is, those conceptions that are compatible with the equal liberty for the expression of all other conceptions. Liberal tolerance cannot tolerate intolerant doctrines. In a liberal regime, people are free to form associations to enforce common beliefs and practices among all the members. But the membership must be voluntary, and so groups that teach that their doctrines can be enforced by violent coercion will be excluded from a liberal regime. "No society can include within itself all forms of life" (Political Liberalism, 197). We might say that while a politically liberal regime cannot be a completely open society, it can be a largely open society.
Even in Political Liberalism, however, Rawls endorses the comprehensive liberalism of A Theory of Justice, because he still affirms the "social union of social unions" as based on "a far more comprehensive good than the determinate good of individuals when left to their own devices or limited to smaller associations" (320-23). This "more comprehensive good" seems to point to the unrealistically utopian vision of comprehensive liberalism. And thus Rawls never frees himself from the contradiction of embracing both political liberalism and comprehensive liberalism, because he cannot fully give up his utopian longing for a perfectly cohesive community free from any natural conflicts of interest.
While Rawls's political liberalism is often criticized as radically relativistic, one could see it as recognizing human nature in both its unity and diversity. There is a natural standard insofar as there is range of natural desires that constitute the universal human good, but the deliberate ranking of those desires over a whole life must vary to conform to the natural diversity of individuals. An Aristotelian liberalism would recognize those natural desires as setting the generic human good, while also recognizing the need for freedom in expressing the variation in individual nature.
Some related posts can be found here, here., here, and here.