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John Rawls

TTBW 1224 'John Rawls'
PBS feed date 9/2/2004

Funding for Think Tank is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

(opening animation)

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Harvard professor John Rawls, who died in 2002, has been called the most influential political philosopher of the twentieth century - certainly so for Democrats. His 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, touched off a debate over individual rights versus the broader society. Should governments help level the playing field for those least advantaged? Was Rawls too radical? Or perhaps not radical enough? To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Samuel Freeman, professor of philosophy and law at the University of Pennsylvania, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Rawls and The Collected Papers of John Rawls. And Robert Talisse, assistant professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, author of On Rawls: A Liberal Theory of Justice and Justification. The topic before the house: John Rawls. This Week on Think Tank.

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WATTENBERG: Samuel Freeman and Bob Talisse, thank you both for joining us on Think Tank. I have been around... I was a speechwriter for President Johnson, so Iíve been around national politics for a long time and I could not tell you - I hear the name periodically, John Rawls, John Rawls, because he is sort of the patron saint of people who think - but thatís a very small minority in national politics of people who really think and read. Samuel, you were a personal friend of John Rawls. Why donít you just sort of sketch in briefly a little bit about his bio.

FREEMAN: Well, John Rawls was born in Baltimore in 1921. He went to college and to graduate school at Princeton and he also fought in World War II. In 1951 he got his PhD and then taught at Cornell for seven or eight years. He went to MIT for two years and in 1963 he went to Harvard, and where he remained teaching. He retired in 1991 but kept teaching until 1995.

WATTENBERG: You get to Harvard you never, never leave. You just stay there forever.

FREEMAN: Well, some of us do.

WATTENBERG: Suppose we gave you six sentences and said 'whatís it about?' Whatís the theory? And then you get six sentences.

FREEMAN Well, it defends... a liberal defense of a constitutional...

WATTENBERG: American liberal...

FREEMAN: American liberal. So it supports a strong view of constitutional rights, personal rights, liberty of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of association. Very strong view of democracy.

WATTENBERG: As a good thing.

FREEMAN: As a very good thing; an active democratic government and also a view - a very distinct view of fairness in the distribution of income and wealth, where the focus is on those who are worst off.

TALISSE: I think that part of Rawlsí accomplishment consists in not just the principles that he endorsed, such as the ones that Samuel was articulating, but also a framework that he developed for thinking about social justice. That is, Rawls stood for the claim that when weíre thinking about social justice weíre not simply thinking about outcomes. Weíre not simply thinking about institutions. Weíre thinking fundamentally about principles. But he also proposed a kind of test, as it were, for deciding or determining whether a given policy was just. And itís a very simple test and itís a familiar one. It says, look; letís consider the policy, whatever it may be. Would you find that policy agreeable if you didnít know that you were a person of this sort with this kind of economic status, who had these kinds of talents, who had these kinds of prospects in life. And if the answer is no, I wouldnít agree to this if I didnít know that I was the worst off or I didnít know that I wasnít severely handicapped or mentally disabled or ill.

WATTENBERG: The framework is would you be for it whether or not you knew it would help you?

TALISSE: Thatís exactly right. And thatís what he means by fairness. Rawls calls this theory justice as fairness and fairness means, right, what is agreeable to you if we temporarily imagined ourselves ignorant of these facts about our own talents and status.

WATTENBERG: Would he have been more at home in a European - I donít mean at home nationalistically but I mean philosophically - in a European welfare state than what we have?

FREEMAN: I think, yes. Definitely more - such as Sweden, say, for example. Social democracy. His view...

WATTENBERG: Very strongly pro-Democratic.

FREEMAN: ...itís a liberal view but it argues for strong constitutional rights of people, but also he doesnít think that the way to determine economic distribution is simply by how much other people are willing to give to you by gift or by sale or whatever. So itís more a social-democratic position.

