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When Theory Really Does Matter: Rawls on Wall Street

I can’t claim much credit for this piece. All the parts have fallen into my lap from other sources. It began when I started to reflect on a recent post by my colleague Chris Pierson on the relevance of the academic enterprise of political theory.

The question Chris deals with is what value or worth thinking about abstract political ideals – often in a way that seems divorced from actual politics – can have on real-world issues. This is something that I wrestle with all the time as a teacher of many courses on social justice, political philosophy, and the history of political thought. Students come with many convictions about politics, and often are involved in political activities at many different levels. They often question how thinking in a very detailed, and often pedantic way, about abstract philosophical issues can really provide any resources for practical politics. What do these ‘theories’ really have to do with the current financial crisis, or the use of military force in Afghanistan or Iraq, or the plight of the world’s poor?

For me, this question most often arises in terms of the work of Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, about whom I have written, here. Rawls’s work is, without doubt, the work that I teach most about; and with good reason. Most of the political philosophy I teach is oriented around this most influential academic philosopher because, with the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, he reinvented political theory. Everything since (within the Anglo-American tradition at least) has taken its lead from Rawls.

Rawls argues for a particular conception of social justice – what he terms ‘justice as fairness’ – that defends two principles of social justice. The first principle designates a set of equal basic liberties (political liberties, freedom of speech and association, and so forth) that are to be guaranteed to citizens – what are commonly seen as basic liberal thinkings on freedom. The second principle deals with the distribution of such things as wealth, income, and opportunities, and states that wealth and income are to be organised (distributed) in such a way that those at the bottom fare as best as is possible. This is a broadly egalitarian commitment.

Much of the academic work since Rawls has been focussed on exploring the issue around these two principles and their derivation. The language is technical, the examples often highly contrived, the reasoning complex, and, it would seem, the relevance to politics, rather remote.

This is certainly not how Rawls conceived of his own work, which was written in the aftermath of the Second World War and amidst the civil rights movement of the USA. I’d planned on writing something on Rawls’s relevance today, to politics. Then a friend sent me a link to this podcast. It says it much better than I could. Listen to Josh Cohen – Rawls’s student and an eminent Harvard political philosopher in his own right – discuss Rawls’s basic views and how these relate to one of the most pressing political issues of our day: the global financial crisis and the disparity between rich and poor. The interviewer Seth Resler wonders what Rawls might have said about the occupation of Wall Street by protesters. Josh Cohen tells us. And in doing so, he illustrates how political philosophy is, and must necessarily be, a part of politics. It is inescapable.

David Stevens

Published inPolitical theory

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