TCS Daily

Justice as Warfare

By Nick Schulz - December 6, 2002 12:00 AM

The deaths this year of the philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick closed one of the more significant chapters in the history of American political philosophy. Imagining American philosophy and political theory today without Rawls and Nozick is like imagining the modern NBA without Bird and Magic.

While obituary tributes appeared on the pages of most major newspapers and magazines, both men failed to receive the thorough attention their extensive influence deserved. That's not altogether surprising. For most people, perhaps the only things less exciting than political philosophers are deceased political philosophers. Besides, America is engaged in a large, if at times uncertain, military and philosophical struggle. As such, our attention is not as focused on the issues over which Rawls' and Nozick's ideas seemed so relevant, namely, political economy and the size and scope of the welfare state.

That's too bad, because their deaths - particularly that of Rawls - afford us the chance to think anew not just about economics, but also about war and foreign policy. In particular, we have a chance to focus on the role that morality - and Rawlsian notions of justice and fairness - should play in foreign policy.

Just Wars and Fair Fights

John Rawls spent most of his career seeking to better understand the foundations of the modern political state and the obligations of citizens to one another. He developed a few critical intellectual concepts, or "technologies," as the scholar Richard Epstein called them in his incomparable tribute to Rawls. These intellectual technologies empowered Rawls and his acolytes think in a fresh way about our civic obligations.

One of those technologies was the now famous "veil of ignorance" behind which any person must situate himself in order to determine the proper responsibilities of citizens and the state. Behind a veil of ignorance, a person is stripped of the particulars of time, place, social status, inherited wealth, happenstance of birth - things that are, as Rawls so powerfully put it, "arbitrary from the moral point of view" or what one philosopher called "the lotteries of natural and social fortune." Only behind the veil of ignorance will any man be able to assess what he owes the body politic, and what he is owed in return.

Another technology Rawls developed is the difference principle. This principle holds that any inequalities in society are only justified when they result in gains for the least well-off members of society. Rawls' concern for the least well-off was the hallmark of both his deep personal humanity and his scholarship.

In domestic politics, a generation of modern liberals invoked Rawls to argue for an expansive and redistributive welfare state. Some libertarians and conservatives countered that Rawls' arguments could actually be used to advocate limited government and economic policies that favor growth and dynamism, thus benefiting, however indirectly, the least well-off members of society. This debate animated American politics for three decades.

The debate over Rawls' ideas rarely spilled over into the realm of foreign policy. And whether Rawls had strong feelings about, say, the war on terror or toppling Saddam Hussein, I do not know. But Rawls' concern for the least well-off can - indeed, it should - extend far beyond domestic political economy to the realm of foreign policy. After all, he was positing universal principles, principles in many ways useful and suitable for an examination of foreign policy.

Left in Doubt

An interesting irony today is that when it comes to foreign policy, the political left - with whom Rawls was associated for his entire philosophical career - seems to have ignored or forgotten Rawls' invocation to help the least well-off.

For example, there is deep resistance on the part of political liberals to an American-backed effort to remove the regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, as if it were somehow definitional that such a move by the United States is illiberal. This is part of a larger belief by those on the political left that a strong United States is a threat to peace. There are some exceptions to this, of course, such as Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic magazine. But in general the political left in America is almost reflexively opposed to the use of military force, even if it is designed to advance moral concerns.

This is an odd development. After all, hawkish liberals can rightly turn to Rawls - who argued that "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others" - in justifying a foreign policy that extends basic freedom wherever possible around the globe. Such a foreign policy might - indeed, probably should - reasonably call for the removal of the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein on purely moral grounds (the recent British dossier on Iraqi rights abuses is helpful for fleshing out this argument). But most liberals do not support such a move.

Some commentators have suggested that the current liberal hostility to an aggressive American foreign policy is born out of a broader anti-Americanism. But many on the political left, such as The Nation's Eric Alterman and Katha Pollitt, resent this charge and say it's a red herring. That's fine, so far as it goes. But to the extent that members of a "patriotic left," as Alterman put it, have crafted a convincing rejoinder to the call to liberate people from one of the most horrid regimes now in existence, it has yet to be articulated. After all, when some on the left see fit to make light of Saddam's torturous regime, as Slate's Tim Noah did this week, one wonders where the left's moral seriousness is today.

Liberals and Democrats in the tradition of Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson have in the past embraced a vigorous American foreign policy, one fortified by ideas grounded in morality - a kind of Rawlsian morality. How it is that thoughtful American liberals can so quickly dismiss calls to help liberate oppressed Iraqis and others in the Middle East remains a puzzle. Whether - and how - the Democratic Party comes to comfortable terms with morality in foreign policy will define the American political landscape in 2004 and beyond. Rawls' ideas and influence have never been so important as they are today.



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