WATTENBERG: How would Rawls...Or how did he react to Ronald Reagan? To Reaganism?

FREEMAN: He was not pleased with Ronald Reagan. He thought that Ronald Reagan was basically taking the country in the wrong direction.

TALISSE: Although one interesting kind of overlap I think between Rawls and Reagan is that the principle of economic distribution that Rawls endorses which we had just been discussing does come close in theory to some understandings of a trickle-down economic system of redistribution. That is, Rawlsí principle of economic distribution says in certain kinds of cases, right, under certain kinds of constraints lightening the burden for the most well off is precisely what justice requires, for the reason that, by lightening the burdens at the top, or by giving extra benefits to those at the top, you can expect that those benefits will be to the best...

WATTENBERG: I shouldnít say this; itís only going to get me in trouble, but I kind of like trickle-down, I must tell you. I mean, it has the added advantage of working. I mean, the standard line is, feeding the horses to feed the sparrows. But the sparrows get fed.

FREEMAN: The problem Rawls would have with trickle-down, I thought, as such, is that I mean it is a trickling down insofar as those who are worst off are those who are basically thought of last. Whereas in his account if you focus on the worst off and see how we can best improve their situation and that allows for the freedom of economic contract and freedom of investment and so on. Thatís how we decide the degree of that the best off have.

WATTENBERG: So he would have liked Lyndon Johnson in a lot of ways.

FREEMAN: Very much so in many ways. Certainly. Yes.

WATTENBERG: What was Rawlsí view about big money in politics?

TALISSE: Well, Rawls took the view that our fundamental commitments as a democratic, free and liberal society required us to take issues of equality, particularly equality of political influence and political participation in the democratic process, quiet seriously. And so Rawls argues in several places for the public financing of elections for the reason that, he argues, the influence of money frustrates equality of political influence.

WATTENBERG: You know, that is called the incumbents relief bill. Well, if you say youíre a senator, youíre a senator; I want to be a senator but Iím not a senator. You can spend a million dollars. I can spend a million dollars. You can spend a million dollars. If Iím lucky I can raise a half a million dollars, but letís say I can raise a million dollars, but you guys have been in office for eighteen years and have all the publicity and everything else and it sounds nice, but it isnít so nice.

FREEMAN: Well we already have that. In fact, I mean, itís virtually - itís very difficult to replace a senator or a congressman because of gerrymandering and other such... I think - I mean, Rawls would certainly want to make other changes as well. His main concern was he thought that democracy was being destroyed by the influence of corporate money and corporate influence. He was appalled by Newt Gingrichís practice of letting corporate lobbyists in to write legislation.

WATTENBERG: But, listen, with all due respect, the idea of lobbyists, be they labor lobbyists or corporate lobbyists, who know more about the topics than anyone sitting up there, writing pieces of labor law when you have a Democrat or pieces of corporate law when you have a Republican Congress is nothing new. I mean, itís then the job of the congressman or the senator to say, 'Well, youíve gone way too far, pal.'

FREEMAN: Of course. But the point is it should be publicly aired and debated.

WATTENBERG: Yes. I agree.

WATTENBERG: Letís talk about some specifics. What would he have thought of - what did he think about welfare reform?

FREEMAN: Rawls thought that people - able-bodied people - should work. He thought that was a condition of self-respect for people. He didnít really favor giving money to people who were able to work. But, of course, along with that he felt that people, if they work, they ought to have a sufficient wage in order to enable them to be self-sufficient individuals. So he supported - he would support wage subsidies. So for people who were worse off and live on a minimum wage, he would support the government coming in and basically increasing...

WATTENBERG: Increasing the minimum wage.

FREEMAN: ... of course we have something like that, really.

WATTENBERG: Do you support that? An increase in minimum wage?

FREEMAN: Yes, I do. Very much so. Yes. Very much so. Five and a quarter is not enough for a person to obtain the necessities of life.

WATTENBERG: What about the argument thatís made by conservatives that if you raise the minimum wage you price poor people out of the market? That people who would normally hire you for $5.25, if theyíve got to pay $7.25 would say the hell with it. That is the argument.

FREEMAN: Exactly. Thatís true. It is true. The wage subsidies come from government. He thought we ought to get rid of a minimum wage and let the labor market just go as low as it would and let employers just pay two, three dollars an hour if they could and let the government come in and supplement that. So that was the way he would deal with that problem.

WATTENBERG: Through the tax code.

FREEMAN: Through the tax code. He also thought that government should be an employer of last resort. He thought that, you know, people - we rejoice at five or six percent unemployment; but thatís several million people. He thought that itís a role of government to make sure that everyone has a job.

WATTENBERG: And that would have made him very popular with most Democrats. I mean that would have been right where the rubber hits the road on....

FREEMAN: He was influenced by the New Deal. Yes. Rawls also supported gay marriage. He didnít see any problems with it unless it could be shown that marriage between members of the same sex undermined a childís welfare, and he did not think there was an argument for that. Rawls supported a strong right to die. In fact, he contributed to a philosophersí brief, which was presented to the Supreme Court back four or five years ago when the Supreme Court decided this case. He was one of the members, along with Ronald Dworkin and Robert Nozick and some of his other colleagues, who argued that the Supreme Court should support peopleís right to choose assisted suicide in the event of terminal illness or in the event that they had psychologically debilitated so much that they found their life no longer worth living. So these are positions he took on what we would call the constitutional right to privacy, two things that he spoke about specifically that are quite up-to-date you might say.

WATTENBERG: There was an argument about John Rawlsí views on religion. Could you enlighten us?


WATTENBERG: To coin a phrase...enlighten, religion.

TALISSE: This is a kind of argument that comes out of Rawlsí later work. He wrote the í71 book 'A Theory of Justice' and then in í93 he wrote a second book called 'Political Liberalism', in which he tried to give an account of what proper democratic citizenship looks like. But he also argued that properly democratic discourse had to be constrained in certain ways, particularly when it comes to what kinds of arguments people can raise when theyíre deciding who to vote for or trying to convince people of what policy they should vote for or endorse. And his argument was that properly democratic political discourse is free from mention of oneís religious convictions or deeply held philosophical or moral views.

WATTENBERG: Do you believe in that?

TALISSE: I think that thereís some problems there. I think that...

WATTENBERG: Problem with Rawlsí view.

TALISSE: Thatís exactly right. I think that itís standard criticism, what Rawls called public reason, that is this constrained mode of public discourse tend to eliminate too much or tend to occlude too much of our real reasons for supporting the kinds of views that we have.

WATTENBERG: How about you, Samuel?

FREEMAN: The main restriction he was concerned with is restraining the reasons that government officials take into account in voting on laws and legislation - the reason the Supreme Court takes into account in deciding laws. He thought that for the Supreme Court or for Congress to ally on religious reasons or metaphysical reasons about the meaning of life or moral reasons that are not part of democratic morality is really a kind of violation of peopleís liberty of conscience. Youíre basically...

WATTENBERG: Itís to have a moral view of the universe is not in contravention to our constitution.

FREEMAN: Not at all. But the idea is...

WATTENBERG: Our constitution is a moral document.

FREEMAN: Exactly. But the idea is that people of different religions can all accept a democratic constitution and a constitutional democracy. And there are certain terms of discourse that we all share that we can make arguments into one another about why to accept certain legislation or why the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage or whateverís right, and you shouldnít - the court for example, I mean I think any lawyer would say this is obvious - the court should not invoke the Catholic doctrine of the soul or whatever when arguing about whether abortion is permissible or not. Now thatís just one example of what Rawls is talking about.

WATTENBERG: But they can say - forgetting Catholicism or Orthodox Judaism or whatever - they can say, itís murder and itís wrong. I mean, they do say it, and they can say it, and theyíre absolutely entitled to.

FREEMAN: If they can say it without saying that the fetus is a person, because it has a soul, and without appealing to a particular religious doctrine, and come up with a definition of murder.

WATTENBERG: Yes, but suppose they say a fetus has a soul without saying and thatís what traditional Catholicism believes.

FREEMAN: But you canít just lob off half off of Catholicism or Protestant doctrine and say that weíre not appealing to religious reasons. Thatís a particular metaphysical doctrine of the kind that he would...

TALISSE: But Samuel....

WATTENBERG: Iím sort of half - Iím pro-choice, but barely. But it seems to me you certainly can make that argument. You can say Iím either for it or against it, notwithstanding the fact that itís murder.

FREEMAN: You and I can say that.

WATTENBERG: It either is or it isnít.

FREEMAN: You and I can say that, but would that be an appropriate reason for the Supreme Court to raise it? They have scrupulously avoided that kind of reference to religious or metaphysical doctrine of the soul in dealing with abortion.

TALISSE: Well, thatís right. I mean the constraints imposed by public reason are a little bit more stringent than that, arenít they? Because Rawls thought that when private citizens went to vote, they were failing at democratic citizenship for example, if they voted for a candidate because that candidate held a certain religious view, which led them to take a certain view about abortion, for example. There is a common criticism thatís raised against Rawls which gets raised by, on the one hand radical feminists, on the other hand religious thinkers, which try to say that, look, Rawls asks us to think about justice under these constraints, what I call the constraints of fairness, weíre supposed to imagine ourselves lacking certain bits of information about who we are and our talents and our affiliations and our religious convictions and what we think is good. And the criticism runs, well what kind of person is that? I mean, why is that the appropriate position from which to think about justice? That is, why is it appropriate to think about justice from the point of view of, as it were, a nobody? Isnít the fact that I happen to be a Catholic, or a Jew, or a feminist, or a lesbian, isnít that important to how I should understand how my society should treat individuals? And the idea is that thereís a hidden theory of human nature underneath all of Rawlsí philosophy, and itís a theory of human nature that says, your religious convictions, your social status, are things that you can always just imagine yourself without. And the critics say, from this wide range of views, say, No, I canít imagine myself as not a Catholic. To imagine myself as not a Catholic is, in effect, to imagine myself as someone else. And why should I do that for the sake of social justice?

WATTENBERG: Let us stipulate that it is a presidential election year. Why would the mythical man in the street - why would he vote for a Rawlsian?

TALISSE: Well, this is a good question. I think that one of the really interesting things about Rawlsí writing is that Rawls always gives the sense that heís writing FOR the man on the street and the arguments are always presented in terms of look, man on the street; these are the principles that you already accept. Iím going to show you that you already committed to fairness and a certain conception of equality. And Iím going to show you that these principles are what follow from moral stances that youíre already prepared to take. Now he might fail at that, but this sort of addressing the person and his own convictions, as they are, is an essential part of Rawlsí philosophical method.

FREEMAN: One thing Rawls is trying to do, and this is where he would agree, say, with the Milton Friedmans, sort of classical liberals, that they both accept a certain view about, you know, personal freedom, individual freedom and about equal political rights and so on. What Rawls wanted to do was make the argument that, given that you accept that - itís hard to find anyone who doesnít accept that constitutional rights ought to be equal - given that you accept the equal constitutional rights, I want to show you what else youíre accepting, what else youíre committed to. And he makes the argument that well, you are committed to a notion of fair, equal opportunities; you are committed to a notion of cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, where everyone has sufficient income and wealth in order to make their liberties worthwhile to them and be able to effectively exercise them.

WATTENBERG: Which you can only do in a wealthy country, but we are a wealthy country.

FREEMAN: He has a view about this global justice and our duty to other nations as well, but thatís...

WATTENBERG: Let me move on to the logical question that that leads to. Let us just suppose, as a for instance, that you were to have an election in the fall of 2004 between Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush. Now Kerry I assume would be, sort of, a Rawlsian and Bush is - it is said - or many of the people around him are devotees of Leo Strauss. Is that about right? Is that about what would be happening? Youíd have those two views?

TALISSE: Well, Iím not sure that itís right to say that Kerry is a Rawlsian. I would say that Rawlsians would favor Kerry over George W. Bush.

WATTENBERG: Because George W. Bush leans too far to the well-to-do. I mean, that would be their argument.

TALISSE: I think that that would be the kind of argument. Sure. As far as the Strauss point goes, you know, this is why I think itís important to return to this issue of frameworks. Strauss, as a philosopher, as a influential political thinker, was somebody who more often than not mandated certain positions, mandated a certain approach. He didnít present a framework in which like Rawls does, in which we can think about these things and Rawls is somebody whoís saying look; hereís the way to think about justice. Now Iím not exactly sure where on particular questions this framework is going to lead us, but...

WATTENBERG: Rawls said that?

TALISSE: Right. But this is the right framework for thinking of things.

WATTENBERG: Letís close this out on this question. Rawls is often cited by his admirers as the great 20th century philosopher. Is he the wave of the future as well?

FREEMAN: Itís very hard to predict how the future is going to be. Twenty years ago we thought that Johnsonís Great Society was the wave of the future...twenty-five years ago. But things have changed quite a bit. I mean, this country is moving in the direction - has moved in the direction the past twenty-five years that is against the position that Rawls would have - the direction that Rawls would advocate.

WATTENBERG: Well, you know, as a Johnsonite let me just make a point - I mean, that is said all the time and yet you can count on the fingers of half a hand the actual Johnson programs that have been cut. Expenditures have been going up and up and up, especially under George W. Bush - faster than over Clinton -so thatís another open question.

FREEMAN: Right. But then of course business interests are acquiring a political clout that they did not used to have, which is very much against his ideals.

WATTENBERG: Yes, but I think most or many liberals would say they can acquire all the clout they want if they give the money to the less fortunate. So I mean...

FREEMAN: Well, some liberals would say that. For Rawls that would undermine a certain view of democracy.

TALISSE: I think I can give a more positive answer than Samuel has. I think that one of the ways in which Rawlsí influence will be lasting is that one of the things he achieved - the most important thing I think that he achieved - is he made normative political philosophy relevant again.

WATTENBERG: Tell me what normative means.

TALISSE: That is, robust conceptions of justice. What principles should we work with. That is, before Rawls, our conception of justice not only in the academy but I think also in policymaking was just a very crude style of cost benefit analysis, right, where we just tried to maximize something that we felt was good and minimize something that we thought was bad. What Rawls has done...

WATTENBERG: That would be Bentham, the greatest good....

TALISSE: Thatís exactly right. What Rawls has done I think is put back on the table for philosophers, political theorists, legal theorists, economists normative questions. Not just how do we maximize something that we think is good but how should we decide questions about what really is good. What kinds of constraint should be placed on our efforts to maximize pleasure or satisfaction, whatever it is? That is, I think that, again, Rawls has set the terms for a debate about social justice in which I think - whose influence I think will continue into the future.

WATTENBERG: So getting back to what youíve both been talking about, I mean, it seems to this observer who came into this discussion not knowing a lot about it, youíre both right. I mean, what is important about him is the attempt to establish a framework.



WATTENBERG: The Conservatives can come up with another framework but the idea is to come up with a framework say, hereís what weíre trying to do and why weíre trying to do it.

FREEMAN: Competing views about the common good. I think thatís - and he was offering particularly liberal, democratic vision of the common good that he hoped would become part of democratic discourse.

WATTENBERG: Okay. On that note, Samuel and Bob, we thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. It helps us make our show better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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